Legal web site FindLaw recently came under criticism for allegedly selling Internet links to boost traffic to law firm Web pages and the companies that market to them in a way that violated Google Inc.'s Web search rules.
The discovery led Google last month to temporarily drop FindLaw's priority ranking in Google's publicly available rating of sites by a couple of notches.
The drop in priority would cut how high FindLaw appears in a Google page list of experts on a topic. It was widely viewed in the Internet marketing world as a slap on the wrist.
The lower ranking ended when FindLaw, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters Corp., quietly made changes that eliminated the conflict with Google's rules by placing computer code on some links that prevented them from counting as votes to increase search results, according to John Shaughnessy, a spokesman for FindLaw.
Google did not respond to e-mails and a call seeking comment.
Google's reaction is seen as the most recent in a series of crackdowns beginning last October involving highly rated Web sites for violating a range of Google's search rules, according to Steve Matthews, a legal Web strategist at Stem Legal in Vancouver, Canada.
Although there is nothing illegal about selling links, it is considered a form of gaming the search system that Google tries to stop.
The most recent dispute began when FindLaw marketing materials and e-mails were published by blogger Todd Friesen, who criticized the FindLaw program. He is also a "search engine optimizing specialist," or one who helps people craft an online image.
SEEKING TO BOOST CUSTOMERS
The FindLaw sales pitch offered "up to three hard coded links," or computer code that counts as a popularity point in Google's search results, for $1,000 per month as part of its new "high octane" Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Advantage product. The goal was to make its law industry customers top online destinations.
The material also said that "FindLaw has been providing SEM programs to law firms for the past four years."
In a statement, Shaughnessy said, "FindLaw does not sell links to law firms." He said an "unauthorized communication went out to corporate advertising prospects that misrepresented how the product was intended to work and didn't fully and accurately describe it."
Shaughnessy said FindLaw "immediately cancelled SEM-Corporate" and put tags on some links to eliminate them in search rankings, to comply with Google's guidelines.
A critic of FindLaw's purported link sales, Kevin O'Keefe, president of Seattle-based LexBlog, which helps law firms develop blogs, said that there is nothing wrong with a directory that has links to law firms and sponsored links to ads because they don't boost a Web site's Google search ranking. O'Keefe's marketing firm is a competitor with that area of FindLaw.
But there is a difference between those links and what FindLaw allegedly appears to have done by selling its referral links, called incoming links, to Web sites to outsmart Google's page-ranking system, according to O'Keefe, who is a former trial lawyer.
Web sites gain value and potential customers with increased viewers, or traffic, on the sites. Google's goal is to direct people to information they want, rather than promotions that don't help them.
Google created an algorithm, a set of mathematical instructions for completing a task, called PageRank, that lists search results by how many individuals go to a Web page or what other big, important Web sites point to the page in incoming links.
It is the secret sale of such valuable referring links that violates Google's guidelines and got FindLaw's high ranking as a referring site reduced temporarily, O'Keefe said.
Robert Ambrogi, a Rockport, Mass., attorney who writes a law, media and technology blog, including for Law.com, an affiliate of The National Law Journal, took issue with the criticism of FindLaw.
"It is not something that reputable search engines would do, but some do."
The difficulty comes when Google "slaps the knuckles" of FindLaw and lowers its page rank for a few days, he said. Was FindLaw "misleading people, or were they up-front about it at the risk they might piss off the Google god," he said.