Several websites are always at or near the top of Google’s search results for law firms in different cities and practice areas, and one of those is Avvo. Avvo is a sprawling and comprehensive site that, until recently, I assumed was so well-ranked because it is an established and trusted platform with thousands of pages of useful content. Avvo is one of the legal industry’s most highly trafficked sites.

Avvo search engine traffic chart

Overall, Avvo’s search engine traffic has increased significantly in the last year.

It makes sense that Avvo would have a strong search presence, but the more I looked at its rankings, the more I was puzzled by how well each of their city directory pages ranked.

Here are a couple of examples:

Avvo Chicago criminal defense SERPs

Avvo Houston criminal defense SERPs

Breaking Down Avvo’s Search Engine Success

When it comes to SEO performance, links that point to a web page are one of the most influential factors in how well that page ranks in search results. Each link is a “vote” that search engines use to rank web pages. Avvo excels at generating links to its local practice-area pages.

It turns out that Avvo’s local practice-area pages have lots of links coming from the websites of law firms in that city and practice area. So the Avvo page for criminal defense lawyers in Chicago, for example, has links from a bunch of criminal defense lawyers in Chicago. This doesn’t make much sense. Why would a law firm link to a list of direct competitors in its area?

If you look at the law-firm websites that link to Avvo’s local practice-area pages, however, they all have one thing in common: a bright blue-and-white Avvo rating badge.

The Avvo Badge

If you have claimed your Avvo profile, you have probably seen links to claim your badge, which you can add to your website in order to show visitors your Avvo rating. To do this, Avvo gives you a code you can copy and paste into your website to display your badge:

Avvo rating badge code

Avvo says the badge will send visitors “to your Avvo profile where they can review information about you and likely contact you for help to solve their legal needs.”

Easy enough.

What Avvo doesn’t tell you is that the badge also includes a link to an Avvo directory page specific to your city and practice area. That’s right: the badge includes a link to a list of your competitors.

Avvo city link

They also fail to mention that should your website visitor click the badge, he or she could end up on the directory page instead of your profile page. It depends on where they click the badge.

Avvo rating badge links

That means someone who started out as your potential client could land on a directory full of other lawyers. And if your Avvo profile isn’t on page one of that directory page, the visitor won’t see you at all, which could further discourage them from hitting the back button to get back to your website.

This definitely does not help lawyers who use Avvo badges. So why would Avvo include this extra link? There is a one-word answer: Google.

The Quickest Way to the Top of Google

Success in search engine results is largely about acquiring links from quality, relevant websites. And if you run a legal site like Avvo, there are no better websites to target than sites that belong to lawyers.

There are over one million attorney profiles on Avvo; if even a fraction of those lawyers embed the badge on their sites, Avvo will receive thousands of links to its city pages, which are directly competing with individual law firms for search engine visibility.

And that’s exactly what’s happened. Over the last year or so, Avvo’s search engine presence has skyrocketed. A search marketer for the site even said so, in a legal marketing discussion group:

“I moved some mountains …  I can’t get in to specifics, but if you noticed that Avvo’s visibility increased over the past couple years, now you know one of the contributing factors.”

That is great for Avvo, but not great for individual law-firm websites.

This type of manipulative linking is also against Google’s webmaster guidelines, which outline the SEO industry’s best practices. Examples of links that violate these rules include:

“Keyword-rich, hidden or low-quality links embedded in widgets that are distributed across various sites …”

This is basically the definition of the city page links included in Avvo badges. The link provides no value to the website owner, and it is keyword-focused (the well-optimized “top lawyer” text on the badge links to the city page, not to the profile of the lawyer on whose website the badge appears).

In 2013, Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, addressed the topic directly.

In short, it’s an SEO no-no, but apparently it works. The badge links have given Avvo a huge leg up on every law firm trying to attract local search engine traffic.

If your practice relies on organic search traffic for potential leads, the Avvo badge is only helping Avvo, and making it more difficult for you — and your colleagues — to claim the top spots in Google.

What You Can Do Instead

The Avvo badge is a useful tool for building trust with online visitors, and the good news is you can use the badge without having to copy Avvo’s questionable website code.

All you need is an image of your badge and the URL of your Avvo profile. To get this, take a screenshot of your badge preview in your Avvo dashboard and put that on your website, linked to your profile. The only downside to this method is that you will have to update your image if your rating changes.

The Smart Way to Use Badges and Widgets

Badges can help you build trust and authority with your website visitors. But like the embedded Avvo badge, they may provide more benefit to the provider of the badge. When you add badges and widgets to your website, it helps to double-check what you’re really getting.

Avvo is a useful site that allows the public to easily find, compare and contact lawyers in practice areas and cities around the country. It serves a clear purpose and it’s a great platform for lawyers looking to share information and content.

But for law firms that focus on search engine traffic to generate leads, removing the embedded Avvo badge from your website is a good idea.