Let’s Make 2020 the Year of No Long Term Contracts

Here at Mockingbird, we have made our disdain for long-term contracts well-known. We have seen too many law firms fall victim to the predatory practices of FindLaw and other such agencies. Too many of our clients have come to us after being stripped down by contracts designed to empty their wallets. It’s because of this that we want to warn you of the dangers of signing onto a long term contract and how to avoid it.

 

The Dangers

Domain Ownership

Ownership of the website often sits in the fine print of these contracts, and it rarely benefits the law firm. This is one of the ways agencies trap their clients; they can’t leave without losing their website. 

 

Content Ownership

Right alongside domain ownership is content ownership; the agency owns all the content on the website. This means that even if the client manages to leave, they can’t keep anything from the website they might have been adding to for years.

 

Upselling Poor Service

When you’re trapped in a contract the agency has little motivation to provide you with the service you deserve. When you find them failing to deliver, they might even ask you to pay more for certain features that should be included or are completely irrelevant. Suddenly the contract is more expensive and the service is just as bad.

 

Our Experiences

We’ve been in the business for a while, and we’ve had more than a couple of firms come to us desperate and without a website:

Helping these firms get back on their feet has made us painfully aware of how damaging long term contracts can be. That’s why we’ve built a guide for escaping FindLaw

 

What to Look for When Signing a Contract

As a lawyer, you’re probably used to the implications of the fine print. The fine print for your marketing agency shouldn’t be given any less attention than what’s in your clients’ cases. Here are a few of the things you should keep an eye out for and flag:

  • Domain ownership
  • Content ownership
  • Termination penalties
  • End dates

If you see yourself about to sign a contract that will hold you for years, stop and think: is there a better way?

 

There is. Don’t make bad decisions in 2020 that will follow you for the next decade. Don’t sign the contract.

Screwing Lawyers: Calculate The True Cost of Your Agency’s Long Term Contract

I hear this story about once a day from a frustrated lawyer… “Our marketing isn’t working.” “My agency doesn’t tell me what they are doing.” “Our rankings haven’t improved.” “The vendor won’t let us into Google Analytics.” And so on and so on.

Being frustrated with your marketing isn’t uncommon or even unfair.  Sometimes best efforts belly flop (even at my own agency.)  But the lemon juice poured in the fresh cut is recognizing that you are contractually stuck with the ineffective, lazy, useless, opaque “efforts” of your marketing agency for the foreseeable future.

I received this email today from a frustrated firm:

“Just a quick update: we unfortunately found some fine print yesterday that we had previously missed. It looks like we are stuck with FindLaw until November of 2020.”

The true cost of your long term marketing contract isn’t the value of the contract to the agency ($8,200 a month for the next 36 months…) but actually the opportunity cost of all of that lost business your firm could be generating if your agency was actually effective. Using extremely rough math…that $8,200 monthly cost equates to roughly $300K over the life of the contract, but it really should be measured as three years of your firm struggling to find clients while your bottom line bleeds…drip drip drip…into your agency’s top line.

Using basic business metrics, if that investment returned just a pathetic 4x (i.e. cost of client at 25% of the value of the matter) that $300K expense is really $1.2 million dollars in revenue your firm isn’t capturing. And, your underperforming agency has NO incentive to turn this around – because their profitability is inversely related to how hard they work for you.

So let’s be clear: entering into a long term contract with a marketing vendor benefits them, not you. As soon as you are locked in, as this is a service industry, your agency’s profitability skyrockets by doing as little as possible for you. This is compounded by the deliberate obfuscation of performance data. Ask yourself why your long term agency contract precludes you from access to your site’s Google Analytics or Google Ad campaigns. What do they not want you to see? What are they not doing for you?

You are supposed to be sophisticated savvy lawyers. Imagine how you would act if you could be hired under the same terms that you hire agencies: long term, guaranteed retainers with no requirements to share what you are allegedly doing for your clients? Would you do client work or instead hire hordes of cold callers to assail the front desks of your next prospective victim?

Oh, and before you sign…read the fine print.

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.)

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.

Rumor Mill: FindLaw transitioning sites to WordPress????

