Findlaw Selling PageRank

Most in-house law firm Marketers were aware of the Findlaw PageRank sales scam long before it hit the blogosphere. Mostly because they were the target of a huge email blast from Findlaw a few weeks back. Which is how I found out about the offering, when clients then forwarded the program details to me for review.

[If you're looking for some background, please see the preceding link from Todd Friesen who originally broke the story, and the follow up critique from Kevin O'Keefe.]

My response to clients (admittedly in hindsight) was the right one… “decline it”. Google’s hit bigger sites than Findlaw in the past including the Economist, the Times of London, and the Wall Street Journal (link cite).

I don’t want to re-hash the details of the situation in this post. And really, it’s well covered in the above links… but, I was asked recently on Twitter how I see things, and if I would be commenting. I do have some thoughts, so let me share.

  • First, Findlaw selling link-based advertising isn’t the issue here. To be clear, the issue is that Findlaw used the Google measure of PageRank as the basis for selling those links. And that has long been off-side when it comes to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
  • Second, Google’s response of a PageRank reduction penalty isn’t new. It’s similar treatment to what a group of prominent bloggers received just a few months ago. The penalty is likely temporary and probably will last until Findlaw kills the program.
  • Third, the reduction (PR7 to PR5) is for the visible PageRank displayed in the Google Toolbar. Does it effect the actual rankings? As of today, in Canada, when you search for ‘find lawyer‘, I’m getting Findlaw as the No. 1 result. I repeated the search over the phone with a US client, and Findlaw was No. 2. If Google had hit Findlaw with a true penalty, those results wouldn’t be happening.
  • And related, the reduction of visible PageRank was the objective here. Lowered PageRank removes Findlaw’s ability to sell its pages as a commodity using the Google PageRank measure. Google have been consistent and clear: they want PageRank to be a measure of authority, and not the basis of a link marketplace.

Finally, I’d just like to add one personal opinion. Findlaw’s biggest crime here may just be how blatantly overt they were. It’s almost as if they were tempting Google to hit them? or naive? dumb perhaps? Take your pick.

Here’s why I think so. Google themselves say: “Buying and selling links is a normal part of the economy of the web when done for advertising purposes, and not for manipulation of search results.” Findlaw easily falls into the class of a legitimate advertising opportunity.

Was it their choice to provide raw links? Not likely, or at least not by itself. There are lots of websites with raw links; and if that alone were the factor, paid sites with low editorial standards like the Yahoo directory (sorry, that’s how I feel) would have been hit long ago.

So what tipped Google off? It was the whole package. Those spammy marketing materials, unsolicited emails, selling links based on PageRank, training lawyers how to show ‘link love’ and apply link text, and just generally having the feel of a total Machiavellian manipulation of the system. Frankly, it was arrogant.

Now, let me tell you why those firms are wasting their money. Unless you are in a completely uncompetitive search market, 3 links and a few articles from one website won’t make a dent in your ranking equation. You need links from lots of websites; in some cases, thousands. Those links need to be from a wide range of authorities (think: government, education, professional associations, libraries, conferences, magazines, journals); and increasingly, those links should be from websites on the same finite subject including blogs and social networking groups. Subject specificity is making great strides lately. What’s the topic of the page linking in? what about the pages linking to that person? All parts of the puzzle that must be considered.

Do I think this will all blow over? Sure, and Findlaw will likely get some or all of its PageRank back… after they terminate the program. Or perhaps they won’t terminate it and the Lawyers will get involved? Either way, it should prove interesting to watch Thomson Reuters and Google – old publishing economy vs new publishing economy – stand off. Get the popcorn! :)

Comments

  1. Steve, I think this “ban” on selling links will ultimately cause google to face an anti trust suit – a monopoly on page authority.

    But, it shouldn’t matter. Nobody should be paying attention to page rank; you should be worrying about who is coming to your site, what they are doing, and why they are not doing what you want them to do.

    Page rank is irrelevant.

    @ 5:37 pm
  2. You might be right Michael. With 70%+ of the search market… it’s getting tougher to argue all the time.

    Also, as much as I’m not a fan of Findlaw’s approach here, it’s these types of actions that might put Google off-side with anti trust legislators in the US.

    Is PageRank irrelevant? I like to think of it as a rough gauge. And these days, probably not much more than that. Site trust is far more important in my eyes.

    @ 5:59 pm
  3. Brad said:

    Hello All

    I’m an SEO and I just wanted to chime in here…First and foremost, great write-up Steve, I think you are spot on, for what it’s worth. The real damage here is going to be the heart ache that FindLaw will receive from it’s clients. I surely wouldn’t want to be fielding those calls or potential lawsuits from the lawyers that bought the link package. It’s going to be an administrative, legal and financial nightmare, not to mention severe hit to their brand and credibility in the space.

    Google is more of a forgiving Internet God (atleast to large powerful sites) than it is a Condemning Internet God. It will restore value to FindLaw just as it did to BMW years ago when they were caught violating the Google Webmaster Guidelines…

    When I comes to PageRank itself, I can only assume that Matt Cutts didn’t go in there specifically and decide to take the PR down from a 7 to a 5. Most likely he changed the “N” to a “Y” on whether FindLaw was a known seller of links and then the algorithm calculated the “5″ on it’s own. “5″ is still a very healthy PageRank. To say that PageRank is irrelevant is simply ridiculous, and highlights that you are simply frustrated with your organic results. Is it the all powerful identifier of whether or not a page will rank for a keyword? – well noway… But it is the one measurement that the most used search engine in the world uses to value your page or website. It is the first step to understanding what you are working with from a site audit perspective. If you are seeing it as irrelevant – then your basic SEO implementation is probably off (keyword research, site-structure, and internal linking structure).

    @ 8:22 am
  4. [...] Steve Matthews’ post on the topic looks at the story from a different angle. Were FindLaw just guilty of being [...]

    @ 12:49 pm
  5. James said:

    Guys…little FYI –

    1. Google doesnt own findlaw.
    2. Google has no authority to police anyones buying and selling of anything.

    If I create a policy that states, no one can comment on blogs anymore and then someone does, Have I “caught them” doing illegal activity? Did I “uncover a scam”? Should I report these people? Of course not, who am I to make such a policy? I am no one…thats exactly who google is…no one. Call me when the district attorney makes it illegal to buy and sell links…then youll have a story.

    So silly!

    @ 10:02 am
  6. Thanks for commenting James. The point though, isn’t that anyone has done anything illegal. There’s obviously no crime broken here.

    The point is that Google is a ‘maker or breaker’ in the digital economy, and that going offside with Google’s terms of use could have had financial implications.

    All this being a moot point now anyhow. Findlaw has ‘no-followed’ all of its advertising links, and Google has restored Findlaw’s Pagerank. Except for any fallout from FL customers, the matter is now resolved.

    @ 10:30 am
  7. [...] not sure the next time I’ll get quoted on CNN Money & Dow Jones. The story relates to my recent post on the controversial Findlaw link sales [...]

    @ 1:47 pm
  8. [...] Google punished Findlaw for selling “link juice” to low page rank law firms.  Link juice is receiving cash [...]

    @ 3:26 pm
  9. [...] FindLaw selling PageRank [...]

    @ 12:51 pm