Penguin’s Freeze for Small Businesses and Firms

Google makes up to 500 changes a year to its algorithm. The newest Google Algorithm change was released on April 24, 2012 and was dubbed Penguin. This update focuses on webspam and eliminating black hat SEO tricks, but it’s likely that other changes to the previous Panda algorithm this year will also be referred to in pop culture as Penguin as well. Web analysts have been closely watching the effects of these changes over the past few weeks.

Entire industries are thriving primarily off of search engine results, and it’s only a matter of time before law firms are dependent on search engines in the same manner. Penguin has so many small businesses concerned that it even made The Wall Street Journal, which covered two small businesses that observed a notable drop in sales as a result of search rankings.

The single most important change is that inbound links, which were previously given the highest priority for assessing web page quality, is now even more contextual, looking at the type of links and where they come from. Inbound links from link farms will now actually be penalized. (The impact on paid web directories is still being determined).

These tactics had previously been used by some small business, and even a number of law firms in Canada (who shall remain unnamed), by paying “web specialists” and online marketers to populate the Internet with links leading to their site. Google’s rationale is that sites which employ these tactics are usually of poorer quality and less useful for the users. Consequently, after paying lots of money over a long period of time, this online marketing approach will actually hurt businesses rather than help them.

But not everyone penalized by Penguin was necessarily guilty of black hat tricks. Some sites who have performed well with Panda have been penalized by Penguin, due to the action of other sites they have no affiliation with. This has led to the interesting development of some sites threatening legal action against other sites who link to them:

It has come to our attention that your website or website hosted by your company contains links to <website> which results in financial losses by the company we represent, because of search engine penalties.

I request you to remove from following website (____) all links to <website> website as soon as possible. In order to find the links please do the following: 1) If this is an online website directory, use directory’s search system to find “<company>” links. 2) If there are hidden links in the source code of website, open website’s main page and view its source code. Search for “<website> in the source code and you will see hidden links.

I have a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by <company> its agents, or the law. Therefore, this letter is an official notification to effect removal of the detected infringement listed in this letter.

I further declare under penalty of perjury that I am authorized to act on behalf of copyright holder and that the information in this letter is accurate.

Please, inform me within 48 hours of the results of your actions. Otherwise we will be forced to contact your ISP. < company > will be perusing legal action if the webmaster does not remove the referenced link within 48 hours. < company > will be forced to include the hosting company in the suite for trademark infringement.

As quaint and antiquated as some of us thought the issues discussed in Crookes v. Newton was at the time when it was released, Penguin gives an entirely different spin to the hyperlink issue, especially where a company can demonstrate that the linking led to a quantifiable business loss. But this letter was sent for a positive review which linked to the site, and did not originate from a questionable domain, which seems to suggest to me that the authors of the letter did not fully understand the implications of Penguin (or was an unintended recipient of a mass e-mail).

The other key lesson here is that much of the antagonism against “legal marketers” is actually misplaced. Terminology like “flawgers” is not only unhelpful, but it’s actually misleading and demonstrates some ignorance. The corresponding term originating in web marketing, flogger, actually refers to bloggers who are impersonating another personality, similar to astroturfing. Instead, the focus should be on the type of advice that legal marketers offer to lawyers.

What will help small businesses and law firms is what would have always helped them – listening to Google:

Quality guidelines – specific guidelines

  • Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
  • Don’t create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware.

This means is original, quality content, written the way you would for a reader, and not for a search engine. Google even suggests that webmasters develop their sites as if search engines do not even exist, and focus on quality instead. If lawyers view blogs and websites as a way to exchange information with the public and between lawyers, creating a conversation of substantive issues instead of being oriented around marketing, they really shouldn’t have a problem with Penguin.

Google does have a feedback form for sites who feel they have been unfairly hit, but because it’s an algorithm change it’s not clear how this would help.

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