In the past two months (or so), we have seen instances of negative SEO being implemented in major markets by firms that our clients compete against. As we work through cleanup measures, I am left wondering if this is something that is becoming more widespread in the legal niche. Perhaps it is the fact that some of the (previously) visible firms in those areas took a hit from Google’s algorithm update a few months back, effectively wiping out campaigns they had thrown a good deal of money at. Did that lead to a sense of desperation and a need to fix it regardless of the means?
Surely, in light of the ethical implications inherent to any form of legal marketing (even SEO for law firms), it had to be desperation; right? That was the only logical explanation I could come up with – a sort-of scorched Earth desperation. Theoretically, no one familiar with attorney advertising rules in a state like New York would purposefully and proactively work to sabotage the marketing efforts of their competition unless they had everything to lose. These are lawyers, after all. Then I found myself thinking that none of that mattered. It had happened. Even worse, in one instance, it appeared to have been perpetrated by a firm that was still fairly visible. They didn’t even go about it in a way that seemed at all sophisticated. After all, negative SEO can be combated and it has to be executed in a very specific way to be effective. Perhaps we should consider our clients (note: most of the front page firms were targeted in these markets) being targeted for negative SEO as a form of flattery in that our clients are pulling away from the pack in competitive markets. All existentialism aside, it had happened.
The trend is concerning. It boils down to a larger question: Is negative SEO for the legal space here to stay? I was so curious that I did a bit of research. What I found was concerning. The TL;DR is that I would wager negative SEO for legal is here for the short term – and if you are competing in major national or regional markets and haven’t dealt with it yet, you probably will.
The Increasing Popularity of Negative SEO in the Legal Industry
At random, I took a look at law firms ranking for a competitive personal injury term in a major market and ran some backlink audits on them. It only took until the second firm I looked at, in the first search term I checked, that I noticed the footprint of negative SEO.
Here is what I saw (highlights pointed out in red):
This firm saw a significant spike in linking spam domains at the end of December. These spam domains originated from Russia, Spain and Colombia and all used the anchor text “testosterone replacement therapy”. Looking more deeply into the circumstances, it appears that the firm itself issued a press release touting a favorable result in a testosterone replacement medication lawsuit in September of October. They may have initially seen a boost in their visibility for searches related to terms related to plaintiff’s testosterone replacement litigation. In response, it appears that a third-party (there certainly is the possibility that the firm itself was not marketing properly) built a large volume of comment link spam on low-quality websites in foreign countries for the term “testosterone replacement therapy”. Over time, a large enough number of links was accumulated so that it eventually accounted for 40% of their overall link distribution. One can only wonder why a law firm would devote any effort to ranking for that term, even if they were involved in litigation related to the drug. But, if I had to guess, I would think they leapfrogged someone from an industry related to testosterone therapy (outside the legal field) and triggered a retaliation. It may have even been a reputation management campaign from a company involved in the litigation. If it was in fact negative SEO rather than incompetence, the strategy here was to trick Google into thinking that the target site was using spam techniques to rank themselves for that term.
While this is not a 100% clear-cut example, I included it because it was the second law firm’s backlink profile I looked at.
A Mini-Case Study
This got me thinking. I took a look at the fist page of results for one uniform personal injury term across 10 major U.S. markets. Here is what I found:
Out of a possible 68 results (discounting non-law firm directory sites such as Avvo, Findlaw, etc.) on the front page, I found that 12 law firm websites had likely been negative SEO’d in the last year. That’s 17.6%.
Now, that stat might seem alarming, but I should say that the results were skewed by three markets in which many of the law firms on the front page had been attacked. There were four markets where no law firms on the front page had been attacked. Further, it should be noted that all of these websites were still on the first page for their respective market.
A Primer in Negative SEO
You might be reading this not having any idea what I am talking about. In consideration of the breadth of this topic and sensitivity to a range of of technological sophistication for people reading this, I will keep this portion brief. If you know what I am talking about already, feel free to scroll down.
The term “negative SEO” refers to a practice in which a competitor impacts the internet footprint of your website by engaging in tactics that are likely to trigger a red flag in Google’s algorithm, and thus negatively impact your ranking or even cause Google to drop pages or your site entirely from its search index. It is a tactic that has been around for some time but has become much more popular in the last two years as Google has become more strict in it’s algorithmic effort to combat spam and as more people become aware of it, write about it, and test it out. Essentially, negative SEO has become mainstream.
Negative SEO works because Google has measures in place to penalize websites that engage in spammy SEO practices. They do this to:
- “Improve” search results
- Prevent low quality sites from ranking well
- Discourage and reduce the effectiveness of automated or easily repeatable SEO activities
- Bring down link networks, websites, and services that profit from these activities
- Penalize sites for low-quality content and duplicate content
- Promote participation in Adwords and activities that improve search results
The fact that Google is somewhat responsible for the popularity of negative SEO has been written about ad nauseum, when a ranking system is developed that offers both negative and positive feedback, in many instances, that feedback mechanism can be manipulated to suit the needs of the clever and less ethically-bound. Rewards systems hacks are not uncommon and can be applied to a broad-array of contexts even including the human brain. At the most basic level, these hacks involve applying the rules of the game in such a way that the incentives and deterrents (rewards and punishments) provided by the system achieves their own goal rather than Google’s or the system creator’s. In the case of negative SEO, the goal is to not only influence your own rankings, but also to have the ability to influence the rankings of your competitors through creative application of Google’s penalties.
The Ethical Implications in the Legal Industry
In fields where advertising is heavily regulated (like the legal profession), negative SEO is, simply put, probably not a good idea.
