Black Hat SEO: Even When it Works, It’s Not Worth It

Skunkworks regularly hears from lawyers and law firms looking for search engine optimization (SEO) services. Typically, the request is articulated as some form of “I want to be first on Google.”  Our clients clearly understand that a solid SEO plan can yield large dividends by placing their website higher in the organic search rankings. They are aware that better visibility means more traffic and more traffic means bigger profits

Search engine optimization tactics usually fall into two camps: white hat SEO strategies (endorsed by the major search engines) and black hat SEO strategies (actively opposed by the major search engines). This post describes why the legal community should only consider white hat methods.

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The issue that many corporations interested in SEO face is that white hat strategies, though effective over the long term, take time to implement and require the development of high quality content, the nurturing of meaningful social media contacts, and good website design. Conversely, black hat SEO tactics offer a quick pay-off and require little more than your credit card number.  

At Skunkworks we pursue white hat tactics on behalf of our clients. This is motivated not only by our belief that these methods create a better search experience for users, but also by the numerous corporate horror stories that have resulted from engaging in black hat SEO. For instance, just last year Google caught JC Penney using black hat tactics that included link farming (the placing of links to JC Penney on less than reliable websites) and punished them by manually dropping their page rank. There’s also the story of Vitaly Borker who harassed his customers with the hope that they would post negative reviews to various websites. While his strategy of “All News is Good News” was undeniably effective, he was subsequently arrested for fraud.

We believe that it is not in the best interest of legal professionals to be caught engaging in practices that could jeopardize their brand and their professional reputation. Furthermore, as Google’s search algorithm becomes increasingly sophisticated, the efficacy of pursuing black hat tactics will inevitably wax and wane. More and more companies will be at risk of facing the negative consequences of black hat SEO without ever reaping the benefits. In many ways, a bet on black hat SEO is a bet against the intelligence of the engineers at Google.

Unfortunately, many Canadian law firms appearing prominently on organic search results owe their visibility to black hat methods. Although it is likely that these law firms are not completely aware of the strategies being used by the companies they hire, there is a definite lack of due diligence.

I discovered the less than honorable SEO tactics of a few select law firms the other day when I decided to do some research on the inbound links of the most popular personal injury websites in Toronto. My goal was to better understand the factors that were affecting their page ranking. I use opensiteexplorer  when performing tasks of this type and highly recommend this software for any company interested in reviewing the quality of their inbound links or the links of their competitors.

The sad fact is that some of the highest-ranking personal injury websites were engaging in the exact same link scheme that landed JC Penney in hot water. I found links placed on hundreds of websites that were only marginally connected to the practice of law and some instances of links being placed on websites that were completely irrelevant and featured shockingly poor content. One law firm had an inbound link coming from the comments section of a celebrity gossip blog and another had the majority of their links coming from websites that look like this.

It’s important to remember that effective SEO  – like so many things in life  – requires time, effort, and money. Black hat SEO is not unlike injecting your firm’s marketing strategy with steroids. It may work today, but the long term consequences will not be pretty.


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