Martindale-Hubbell Aggressively Marketing Their LinkSpam Network

Psssst…buddy…you…with the struggling website…yeah you. Want to buy a link? How about 5? I’ve got some nice, hot, untraceable links right here in my coat.

In the past 10 days, I’ve received questions from three different legal marketing agencies about Martindale’s new SEO product: The Martindale-Nolo legal marketing network which includes Nolo and Lawyers.com. It’s essentially a mass purchased linkbuilding scheme and people want to know: does this violate Google’s SEO guidelines against LinkSpam.

Short Answer: Yes it does.

But first, let’s hear from Martindale directly:

 

Hmmm…key messages are:

“providing stronger link value…helps increase links through our legal network of websites…help you gain higher search engine rankings”

Also…it’s “affordable” – meaning it’s paid. Isn’t this the flagrant buying and selling of links? Yes it is.

FindLaw Linkspam Provides Historical Context

Back in 2008 Findlaw got exposed for doing exactly this: mass emailing their clients with the offer of purchased links. This was called their: SEM-C product which enabled customers to purchase links and even specify the anchor text (remember anchor text?). You can find a copy of it here. This program got blown up quickly and received widespread backlash among the knowledgable (albeit small back then) legal online marketing community.

So, I didn’t think anyone would be so stupid as to replicate this experiment. Apparently I was wrong. Another variant of Martindale’s marketing materials states:

“This helps increase links through our legal network of websites and directories back to your firms website. Gaining stronger authority and helping you gain higher search engine rankings.”

Google Guidelines Violation

Does this really violate Google Guidelines?  Yup. Yup and Yup. Read excerpts of those guidelines below and ask yourself if there’s any possible way Martindale isn’t setting themselves and their clients up for failure:

  • This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.
  • This includes exchanging money for links or using automated programs or services to create links to your site.

Note the key concern for law firms here is that these penalties impact not only the seller, but also the buyer of said links.

The Avvo Question

Now speaking of legal directory links, I’d be remiss in noting that AVVO recently sold to Internet Brands, who is also the owner of…Martindale. Back in July of this year, I reported that Avvo was removing contact information unless one purchased Avvo Premium. It was unclear if this included a link to the website. It’s also unclear if Martindale’s “network of legal websites” extends to Avvo as well, but it’s not too hard to connect these dots. I did reach out to the new Avvo people to discuss this further, but they demurred. On a personal level, I’d find it tragically ironic if Avvo is included within this scheme.

So…what’s going to happen?

If history repeats itself, all of these sites (both the sellers and buyers) may have a negative impact on their search traffic. According to the SEO rumor mill, the FindLaw link selling scandal generated a significant and protracted decline in traffic – although I frankly didn’t hear any rumblings of how this impacted the purchasers of said links. Granted that was way back in 2008, but I don’t suspect Google has gotten specifically dumber as it pertains to linkspam over the past decade. Further note that Google relies heavily on algorithmic learning and have been seeking out link networks for about 15 years now. Hiding this network from Google, especially with the large and prolific footprint of Martindale/Nolo/Lawyers.com (and hopefully not Avvo) would be extremely difficult. All Google needed was the linkbuilding smoking gun…an offer to sell links. And apparently, Martindale has just mass emailed that smoking gun to all of their customers (including agency owners who know better.)

Google Doesn’t Care About “Fresh” Content (So Says Google)

I’ve been writing about how Google doesn’t care about your “fresh” content for ages now. Mockingbird’s analysis of hundreds of thousands of pages of legal content (and I use the term “content” liberally here) across hundreds of law firm websites have confirmed this.

And yet, the legal marketing industry keeps telling you to publish publish publish in order to make The Google happy. As an industry, it’s super convenient to blame our failings on your lack of feeding the content beast. Or, it’s super convenient to have contracts that promise we’ll vomit out poorly rewritten news articles at a pace of X per week. Tangible, predictable projects to validate a bloated retainer that funds an offshore “writer” at exorbitant margins. One vendor claims as their tagline: “real lawyers have blogs” – as in, you aren’t a lawyer unless you feed The Google a steady diet of (largely unread) blog pages.

