Law Firm Sues Their SEO Company For Using Spammy Tactics

May 27, 2014 • 9:04 am | comments (39) by twitter Google+ | Filed Under Legal Issues in Search

google link jailGoogle's Matt Cutts posted on Twitter a link to Eric Goldman (a guy who knows his legal SEO stuff) story about how a law firm sued their SEO company. Not necessarily for not achieving the rankings they wanted but rather for violating Google's webmaster guidelines and/or using spammy techniques.

Matt Cutts of Google called the claims "interesting." Indeed. You often here of people suing SEO firms for not getting what they paid for but not for violation of Google's guidelines. The court document reads, in part:

The action is based on the fact that, at the time that the Defendants were promoting this marketing scheme to the Victim Firms, they knew that the techniques they proposed to use were in violation of the guidelines already well-established and published by Google; knew that Google was moving rapidly to crack down on violators; knew that use of these techniques would not only fail to enhance the likelihood that the Victim Firms would rise in Google’s rankings but would actually be downgraded to the point where the websites being used by the Victim Firms would become “contaminated” for search engine purposes; knew that they intended to use automated programs rather than direct personal effort to create the appearance that links to the Victim Firms webpages (the key to rising in search engine rankings) were being generated in the numbers represented; and knew that they intended to cloak their schemes in allegations of “trade secrets” to avoid the balance of the scheme from coming to light.

Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land asks some interesting what-ifs:

(1) Will SEO firms that go outside the bounds of established “white hat” SEO practice be automatically vulnerable to liability?

(2) Will the court limit liability in cases where the plaintiff has not done any “due diligence” on the SEO practitioner? In other words, what burden does a buyer of SEO services have to investigate the SEO firm? (Probably none.)

(3) What damages might be assessed in situations where a ranking penalty has occurred? (e.g., fees paid, lost revenue?)

(4) What might be recoverable when there is no Google ranking penalty?

Lesson for SEO firms working with law firms - be incredibly careful or just don't do SEO work for lawyers. :)

Also, if the law firm does win in court for violating Google's guidelines, I assume that will give Google's guidelines a bit more clout and make them not just guidelines but maybe even "the law" in some sense. Which can be very scary.

Forum discussion at Twitter.

Previous story: eBay Slapped By Google: But Was It Algorithmic Or Manual?


Gyi Tsakalakis

05/27/2014 01:21 pm

I don't know anything about the specific facts of this particular situation, but suing for violations of webmaster guidelines is a slippery slope. In particular: "knew that use of these techniques would not only fail to enhance the likelihood that the Victim Firms would rise in Google’s rankings but would actually be downgraded to the point where the websites being used by the Victim Firms would become “contaminated” for search engine purposes." While there are definitely some "tactics" most would agree are more likely to "downgraded rankings," there are plenty of examples of these very same tactics "working." It's hard to know what the firm knew about what was going on. Professor Goldman puts it well: "I also think there’s a general practice pointer here for advertisers when outsourcing marketing functions to third party services (not just SEO). If, at the time of contracting, the advertiser doesn’t clearly understand exactly what the marketing firm is going to do to build demand for the advertiser’s offerings, the odds are high that the advertiser won’t be happy when it learns the details of what’s taking place under the hood. We’re not sure yet what the advertiser understood or not about the SEO’s services, but the case still provides a good cautionary tale for any future buyers of SEO services that sound too good to be true."


05/27/2014 01:47 pm

If you're hiring an SEO firm to achieve links in an attempt to manipulate the algorithm in your favour then that alone is against Google's guidelines - regardless of whether the links were automated or not.

Mike Tilma

05/27/2014 02:12 pm

I've never worked for an agency (always in-house marketing staff), but it seems like it would be pretty standard to have a contract signed at the beginning of all this work that limits a legitimate SEO firm's liability and also ensures to the client that they'll adhere to certain best practices. Now, if they just hired an SEO firm and didn't do the due diligence, that's on them. I've always done that when I've worked with an outside agency. That's part of hiring outside labor.

Jonathan Morales

05/27/2014 02:28 pm

I agree with you and Mike. A Contract to cover your own services/liability as a SEO practitioner is important.

Ben Guest

05/27/2014 03:04 pm

It's going to be funny when they find out it was the lawyer down the street that hired a spammer.


05/27/2014 03:40 pm

SEOs finally found their match in lawyers who could dismantle their mumbo-jumbo disclaimers and contracts.

Ben Guest

05/27/2014 04:11 pm

I ain't skerd dawg.


05/27/2014 04:18 pm

I have had 2 lawyers for clients... always a 6 month contract, and one bailed after the 3rd month because i ranked him too quick. should i sue him for breach of contract? i want the 900 he owes me lol


05/27/2014 05:27 pm

This legal battle is so damn overdue.

Mark Warner

05/27/2014 05:35 pm

No point in arguing unless you can read the contract.


