Google'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.