To begin with, you risk legal action from tech-savvy attorneys. One California-based organization comprised of attorneys, search experts, and consumers named the Circle of Legal Trust have “specially trained” (their words) member attorneys who claim to know how to seek out and even sue the offenders. If an attorney is able to identify the offending party depending on the techniques and how complicit the hiring attorney is, they may find themselves the target of a trademark or right to publicity suit or being reported to a state’s ethics board and responding to an ethics inquiry.
While declining to engage in negative SEO campaigns does not guarantee that your site will not be targeted, it is better than the alternatives. That is, participating in a negative SEO campaign makes you an immediate and unsympathetic target for retaliatory campaigns. The ease at which the techniques can be deployed makes an all-out escalation a lose-lose proposition. Furthermore, the more organizations that field questions about this tactic, the more likely it is that negative SEO becomes legitimatized in non-regulated industries. While legitimate efforts in internet marketing for law firms take significantly more time, the results are also longer-lasting and less likely to invite collateral damage.
Further, attorneys who may be tempted to utilize negative SEO techniques may want to consult their jurisdiction’s rule of professional conduct. New York attorneys in particular should be wary of New York Rules of Professional Conduct 7.1(g)(2) which prohibits the use of “meta tags or other hidden computer codes that, if displayed, would violate these Rules.” As per the Model Rules, all attorneys should be wary of producing advertisements that may contain false, deceptive or misleading statements. As this becomes more widespread, more state’s bar associates are likely to address the issue.
How Can You Tell if Your Law Firm Has Been Negative SEO’d?
The most typical Negative SEO attack involves sending waves of backlinks at a website from very low-quality websites. These backlinks are created in many different types of automated methods and typically start on a specific date. Typically, the people creating these spammy, automated links are hired on websites like Fiverr.com, although negative SEO agencies are starting to pop up. This tactic’s roadmap and effectiveness has been very well documented and recreating to it is very easy and quick. Here are the steps to find out if you are being negative SEO’d in this traditional sense:
1. Sign up for a backlink monitoring service that is more up-to-date than Google Webmaster Tools. There are many to choose from. For the sake of brevity, you can do the research on which service is best on your own. For the record, GWT is an important tool (more on that later) in terms of negative SEO backlinks, it just does not give you access to the most up-to-date information regarding links pointing to your site.
2. If your backlink monitoring service has a timeline of overall volume of backlinks and/or backlinking domains, check that first.
3. If you see something like this on your overall timeline of indexed backlinks:
i.e. an artificially large spike in the overall number of backlinks identified in a short or gradual amount of time, it is probably time to be concerned.
4. Even if you don’t see something like that, check your backlinks and/or referring domains for all time.
5. Open that list and look for foreign domains, spammy-sounding domains, or non-contextual (pornographic, other industries, etc.) domains
6. Evaluate those links/domains to see if they meet the criteria of a link that would trigger a red flag within Google’s algorithm. There are several services and software platforms that you can use to do this. If you would like recommendations, email me.
If you find these things and you did not do them yourself, you’ve been negative SEO’d using on of the easiest and least sophisticated tricks in the book.
Other Tactics to Look for:
The typical profile of a negative SEO attack is a small initial bump in rankings and traffic, followed by a precipitous decline once the over optimization and other penalties are applied. Negative SEO can take many forms, but can include:
- Waves of fake Google spam reports
- Poisoning a competitor’s backline profile with spam links (covered above)
- Spamming links using terms from bad online neighborhoods (both sites and geographies)
- Spam anchor links that lead to a significant change in a competitor’s backlink anchor-text distribution to favor a term that will negatively impacted once Google recognizes that it is “over optimized”
- Intentional plagiarizing of original content to trigger duplicate penalty
- Hacking a site to include Spam
- Fraudulent DMCA requests
- Google bowling
- Denial of Service (DoS) attacks by botnets (if Google sees your site down often, it will stop promoting it in the search results)
And this list only scratches the surface of potential negative SEO attacks. However Google has released a tool intended to help the problem with spam links.
Does it Work?
The short answer is sometimes.
It really depends on the sophistication of the attack and the response of the law firm being targeted. Sometimes, attacks actually end up helping the intended target. Each case must be judged on an individual basis. There are also techniques to squash these efforts quickly in order to negate any lingering effects.
As far as tracking down who perpetrated the attack, (although obviously not definitive) it wouldn’t take much to track down circumstantial evidence based on who was attacked in what overlapping markets and who wasn’t. That is where I would start my search. There are some more advanced techniques from there, but that is content for another post.
The Short Answer on What to Do
I’m running long, so I am going to split this into two posts. If you think you have been targeted, I invite you to give me a call. The first thing is always to determine if you were actually attacked. We often find that clients who come to us wondering why they haven’t done well in the past were actually just hurt by lazy or desperate link building techniques that would nowadays be considered negative SEO if done by a competitor. I would be personally happy to help you determine if you have been negative SEO’d. Beyond that, there is a large volume of information regarding Google’s Disavow Links tool. As explained by Google, the tool allows webmasters to request for Google to ignore certain undesired links to your site. However a site audit should be conducted before any action is taken or any requests are sent to Google. Also of particular note is the admission by Google’s own Matt Cutts that while negative SEO isn’t typically a problem for “regular mom and pop” businesses, it is an issue in “super competitive” niches.
I would argue that it’s becoming something that anyone in a competitive niche should keep an eye on. The silver lining here is that if your law firm is getting negative SEO’d, it must be doing something right that is causing the competition to get desperate.