05/27/2014 06:47 pm

In today's digital marketing environment you be hard pressed to get me to work for a lawyer. First, most tend to be ego driven and do nothing but harp on rankings. Never mind that the phone is ringing 200% more than it was. They want links and rankings for vanity terms. And to top it off, they are litigious by nature! They are very simply, 8 years behind the curve, hence the profile photo of them in front of a bookcase of legal books.


05/27/2014 07:11 pm

You can still work with lawyers. You just have to do it in a formal and professional way. I have a liability waiver in the agreement and I have them initial by each SEO method I use and I manage the expectations very carefully as I do with all my clients... Talking with clients is one of the best ways of growing the business. They refer colleagues or want services for other websites they run. If you do it right then the phone ringing is a good thing.

Warren Whitlock

05/27/2014 08:26 pm

Pretty tough to show harm or that SEO was contracted to follow Googles rules. But I sure wouldn't want to be in court defend this :)


05/28/2014 07:34 am

Absolutely agree with your point. Lawyers are a breed apart and one has to be firm and professional with them. If you can't be forget working with them.


05/28/2014 08:24 am

'mumbo-jumbo disclaimers and contracts' - this is so true. I recently HAD to read through an SEO contract.. some of the disclaimers / fine-print in the SEOs contracts is so well thought out, they basically protect themselves in a way that they DONT actually have to lift a finger or post a link in these 6 months but the client is still obligated to pay... #learnthehardway


05/28/2014 08:25 am

Are you saying that SEO companies are manipulating the algorithm ? #never

Kristina Roy

05/28/2014 08:55 am

The moment will be very interesting when Judge will read Google's webmaster guidelines to take decision. Are Google's webmaster guidelines going to be new international law?


05/28/2014 11:18 am

So scary to be true -,,,-

Michael Moesch

05/28/2014 11:37 am

We need an seo Angie's List

Patti Paz

05/28/2014 11:53 am

So, now we have ambulance chasing law firms suing ambulance chasing seo companies. Let them devour each other!

Luana Spinetti

05/28/2014 01:02 pm

Sue for bad service, not because the folks you hired didn't follow Google's guidelines. They're not 'the law'! This why it's important to be clear about things BEFORE you start the work. If your SEO - like mine - is NOT about Google, then write it in big - not fine - print.

James Hall

05/28/2014 01:29 pm

The very fact that the "Law Firm" hired an SEO company to "improve their ranking" is a violation of Google's Terms if that service isn't adding new [human readable] content, or fixing/optimizing website code. I would *love* to see the SEO company counter sue. I'm sure the "Law Firm" has a local rival that would be interested in representing them ...

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 02:23 pm

That's a serious traffic source NOT to consider. Would love to know what this SEO feeds you. I assume they gave up?

Luana Spinetti

05/28/2014 02:30 pm

By 'SEO' I meant the optimization practices, not the person doing it. If a client wants SEO services from me, I'm very clear about what I give them, what it might mean for their Google presence and whether they're going to accept it. If they don't, we simply don't work together. They can still hire me for other marketing work with no SEO involved. What I do to get some traffic from Google for my own websites is optimize a Twitter or Facebook page and then use it as a tunnel to get Google visitors to my website. This is the only safe method that works for me without ending up as 'slave' of Google's guidelines

Yo Mamma

05/28/2014 04:12 pm

Drowning the SEO company in legal paperwork is the tactic. But the SEO company has a defense: The rules Google provided were never enforced. Google only chose to enforce certain rules recently. Having a law or rule without enforcement is like it doesn't exist. Do some searching for ridiculous American laws going back 200 years or just read the paper how an Islamic country stoned a woman of a different religion, all based on laws 3000 years old.


05/28/2014 04:19 pm

i think they must to go against google, not that small seo company. it google creates all these problems and their search results is complete adwords-ad-driven crap. Google popularity based on their old excellent search engine (pre-2012). Now they just trying to get from it all money they can. No any quality (even low) in google anymore, only huge problems for all internet community.

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 05:07 pm

I don't know. Build a platform as strong as Googles, have people manipulate the heck out of it creating poor service for your users then come back and talk to me. Therefore, I wouldn't consider it as being a 'slave' to the guidelines. If you are truly white hat, you don't need to read any stinking guidelines IMHO. But as soon as you start gaming, watch out. I've told people for years to stop Guest blogging for instance because it was a form of manipulation. Not too many listened. And my apologies for misunderstanding your original statement. We also need more like you with transparency into what is happening behind closed doors. Have a great day!

