Link schemes place unnatural hyperlinks in web content to try to manipulate search engine rankings. These links can damage website credibility and result in penalties from search engines like Google, so it’s critical that attorneys and law firms know about the potential consequences of these black hat search engine optimization (SEO) methods.
Disturbingly, law firm websites can be involved in link schemes without the website owner ever knowing about them. Understanding the dangers of link schemes for lawyers and law firms, as well as how they can happen, is key to mitigating potential damage.
Link Schemes for Lawyers: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
You may be wondering, “What exactly are link schemes and how can they affect my law firm website?” A previous blog about why law firms should avoid black hat SEO addressed these questions, some technical details, and related ethical issues in legal digital marketing. This blog, the first in a series of two, is focused on the potential impacts of link schemes for lawyers and law firms and how the practice could impact your law firm website without your knowledge.
How Link Schemes Can Impact SEO Efforts
Link schemes are a black hat SEO technique prohibited by Google and other search engines. The goal of a link scheme is to increase a website’s credibility and ability to rank in search engine results by creating inbound links from other websites. But, unlike white hat SEO, link schemes employ links (connections) to other content that is misleading, irrelevant, unhelpful, or even inaccurate in a veiled attempt to demonstrate value and connection to other online content.
A website doesn’t gain authority—or credibility in search engine algorithms—as a result of links from other websites with low authority or high spam ratings. Moreover, ethical—or white hat—link building offers SEO and other benefits that stand the test of time.
Ethics Considerations of Link Schemes in the Legal Industry
In the legal industry, link schemes for lawyers can cause many problems and may even affect your law license if you are found to have violated the rules of professional conduct that your state upholds. Rule 8.4 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct defines professional misconduct and prohibits engaging in dishonest, fraudulent, deceitful, or misrepresentative conduct.
Other rules to keep in mind include Model Rule 1.1 and related comments regarding attorney competence; Model Rule 7.1, which defines false or misleading communication; and Model Rule 7.2, regarding ethics when communicating your services to potential clients.
Law Firm Website Link Schemes May Be in Place Without Your Knowledge
You are likely familiar with the term hacker—a word that is used to identify those who break into other computers, devices, or systems to damage or tamper with the victim’s resources. Hacking is one way law firm website link schemes could be implemented and impact you and your law firm without your knowledge. In addition to the potential hazards caused by unauthorized access to your website, there may also be a risk posed by unscrupulous service providers or their employees who have been granted access.
Your website could be hacked by an unauthorized party who gains access to your website builder by accessing the login credentials of an authorized user. While login attempts are captured in website platforms, if a hacker is successful in logging in as an administrator, he or she could add or change the properties and contents of the website without being easily traced. The hacker could embed links to other websites on your website. These links could be visible on page content (such as a hyperlink appearing in a different color or font) or hidden where they are invisible to website users.
Black Hat SEO and Link Schemes for Lawyers
Working with a marketing team that implements SEO on your website can improve your search rankings and online presence, but it is crucial to know what methods the marketing team uses. Black hat SEO tactics can create a multitude of problems, but the risks are more pronounced for attorneys. If your SEO provider or another third party is not transparent about the tactics they use or promises immediate results, these could be red flags that black hat SEO methods like link schemes are part of their toolkit.
Again, attorneys are held to higher ethical standards than the general population, but marketers who are not familiar with the legal industry may be unaware of this. Moreover, Model Rule 5.3 shares the ABA’s recommendation to impose on a lawyer a duty concerning nonlawyer assistance. In short, you may be held accountable for actions taken on your behalf by a third-party marketing provider.
There are also questionable SEO tactics that are not explicitly prohibited but still pose a threat. Called gray hat SEO, teams employing these methods are the double agents of the SEO world. They push the limits of Google’s guidelines in less obvious ways. If the tactics they use are deemed unethical or prohibited, the owner of the website—in this case, the attorney or law firm—may suffer the consequences.
TOPDOG Can Help Mitigate the Risks of Link Schemes for Lawyers
Identifying harmful links to or from your law firm website is critical to maintaining a successful online presence. Strategies and practices to mitigate the risks of link schemes for lawyers, as well as examples of how these links may appear on a website, are discussed in part two of this blog series. TOPDOG Legal Marketing LLC can also take the lead in evaluating and monitoring your law firm website for potentially harmful links. Contact us to get started by calling (844) HEY-T-DOG (439-8364) or completing our online contact form.