It finally happened. I say finally, because for literally years now I have been bombarded with emails from clients and pretend marketers soliciting our clients for guest blogging. Every single time, after using a little common sense, explained to client why this is a horrible idea, and denied other marketers’ access to our sites. I recently talked about this with Mordy Oberstein at Rank Ranger on his podcast, you should give it a listen when it drops on July 7th. While Mordy agreed with my stance, the concept of guest blogging has been a controversial one. As a marketer, I look at my job with an extreme necessity to be risk adverse. If I think there may be an issue with a SEO technique, even if widely used by others, I run from it. Not to get into the weeds, but there is always an SEO shiny new penny. Everyone has heard of black hat SEO, that’s not what I am talking about. We call these techniques “gray hat” because Google has not flatly come out against them, or even acknowledged them as helpful; though sear optimizers often look at the data and see it differently.
What is guest blogging in legal marketing anyway?
Before explaining the digital equivalent, let’s look at this in terms of old school brick and mortar marketing. Remember when you used to go to a restaurant and there was a cork board with business cards on it? You may have grabbed one for a gardener or home repair company there at one point in your life. No, this is not guest blogging. But, what if you were in the middle of a conversation while ordering and the waitress overhears you need a gardener for your new house and says something like “We use blossom tree service at my house, and they are great”. You think, cool, I will give them a call. You ask for their number and weigh the endorsement based off of her positive words. The referral was made, and it carried weight back in the day, didn’t it? Let’s take this one step further here and say that this restaurant you were in served only breakfast. The waitress heard you planning your lunch and recommend Bob’s Burgers (not to be confused with the popular off-color TV show). This is akin to guest blogging. Let’s put this into legal marketing terms. The process of guest blogging is placing YOUR content onto another law firm’s website, linking back to yours. This other law firm also posts THEIR content onto yours. It’s the digital equivalent of endorsing another law firm, usually without ever knowing them.
Seems harmless, what’s the big deal?
Well, on the surface, not much. And that is where things go wrong. Enterprising and unscrupulous bad actors run rampant in the SEO space and will do anything to take advantage of what could be a great thing, and ruin it for the rest of us. As an attorney, you have many colleagues you would be fine endorsing. So maybe you write a blog about divorce and place it onto your colleague’s personal injury law firm site’s website. You link between the sites and call it day. If you truly know each other, and are within the same geographic region, then I don’t see a huge problem with that. But now think about a marketing agency that used this technique at scale for all of their clients, and you are one of them. Links between law firm websites all of the country being interlinked and linked to in an un-natural way, is a very bad thing. You are literally endorsing an attorney you know nothing about. On your website. Officially, and formally.
Why does Google care? And why should you? Is Google penalizing for these posts?
One of the largest hurdles to overcome as a legal SEO agency is figuring out which websites to build authoritative off-site links back to our client’s websites. You have to identify the website you are going to publish an article on, write the article, send to the client to gain approval, deal with edits and re-writes, then submit it, submit the image to be used, request the link, check the link for correctness, post on social and more. It’s a time-consuming arduous task at best.
There are only a handful of companies that claim to have solved this issue for agencies like us; none of which we trust. One such promising enterprise recently launched a new product at SEMRush; and industry leading SEO reporting tool. They were offering building out guest post links by matching publishers up to high quality relevant sites as an outreach service, which was days later shelved after Google warned “they don’t help site rank”. Was this tortious interference you may ask? I say maybe, but to my knowledge there has yet to be any filings on the matter. Yet. Soon after, speculation ensued about a potential for a manual action or penalty, which has not come.
As a thought leader in the legal marketing space, I keep my eye on not only what Google is saying, but also what they aren’t saying, and what they are doing. You have to watch your own data, and the data of others. I have noticed in their few public releases and tweets from their liaison’s is the word “natural”. They are consistently and uniformly using this word to describe what you should be writing about, linking to and generally engaging in from an SEO perspective. Be natural. If there should be a link, and it’s natural, make the link. Google algorithms are focused on trying to read your content and judge its material worth to rank for a given search. Guest posting is not natural at all, in any way. Posting content on someone’s website 16 states away from where your business address is, that Google can clearly determine from your GMB listings, sees a reference in your text and so on is not natural. In fact, if you were writing code to look at the validity of a link within content, wouldn’t this be one of the easiest signals to look at? Location? Absolutely.
Google’s John Mueller, who I don’t always thinks is being straight with us in his tweets, has said some pretty damming straight forward things about this subject. In one tweets he days “The part that’s problematic is the links — if you’re providing the content/the links, then those links shouldn’t be passing signals & should have the rel-sponsored / rel-nofollow attached…”
Then he goes on to say:
“Essentially if the link is within the guest post, it should be nofollow, even if it’s a “natural” link you’re adding there.
FWIW none of this is new, and I’m not aware of any plans to ramp up manual reviews of this. We catch most of these algorithmically anyway.”
The key item he mentions there to me is, “We catch most of these algorithmically anyway”. That’s code for: don’t waste your time buddy. Time, effort and client’s money. Even when these articles are clearly labeled as guest posts or sponsored, they are still problematic.
Are these links potentially illegal?
Building these types of links can be easy. There are TONS of website publishers out there that email me on an on-going basis offering these links. Many of them, anomalous, unlabeled and some don’t last longer than a few months. But, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines about “native advertising”, it might just be illegal:
“A basic truth-in-advertising principle is that it’s deceptive to mislead consumers about the commercial nature of content. Advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they’re independent, impartial, or from a source other than the sponsoring advertiser – in other words, that they’re something other than ads. “
You, as a publisher of your law firm’s website may be held accountable to label native advertising as ads or advertising. Wouldn’t it be lovely being on the receiving end of a federal lawsuit from the FTC? All because of your SEO agency? No wonder I take my job as a law firm marketer so serious.
What should/can you do? Does your law firm have these links built without you even knowing about it?
The short answer is you absolutely can. If you have had an SEO agency build you links over the years, and a lot of you have, then you absolutely might. But how do you find them? Start by asking your current marketing provider if they engage in guest blogging on your behalf, and if they do, to please remove all of the content with links on your website and others they would have posted it on.
Go to your own website and look for blogs and content from other law firms. If you see authors you don’t recognize, then you are on the right track. You can take a look at your backlink profile using tools like SpyFu, AHref’s or Majestic, but if you are going down that road, you might want to hire a professional to help you out. Clients of Precision Legal Marketing can rest assured that this is not a practice we engage in.