UPDATE: A second, well placed and completely unrelated source has corroborated FindLaw’s intent to migrate to WordPress.

On the phone with another law firm prospect today who told me her FindLaw rep had told her that they were transitioning websites from the proprietary FindLaw platform to WordPress. Now, this would be a major change in the online marketing world for lawyers and something that would really shake up the industry. I received two competing perspectives on this after I posted on Facebook:

Not surprising. Everyone has been leaving for years for their own WordPress sites so strategically it’s probably their only move. Be interesting to see how it pans out for them. – Shelly Fagin

 

We’ll see. My guess is this is just an instance of the FindLaw rep not knowing anything. You could honestly put 20 of them in a room together and still not have the cumulative web knowledge to update a paragraph on their own proprietary system…   – James Eichenberger*

Now – the theoretical economist in my believes that Shelly is right. Having spoken to perhaps a hundred FindLaw clients in detail over the past decade, the long term, captive nature of the proprietary platform and contracts is something clients resent. No one wants to be beholden to a vendor, especially when cheaper, better alternatives exist. This has been, perhaps, the primary reason we’ve easily been able to score deals with FindLaw clients. (To be 100% fair, I did lose one client back to FindLaw about two years ago and that eats at me like maggots feasting on a forgotten hamburger.)

Alternatively, the pragmatist in me suspects James is right…I just can’t see the impetus to move with the market, while you can still squeeze a little more profit (and captive clients) out of your big box brand recognition.

So – in the comments…anyone from Minnesota care to weigh in and let us know?

* – and oh, hahahahahaha I went to link out to Shelly and James’ respective sites, only to find I couldn’t find anything for James, so I moseyed on to his Facebook profile looking for a website (and a lawyer in need of serious SEO?), but no…James’ Work and Education on FB…

Oh James – a beer on me should you ever find yourself in Seattle.

 

FindLaw’s Atrocious Social Media Product

File this one under another egregious example of tech salespeople peddling overpriced, ineffectual products at the legal community. I spoke with an attorney today who drops around $1,400 a month for a bundle of services including the FindLaw Digital Marketing Boost and FindLaw Engagement Builder, and the FindLaw Social Media Marketing Tool. Now, I’ve written ad nauseam about the idiocy of most social media marketing in legal, so I was curious exactly what FindLaw is pushing. And for $1,400 bucks every month. That’s like having twins attend an overpriced east coast prep school.

So what does the FindLaw Social Media Marketing Tool deliver?

  1. It lets you schedule blog posts to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google Plus (and let’s not get caught up on the fact that FindLaw is still referring to Google Plus as if it’s a relevant product.)

 

If you really want to get fancy, this seems like a cheaper alternative.

Seems to me, the free Hootsuite subscription and/or a well chosen WordPress plug-in is more than enough. To call this Social Media Marketing Platform out as a separate, value added line item is ludicrous. It’s like paying extra for a speedometer on a car or laces with a pair of shoes.

If you’d like to prove me wrong, please do so…here’s a link to the Quick Start Guide: FindLaw Social Media Product. I can just hear the commissioned salesman pushing the transformative promise of social media marketing.

Just the latest example of a big box company taking it to lawyers who don’t understand. And if you think I’m overstating the case here, this proposal included a rate hike for his monthly website hosting – increasing by about $175 a month to just over $800 monthly. Oh – and that rate? Locked in for another 12 months.

.Law Comes Clean About SEO

I was bemused to see a tradeshow booth from .law at the recent AAJ conference in Louisville (which was awesome btw).  And further bemused to know that Carl Jaeckel would be speaking to the conference about the TLD.  To be honest, I sat in the back of the room, huddled with fellow internet marketing shiny object curmudgeon, Gyi Tsakalakis as we plotted gotcha questions to fry Carl on stage.

