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.
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! :)