By Gary Blankenship
Using secretive techniques to lure Internet users to a law firm website with false or deceptive information is wrong, members of the Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising agree, but the committee wants more time to research the technical issues before approving an advisory opinion.
The committee met September 20 at the Bar’s Midyear Meeting in Orlando and reviewed a proposed advertising advisory opinion that addressed hidden text and meta tags (words on a webpage that are not visible to the viewer).
But Chair Mike Faehner and committee member Mel Wright said they showed the proposed advisory opinion to the experts who handle their websites and learned from them that the technical matters addressed in the opinion “are five years out of date.”
The heart of the issue is SEO — search engine optimization — and the strategies employed by website managers attempting to have their pages displayed high on the lists served up by search engines.
Strategies include the use of hidden words, meta tags, links from other sites, mentions on blogs or the use of a blog by the website, as well as links from articles. Problems arise when deceptive or misleading tactics are used, which committee members referred to as “black ops.”
Examples include that “Law Firm A” might use the name and motto of “Law Firm B” in meta tags and hidden language on its website, which would result with people searching for “Law Firm B” to be referred by a search engine to “Law Firm A.” An actual Bar grievance case resulted from a similar situation, although in that instance the lawyer said his optimization expert added the hidden language without the lawyer’s knowledge. The hidden language was removed when the Bar member discovered it.
The proposed draft advisory opinion presented to the committee noted that lawyers should not use meta tags or hidden text to imply they practice in geographic areas where they don’t have an office.
Additionally, the draft opinion stated, “A lawyer also may not use hidden text or meta tags to be listed as a search result for an area of law the lawyer does not currently practice. For example, a lawyer may not use ‘mesothelioma’ as a meta tag or hidden text so that consumers searching for lawyers who handle such cases are directed to the lawyer’s website if the lawyer has no intention of actually handling that type of matter and, instead, intends to refer the matter out and divide fees with the lawyer to whom the matter is referred.”
The opinion concluded, “Because lawyers themselves may not construct their own websites, lawyers should make sure that they use website designers that conform to ethical practices and appropriately supervise their work. Lawyers should consider including in their contracts with web designers a clause prohibiting the web designer from improperly using hidden text and meta tags.”
Faehner noted that some companies specialize in placing essentially meaningless articles online, either as part of a legal website or that link to the site as a way to raise the site’s profile for a search engine. Some companies operate “link farms” to various websites to heighten the visibility on a search program that measures links as part of its rating system.
He questioned whether the final advisory opinion should address those practices, but Wright said the committee has to be careful of First Amendment issues and that trying to game the search engines carries its own penalties. (Search engine algorithms look for hidden text, meta tags, artificially boosted link counts, articles that are identical to those listed on other sites and use other strategies to punish those using questionable tactics by dropping them to the bottom of the search list, which can be hundreds or thousands of items long.)
“The main thing that keeps your website legitimate for SEO purposes . . . is the original content, and the Google algorithms identify people who are cutting and pasting articles that are duplicates, exact duplicates of articles,” he said.
“I don’t see anything particularly ethically wrong with that, but I think it’s dumb. I think you’re pushing the envelope on free speech. I think we’ve got to be more concerned about . . . fraud and deception. Because if we go much beyond that, while it may be a stupid business decision on their part, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with having an article on their website that says estate planning is good; it is.”
Wright said law firms that want to be around in a decade will follow good SEO practices, while others may succeed in boosting their results for a couple months but will suffer in the long run.
Wright volunteered to have the company that manages his website, which is run by a lawyer, review the proposed draft advisory opinion. Faehner said his website expert will look at the draft, too, and added he thinks an opinion is needed, but the committee should have more time to consider all of the technical issues so the final document doesn’t become outmoded a few weeks after it’s issued.
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for November 15.