Last week, a Michigan business litigation law firm, Seikaly and Stewart, filed a RICO lawsuit against legal web marketing providers The Rainmaker Institute, headed by Stephen Fairley, for providing a “bogus marketing plan” while helping the law firm with their Internet marketing efforts. The lawsuit claims that Rainmaker used methods that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines in an attempt to obtain higher search engine rankings, and they are now attempting to recover the $49,000 that was paid to Rainmaker, plus damages.
For the record- I don’t know Stephen personally, but I do know that he has worked with a number of law firms in the past, and his name pops up regularly on guest posts for Avvo’s blog, Above The Law, and a few other legal marketing blogs and websites that I monitor. I see his company marketing their services regularly on social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, and I also recognize his website and blog from Google search results.
The lawsuit was reported by Couthouse News on Friday and many have chimed in with their opinions, with the majority of them being geared towards the “SEO is snake oil” standpoint. One blog post in particular takes a pretty harsh stance towards legal web marketers as a whole, with quotes such as:
Everybody and their brother tries to play the SEO game, search engine optimization, which explains the tens of thousands of spam backlink comments, the “guest post” scam and pingbacks that deluge anyone whose blog or website has any potential to lend them some Google cred. But Seikaly & Stewart paid Fairley $49,000 for what a bunch of starving kids in Bangalore would do for $7.95 and a box of corn flakes? Sheesh, that’s humiliating.
Don’t blame Fairley for being a particularly successful member of a particularly disgraceful industry. He sold you a bill of goods. That’s what marketeers do. Didn’t you realize that when you put your reputation, your ethics, your livelihood and your cash into the hands of schemers, you’re going to get burned?
and so on.
I’ve been in the legal web marketing field for a few years now, and have been a full-time SEO consultant for even longer. I learned early in my career that initiating public battles is bad for business, and I think that setting the correct expectations is vital to any business relationship, so let me be clear- the goal of this blog post isn’t to call out the author of the blog post, Scott H. Greenfield, a respected criminal defense attorney in New York who has a perfect Avvo rating, is AV Rated, and obviously has no problem making his opinion known publicly.
But when a lawyer who has an influential blog writes a blog post saying that a bunch of starving kids in Bangalore could do my job for $7.95 and a box of corn flakes, insinuates that every person involved in the SEO industry is a scammer, completely writes off years of hard work, and states that you could learn everything that I know by spending 10 minutes reading a few blogs (including his), I’m probably going to take a little bit of offense to this.
Fact: Mr. Greenfield is a respected attorney, and with that comes quite a bit of power and influence.
Fact: Mr. Greenfield appears to have plenty of time to blog, has gained a number of readers and influence over the years, and is in a position to weigh in on this type of thing from a political standpoint. He created a stir with his blog post, which is the same exact thing that Seikaly and Stewart did when filing the RICO lawsuit against Fairley and Rainmaker Institute.
I’m in no way defending Fairley, nor am I completely disagreeing with Mr. Greenfield.
Fact: There are plenty of people out there who know that lawyers tend to be very trigger-happy when it comes to writing someone a big check if it means that they are written even bigger checks as a result of that person or company’s promises.
Fact: A lot of these people tend to make false promises, end up under-delivering, or just bit off more than they could chew to get the sale.
The false promises that are made might be a result of:
- That person or company not having enough experience to successfully launch and maintain an SEO campaign.
- That person or company taking on too many projects and ending up completely overwhelmed with the workload that comes along with maintaining multiple law firms’ web marketing and SEO efforts.
- That person or company spending too much time marketing and promoting their own services, and not spending enough time on client work and less profitable tasks that would actually benefit the client.
- The fact that Google has launched 2 updates (in particular) in the past year and a half that has everyone trying to understand what it actually takes for a law firm to rank well on Google for a number of search terms.
I’m not in a position to defend Stephen Fairley, because I don’t know what his company promised to do in exchange for $49,000. But here are a few more facts that I’ve learned throughout the years:
Fact: Some lawyers can tend to be impatient, unsympathetic, and forgetful, especially when it involves them losing out on new business and more money.
If this lawsuit was filed as a result of Google launching their Penguin 2.0 update in late-May of this year and their website being penalized, then even if it was penalized as a result of something that Rainmaker did for them, filing a lawsuit against them less than 3 months after the update was launched, in my opinion, meant that either: a) The Rainmaker Institute didn’t possess the necessary expertise or information to set the correct expectations of what it would take to recover from the penalty and how long it might take (which not many do, since Penguin 2.0 is brand new and not many recovery success stories have been reported/shared), or b) that the law firm was completely unreasonable and impatient, decided to label his company’s services as “bogus”, and are trying to hold them accountable for Google’s sudden and severe updates that have negatively affected small business owners throughout the country.