Luana Spinetti

05/28/2014 05:42 pm

Guess it's a matter of viewpoint, Ben. Take link exchanges, for example -- they weren't born as a way to manipulate search engines; I know because I did them in the past and still do them these days, and the reason is simple: they're similar to swapping phone numbers. They're social in nature. I don't have to justify everything I do in the eyes of Google. If Google doesn't like my site and wants to remove it from their index, they're free to do so -- without needing to use words like 'spammer' and 'unethical', because Google has nothing to do with morality. Google is a company and every company has certain business practices. Period. The BIG problem is with many people who turned Google's guidelines into a cult and force others to follow suit. That's where 'slavery' begins. As for guest blogging -- I do it and love it. Because it's essentially journalism. On the contrary, guest blogging for SEO purposes, unless it carries a journalist take, is of no value -- users don't care about your keywords, they want something of value they can use in their life, job and hobby. I have written a couple of guest posts for an SEO client in the past, but for those posts, I interviewed my client and went deep into the technology their product was based upon. It looked more like a simple white paper than an SEO post. In fact, what they earned was brand recognition more than a simple link. I offer marketing (with SEO) services, but I'm essentially a freelance writer and an artist, so I what I try to offer my clients is the best from all three worlds. :) And it's alright. Misunderstandings happen. :) - Luana S.

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 07:51 pm

Remember in school when some idiot would do something to ruin it for the rest of the class. That's exactly what goes on here. You are absolutely right. Exchanges and guest blogging are great until some idiot ruined it. Take MyGuestBlog for instance. Great network then spammers ruined it. Could have protected itself but as you say, they didn't want to become a 'slave' to Google guidelines and ignored the 'nofollow' recommendation. Facebook didn't. Twitter didn't. Majority have all implemented 'nofollow'. You have to follow before you can lead. So a 'slave' I am I guess. ;-)

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 08:03 pm

Check this out. Even Rand at Moz was asking Cutts about 'nofollow' and in response Rand even said he wanted to make sure they're doing it right: It's like, are you really going to bite the hand that feeds you or simply follow their guidelines because they're in place to protect a service? One bad apple always ruins the bunch.

Luana Spinetti

05/28/2014 08:13 pm

Turns out that if it works for you and you're happy with following Google's guidelines, then you're doing it right. :) You would just do it wrong if you were to bully other people because they don't do the same. I'm a fan of MyBlogGuest and a current member, too. Those folks are great to network with. Needless to say I totally love their approach. ^^ If one of my clients wants me to use nofollow on all links, I'll do that. It's the client's choice, I respect that. But if they're like me and don't care about Google's opinion on the matter, they've got a friend in me. ;) (Yes, I'm a Toy Story fan.) - Luana S.

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 09:27 pm

Yeah, I don't want to upset the teacher. ;-) It's the same with FB as they too have guidelines that could get your FB page suspended or removed. You want to stay on these platforms you have to follow their rules. It is what it is. Nice discussion Laura and happy it didn't turn into an argument. I respect your thoughts as I hope you do mine. Toy Story 3 was a tear jerker for me. Shhhhhh... Lol

Luana Spinetti

05/28/2014 09:44 pm

So many call me Laura, but it's Luana. ;) Yes, FB has more guidelines now than it had before. Hope it doesn't reach the point you have to watch every single word or picture you post, but I know what to do if that day comes. :) Heh. I understand having rules. I also have rules on my own forums for members to stay and keep a respectful behavior. But I don't make my rules into a matter of morality or cult. They're just what I think is best for my service to run risk-free. It's more of a matter of approach. I loved the discussion, Ben! Can't see a reason to be disrespectful. :) I wish I would talk to people like you every day. Ah, Toy Story 3... felt so bitter yet sweet at the end. But loved it and I watch it again and again every time I can. :) - Luana S.

Ben Guest

05/28/2014 10:03 pm

Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't catch the continuing line after the curve in the "n". LOL Take care LuaNa!

Robert Fisher

05/29/2014 04:32 pm

It would be interesting to have been in the room during times there were conversation re ranking. We have had so many clients come in asking the same thing over and over: "Can you get us ranked on page one or first on Google?" We always say, No. But, those same clients end up having brow beaten some other SEO - usually a one or two person shop trying their best to make a living - into doing "whatever it takes" to get them FIRST! We are big enough we can say No and smile while we do it and I am grateful for that. But very often it is the client pushing the buttons. I will say, that in dealing with attorneys, many have no clue as to SEO or anything in marketing. So, if they did not know and the company approached them with a "scheme" or "method" that would help them and they did so in writing, they are likely better served to consider bankruptcy and reopen with a new name.


05/30/2014 05:14 pm

TOS implies a contract. I wonder what enforceable contract it was that the SEO firm or the law firm signed with Google that created a liability? Was there an agreement to legally regulate a person's behavior on the Internet? Does Google now enjoy a legal scope of authority over use of websites owned by its users or even by third parties? Does enforcement extend beyond suspension or termination of an account provided by Google? If so, then are we seeing the rise of another branch of government? The rule of law is not, as far as I know, established or enforced by Google so the law firm may want to disambiguate their argument if this is anything more than a PR stunt.

Seo Hyperdrive

06/05/2014 06:19 pm

Black hat seo decrease the quality of seo and also create problems to client.


07/27/2014 09:16 am

Robert, if you cant rank your client first page in Google, what are you for then? 92% dont go over 1st page, as you probably know that...


07/27/2014 09:19 am


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