To catch you up to speed if you know nothing of .law…. in 2015, this new Top Level Domain (TLD – think “.com” “.gov” and now “.law”) was introduced and aggressively advertised as an SEO silver bullet by the marketers behind .law.  (IMO $200 a year for domain registration seemed a beyond slightly excessive.)  This marketing included a bogus “case study” conducted by SEO veteran Bill Hartzer, vigorous PR outreach, a slick brochure (which seems to have been purged from the web), “sponsored” articles placed in legal and marketing blogs and a backlash from Google directly.  Regardless, the case study was touted widely among those selling the new TLD, including FindLaw and John Morgan of Morgan and Morgan, the chairman of the new domain selling service.

Over the past two years, our firm dealt with more than 10 .law domains that failed to generate anything in the way of Search Traffic – at great expense to the lawyers duped into purchasing the domains on the false pretext of SEO awesomeness.

But…. Carl (Morgan’s former CMO and COO of .law from the very beginning) gave us the straight honest truth, albeit two years late. At the AAJ conference, in response to a point blank question about the SEO benefits of the new .TLD, Carl replied:

I’d love to sit here and lie to tell you that you put on a .law and it will amazingly shoot you to the top of the search rankings. – Carl Jaeckel

So there you have it…. the .law marketers were lying all along (and they knew it… there’s a very good reason John didn’t move forthepeople.com to forthepeople.law.)  When I introduced myself and spoke with him later, thanking him for his candor, Carl blamed the “marketing people” for the false SEO promises.

But, when someone comes peddling these new domains (and they will), don’t fall for fuzzy vagaries of what Google may or may not do in the future to change their perspective on TLDs. The SEO silver bullet will NOT be based on “a new .law suffix that could set off a domain gold rush” (which was the 2015 title of an ABA Journal article that has also since been purged from the site, at whose bidding, I don’t know).

Review of the ABA Top 100 Blogs

I took the time to review the ABA’s Top 100 Blawgs Blogs for 2016…. and must commend the selection team on pulling together a great list.  My personal reflection is that there was a heavy focus on finding sites with interesting, well written timely and thoughtful content — exactly the stuff that can make a blog successful.

In doing so, I found a few very interesting patterns.

Less Than Half of the Blogs Were from Law Firms

By my rough count, less than half of the blogs cited were from actual law firms – leading me to believe there is still a lot of room for (extremely high quality) content development coming out of law firms.  Naturally, there were a lot of law professors and news writers with a legal bent as well as advocacy/reform type content, like Prison Law Blog.  (Which incidentally is written by a currently incarcerated, Christopher Zoukis, who plans on going to law school upon his release – inspirational story.)

BigLaw Dominates the List

Of the blogs that represented law firms – roughly two out of three were from large firms…. and down at the bottom end of the size market, just 4 solos made the list.  Perhaps this is a reflection of the marketing/PR departments lobbying for list inclusion, but there’s got to be more room for the little guys!

Solo Sarah Poriss’s Blog utilizes the simple WordPress default theme from 2011.

Some Law Firms Don’t Own Their Blog

One of the most surprising findings was that two of the domains were not registered to the law firm, but to their agency instead. Historically, FindLaw has been notorious for this practice – in which the firm doesn’t own the asset they are paying for. If the domain isn’t registered to your firm, you don’t control that domain and your agency holds all of the cards. Put another way: you rent your site; you don’t own it. Nervous? I wrote a post on How to Use Who.is to See if You Own Your Domain; you can see from the WhoIs listings below that the blogs for Constangy Brooks Smith and Prophete and Franczek Radelet are registered to their agency, LexBlog instead of the firm.

 

80% of Blogs are OFF Primary Domain

Of the law firm blogs – 4 out of 5 of them live on standalone domains.  This runs against foundational SEO theory – in which the consolidation of a blog’s natural linkbuilding prowess helps the firm rank in both local and organic search.  I suspect much of this is due to the internal politics of getting a subject specific blog launched amidst a wide reaching BigLaw environment.  Gyi Tsakalakis has argued that highly technical, subject specific, stand-alone blogs are very appropriate for law firms attracting referrals from b-to-b lawyers seeking specialists, instead of consumer-facing practices like car accidents or divorce.  BUT…. from a marketing perspective when SEO is concerned, there is widespread consensus that blogs belong on a firm’s primary domain.

FindLaw Abandons Another Law Firm

It’s Halloween so, a perfect time for a scary post about a ghoul in our midst….

