A law firm in Michigan, Seikaly & Stewart, is suing its former SEO provider — but not for a lack of ranking success. Rather, the firm is getting sued for allegedly using “spammy” techniques violating Google’s guidelines. That comes via Eric Goldman.
The defendant Rainmaker Institute, which specializes in online marketing services for the legal profession, is accused knowingly violating Google SEO guidelines by building “link farms” on behalf of the plaintiff’s several legal domains.
It’s not clear from the complaint (also embedded below) whether the plaintiff law firm suffered any ranking penalty as a result of the link farming. Here’s the factual core of the plaintiff’s claim:
Expert analysis performed since the conclusion of the contract has shown that essentially no links were created for protectyourstudent.com and seikalystewart.com. Approximately 6720 links appear to have been created for Oaklandbusinesslawyers.com, but all the links with the exception of approximately 188 links, were worthless links built with link farming techniques and, in many cases, were not forwarding to the Plaintiff’s webpages at all.
In approximately April 2012, Google stepped up enforcement of its policies against link building schemes, in part through the implementation of new programs and algorithms collectively known as the “Penguin” update.
The Penguin update made it even less likely that the link building schemes being utilized by the Defendants and THE RAINMAKER INSTITUTE would be of any value to its clients.
Upon information and belief, it quickly became even more apparent to the Defendants that their schemes would have no positive effect and might have a detrimental effect on the webpages in domain names owned by the Victim Firms; however, Defendants continued to take money for their worthless services, without disclosing that it knew that the alleged services would be of no value.
Goldman points out that an earlier New Jersey case allowed a negligence claim against an SEO firm whose practices caused a duplicate content penalty for the plaintiff (its former SEO client).
In the current Seikaly case there have been no specific damages alleged. And the complaint doesn’t say that plaintiff’s domains have been penalized by Google.
Goldman says SEO clients should be more directly involved and informed about the practices that will be used by the retained SEO firm. It almost goes without saying, though we can’t expect “ordinary people” to be experts on Google’s SEO guidelines.
More interesting to me are the following questions implied or directly raised by the action (depending on the outcome):
- Will SEO firms that go outside the bounds of established “white hat” SEO practice be automatically vulnerable to liability?
- Will the court limit liability in cases where the plaintiff has not done any “due diligence” on the SEO practitioner? In other words, what burden does a buyer of SEO services have to investigate the SEO firm? (Probably none.)
- What damages might be assessed in situations where a ranking penalty has occurred? (e.g., fees paid, lost revenue?)
- What might be recoverable when there is no Google ranking penalty?