Since its inception, Google has cracked down on a number of “black hat” SEO tactics — the methods designed to artificially inflate the rankings of low-quality websites and web pages.
Despite the work that Google has done to stop people from attempting to manipulate the search engine, there is a persistent belief that some black hat SEO practices still work. But Google has grown smarter in the past decade. As a result, Google has managed to find — and close — many of the SEO loopholes that used to be exploited by black hat practitioners.
Here are three black hat techniques that some attorneys might be tempted to use (but that are likely to harm your web presence rather than help it).
Black Hat SEO Technique 1: Keyword Stuffing on Law Firm Websites
Google’s Webmaster Guidelines describe keyword stuffing as follows:
“[…] the practice of loading a webpage with keywords or numbers in an attempt to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results. Often these keywords appear in a list or group, or out of context (not as natural prose). Filling pages with keywords or numbers results in a negative user experience, and can harm your site’s ranking.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen keyword stuffing in one form or another. Something that reads as:
“John Smith is a Pima County DUI Attorney. A Pima County DUI can have serious consequences. If you’ve been charged with a Pima County DUI, you need an experienced Pima County DUI Attorney. Call Pima County DUI attorney John Smith today.”
Keyword stuffing is obvious to search engines — and it’s also obvious to readers.
The number of times that “Pima County DUI” shows up in the above sentence is unnatural. Whether or not a website visitor knows what keyword stuffing is, the unnatural prose in a sentence such as the one above is likely to be a turn-off. If a visitor to your website doesn’t feel that your site (or what you have to say) is trustworthy, there’s a good chance they’ll navigate away from your law firm’s website. That can mean a missed opportunity to connect with a potential client.
Why do people still use keyword stuffing?
Search engines still use keywords, to a degree, as a way to understand what a web page is about. While keywords don’t necessarily hold the weight that they used to, that hasn’t stopped people from abusing keywords. The line of reasoning may be “if some is good, more is better.” Since search engines still use keywords as a signal, why not pack a page with them?
What has Google done about keyword stuffing?
Google realized early on that keyword stuffing was a big problem, even if the use of keywords themselves were still relevant to search. With the release of the algorithm update “Penguin” in April of 2012, Google began to specifically target keyword stuffing (and link schemes, which we’ll discuss below).
Penguin’s initial rollout affected more than three percent of English language searches and went through a series of ten updates before becoming part of Google’s core algorithm in 2017.
Why attorneys should avoid keyword stuffing on law firm websites
Keyword stuffing is obvious to human readers and now obvious to search engines, whose algorithms have been tweaked and refined to hunt down this kind of behavior. Sites that engage in keyword stuffing are often demoted in search results. But more than that, pages that aren’t keyword stuffed are often rewarded in the form of better rankings as keyword-stuffed sites are demoted.
The needs of the search engines aside, one of the most important aspects of law firm websites is that people can trust the information they find on them. Google considers law firm websites to fall under “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) pages, meaning that the content contained on these pages can affect the health, happiness, or finances of a person who finds that content. As a result, Google holds these websites to a higher quality standard.
Keyword stuffing not only looks strange to a human reader, but it doesn’t engender trust. If a person reads content that sounds as if it’s been written by a bot or someone who doesn’t have a solid grip on writing, it’s unlikely to inspire them to contact your law firm.
For more on keyword stuffing, read “A Crash Course in Keywords for Attorneys.”
Black Hat SEO Technique 2: Link Schemes
Google defines link schemes as:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.”
Google provides several examples of link schemes:
Buying or selling links that pass PageRank.
This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
Using automated programs or services to create links to your site
Why do some attorneys still try to use link schemes?
Attorneys may fall for link schemes for a number of reasons. They may not know that this practice violates Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. An attorney may have hired a marketing company or SEO provider who engages in these behaviors without the attorney’s knowledge; or, the attorney may know that this is a black hat tactic, but he or she may think that Google’s algorithms aren’t wise enough to catch them.
How does Google handle link schemes?
Just as with keyword stuffing, link schemes are one of those tactics that people still try to use, despite the fact that Google has cracked down on it. And, just as with keyword stuffing, the algorithm update Penguin was designed to combat it. But Penguin isn’t the only thing Google has up its sleeve. Google can also punish sites with a manual penalty related to unnatural links. To learn more about manual penalties, read “Bootstrapping Your Law Firm Website After a Google Penalty.”
Why attorneys should avoid link schemes
Google uses links as a vote of confidence. When someone puts a link to your site on their website, it’s the equivalent of saying that they believe your content is valuable, useful, and of a high quality.
When people engage in link schemes of any kind, it’s often an attempt to get around the hard work of creating high-quality content that merits a link. There is no shortcut to getting links naturally. But the sooner attorneys start creating high-quality content, the sooner they can develop a content library that’s worth linking to.
Black Hat SEO Technique 3: Scraped Content on Law Firm Websites
Some examples of scraped content include:
Sites that copy and republish content from other sites without adding any original content or value
Sites that copy content from other sites, modify it slightly (for example, by substituting synonyms or using automated techniques), and republish it
Sites that reproduce content feeds from other sites without providing some type of unique organization or benefit to the user
Sites dedicated to embedding content such as video, images, or other media from other sites without substantial added value to the user
Why do attorneys still use scraped content?
Much like link schemes, the scraped content problem often happens in one of two ways. Either an attorney copies and pastes the content of another site onto their own site, or they hire someone who engages in this behavior.
One of the reasons that an attorney — or someone they hire — might scrape content is the false belief that a high volume of pages correlates to better search engine rankings, regardless of the uniqueness or quality of that content. Unfortunately, this belief could not be further from the truth. Google is looking for high-quality, unique content, and the volume of pages on a site alone does not lead to better search engine rankings.
There are attorney websites on the LawLytics platform that have thousands of pages that rank well for a variety of queries — but it’s not the sheer volume of pages that causes the site to rank well. Each page on these sites contains a large volume of high-quality, unique content.
What has Google done about scraped content?
The Penguin algorithm was designed to target keyword stuffing and link schemes. But before the Penguin update came along, there was Google’s Panda update in 2011. This algorithm is triggered by a number of black hat tactics, including “thin content”. Scraped content qualifies as thin content because it provides little or no value to the reader.
Why attorneys should avoid using scraped content on law firm websites
The best law firm website content is unique and adds significant value to the overall conversation about a particular legal topic. Copying and pasting content from elsewhere does not.
Google is on the lookout for various types of thin content and, as the company notes, there are cases in which the use of scraped content can constitute copyright infringement. Some attorneys might think taking content from elsewhere and placing it on their site is a quick solution to content creation, but it’s not worth losing the trust of the search engines (and your potential clients).
If you choose to use scraped content on your law firm’s website, it’s nearly impossible for a potential client to differentiate your firm from another firm with the same content. It’s important for potential clients to learn more about their case or matter from your website — but it’s also important for you to develop content that makes your law firm stand out from the crowd.
As Google notes, “It’s worthwhile to take the time to create original content that sets your site apart. This will keep your visitors coming back and will provide more useful results for users searching on Google.”
To learn more about how to stay on the right side of Google (and avoid black hat practices that can harm your website’s visibility), download our newest eBooks:
- Playing the SEO Game to Win: Develop a Winning Strategy
- Playing the SEO Game to Win: Betting on a Long Shot
- Playing the SEO Game to Win: All In on a Losing Hand