Are you getting law firm reviews and recommendations the safe way?

On Wednesday, SearchEngineLand reported a story about a law firm that had most of its Google reviews removed after it was discovered that the firm was “incentivizing people to review the business with contests and giveaways.”

Greg Sterling, SearchEngineLand’s contributing editor, wrote that the firm had roughly 100 Google reviews before the issue was reported in the Google My Business forums.

When Sterling published his story, he reported that the law firm now had a single, five-star Google review.

Sterling also pointed out the firm’s large number of Facebook reviews:

“On Facebook, the firm has 1,000 five-star reviews. It may well be that a high percentage of these are the byproduct of contests and incentives.”

What attorneys need to know about bulk reviews, incentives for giving a review, and Google

According to Sterling, Google’s previous policy on financial incentives to generate reviews was:

“Don’t offer or accept money, products or services to write reviews for a business or to write negative reviews about a competitor.”

But these guidelines appear to have changed:

In addition to Prohibited Content guidelines, text reviews are subject to the following additional requirements:

  • Don’t use reviews for advertising purposes. This includes, but is not limited to, posting email addresses, phone numbers, social media links or links to other websites in your reviews.

  • Don’t include promotional or commercial content.

  • Don’t offer or accept money in exchange for reviews.

  • Don’t solicit reviews from customers in bulk.

Google responded to an email from SearchEngineLand on this topic. It confirmed that contests designed to create a large volume of reviews violate its policy against soliciting bulk reviews:

“Contests to generate reviews are a violation of policy. Our policy states that businesses should not solicit reviews from customers in bulk.”

What is motivating your clients to leave a review for your law firm?

Reviews are an important point of proof for potential clients. They will likely take reviews (or lack thereof) into account as they decide whether to hire your law firm.

But offering something in exchange for reviews is not likely to benefit your law firm’s online presence in the long term.

A related example: law firm website link bait

In our Law Firm SEO Guide, we point out that setting up fake or contrived acts of kindness as link bait is a bad idea.

It’s true that having links to your law firm’s website from other reputable websites can have a positive impact on your online visibility. But it’s important to earn those links naturally through high-quality content creation.

Unfortunately, some SEO companies engage in schemes (carried out on behalf of law firms) to try and trick people or institutions into providing links to law firm websites.

One of these tactics is to use charity or generosity as a cover to get a link. That can include things such as:

  • Setting up fake or worthless scholarships or grants to get colleges to link back to the law firm.
  • Creating contests or scholarships aimed at students that require them to post their submission and link back to the law firm.
  • Creating fake or meaningless charity events to get respected community organizations to link back to the law firm.

These tactics are questionable from an ethical standpoint. They’re also designed to manipulate the search engines. In today’s search engine era, that’s difficult to do with any long-term success. 

Link schemes violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, and Google is likely to take action against sites that participate in link schemes.

Links can have a positive impact on your online visibility because they can act as an indicator of quality — a vote that your site is a high-quality website. But for links to be a reliable indicator of quality, they need to be gained naturally. When they’re not — such as in the case of a link scheme — they’re less reliable as a signal of quality.

That’s a problem for Google, which wants to be able to provide its users with quality results for their searches. It’s why Google engineered the Penguin algorithm, designed to spot unnatural links and link schemes and to demote sites using manipulative techniques to achieve high rankings.

There are a number of link tactics that are designed to manipulate Google. They can include:

  • Exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links;
  • Exchanging goods or services for links;
  • Sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link

None of these tactics are likely to pay off in the long run.

The importance of high-quality law firm online reviews

A similar logic applies to getting bulk reviews.

It’s a bad idea to participate in the link-related activities listed above. It’s also a bad idea to participate in schemes designed to encourage bulk reviews.

Contests, giveaways, and other tactics like these manipulate people’s motivations for giving a review and makes those reviews a less reliable signal of quality.

It may not be surprising that Google chose to remove many of the Google reviews for the law firm in that SearchEngineLand report. Offering consideration for reviews can make those reviews less trustworthy. It can decrease a user’s ability to trust those Google reviews when they see them, and that can harm the user’s trust in the search engine. (It can also decrease their trust in a law firm.)

For Google to thrive, its users need to be able to trust the information that they find on the search engine. And so, like links, the best way to get reviews is in a natural fashion. 

Ethical considerations around incentives for law firm reviews

When it comes to online reviews, Google’s rules aren’t the only thing attorneys have to worry about.

There are ethical considerations, as well.

In the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 7.2 reads:

(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services except that a lawyer may

(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;

(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a not-for-profit or qualified lawyer referral service. A qualified lawyer referral service is a lawyer referral service that has been approved by an appropriate regulatory authority;

(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17; and

(4) refer clients to another lawyer or a nonlawyer professional pursuant to an agreement not otherwise prohibited under these Rules that provides for the other person to refer clients or customers to the lawyer, if

(i) the reciprocal referral agreement is not exclusive, and

(ii) the client is informed of the existence and nature of the agreement.

(c) Any communication made pursuant to this rule shall include the name and office address of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content.

While these rules are the basis for most states’ ethical rules — and the rules vary from state to state — asking a client to review your law firm in exchange for anything of value presents a significant risk of breaking this rule.

How can attorneys make sure they’re getting law firm reviews the safe way?

Your law firm’s online reputation is important, and online reviews have become more and more important in recent years. If you’re not paying attention to your law firm’s online reputation (and your competitors are), your reputation may become a reason why your firm’s business suffers.

The good news is that getting good reviews from happy clients isn’t complicated when you do it the right way. There are some very easy ways to get, display, and distribute positive reviews about your law firm.

Here are several resources to help you learn how to collect, manage, and display reviews on your law firm’s website and elsewhere on the web: