Google tries to be vigilant about SPAM. It really does. Link building schemes, black hat tactics, and malicious software are some of the main things Google looks for. When it finds them, it might respond with a Manual Action.
So What is a Manual Action?
A manual action is when an actual, real-life member of Google’s team checks in on your websites and penalizes it for going against best practices. Manual actions can take a variety of forms and can be consequences of a variety of things.
Types of Manual Actions
Partial Matches (partial de-indexing)
If Google finds pages in violation of best practices it might de-index those specific URLs. This means that they will no longer show up in search results. This can be done to a page, sub-domain, forum, or any section of a domain. A partial match action is generally the best possible scenario for webmasters who are facing spam attacks, as the domain is still functioning and traffic can still find your site. It is still important to try and fix the issue and lift the action as soon as possible.
Whole Site Matches (total de-index)
If the problem is found to be larger than a few key URLs, Google may de-index the entire domain. This is a harsh penalty, but it can be reversed once the site complies with webmaster guidelines. Whole site matches are generally implemented when a site flagrantly ignores guidelines by cloaking content, redirecting users, and exposing users to malicious content. If your site is facing a whole site match, you need to consider what brought you there and if you need to change course.
What Might Cause a Manual Action
Google has a long list of reasons for invoking manual actions. Most of them involve spam links, as link building schemes are about the most forms of breaking best practices that webmasters do. The complete list includes:
User-generated spam is spam that comes not from the webmaster, but the users of the website. This happens in forums and comments sections of websites.
Unnatural links to and from your site
This refers to link building schemes and spam attacks. If your site is suddenly sending thousands of links to a single, low authority site or is showing signs of spammy link exchanges, or has thousands of links from one low-authority site, Google might reprimand the URL or domain.
Thin or duplicate content
This is more subjective, as some sites do not need large amounts of content. That being said, many sites have unnecessary numbers of pages with practically duplicate content, which often sees penalties.
This is a pretty old-school black hat technique, and Google is pretty good at finding when people try to implement it. Cloaking refers to showing different content to humans than to the GoogleBot. They can do this by having one image cover another, writing paragraphs of keywords in the same color as the background of the page, or stuffing keywords into gibberish text. Google really doesn’t appreciate these techniques and comes down pretty hard on those that do it.
Redirects, whether desktop or mobile, refers to when a user clicks on a link to one website then gets redirected to another, completely unrelated, URL. The penalties are usually applied when the redirect goes to a site that is harmful or the redirect is malicious in it’s intent (i.e. sending a user looking for cartoons to a porn site).
How to Fix a Manual Action
Fixing a manual action starts by fixing the problem you were originally penalized for. If you were hit for displaying spam comments you might want to delete those comments and block the IPs they were sent from. If you were hit with a spam link attack, go through the disavow process and clean up your referrals. Google has recommendations on how to fix your website after all types of manual actions.
Once you have made the changes you need to make, you can make a reconsideration request. This is a request for Google to re-review your website and lift the manual action.
Sometimes you do the work, write the request, and get a denial. This means you didn’t do the fullest work you needed to do. Get back to work and draft a new reconsideration request.
Don’t mess with Google. Even if they wrongly put a manual action against you, you apologize and follow the recommendations they give you. Google holds all the power.
Wondering what your SEO company is doing to generate all those backlinks (despite the fact it’s not moving the needle AT ALL for inbound traffic, calls or business)? I just got off the phone with a firm questioning their current agency’s reports that were assuring the client they were generating hundreds of backlinks a month. This was delivered along with a thick slice of “SEO is a long term game, you just need to be patient” cake.
So we dug in a bit deeper to see just what was going on. Apparently, they’d gotten 93,000 new links over a roughly 6 months period.
From a total of 11 referring domains.
Here’s what the backlink profile looks like according to aHrefs (and btw, yes Google can algorithmically ID these patterns).
This is clearly spam (i.e. unnatural, non-editorial links that at best, won’t help your site perform). So you can do this type of monitoring yourself of the link-building efforts of your own SEO…here are the red flags I’m seeing:
A massive influx of links at a certain time.
93,000 links coming from just 11 domains… which is not indicative of someone organically linking to interesting content.
This is reflected in the DR (Domain Rank) score put out by the aHrefs tool. Note that these scores are always bad estimations of Google’s perspective of a site’s overall authority, but they are directionally useful. For context, for a client like this (criminal defense in a mid-sized city), Domain Rank scores should be in the 35-45 minimum range.
If you want to go even deeper – the aHrefs tool shows exactly which domains the links are coming from (in our example, 99.9% of the site’s 93,000 backlinks came from 2 of those domains… not coincidentally owned by the same company).
