Lawyers understand the importance of maintaining their reputations, and as a rule are careful about whom they allow to speak for themselves and their firms. Nonetheless, when trying to promote themselves online, some lawyers hire companies that engage in dubious promotion techniques, in some cases without the lawyer even knowing what the company is doing.
A few months ago I was browsing a legal forum and I came across a series of posts by a lawyer I know -- or, more correctly, a series of posts that somebody had posted to the forum while using his name. The posts were semi-literate restatements of what other people had already stated in the forum thread. They all included links back to the lawyer's law firm. It was immediately apparent to me that the lawyer had hired a website promotion firm to attract additional traffic to his website, and that he had chosen the wrong company. Nobody reading the posts would want to hire the lawyer, and the value of the links created by the company was minimal at best. Some links created in that manner will be treated as a negative factor by search engines, potentially reducing traffic to your website.
When you hire the wrong company to promote your website, the company can actually do damage to your website's performance and to your online reputation. Further, some companies will create content under your name, creating not only the possibility that your name will appear over low-quality content that is potentially misleading or dangerous to consumers, but also the possibility that the company's actions will constitute a violation of your state's rules of ethics for which you will be held responsible.
A foreign website promotion firm recently shared an article for our library on behalf of its lawyer client. Here's a sample of what they wanted us to publish under their client's name:
A criminal defense attorney is a crucial part of the criminal justice system, who protects the constitutional rights and interests of people. Many of us may not get much flattered by their work, assuming that they defend those who are guilty. However, it isn’t so always as the main aim of a criminal defense lawyer is to provide legal assistance, regardless of an individual’s guilt or innocence. It is something everyone facing criminal charges needs and these attorneys ensure that every individual, charged with a criminal act, gets a fair opportunity to defend himself.
An original article may have been written by the lawyer whose services are being promoted, although it is more likely that an article was plagiarized from another source by the website promotion firm. The language suggests that the original article was processed through an "article spinner", a software package that automatically rewrites articles into language that search engines are meant to see as original and unique. These programs were created to allow low-quality websites to generate a great deal of content automatically, not to create quality content that would actually be helpful to a reader. Having content that poor posted under your name is an embarrassment.
Some website promotion companies don't worry about spinning or rewriting articles they find on other websites, and instead simply plagiarize other websites, reproducing copyrighted articles in part or in whole and presenting them to you as if they're original work. If you're paying a low price for high quality content, odds are you've found a deal that is too good to be true and should investigate to determine if the material you've been sold is in fact original. If you're paying a high price for content that you are being assured is entirely original, you must still be careful. Many people have a poor concept of what it means for a work to be original, and may plagiarize heavily from a copyrighted source or sources without even realizing that what they are doing is improper.
When you run an ad in print media, even if part of the ad copy is created by the publication, you carefully review the ad copy and proofs of your ad before it is published. When you write an article, even if you are getting research assistance from a member of your firm, you carefully review, edit and fact-check the article before you submit it for publication. You should do the same for any content that will be published online to promote your law firm.
Content that is posted online in order to promote your practice and law firm website is likely to be viewed by your state bar as an advertisement, and that you must follow your state's rules of ethics for lawyer advertising, including retention policies. A low-quality website promotion company may not even be keeping track of what it posts or where it is posted, let alone ensuring that proper disclosures and disclaimers are included in the content it posts or retaining copies for your records.
You should never allow a website promotion firm to create accounts under your name to publish links, comments or articles on websites you do not control. You should be exceedingly cautious about allowing a website promotion company to access accounts that you control. If you share access to an account, you should limit the company's access to the functionality that they require and keeping them on a short leash, carefully reviewing their work and cutting off their access in the event of a problem or the discontinuation of their services.
If your online promotion company creates accounts under your name, what is going to happen if somebody clicks on a link to your profile to contact you? Odds are, the email address used by the company to register the account was not yours. You could cause a potential client or, worse, an existing client trying to contact you about an active case, to instead send their email to a website promotion company employee, perhaps located in Asia or Eastern Europe. The odds are minimal that the contact will be forwarded to you, and you cannot count on a website promotion firm to understand or maintain confidentiality.
In recent years, a big part of website promotion has involved link-building, obtaining links from other websites to your own. Some links are highly coveted, such as a link from a curated page hosted by a major educational institution or government website. Other links are easily obtained, such as by posting links to comment sections of websites, to social media or to forums. Search engines know which links are valuable and which are not, and easily obtained, low-quality links will do little or nothing for your website.
Some years ago, website promotion companies started to invest a great deal of effort into obtaining links that included good "anchor text", words or phrases for which you want your law firm to rank more highly in a search engine. Search engines responded by trying to identify unnatural linking patterns, and not to reward keywords that appeared to be used for search engine promotion as opposed to through natural use of the language. Although anchor text can still help a website, a low-quality promotion firm may first err in guessing what terms to use, and may subsequently err by creating a pattern of links that cause major search engines to devalue the links to your site. When a search engine identifies a questionable link to your website in content you have created on a third party site, there's a possibility that it will penalize both sites for what it sees as a bad link.
Beyond anchor text, in recent years search engines have been diligently seeking out link patterns that suggest an attempt to manipulate search results. They look for links that appear to have been purchased, but that are not labeled as "sponsored" or otherwise identified as an advertisement. They look for links that appear to be a poor match for the websites on which they have been placed. When they find the links, if you're lucky they will simply discount their value to zero when evaluating the importance of your website content. If you're not lucky, your site could be penalized with a significant loss of prominence in the search engine results, or even by exclusion from the search engine's results.
If you are hiring a website promotion company to link-build for your website, you should request that they provide a spreadsheet that contains every link that they obtain for your website. They should identify the specific webpage where the link to your site is located, a quote or description of the link, and whether a fee was paid for the link's placement. You can use that list to audit the company's work:
Verify that the company is getting valuable links and is not merely running up numbers by making forum posts or comments on articles and weblogs.
Verify that the links appear on websites relevant to your practice, and are not appearing on random, unrelated sites.
Verify that the sites upon which your links appear are independent of the promotion company, and that it's not simply adding your link to websites that it controls.
Verify that any links for which a fee was paid are properly marked as "sponsored" or as "advertisements" by the website on which they were placed.
Watch for signs of possible trouble, such as the links appearing on websites that might pull them down if you end your relationship with your promotion company.
While you may find a benefit in having a link or profile placed on a website or family of legal websites in exchange for the payment of a fee, that's not link-building. That's simply another form of advertising, and one for which you will lose any benefit once you stop paying the company's fees.
When you hire a company to improve your online presence, promoting you and your law firm through the Internet, you should be careful to determine whether they will be performing the services in-house or if they will be contracting out the work. Although I have seem some terrible mistakes committed by in-house website promoters, outsourcing significantly increased the likelihood of problems.
Further, if your website promotion company is charging you $50, $100, or an even greater hourly rate to promote your website, it makes sense for you to make sure that you are actually getting what you pay for, not a large bill for work that was performed by a company in Bangalore at $5 per hour.
Content-based marketing can help you establish yourself as an expert in your field, and can attract clients to your firm based upon that expertise. Lawyers should not be afraid to engage in content-based marketing, whether through their own law firm website or through curated collections of quality content, just as they would not fear having an article published in a law review or bar journal.
As long as you're careful in selecting, supervising and auditing your online promotion company, that company can help you improve your web presence and attract new clients. If you find problems with your company, end the relationship quickly: As with poorly performed legal work, it can cost you as much or more to fix the problems that a poor or unethical website promotion firm creates as it did to have them perform the work in the first place.