By Gary Blankenship
If you take out a newspaper ad to promote your law practice, you can’t stick the name of a competitor’s firm at the top, hoping to snare clients looking for that competitor.
Likewise, according to the Bar’s Standing Committee on Advertising, when you get a website and hire someone to do search engine optimization (SEO) for your Internet presence, you can’t use elements like metatags or hidden text that have the effect of (invisibly) attaching your competitor’s name to your site. You also can’t imply that you work in geographic or practice areas that you don’t.
The committee, on March 5, approved Proposed Advisory Opinion A-12-1 for member comment. The committee will consider those comments at its June meeting.
Committee Chair Mike Faehner said the opinion reminds lawyers that advertising rules and other ethical standards apply to websites and efforts to make those websites highly visible to search engines that help users navigate the Internet.
“When you hire someone to do SEO for you, you’ve got to do due diligence to make sure they are doing it in an ethically compatible manner,” Faehner said. “This is a field that changes from week to week. It’s a battle between the Googles and the Yahoos to preserve the integrity of their search models, and there are other people trying to game their [search] systems. There are hundreds or thousands of people on both sides.”
The opinion specifically mentions hidden text and metatags. Metatags are short phrases or words to describe a website and its content and are typically part of the software used to design the website. Although not normally seen by website visitors, search engines use metatags to help sort sites when an Internet user conducts a search. Similarly, the search engines look at content of a website. Hidden text are words that are made invisible to the average user because the text matches the background color, is set in a tiny font, or is otherwise manipulated.
“The committee is of the opinion that certain website content and the use of certain Internet search engine optimization techniques can be false, deceptive, or misleading conduct that is prohibited by Rule 4-7.13. Examples include ‘hidden text’ or ‘metatags’ that use another lawyer’s or law firm’s name without a proper purpose, a false representation that a law firm has an office in a particular location when the lawyer does not have an office at that location, or representing that a lawyer handles cases in an area of practice that the lawyer or firm does not practice,” the proposed opinion says.
Or as Faehner put it, “Don’t put your competitor’s name hidden in your website in order to drive traffic to you when someone searches for your competitor; they will go to your website. We wouldn’t do that in normal settings, and there’s no reason we should be able to do that online. . . .If you’re putting truthful information that people can see, there’s no reason to put in all this hidden text.”
The opinion adds that the use of hidden text “would almost always be inherently false and misleading” and hence a violation of the rules. Both Faehner and the opinion noted that aside from ethical considerations, search engines punish websites that use hidden text by omitting those sites from their search returns or listing them near the bottom.
The opinion also states that metatags must be accurate and not false, misleading, or deceptive.
Some search engines allow businesses to buy specific words or phrases that cause related paid ads or links to be displayed with search results and Bar rules apply there, too, according to the proposed advisory opinion.
“Lawyers may not purchase the name of another lawyer or law firm as a key word in search engines so that the lawyers’ advertisement sponsored website link appears when a person uses the other lawyer or law firm’s name as a search term,” the opinion says.
The opinion concludes by advising lawyers to provide copies of the Bar advertising rules to their website designers.
Faehner noted the opinion, unlike most advisory opinions, includes footnotes, and he encouraged lawyers to read those cited articles. Particularly helpful, he said is “17 Black Hat SEO Techniques to Avoid” in the online publication, Design Hammer. It can be found at http://designhammer.com/blog/17-black-hat-seo-techniques-avoid.