Search Engine Land’s article highlights a particular pet peeve of mine. Not that long ago I was doing a bit of work for a client to make sure they were showing up properly on the local Google map. While looking closely at the map, I noticed that two of the top three slots were filled by what appeared to be the same law firm. The identical address, right down to the suite and phone number, was the giveaway. Aside from being annoying, I would argue that, like listing virtual offices as if they were full blown offices, it’s unethical and law firms should be very careful with agencies that think this practice is “ok.” It’s not ok with Google, and it’s almost certainly contrary to the notion that the professional reputation of a lawyer is based on behaving with integrity.
While this particular article is commenting on the US, in my opinion, it is equally applicable in Canada. It’s not a bad thing to remember that one of the purposes of professional codes of conduct is to protect the public from being misled. Most people haven’t got a clue who’s a “good” lawyer and who’s not. Also, for better or worse, we have come to trust Google to provide us with the “best” answers to our questions. So, if someone is looking for counsel, and googling “best X lawyer in Y” there’s a strong possibility they are going to trust the results that come up high in Google’s page rank. The idea is that firms are supposed to get there by providing useful, relevant information and because they deserve to be there, based on the caliber of their service. However, it is not uncommon for marketing agencies who don’t know anything about legal marketing rules, to employ whatever tactics they think will work to get their clients to occupy as much of page 1 real estate as possible (whether deserved or not).
This was the case in the situation I mentioned above, where it took forever to get rid of the duplicate listings for one law firm masquerading under different firm names. I’ve also seen the situation with online listings where a single law firm has a bajillion identical listings for the same search term. What they’ve done is allocate the same firm listing to every single one of their lawyers. This one just makes the firm (and the online directory) look bad. What? People are supposed to think a firm is better because it has 10 identical listings for the same search term? It looks more like desperation to me, but that’s just my opinion. A less charitable view of this practice is that the marketers involved were trying to boost the number of link backs to the firm’s website. Link backs from legitimate websites are thought to be one of the cues Google looks for to determine page rank in search. I don’t know that this is the case, but if it is, this is another example of marketers trying to artificially inflate a firm’s page rank. It’s wrong, and it’s unethical.
My comments are not intended to suggest that these law firms were maliciously trying to game Google’s algorithm. It’s more likely they were focused on being competitive and not paying much attention to what their marketers were doing to meet that deliverable. However, I think there’s a solid case that the standards of conduct imposed on lawyers, by the various provincial law societies, extend to an obligation to make sure that people who work for them, including those who market their services, do not employ tactics designed to game or cheat systems that are meant to provide services to the public, i.e., online search. Play by the rules people. Play by the rules.
Concerning Google My Business reviews (and other online reviews)…again, fake reviews or reviews by parties interested in the success of the firm, should be avoided. The value of online reviews is in their independence. It’s not uncommon for a good firm to have multiple reviews, I’ve seen it, and I happen to know they are legit so I don’t entirely agree with Search Engineland that you can never trust Google My Business reviews. I think they can be helpful and I think they provide a guidepost to a firm’s website and that is where you should find more information on whether the firm is a good fit for you.
The most common practice for attorneys who want to rank in several cities is to create listings at virtual offices. When these are reported, Google has been pretty good at removing them. However, attorneys (and their marketing companies) are getting smart at this stuff and have found ways to trick Google My Business support into thinking their fake locations are real locations.
These are also clearly false, or at least misleading, communications about the lawyer’s’ services — a clear violation of attorney ethics rules.