You could learn how to recover from a Google Penguin 2.0 penalty after spending 10 minutes reading a few blogs, right? Actually, since you could learn how to get on page one in 10 minutes, it would probably only take you 5 minutes to learn how to recover from a simple Google penalty. I mean, the first Penguin penalty only affected a few people. There were so many who were able to recover from the first penalty that you would assume that, just like Google says, all you need to do is (spend hours on end tracking down and e-mailing webmasters asking them to) remove some of those “spammy links”, and if you can’t contact any of those webmasters, just use their disavow tool, wait an unspecified amount of time (disavowing unspecified types of links, some of which could have been built by competitors who are trying to perform negative SEO- yes, a real thing- or links built by website scrapers which create links to your website without you knowing, meaning you also have to spend a few of those 10 minutes monitoring and disavowing your inbound links every week/month), and WHOO-LA! Small business SEO in ten minutes or less, brought to you by the informed and rational attorney who knows everything involved with handling an SEO campaign for a small business which not only has to put up with the organic side of Google which has already launched at least 9 major updates this year alone, but also has to deal with the forever-changing phenomenon that is Google Local… I mean, Google Places… wait, no, now its called Google+ Local, sorry about that. So maybe spend 3 minutes reading about how to improve a law firm’s Google+ Local rankings, and then you have 7 minutes to sit around reading blogs and calling yourself an SEO expert for small businesses and law firms… assuming you actually have a law firm website.
Again, I’m not defending Fairley or The Rainmaker Institute, nor am I saying that Mr Greenfield doesn’t have a point. There are many people out there looking to prey on attorneys who tend to be less tech-savvy, and there are plenty of lawyers willing to write a big check in exchange for more business. That’s what makes the legal field THE most competitive industry on the web. But I find it hard to believe that we spend hours on end stressing over things like our clients’ website load times, internal link structure, XML, HTML, KML sitemaps, Geositemaps, on-page optimization, schema.org markups, Google+ Local profile optimization, claiming and updating citation sources which are vital to a law firm’s local rankings, building links and citation sources, content optimization, plugin updates, CMS upgrades, identifying and correcting crawl errors, implementing 301 redirects, anchor text diversification, obtaining relevant and authoritative inbound links, calls to action (sidebar contact vs contact form vs free reports…oh wait, they have 6 free reports, and we need landing pages for each, and each needs their own custom form so that the information goes into the appropriate follow-up campaign), how their website is coded so that only content relevant to the practice area that the visitor is interested in is presented, making sure their Avvo, Superlawyer, and AV Rating profiles are optimized and completed, hosting issues, website crashes, Adwords and other PPC efforts, social media presence, video implementation, custom video hosting, video syndication, press release syndication, mobile versions of their websites, heatmaps, Google Analytics, checking clients’ website traffic at 10:00pm in the middle of dinner from my iPhone, regularly scheduled search engine ranking reports, receiving e-mails from our uptime monitoring service informing me of a website crash, live chat implementation, client reporting, and training new employees on how to do everything listed above and more. Good thing I stocked up on corn flakes.
According to an advanced Majestic SEO report that we ran (I wish we only paid them $7.95/month), Seikaly and Stewart has 197 total backlinks. 165 of them are from another website of theirs (by the way if you spent any of that 10 minutes reading about sitewide links, it might have told you that they are frowned upon recently by Google so that may be causing some problems), 7 are from Avvo, 3 are from Yahoo!, 3 are from digitaljournal.com, and the rest appear to be legit, so I guess that doesn’t actually “explain the tens of thousands of spam backlink comments, the “guest post” scam and pingbacks that deluge anyone whose blog or website has any potential to lend them some Google cred”.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t blackhat SEO’ers out there who use software programs designed to spam blogs and automatically leave crap comments on them. I’ve never used these types of programs, and I’m not naive enough to say that other legal SEO providers don’t use these questionable types of tactics in an attempt to automate their link building efforts to save time (and cereal), but this brings me to my main point and conclusion.
Google is changing their algorithm regularly, and what worked 2 years ago may not work now. Article marketing was huge 2-3 years ago, but these days, a link from Ezine Articles is more likely to hurt you because black-hat SEO’ers were spinning multiple versions of an article and distributing them to multiple resources. This can be a bit confusing when every SEO “expert” and their brother says that “guest posting” and “content marketing” is the key to better search rankings, “but be careful about which website you submit your content to, and be careful about which anchor text you use”. It doesn’t help The Rainmaker Institute, Seikaly and Stewart, our clients, or any other small business who used white-hat methods for years which made a positive difference in their website’s search engine rankings, and then 2 years later Google pulls a 180 and those methods now result in a penalty. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines aren’t specific enough when it comes to which backlinks are acceptable and which are not, and it’s now to the point where people are asking if it’s safe to launch a simple press release.
Yes, there are those spammers who Mr. Greenfeld mentioned in his blog post that tried to get over on the system and ruined it for the rest of us. But that doesn’t make it fair to stereotype every legal marketer as a snake oil salesman looking to sell a bill of goods. I won’t assume that Rainmaker Institute is guilty of selling a “bogus marketing plan”, nor will I assume that Seikaly and Stewart were guilty of not blogging enough, or of losing their patience, becoming frustrated after being penalized, and blaming their provider for Google’s bi-polar behavior. What I will assume is that Google’s stranglehold on the search engine market-share, combined with their inability to effectively communicate to webmasters and constantly changing products and algorithms, will result in someone holding them responsible, versus us fighting amongst ourselves.