Except of course, all of this focus on bloated website pagecount rarely translates to increased traffic, calls or clients. That’s because of the fallacy that the frequency of publishing is a major SEO factor. You may have also heard this referred to as “fresh content.” The reality is, there are some industries (legal being one of them) in which “fresh” content isn’t necessarily better. i.e. It’s very difficult to have fresh content about trucking accidents on a regular basis.

But, like lemmings intent on a final trip to the sea, the legal marketing industry keeps reciting the mantra: “content is king.”  We keep pushing you to sign engagements in which we promise we’ll deliver 4 blog posts a week.  (and if 4 is good, wouldn’t 40 be better? Can I get a 104?) We wax poetic about the long tail and the need for more and more content to catch this elusive tail. We tell you that Google wants your content to be fresh as a baguette at a quaint French cafe at 6am.

Finally, straight from The Google’s mouth, the answer to the question: “Does Google favor fresh content?” in two characters:

Hat tip to Barry Schwartz (who apparently has more time to follow John Mueller, than I do.)

If you feel like diving deeper, feel free to peruse any of the following articles I’ve penned panning our myopic love of content:

SMX: More content, less traffic
SMX: More content, less traffic: Part II
Mockingbird: SEO Regicide, Content the King is Dead
Mockingbird: Another Indicator that your “SEO Content” is Awful
Mockingbird: Your Legal Blog Content isn’t as Good as you Think it is.

On Being Different Instead of Better

Once a week, on my commute in to work, I listen to a podcast called Two Bobs that helps agency owners make their agency outstanding. More often than not, the concepts that apply to the highly creative and technical world of online marketing apply just as readily to legal.

“Sometimes it is better to be different than to be better” – David C. Baker

Lawyers have a very hard time differentiating themselves among other lawyers – especially from the perspective of potential clients. It’s not that it’s hard to do, it’s just that most lawyers wrap themselves in lawyerly imagery – scales of justice, gavels, middle aged white men with red ties etc. Most lawyers make the mistake of positioning themselves as…lawyers…or at best, in David’s construct…the “better lawyer.”

Quite obviously, being a lawyer is not a differentiator from which a prospective client can select among a sea of potential legal representation. Even being the “best lawyer” is hard to truly assess. This, despite the slew of award icons prominently displayed on legal websites – AV Rating, Avvo Rating, and even entirely fake and bogus paid awards like “Lawyers of Distinction.” In the marketing world, we call these “trust marks” – and they are a visual attempt to convey “best lawyer” positioning. The problem, of course, is that there are a myriad of these trust marks, most of which are completely meaningless to average Joe Consumer. Being “best” is simply a very difficult position to hold – especially in the awards arms race of legal marketing. This extends to the personal injury world where the arms race is self aggrandizing award boasts. “Over $300K recovered…more than a million dollars in awards…largest settlement…” Blah blah blah.

Being different isn’t difficult.

Being different is easy.

It requires courage to embrace the fact that lawyers compete not on the “best lawyer” continuum, but on the, “why should I hire you?” continuum. And the reality is that most prospective consumers know they can’t accurately assess “best” and instead try to answer the second question.

Being different is a positioning that transforms the lawyer selection process in the prospect’s mind from, “which lawyer do I want to hire?” to “which person do I want to work with?” And in the prospect’s mind, being different never has anything to do with evaluating lawyers on the lawyerly continuum. Try as they might, lawyers simply can’t be more lawyerly than other lawyers.

On the other hand, a lawyer or law firm can be an openly gay lawyer, the expert in self driving vehicles, the immigrant lawyer helping others follow in her footsteps, the city’s oldest law firm, the lawyer who used to be a cop/prosecutor/in-house at Allstate, the law firm supporting black lives matter, the state’s largest law firm, the athlete who organizes local road races and happens to practice law (h/t to Turkowitz), the tech nerdy paperless firm, the ex JAG, or the small town lawyer who grew up just a mile from his current office.

To the right prospect, each of these differentiators above is much more personally appealing than sifting through countless lawyer profiles trying to identify the better best bestestest most lawyerly lawyer lawyer.

