Is SEO Unethical in Attorney Advertising?

This question comes straight from our web analytics. And the answer, like usual, is that it depends. But one thing is for sure, SEO isn’t per se unethical under attorney advertising rules.

If you’re already familiar with the basics of attorney advertising rules and SEO, you may want to jump down to Attorney Advertising and SEO.

Attorney Advertising Ethics

It would be impossible for me to get into all of the gory details of attorney advertising ethics here in this post. But to answer the question, we’re going to need to hit some basics.

First, each lawyer is regulated by the rules in her state. In other words, there is no true national standard. However, the ABA has put together some model rules. These have been widely adopted to varying degrees by most of the states.

Second, I encourage you to view all of your obligations under the rules to apply regardless of medium. I’ve seen folks try to draw distinctions between offline and online communications. I’ve also seen distinctions within the online world. For example, some people draw distinctions between commenting, blogging and tweeting. Don’t do that.

Third, and this is one of the most important parts:

Information About Legal Services
Rule 7.1 Communications Concerning A Lawyer’s Services
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

Again, it’s important to understand that this is from the model rules and that your state’s rules may vary slightly or significantly. Further, this is only one rule. While it’s arguably the most relevant to answering questions about marketing, advertising and SEO, it’s certainly not the only applicable rule.

This is probably enough context to dive into the intersection of SEO and attorney advertising ethics.

What is SEO?

For some of you familiar with search engine optimization (SEO), you might be thinking, “What the heck does SEO have to do with attorney advertising?” Before we make the connection, I want to provide some context for those who aren’t familiar with the subject.

For beginners, I’ve always appreciated SearchEngineLand’s guide and explainer video:

Here’s Wikipedia’s (rather general) entry:

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results. In general, the earlier (or higher ranked on the search results page), and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine’s users. SEO may target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, video search, academic search, news search and industry-specific vertical search engines.

As an Internet marketing strategy, SEO considers how search engines work, what people search for, the actual search terms or keywords typed into search engines and which search engines are preferred by their targeted audience. Optimizing a website may involve editing its content, HTML and associated coding to both increase its relevance to specific keywords and to remove barriers to the indexing activities of search engines. Promoting a site to increase the number of backlinks, or inbound links, is another SEO tactic.

Here’s a better, more concise definition from AJ Kohn:

SEO is about generating productive organic search traffic by matching query intent with relevance and value. The implication of this definition is that SEO must draw upon an increasing number of disciplines including design, user experience, information architecture and conversation rate optimization.

Finally, for the more visual learners, Point Blank SEO’s What is SEO: A guide to show your family and friends

Attorney Advertising Ethics and SEO

SEO for Lawyers, Your Reputation, and Legal Ethics, was one of my earlier attempts to explore some of the issues related to search engine optimization and attorney advertising. Based on many of the comments, I’m not so sure how effective I was. So, I’ll try again.

It’s important to note what we’re not talking about here. We’re not talking about so-called “SEO ethics” and black-hat vs. white-hat distinctions. Frankly, that discussion needs better questions anyway.

What we’re talking about here is SEO specifically as it relates to attorney advertising. Combining our earlier definitions, we get something like this:

Ethical attorney SEO is about generating productive organic search traffic by matching query intent with relevance and value without violating any applicable rules of professional responsibility. Like other SEO, ethical attorney SEO should draw upon an increasing number of disciplines including design, user experience, information architecture and conversation rate optimization.

Perhaps it’s not a perfect definition, but it should serve our purposes. So with that, let’s discuss how search engine optimization can be done ethically under attorney advertising rules and what might fall into a gray or black area.

Content

Assuming it doesn’t violate another rule (i.e. client confidences, solicitation, etc), publishing content that isn’t false or misleading is a good place to start. And as I said above, I would encourage you to apply this anything you publish online, including static web pages, blog posts and HTML. HTML? Yes, HTML.

It stands to reason that your HTML is subject to rules of professional responsibility. Things like your HTML title tags ought to be crafted with your state’s rules of professional responsibility in mind.

For example, if your state prohibits the use of adjectives like “specialist” you shouldn’t include those in your content, including your HTML title tags.

Link Building

Another popular subject in search engine optimization is link building. Search engines use links pointing to a web page as an indicator of the page’s popularity. In other words, links to a site are like votes for a site. But not all votes are created equally. You can read more about links here.

Just like content publishing, link building should be done with applicable rules of professional responsibility in mind. If your link building activities involve false or misleading communications, they may be in violation of your ethical obligations. One example of this might be doing link outreach under false pretenses.

I hope this has been somewhat helpful. Saying that SEO is per se unethical under attorney advertising rules is like saying marketing is unethical under the rules. As you know, lawyers have a right to market and advertise. But that right is subject to regulation. The key is to gain a firm understanding of how search engines work, develop strategies that attract meaningful traffic, motivate conversion and complies with your state’s rules.