Note that this is an extreme example which I selected to illustrate the point. Overall the reporting is going to be much more nuanced… but still worth watching especially when your agency tells you they are busy building backlinks but won’t show you the results.
One of the upsides about being a Google Premier Partner is that we have a direct line to Googlers to whine about terrible behavior on behalf of some advertisers. One of the bugaboos we’ve been whining about is law firm marketing agencies pretending to be law firms and competing with our clients for business. This has been true in local results as well as call only advertisements.
Starting in December (although our notification didn’t mention exactly when in December, but it could be as soon as…tomorrow) Google is updating their Call Only Policy with the following requirements:
Service providers will now be required to use their actual business name in call-only ads. Service providers can no longer advertise with a business name that doesn’t represent their specific business or clearly disambiguate from similar businesses
When answering calls from users who’ve clicked on their call-only ad, advertisers must begin the call by stating their business name, as it appears in their call-only ads.
Note this not only impacts the spammers but also legit businesses, as you now need to ensure your front desk answers appropriately. (No more, “law offices” as the salutation…which I’ve been trying to get you all to change anyway.)
You can check out the call only ad requirements directly from Google here.
And to all of you lead generation companies masquerading as a law firm…you’re welcome.
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.
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.)
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).
Another legal marketing firm found itself in hot ethical water today… “Exclusive Legal Marketing,” headed by Coety Bryant utilized Google AdWords to purchase names of personal injury attorneys to drive prospects to his site www.personalinjurycare.net. Aggressive – and many attorneys bristle at this – especially ads coming from a non-law firms – but not necessarily unethical. Note, there are numerous directories and vendors already capitalizing on lawyer name search via SEO – Yelp, Lawyers.com, and Avvo (I spent a good 3 years of my life studying name search there). Even Google’s Google My Business service is essentially nothing more than name search – especially for practitioner listings.
But herein lies the rub. The two attorneys filing suit, Schiff and Kurgis specifically noted that it was the fact that the marketing company wouldn’t tell the prospective client that they weren’t the lawyer in question. From Biz Journals:
“Schiff or Kurgis alleged that in many cases, those people thought they were speaking with Schiff and Kurgis associates.”
According to Avvo, there aren’t any lawyers named Coety Bryant. I’ll also note that Bryant’s website specifically calls out the opportunity to speak to an attorney.
As do his ads…
I dug a bit deeper and found some of his ads archived. Here’s an example of his ad biding against another personal injury lawyer’s name: Jim Adler in Houston.
Now it seems Bryant was banking some serious money with this approach – bidding on lawyer names, not disclosing who he actually was, and then reselling these leads to other lawyers. A little research shows his budgets exceeding $75K per month back in May of 2017.
My Take on Competitive Name Bidding:
Let me be upfront – Mockingbird raises the competitive name bidding opportunity for all of our clients. It’s aggressive yes, but NOT unethical (nor against Google’s guidelines, as long as the name isn’t in the ad…i.e. Coke can bid on “Pepsi” but can’t pretend the click goes through to a Pepsi site.) Not all of our attorneys are comfortable with this approach. But…if you are fully transparent about who a prospect is speaking with, competitive name bidding is an effective, albeit aggressive tactic. Additionally, you should bid on your own name (as Adler does above) as a cost-effective defensive posture.
I thought my expose on the Lawyers of Distinction Scam (in which my kid’s pet chicken, Zippy made it through the LOD’s vetting process) may have pushed them to quiet down. Apparently NOT. Yesterday, Lawyers of Distinction mass spammed thousands of Lawyers (and a handful of non-lawyers), falsely suggesting someone had nominated them for this bogus, unvetted, bullshit and otherwise misleading “award”.
How do I know?
Yesterday, Mockingbird’s site got pummeled with SEO based traffic to the Lawyers of Distinction articles we’ve posted.
Looks like an email was spammed out around 10:00 am PST yesterday, and many of those email recipients decided to undertake a modicum of research before plunking down the equivalent of a (very) nice car payment for a piece of lacquered wood and some self supplication for a fragile ego.
There was a smattering of web chatter about these faux “nominations.” Here’s Helen Bukulmez:
And not all “lawyer” nominations were even for lawyers…here’s a comment from Abby Peretz:
I received notification that I, too, am eligible for this distinguished “award!” Here’s the catch: I’m a law student. I don’t hold a license anywhere. My law review Note hasn’t been published yet (but will be soon!). The extent of my legal experience derives from a few very meaningful, wonderful externships in various practice areas, including consumer protection. Jesse’s email to me is a big fat UDAP. I’m tempted to pass it along to some folks I know.
