It’s no secret: legal marketing isn’t pretty. Even those of us personal injury lawyers who try to keep our marketing clean, like Eric Turkewitz, hate our marketing copy. There’s no easy way to mix tastefulness, modesty, search engine optimization, and client conversion into one document.
Making matters worse, nobody would ever genuinely link to a sales page puffing up someone’s legal practice, so a lot of lawyers have resorted to shady search engine optimization tactics to game Google into ranking them first. Only 3% of legal work is influenced by legal directories? Maybe so, but those expensive directories will also give you targeted, topical, followed links from an old domain with a good linking profile, just perfect for SEO. Ask Findlaw, which sold links to lawyers without any real repercussions.
One of the hot new tactics these days involves setting up websites which look like charitable organizations — sometimes even using the organization’s name with some fine print about the website not actually being affiliated — to trick unsuspecting supporters into linking to the site.
Classy, I know. But let’s look at a different aspect of the debate.
Has SEO Infected Substantive Legal Analysis?
You see, until recently lawyers used to write weighty tomes. Firms, like Littler Mendelson, who produce a substantial body of analytical material are a dying breed. Now, thanks to the Internet, lawyers spend their time writing SEO pieces. Lawyers are no longer scholars organizing and explaining the law, but brand developers and managers. Writing about the law—what used to be an educational and somewhat prideful endeavor—is now merely a part of lead generation. The people that understand such things (“those people”) call this “content marketing,” and from where I sit, it’s going to kill the law.
He sums up:
Sure, there will still WestlawNext and Lexis. But what are they when the lawyers who used to write their books have left for weedier pastures?
Let me plant a flag right here: many legal “treatises” and “guides” written by lawyers and published by austere legal publishing companies at a high markup are terrible. Remember Rudovsky v. West Publishing, in which two law professors didn’t think it was worth only a couple thousand dollars to update their Criminal Procedure book? West solved that problem by giving a recent law graduate one week to slap something together which they then put the professors’ names on.
Legal Treatises Don’t Always Create Value
That wasn’t an isolated incident. I’ve read more than one very expensive treatise by a notable lawyer which was worse than useless. A few months ago I studied a highly-acclaimed two-volume treatise that is routinely cited by courts (and which costs more than $600) are discovered it was nothing less than propaganda, a deliberate misreading of hundreds of cases to advance a particular political goal.
But you wouldn’t know that from looking at it. No, it looks like it’s part of that “substantial body of analytical material.” It’s only when you start digging in the footnotes that you understand the method by which it was put together: the author, who represents defendants exclusively, speculated about the dozens of ways in which cases could be dismissed, then assigned a junior clerk to dig up District Court opinions which included dicta arguably in support. Given the reputation behind this book and its publisher, I, too, was initially fooled by it, until I realized that the author didn’t cite that many appellate court decisions and that he was frequently “supporting” major substantive conclusions with nothing more than references to District Court opinions from 10, 20 sometimes 30 years ago.
As far as I’m concerned, that “analytical material” didn’t create value for the legal industry, it destroyed value by leading lawyers (and courts!) astray. And that is not unusual: from copyright to racketeering to the false claims act, I have seen more than a few “treatises” written by defense lawyers which followed the exact same formula: put down a rough draft of what you think the law should be to prevent your clients are ever facing liability, and then have clerk dig up a District Court opinion which has a sentence or two in support.
I don’t mean to aim any of that at Jason or Jones McClure. I don’t know their work (not least since I don’t practice in Texas or California), but I doubt they do anything like that. If they did, they would have been able to produce far more titles by now. The SEO industry talks about “content farms” as if they’re a new thing; legal authors and publishers have spent years perfecting the art of churning out content that looks substantive but which isn’t.
The Brave New World of Legal Research
I write all that to point out that there’s actually, of all things, hope.
Jason and I discussed some of these issues of curating the legal web before. I think curation is a great idea, but I’m not ready to accept the general proposition that we are losing out on great legal content that used to be available, for two reasons.
First, if we lose some wannabe treatise writers to SEO, that’s a good thing. If a lawyer is willing to write crap content for SEO, odds are good they were going to write a crappy, misleading, shallow and biased treatise. There are still lawyers doing both good content marketing and writing treatises, like John Day, who has a torts treatise, and Ron Miller, who has a practice guide on insurance insurance settlements. If I might flatter myself for a moment (we are talking marketing), I think this blog is more quality than SEO spam, and I’m co-author on a Pennsylvania guide coming out later this year and a Federal treatise coming out in a year or two.
Truth is, no matter what we do to the profession, there will be lawyers like John and Ron who will want to write well, and they will do it partly for business, but mostly as a labor of love. That’s where the useful treatises have come from anyway, not from desperate lawyers trying to hook as many potential clients as possible.
Second, there is a benefit to the explosion in volume in legal content. Let’s assume 50% of it is pure spam, 40% is marketing copy that nonetheless creates value, and 10% is genuine substantive analysis. That still amounts to a lot of substantive analysis; better yet, it amounts to a lot of varied analysis, no longer beholden to the secret agenda of the treatise writer.
Enter The Panda
Let’s return to Google. Even Google got sick of the content farms (or was embarrassed into caring), and earlier this year issued one of its most significant changes in years, codenamed the “Panda” update. The technical details are mysterious, but the effects are not. Content farms have been savaged. Google’s chief search and webspam engineers, Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts said exactly what they meant to do:
This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.
Last week Google gave some indications of by listing questions webmasters should ask themselves, including:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
In other words, “SEO” is increasingly about “producing high-quality, authoritative content,” similar to what you would look for in a treatise. Let’s call this Panda Blogging.
Do you see it? First page there, it’s Jason Wilson’s post about them, despite him doing not one bit of SEO for his personal blog.
Try “thomson reuters legal process outsourcing.” First page gives you Jordan Furlong’s view on the same subject, also despite the lack of any spammy SEO (though I presume his site, as a commercial site, has done some degree of reputable link-building and on-page optimization).
Is Google perfect? Of course not. But it’s getting better. We already knew that e-discovery artificial intelligence was getting better, even in scales of millions of documents, and Google can do it for billions. The problem isn’t that there’s too much legal analysis out there to properly curate it with computers, it’s that the tools we have right now aren’t any good at it.
If I go to Google Scholar and search legal opinions for medicaid medicare settlement lien, the first hit is exactly the case every personal injury lawyer or insurance defense lawyer would think of: Arkansas Dept. of Health and Human Servs. v. Ahlborn, 547 U.S. 268 (2006).
The same search on Lexis first gives me a reversed Eastern District of New York Zyprexa case which discusses Ahlborn, but which is obviously not the governing law. Then it returns dozens of results, some from state trial courts, some from federal district courts, that all touch upon the right subjects, but which are not, in fact, the cases that any human would think of first.
In short, I get where Jason is coming from: the legal profession needs some degree of legal authors doing the hard work of reading cases, thinking about them, and collecting their thoughts on paper. But I think at the moment we’re doing better than we were. The same labor-of-love authors will continue to make their labors-of-love, which were the only legal books worth reading anyway. Further, for all the marketing copy and SEO, there’s more than enough substantive content to balance the “loss” of biased, inaccurate treatises. There will undoubtedly be some collateral damage there, some loss of worthy legal content, but I think the trade-off is there, once someone optimizes our legal research search engines.