Lawsuits & Lemonade: There Really Is No Such Thing As Bad PR

For my inaugural post as a regular columnist for In House SEO, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to introduce myself and our company, Avvo, without making the post about myself and Avvo. Last week, the writing gods delivered in the form of a lawsuit filed against Avvo.  The saying, “there’s no […]

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For my inaugural post as a regular columnist for In House SEO, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to introduce myself and our company, Avvo, without making the post about myself and Avvo. Last week, the writing gods delivered in the form of a lawsuit filed against Avvo.  The saying, “there’s no such thing as bad PR” is an old public relations maxim that holds very true when it comes to SEO. What follows is a discussion on how to turn public relations lemons into SEO lemonade. But first, a little background information . . .

Avvo is an online legal directory. We rate and profile 90% of the lawyers in the country on a scale of 1-10 (the Avvo Rating) based on their professional background, peer endorsements and disciplinary sanction history from state bars. Yes – we score attorneys and expose negative information about attorneys – highlighting professional misconduct that results in disbarment and suspensions. Those with severe misconduct are labeled as “extreme caution” and receive a very low Avvo Rating. Those with impressive backgrounds and wide industry recognition receive very high Avvo Ratings.

Sanctioned Attorney Larry Joe Davis

Predictably, lawyers with sanction history wish we would go away and we occasionally receive demands that we remove their profile from Avvo (we won’t), change their Avvo Rating (we won’t) or show up in court (we will.)  Being prepared for a negative reaction to this level of transparency was important to Avvo from the beginning. Recently, Larry Joe Davis, a Florida attorney who was sanctioned for refusing to pay child support, failing to show up for court dates and obstructing the bar’s disciplinary process filed a lawsuit to try to bully us into taking his profile down, which brings me back to making lemonade when life gives you lemons.

Love it or not, the press caters to the public’s interest in conflict and division. Conflict stories, like lawsuits, tend to get picked up fairly easily, even by large press outlets. If you think I’m overstating the case, just look at the trashy headlines on everyday. Put yourself in the writer’s shoes, which headline would you submit to your editor?

  • “Avvo is a website that brings information and guidance to consumers looking to hire a . . . <insert snooze>”
  • “Sanctioned lawyer files lawsuit to censor reprimand.”

So how can an in-House SEO use bad press to create a fantastic SEO opportunity? By managing these stories intelligently and carefully, smart SEOs open doors to links from otherwise unattainable sources, outreach to the community and create linkbait. Here are some best practices when dealing with conflict stories:

  • Craft and Submit a Press Release – Despite media conspiracy rants from both sides of the political aisle, most reporters are trained to write balanced articles. A press release provides your counterpoint shrink-wrapped complete with quotes from your CEO, making it very easy for a reporter to write their story. Reporters hate covering old stories (even hours old), so you need to respond quickly. Also remember links in your press release are no-followed – its links in the resulting story that give you value.
  • Proactively Pitch High Level Press Outlets – Conflict stories open those hard-to-break-into press outlets. Larry Joe Davis isn’t the first sanctioned attorney to sue Avvo. In 2007, just nine days after launch, we were sued by sanctioned attorney, John Henry Browne (lawsuit was dismissed) to try to get us to remove his profile and sanction information. The lawsuit opened the door for a nine day old company to get coverage (and links) across major news outlets including TechCrunch, The Seattle Times, Mashable and the Wall Street Journal.
  • Engage the Community – Every conflict story has two sides and engaging with third parties on both sides of the debate can result in more coverage and more links. This is when having pre-existing relationships with key influencers pays off.  Consider this quote from widely read legal curmudgeon blogger Scott Greenfield who uses Avvo as one of his favorite cyberspace punching bags, yet was supportive of Avvo regarding the Larry Joe Davis lawsuit:

    “If I had to take a wild guess about such things, I would tend to go with Avvo.  My experience is that they aren’t out to wreak havoc with the legal world, upon which they depend for their bread and butter.”

    Arguably, the most famous example of this can be found with Dell Hell – the scathing open letter written by blogger Jeff Jarvis. Dell’s proactive, customer-centric response turned the situation around, creating widespread public admiration, not to mention catapulting Jarvis’ blog, BuzzMachine to a PR8 through an avalanche of links and articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek. (Remember, this is 2005, long before social media consultants trolled search conferences and “Online Reputation Management” didn’t get capitalized.)

  • Create Linkbait – Information about conflict can be press linkbait nirvana. We spent 5 minutes posting the official complaint from Larry Joe Davis on our blog, resulting in more high quality links from reporters wanting to cite the original document.  (Captain Obvious tip:  include the link to your linkbait in your press release.) ThinkGeek’s Canned Unicorn Meat April Fools story got over 1,200 links, but it was the post covering the ensuing legal threats from the Pork Board of America that generated an additional 6,500 (data from Open Site Explorer).
  • Follow Up – Don’t let the story quietly disappear. Two weeks after filing the lawsuit, Larry Joe Davis dropped libel from his complaint. Que another press release and outreach…

While I’m certainly not suggesting inciting legal action as a linkbuilding tactic, you can make lemonade when these lemon stories occur. Still dubious that there is no such thing as bad press for SEO?  From a branding perspective, I hate to associate Avvo and British Petroleum, but check out the inlinks resulting from the BP oil spill, currently driving over 200,000 links a month: (data from Majestic SEO).  If you could fill up your Lincoln Navigator by logging in to, they’d be raking it in now.

BP Links

One final note:  To Aaron Bradley, who turned to consulting after 5 years in-house and left me this vacancy for the In House SEO Column – I have always enjoyed your writing.  I suspect after a year or so you will have a very unique perspective on both in-house and consultants. Looking forward to future posts from you that explore the topic!

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About the author

Conrad Saam
Conrad Saam is the founder and general manager of Mockingbird Marketing (formerly Atticus Marketing), an agency delivering advanced online marketing exclusively for the legal industry. Previously, he spent 6 years running marketing for legal Q&A site Avvo -- which went from concept to market leader without spending a dollar on advertising (they were really really good at SEO). He's the author of The FindLaw Jailbreak Guide and hated by legal marketing vendors and social media marketing consultants who fleece their clients.

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