Because, sometimes, its better to be different than better.

Is Google My Business Sending People to your FAX Machine?

Google My Business may be accidentally displaying your fax number as your phone number. I now have three data points from three different firms over the past week in which the fax number is being prominently displayed as the phone number. This is especially damaging for branded queries which typically return the knowledge graph (including the phone / fax number).

Here’s a very real, worst case scenario:

“Harry, you should call Bill Smith, he’s a great lawyer.”

Harry looks up Bill Smith on his laptop, sees the Knowledge Graph, dials Bill and gets the horrendous fax connect audio. Harry makes a split second decision that if Bill can’t figure out his own phone number, then there’s no way Harry is going to put his legal future in Bill’s seemingly incapable hands. Harry, goes back to Google and looks for a new lawyer.

It’s a simple check – run a query for your law firm’s name in Google. Then your name. See what phone number shows up and actually dial the number to verify it’s going through to your front desk. Then check Yelp (yes Yelp), Bing, Avvo, and other directories.

I’m not sure exactly why this is happening – highly possible spiders are running through sites and erroneously identifying fax numbers as phone numbers. Suffice to say – assume it’s broken and verify that your phone number isn’t delivering an annoying beeeeeeeepppppwhiiineclangclang to prospective clients.

Avvo now hiding your info?

I was disappointed to hear on a legal listserve about two weeks ago the whispers of a plan by Avvo to remove contact information from profiles unless the lawyer was paying.  I thought perhaps it was a misunderstanding, as it seems that a directory devoid of…. directory information, makes it universally less useful.  But now that Internet Brands has acquired Avvo, and Mark is no longer behind the helm….

Just got a notification from Avvo Internet Brands that confirms their new product called Premium:

Our new offering, Avvo Premium, now includes the following features:

  • Display your contact information in search results and on your profile
  • Remove competitors’ ads from your profile
  • Have your profile prioritized in search results
  • See your contacts from calls, emails, and website visit
  • Select your best client reviews and promote them at the top of your page
  • Summarize your practice with a personal summary at the top of your profile

Of course, that contact information was always a part of the free profile and didn’t require Premium.  Apparently no more.

With this pivot, Avvo is essentially shifting from being a useful directory where consumers can find the best lawyer for their specific situation to functioning solely as an advertising platform. They have every right to do this, but from a user experience standpoint it would be a disservice to remove essential information from highly qualified attorneys solely because they’re not actively advertising with Avvo. With Google’s focus on user experience – I wonder how this removal of key information may impact Avvo’s performance in the SERPs – will be interesting to monitor over time.

Historical SEO Spam from FindLaw

For those of you interested in a history lesson of how flagrant spam was back in the early(ish) days of SEO…. I was cleaning out my desk the other day and found a relic of FindLaw’s link selling product, SEM-C.  It’s dated July, 2008 and a printed copy has been gathering dust in my SEO SPAM folder. For those of you who have less than 10 years in the search industry, you’ll be amazed at how flagrant link selling was, even by big box providers, back in the wild wild west days of search. Read it here: FindLaw for Legal Professionals: SEM-C Product Details.  I’ve excerpted some of the tastier morsels below:

SEM-C includes articles submitted by the advertiser and hard coded links to be placed on the FindLaw Legal Professional portal. As FindLaw has a favorable rank with the search engines and is THE legal authority, customers will benefit from having a link on the FindLaw portal.

The product was essentially a series of paid links (that lasted for a year and then needed to be renewed) leveraging FindLaw’s authority. Customers wrote articles, defined anchor text, specified target pages and submitted to FindLaw.

Link modules – to be placed on relevant content pages. The product includes 3 links.

Articles… This product includes up to 5 articles. Articles will contain a hard coded link to advertiser’s web site.

Customers will have increased rank and penetration within natural search results on major search engines.

It even includes a section on helping law firms come up with high value anchor text.

