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Law firms must carry out extra pre-contractual due diligence, introduce tighter agreement liability clauses and undertake regular reviews of active contracts when outsourcing web marketing such as search engine optimisation (“SEO”) to third parties.

That is the key message to COLPs looking to avoid the risk of being de-listed by Google and other search engines (sometimes referred to as ‘website wipe-out’).

Irwin Mitchell de-listed

The issue is caused by digital agencies using inappropriate “black label” SEO techniques on their behalf to increase website ranking. It follows the recent allegation that Google removed Irwin Mitchell’s domain names from search results as a penalty for the law firm hyperlinking to its own websites via numerous blogs and forum posts.

The demotion of Irwin Mitchell’s website came to light last week when internet marketing agent Matt Weeks tweeted SEO expert David Naylor with the message “Did Google just wipe out UK law firm Irwin Mitchell with a link penalty?”

SEO experts quickly realised that not only had the website www.IrwinMitchell.com lost its branded rankings but the site’s keyword terms had disappeared too.

The situation is likely to have had a significant negative effect on the firm’s web traffic, conversion rate and online credibility.

For a firm of Irwin Mitchell’s size this may not be disastrous; digital marketing is but a part of its multi-channel marketing strategy.  But for a firm that relies on SEO to drive new instructions the situation could be much more critical.

What is SEO?

SEO is a set of techniques that help websites to improve their search engine result ranking. SEO is an essential tool to keep websites competitive and page rankings high. Whilst “white label” SEO uses ethical methods and techniques to achieve this goal, “black label” SEO does not. Here, it is common to stuff website content with keywords or meta tags in order to increase keyword density and push up rankings. Using keywords of up to nine or ten percent of page content is deemed unethical.

Since 2012 Google’s new algorithm (called “Penguin”) has aimed to stamp out these SEO black label techniques.  This done in order to help stem the tide of digital agencies companies using black label SEO which damages Google’s online advertising business model.

Fact is, Google can afford to ban organisations from appearing in its search results.  The company’s business model is based upon online advertising matched to relevant search results tailored to the individual user.

Yet the incident has also fired up the recurring debate about online governance and who actually controls the internet. For whilst liberalists, such as founding father of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee would argue that no one person, company, organisation or government should ever dominate the internet, others take a more circumspect, commercial view.

Arguments about the problems of a monopolistic search giant aside, given that Google dominates global search traffic, COLPs would do well to familiarise themselves with Google’s Adsense and Webmaster policies.

Practical tips

  • Only instruct reputable, preferably recommended, digital agencies
  • Ask your agency about their SEO tactics and make sure they will not fall foul of Google’s policies – get a second opinion if unsure
  • Insist on making this a term of your contractual arrangement
  • Review your agency’s tactics periodically as part of your overall risk management
  • Should your firm consider additional marketing channels rather than focusing purely on web search?

For an expert review of your marketing strategy, feel free to contact our marketing specialists Jo More and Johanna Morgan at Little Chicken Marketing

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