Updated March 22nd, 2016
Estimated read time – 7 minutes
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Findlaw is the legal marketing division of corporate giant Thomson Reuters. They offer law firm websites, SEO, and content marketing services to law firms. Findlaw talks a good game, and certainly has the cash to aggressively market their services. The company employs armies of regional sales reps whose job it is to go out and find potential law firms to meet with in person. They rely on these personal relationships and heavy handed contracts to lock law firms into using their legal marketing services, which often do little more than provide hosting.
To be fair, some of the websites Findlaw builds are attractive. However, here’s the problem: most of Findlaw’s legal marketing services are ineffective. Their content marketing services have been called an embarrassment to the legal profession. We’ve seen firm after firm come to us wondering why their Findlaw websites have disappeared from Google. Unfortunately, Findlaw has a history of engaging in black hat SEO.
Findlaw SEO Review: Some History
Black hat SEO is the practice of using spam, and manipulative marketing tactics, to game search engines, and achieve fast (but flimsy) rankings. Perhaps the best known black hat SEO tactic is paying for links, a practice that violates Google’s Webmaster guidelines. Findlaw was outed for purchasing links in 2008.
Why would anyone pay for links?
Although social signals are beginning to have a larger influence on search rankings, Google’s search algorithm is still predicated on a concept known as PageRank. In the PageRank system, the more links a website has, the better it performs in search results. Google has run experiments with search results that don’t rely on link signals. They failed. It’s important to understand that links still drive domain authority, which is one of the primary factors in a website’s “SEO power.”
However, not all links are created equal. Google wants people to link to content they find useful as a way of endorsing that content. In this way, links are intended to operate as votes. Google doesn’t want black hat SEOs using networks of spam websites to artificially pass PageRank to websites that have little value. Through an algorithm update called Penguin, Google became better, and more aggressive, at punishing webspam. Link schemes, paid links, and spam link building were all hard hit by Penguin.
Google warns against the types of marketing tactics Findlaw employs
When Penguin first rolled out on April 24th, 2012, Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts, wrote a blog post entitled, “Another Step to Reward High Quality Sites.” In that post, Matt advises site owners to create great sites, rather than trying to game the algorithm:
We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content. While we can’t divulge specific signals because we don’t want to give people a way to game our search results and worsen the experience for users, our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience and employ white hat SEO methods instead of engaging in aggressive webspam tactics.
It’s no coincidence that Findlaw clients saw drops in the performance of their websites after Penguin. They didn’t learn their lesson after being caught engaging in black hat SEO in 2008. Penguin first rolled out on April 24th, 2012, and has refreshed numerous times since. Like its cousin Panda, this is an algorithm Google uses to improve the quality of the internet. It’s not going anywhere. Sadly, many Findlaw clients are still sitting on penalized domains, unaware of the implications of Findlaw’s link building activities.
Findlaw clients find themselves on the wrong side of the Penguin algorithm
I’ve reviewed enough Findlaw sites to see a pattern. Rather than build links consistent with Google Webmaster guidelines, Findlaw submitted client sites to spam directories, blog networks, and other undesirable neighborhoods on the web, set up for the sole purpose of passing PageRank. If traffic to your Findlaw site has dropped, and you can’t explain why, it’s very likely because they built spam links to your website, and it put you on the wrong side of Google’s algorithm. It is important to keep in mind that just because some of your core rankings may have remained stable, it does not mean your site hasn’t been affected by an algorithmic downgrade. Traffic to some of the Findlaw sites we’ve worked on dropped precipitously as a result of link spam. Others develop what I would describe as a traffic ceiling, in which a handful of local rankings remain, but the site has little chance to develop strong long tail traffic going forward.
How to review your link profile
To review links pointing to your site, visit Open Site Explorer, and enter your primary URL. Now navigate to the “linking domains” tab. Scroll through the list of domains. Do you notice a pattern of spammy looking sites? If it’s old enough, every site is going to have a few undesirable links. However, the more questionable stuff you see, the more likely you have a problem. In really bad cases, it may also be worthwhile to look for a manual action in your Webmaster Tools dashboard. If your link profile is bad enough, an actual human at Google will single your site out for a downgrade, and Google will notify you through Webmaster Tools (most of the linking issues we’ve seen with Findlaw websites have stopped short of incurring manual penalties).
Although they both can be caused by link issues, manual actions are different than being hurt by a shift in the algorithm. Manual actions should be addressed with link removal, possibly disavowal, and then a reconsideration request. If your manual action inbox is empty, there is no need to submit a reconsideration request. In these cases, you have the option of attempting to get links removed, although that is probably not the best use of your time.
In most cases, we build a new site, on a new domain, that is not tainted by link spam. We usually see signs of progress within 3-4 months thereafter.
My website is with Findlaw, is there anything to build on?
If the performance of your website has suffered as the result of link spam, you have the option of identifying all of your spam links and contacting webmasters to have them removed. In cases where there has been a large investment of time and money in a domain, this can be tempting. However, the course of action we recommend for most of our clients is as follows:
1. Keep the penalized domain live to harness branded searches. Branded searches are searches for your firm by people who already know you. For example, a branded search for my law firm could be “John O’Connor lawyer,” or “O’Connor Law Firm.” In many cases, Findlaw sites keep decent levels of traffic because of these types of searches, which you’ll usually continue to get regardless of link spam. We want the old domain live so that existing clients can still find you.
2. We then start a new domain consistent with Google Webmaster guidelines, building links and authority, not spam. This is an important step. If you hope to receive business from organic search again, you’ll likely have to cultivate a new domain, and build it the right way.
What does building a domain the right way mean? For lawyers, it means creating digital proof of your professional affiliations. For example, perhaps you’ve lectured recently at your old law school, or the local bar association. You created a Power Point right? We promote it on SlideShare. Boom, one new, Google compliant link created, and your work has the potential to be viewed by new audiences.
Should Findlaw website files be moved?
Should you try to move your Findlaw site to the new domain? Probably not. Findlaw ropes all their customers into lopsided contracts that make it hard to leave with your website. The thing is, why would you want to? You’ll be much better off having a new site built on WordPress, and hosted on your servers, where you can control and update it. There is nothing special about Findlaw software, and the content they produce is garbage. You don’t need their site. It will take a little time to come up with new content, and a new design, but you’ll be much better off in the future joining the 20% of the web that uses WordPress.
Local SEO Problems With Findlaw
This article has focused primarily on link issues, however it’s not just Findlaw link profiles that we find in disarray. Another important off site ranking factor, known as the citation profile has usually been neglected as well.
For a primer on local SEO, and why certain sites rank while others don’t, take a look at this article: What is the difference between local SEO and traditional SEO?
Google encourages local businesses to keep their location information accurate. One of their simple local instructions is:
Use a precise, accurate address to describe your business location.
Google also suggests:
Do not create more than one listing for each business location, either in a single account or multiple accounts.
Accurate and extensive information about a business online is the hallmark of good local SEO, it’s what drives the rankings law firms covet.
Google wants to please users with reliable search results. Returning inaccurate business listings is a sure fire way to upset users. As a result, Google tends to suppress businesses that have conflicting office information, by making sure they don’t appear for local searches. One of the most important jobs for local SEOs is to give Google consistent information about their client’s location. They need to monitor client’s online reputations, looking for problems. Findlaw often doesn’t do this. We’ve seen cases where Findlaw clients have multiple conflicting Google plus pages, many that list addresses inconsistent with what is on the client’s website. To make matters worse, the “feeder sources” of local data also have inaccurate information. This means that inaccurate information about the law firm’s location will be repopulated over and over until the data sources are updated.
If your Findlaw site has seen a drop in performance, check your link profile, or consult with someone who can. The odds are high that they built spam links to your website that Google has detected, and punished, in one way or another. Rather than worrying about keeping a site with low qaulity content, invest in a new site you that you own and can update. It’s not hard, and it doesn’t have to be exorbitantly expensive.