I don’t know where all of these email addresses were sourced from, and I don’t care. So – if you ego is blinding your ability to connect the dots…no one nominated you. You are being played. You are being pitched an overpriced plaque that you have to pay for EACH YEAR! Still don’t believe me…come talk to Zippy, she can set you straight.
Part II: The Marketing Lesson
If you want more than a rant out of this post, here’s your opportunity:
I’m going to use this example to show how NOT all traffic is equal. In general, I get annoyed with lawyers focused on ranking reports (a useless metric for determining how well your site is performing). Instead we prefer to look at actual traffic. BUT…and this is a big BUT…not all traffic is created equal. You can see here that despite the massive influx of traffic to our site, we received just one single inquiry from the article – meaning just 0.035% of readers were interested in inquiring about hiring us.
It’s going to take a lot of readers to build a business on that performance. In contrast, our typical contact rate is 0.5%. So clearly not all traffic is created equal. BUT – and here’s the counterpoint to my argument – some high volume pages do eventually generate an inquiry. Note #3 in the matrix above: our typically most read article is a post about setting up a google email account. The vast vast majority of readers who read this aren’t lawyers; they aren’t looking for marketing assistance; and almost none of them are lawyers looking for marketing assistance. BUT…we did get one inquiry from that post yesterday. So…in summary, not all traffic is created equal; however, enough volume can eventually generate business.
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).
Back in October of last year, Mockingbird received another Cease and Desist Demand – this time from Jesse Brodsky at Lawyer’s of Distinction. Turns out he was miffed at our post “When the Top 10% Means Nothing” which exposed his company, Lawyers of Distinction’s Top 10% Award as a charlatan scam. In short, Jesse makes his living peddling overpriced plaques to naive or egotistical lawyers.
I’ve posted a full transcript of Brodsky’s C&D letter, but here are some of the true gems amidst his defamation claims:
Your article is actionable and we will be initiating lawsuits against the author individually, as well as Mockingbird Marketing if this post is not immediately removed from the internet.
Among Jesse’s major concerns:
you refer to our offices as being in a strip shopping center, when in fact we have a corporate office in a traditional office building.
I’m not certain exactly how I was supposed to remove content from the Internet – apparently Jesse doesn’t really know how that Internet works. But, because Jesse threatened not only me, but also the author directly (Kelsey – one of our best people at Mockingbird) – I enlisted the counsel of renowned Ethics Counsel Brian Tannebaum*, to allay Kelsey’s concerns over being personally targeted by an overzealous lawyer. Brian’s reply to her:
if I were you, the thing I’d be worried about right now is what you are going to eat for breakfast. After that I’d start concerning myself with lunch and then plans for the weekend. I’d put worrying about what you wrote right below whether you are soon to run out of toothpaste.
Naturally, I told Brodsky to go stick his head in the sand.
Jesse – So nice to finally put a name to your distinguished company. Congratulations on the new office space – if you could kindly forward me the dates of your office upgrade, I’d be most appreciative. Finally, our post will stand. As you may suspect, it is almost impossible to remove a post from the Internet, regardless of pugnacious lawyers.
Good luck with your future endeavors. I trust you won’t need to reach out to me again.
Like a true bully, Brodsky backed down, never coming good on his litigation threats. To be fair, I was admittedly hoping my snark would inspire a lawsuit so we could further introduce Jesse to the practical practice of law and Florida’s anti-SLAPP legislation, but he didn’t bite. I thought we’d dig just a little deeper into Lawyers of Distinction. First their vetting process, which their Eligibility page describes as the following:
Independent Research to Identify Potential Candidates – Verdicts, Settlements, Experience, Reputation, Honors, Awards, Special Licenses, Bar Certifications, Professional Activities, Community Service, Pro Bono, Scholarly Writings, Lectures, Educational Background, Public Service, Other Outstanding Achievements
Nominations & Invitations – Candidates are identified either by nomination or by the Lawyers of Distinction organization directly. Nominations are accepted from members of Lawyers of Distinction, fellow attorneys, and current or former clients.
Review Application & Background Check – Lawyers of Distinction conducts independent research and background checks to ensure all potential candidates meet LOD standards. The attorney must have no ethical violations within the past five years.
Confirmation of Membership – All attorneys who meet the criteria of our screening process have demonstrated a high degree of peer recognition and professional competence, placing them in the top 10% of all attorneys in the United States.
They also claim in their footer that:
Lawyers of Distinction members have been selected based upon a review and vetting process by our Selection Committee… These potential candidates who meet the criteria of our screening process have demonstrated a high degree of peer recognition and professional competence, placing them in the top 10% of all attorneys in the United States. Attorneys may nominate other peers they feel warrant recognition or may nominate themselves. These candidates undergo the same rigorous review process.