You’ll remember about a year ago, we knocked out a website for Kendall Coffman in 24 hours after FindLaw pulled the plug on his site – leaving it looking like this:

404 Coffman

So yesterday, we got the same call – another law firm abandoned by FindLaw, leaving their site naked in the breeze.  This time, we turned around a new site same day.  Now that’s not easy – it involved pulling our fire alarm – getting all hands on deck and working with our Echo WordPress template to push something live really quickly.  And we didn’t engage in rounds and rounds of creative revisions or discussion on the shade of blue in the background.  BUT…. within 8 hours of getting his inquiry – the new site is up and running and 100% technically sound. Designed from our Echo template, it includes:

  • attorney bio pages complete with attorney specific testimonials
  • removed FindLaw’s toll-free “tracking” numbers.
  • contact forms
  • legacy GA code
  • on-site search
  • social media integration
  • contact us page complete with Google maps integration
  • mobile responsive design with sticky phone number header.

Oh – and while I’m ranting about FindLaw…. unfortunately the firm had been paying FindLaw to write blog posts for them – except the devious, self-serving, underhanded, fine print in their agreement meant that FindLaw retained ownership of that content. So while Echo can handle blog functionality, unfortunately the firm’s new site will be blog naked (for now.) Imagine that – here’s a law firm paying FindLaw to develop content for them – that they, in fact do not own.  Kind of like buying a house only to find out your mortgage is actually a lease.

Technical Roadmap for Leaving FindLaw

And for law firms, or other agencies facing a similar FindLaw induced marketing disaster, here’s a roadmap of the technical issues to handle:

Here is a summary of everything we did – taken from our instructions to our client, Justin:

  • Moved all content that we could find archived on the web except for the blog roll as well as leveraged the Word document you provided – please use your sitemap to go through the content. Please also review the disclaimer and Privacy Policy.
  • Updated all the phone numbers in content/meta descriptions/header/footers to your direct line and removed toll free “Findlaw” numbers.
  • Copied the Google Analytics code as it was on your previous site. We highly recommend verifying you have ownership over this Analytics account. If not, try to obtain.
  • Kept the Google Search Console verification tag. We highly recommend verifying you have ownership over this Search Console account. If not, try to obtain.
  • Created a Bing Webmaster Tools account and gave you ownership.
  • Updated ALL the internal links. Since your site is now on WordPress, all the URLs end with a slash (/) instead of a combination of slashes and “.shtml”. Since we were manually migrated the content we could get our hands on, it was easier to update these on the go.
  • Migrated all the page Titles and Descriptions. Again, easier to do on the fly.
  • Created 301 redirects for:
    • all URLs ending in .shtml to point them to the new URLs with “/”.
    • Duplicate legacy contact form we found during migration
    • Attorneys URL to force lower case “A”.
    • Blog roll and blog. Note: This redirect will need to be revised if you choose to utilize the blog feature on your new site.
  • Setup and configured Yoast SEO
  • Updated Robots.txt and included your XML sitemap location
  • Configured contact form with a ‘thank you’ destination page and Google Event Tracking. Tested and confirmed working.
  • Crawled post-launch site
    • No internal 404 errors (this means all the links on the new site work!)
    • No internal 301 redirects on pages (this means that all the links go to the final destination, which is how it should be!)
  • I’ve also added 3 more “properties” to your search console account. The one you want to use is XXXXXXX. We can cover this during the demo.
  • I was also afraid that FindLaw would see my updates so I have added us as owners to these tools and removed permissions for the email you provided to manage users. I would recommend giving us a gmail account (or you can register your current email, which is through Office 360, to be used with google products) so that we can add that as owner for everything. This prevents FindLaw from taking access away.
  • Finally, I submitted the new site to be indexed by Google through Search Console. This should help get those blog posts you don’t own out of the search results. It will also help Google understand what in the world just happened.
  • Allowed site to be indexed by google
  • Added you as a user to the new site – you should have received an email with a PW
  • Added you as a user to your new host (WP Engine) – you should receive an invitation email to create a PW
  • Added your website back to your Google My Business listing and it was immediately published