The backlash on this was pretty immediate and strong, with negative articles coming from both the Search and Legal Marketing communities. Word on the street among the SEO nerd community is that FindLaw was hit by a substantial and long standing manual penalty from Google. But don’t think that FindLaw learned their lesson – the’ve never really given up their linkspamming ways. Back in 2014 we posted a review of FindLaw’s use of spambots to generate profiles and links (read more: Even More FindLaw Link Spam).

Leaving WordPress Drops Traffic by 44% (and Tangentially, Why Mockingbird is Awesome)

Sometimes our clients leave us. And it always makes me sad…especially when they move to a different provider, who insists on them paying for an “updated” website and locking them in for a multi year contract. Especially, when they were already on a very good, well built WordPress site. But it’s even worse, when this website redesign underperforms.  Immediately and drastically. Our ex client, experienced this as a 44% decrease in website traffic that rolled out immediately after her new site launched. No new content, no changes in backlink profile, no changes to her local tactics or platform. Just a new website on a vendor’s proprietary platform, that frankly can’t compete with her, ahem, “old” (and in this case, the site was about 4 years old) WordPress site.

In the off chance that this was a random change in tracking infrastructure, we further validated the data above in Google Search Console – the results mirror the significant drop in search traffic – 44% in fact – once the law firm migrated away from WordPress.

Take this as yet another example of the value of a well coded WordPress website, which intrinsically outperforms proprietary platforms.

Now, not all WordPress sites are created equal – in fact many of the widely available and utilized templates are extremely poorly coded from an SEO perspective. (This is the part where I tangentially brag about our developers’ collective coding prowess.) And not all WordPress sites are fast – great hosting (in our case, WPEngine) is important – efficient code is important – expertly compressed imagery is important. In our case, we tend to obsess over those things. Now our ex client is seeing a 44% drop in her website traffic.  And because she is heavily dependent on the web for client development, presumably a 44% decrease in business. And it’s a real shame if she’s locked in for a multi-year commitment. I’m not saying you have to work with us – just be aware that platform matters. I apologize if this comes across as bitter…and yes, there’s a little bitter taste in my mouth…but I hope you can avoid the same mistakes she made, even if it’s not with Mockingbird.

Beware of Your Chat Vendor

I have a love/hate relationship with chat. Mostly I hate chat. Or at least the ham handed implementations that are either a)horrendously intrusive or b)intentionally horrendously intrusive.

Look at this particularly obnoxious chat window that completely covers up the primary navigation. I can no longer learn anything about what the firm does, or who works there. Not to mention the poor metaphorical visual of cutting off Ms. Justice’s head and obscuring half of the firm’s logo.

Use chat. It works. But use it like Sriracha…carefully and sparingly so it compliments your overall marketing instead of forcing itself into the experience and ruining the meal for everyone.

(On the few cases in which I love chat…it is with chat vendors that allow you to customize the implementation to suit your best interest, instead of rigidly configuring it to maximize the financial gain of the chat vendor.)

Another Indicator That Your “SEO Content” Is Awful

I’ve been railing against the conventional wisdom that more content is the magic SEO bullet for years now. In fact, for many of our clients, we’ve been proactively working on decreasing pagecount, instead of increasing it. There’s a great framework for assessing the value of investing more money on more content in a Searchengine Land article I wrote that essentially shows how to evaluate the efficacy of content in actually generating traffic. Simple stuff, but often overlooked – which is crazy given the vast investment many lawyers make in vomiting out more content at a regular clip.

There’s an even easier way to review this through a very simple report in Google Search Console. This simple report shows the number of pages in your sitemap compared to the number of pages in your sitemap that are actually indexed. In the extreme example below, less than 12% of their sitemap is actually indexed. This means while Google knows about the content, they don’t actually care and those pages will NEVER surface in search results.

Note that this could be for a variety of reasons:

  1. The sitemap is dated and/or broken and showing pages that don’t exist (this happens more frequently than you can imagine)
  2. The site has a tone of content, yet lacks the authority (backlinks) to support the volume of content.
  3. The content on the site is extremely poor and/or copied.

Assuming the sitemap is correctly configured…if the vast majority of your blog isn’t being indexed…why would one continue generating content?