So I thought I’d evaluate the vetting process, applying to Lawyers of Distinction membership, on behalf of my kid’s pet chicken, Zippy. Surely their “rigorous review process” would disqualify a 3 1/2 month old Golden Wyandotte? (Ignoring for the moment that lawyers can self-nominate, which must be the epitome of egotistical self-supplication.)
First, I fired up an email address for Zippy through Yahoo and then impersonated retired comedian, Jon Stewart (no email address needed) to nominate Zippy:
I thought the Jon Stewart reference might be a red flag for Lawyers of Distinction, but a few days later, Zippy’s Yahoo account got mail announcing her nomination and inviting her to take the next step…..
The key to this email is this sentence: “upon completion of your application you’ll have access….” So, all Zippy needs to get the plaque is a completed application and $775? Seriously?
Surely they wanted to know more information about Zippy. What about the background checks? Independent Research? and Zippys scholarly writings? Verdicts… Settlements…. Bar Certifications? Surely that would follow in the next phase of the process; at a minimum, LOD would want to know what state Zippy was licensed in? a bar number? or a release to perform the background check? Some of her awards? Some bio information? But alas, the application required nothing more than a name, address and a domain (although, I felt certainly someone would at the very least check out www.deshickeenlaw.com, find out it was not operational and then reject Zippy’s application…)
Apparently no one at LOD bothered to review Zippy’s non-existent website, www.DeShickeenLaw.com before shepherding me to the payment screen. In the next step, LOD was very happy to order up a plaque for a 3 month old hen, placing her in Top 10% Among Lawyers.
And the most insidious part of this is the literal fine print, the part that says, “The membership shall renew annually unless Lawyers of Distinction is notified of non-renewal.” So every year, Zippy’s credit card is going to get pinged for another $775. That’s a pretty good revenue stream. In summation, after impersonating a comedian, nominating a chicken and submitting nothing more than a non-existent website, I can purchase an annual subscription for a plaque for a tidy sum, for a hen who is still too young to even lay an egg.”
Dogs Among the Top 10% of Lawyers
Now, while I couldn’t bring myself to send Jesse $775 via credit card, apparently, not one, but two different canines footed the bill and have made it through Lawyers of Distinction’s rigorous vetting process. Meet, Shasharoosticus a Lawyer of Distinction (My Dog is Better Than Your Lawyer) and canine to (real) attorney Andrew Tolchin and wait till you hear teacup poodle, Lucy’s acceptance speech.
Brodsky and Baker….
I wanted to know more about Jesse… who is this guy duping lawyers into these overpriced lacquered boards? Turns out Jesse Brodsky sent us our C&D just 4 months after being admitted to the Florida State Bar….
Now, Lawyers of Distinction has really upped their marketing since Brodsky has come on board. Recently I’ve started seeing them more frequently, advertising in legal rags, Twitter and prolifically on Facebook. And they’ve been around since before Brodsky’s first year of law school. I had thought perhaps this was the entrepreneurial endeavor of a feckless law student – as I was unable to find anyone else associated with the company. So I looked up Lawyers of Distinction in the Florida Business Directory to uncover, the long term owner, attorney Robert B. Baker of Baker and Zimmerman, who registered the business back in 2009. Ironically, the Baker and Zimmerman site is devoid of any mention of Lawyers of Distinction – in fact neither Baker nor Zimmerman is a recipient. According to Avvo, Baker has been suspended in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York and was reprimanded by the Florida Bar. I’m pretty sure if this makes him decidedly under qualified to vet the Top 10% of Lawyers.
The First Amendment and Bogus Awards
All of this brings about serious first amendment issues. During my time at Avvo, we ran into challenges of our right to publish the Avvo Rating and ended up working with Bruce Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine, the country’s foremost expert on the intersection of the 1st amendment and the Internet. I’ve invited Bruce to join us next week for a webinar called Blogging and the First Amendment. We plan to discuss the legal framework for publishing online content as it pertains to the First Amendment, including the right of Lawyers of Distinction to publish the clearly bogus awards as well as our right to call them to the carpet for doing so. I’d invite you to join us, January 9th at 1:30 Pacific time.
And if you’d like a running log of lawyers duped into this service, try the Lawyers of Distinction Twitter Feed. But you won’t find Zippy on there… she’s too smart.
*Brian Tannebaum is not a lawyer of distinction. The only plaques he displays are of his prodigious high end wine collection, and then, only upon specific request.