SEO & Legal Ethics: What Lawyers Need To Know

There are legitimate, hard-working SEO providers who can get real results for law firms—but they may use practices that are acceptable in the marketing industry but not in the legal industry.

Ethical compliance for SEO can be murky waters, especially for SEO pros that don’t understand the unique challenges of marketing law firms.

We’ve talked about how to avoid being caught up in an SEO scam before—but there are some legitimate SEO techniques that are within Google’s best practices that may break legal ethics rules. SEO is a particularly sticky area when it comes to legal ethics because there are a lot of widely accepted best practices that can potentially put your license at risk.

SEO providers that don’t have experience working with the legal industry may not even be aware of the ethical implications of what they’d consider normal, routine SEO practices.

As an attorney, you’re responsible for every action marketing team takes on your behalf. Knowing that your SEO provider understands what they can and can’t do to market your firm is essential to maintaining your good standing and avoiding censure—or worse.

How SEO Can Break Legal Ethics Rules

If you’re searching for an SEO company for your law firm, it’s important to know which SEO techniques can be questionable when it comes to legal ethics.

None of these techniques are what is considered "blackhat", or practices that don’t meet Google’s standards, but are potentially troubling when it comes to ethical compliance. Some legitimate SEO companies use these techniques in their work for their clients.

  • Misleading claims - There are a lot of searches every month for the "best" attorney for a particular practice area and there’s a lot of valuable traffic that can come with ranking for those kinds of terms. Unfortunately, how SEO is implemented with on-site optimizations can create misleading claims if you’re not careful.
  • Neglecting disclaimers - Some jurisdictions and practice areas require disclaimers about representation or the types of services your firm provides. Depending on how SEO is done, these disclaimers may not be able to be included on sites where your law firm is included and is marketing for new business, such as directories, guest posts, and other information. If you need to include disclaimers, this might not play well with some SEO company’s strategies.
  • Participating in forums without disclosures - SEO companies will often participate in forums on behalf of your company without disclosing who they are, who they represent, or their relationship to your firm. For example, they might create a profile that they use to promote content they create for your firm without saying who they are or that they represent your firm. This can potentially violate ethics in some jurisdictions.
  • Creating "fake" or "placeholder" accounts - A common practice for linkbuilding is to create a secondary, throw-away email address, usually on Gmail, to collect all of the spam email received while doing linkbuilding work. Be careful if you don’t know that your SEO company uses this practice as it can potentially create issues if a potential client contacts your firm and misses a statute of limitations deadline because no one responded.
  • Linking schemes - Some SEO companies use links between their current clients’ sites to boost rankings. Depending on how these links are created, your firm may be accidentally creating a relationship you don’t know about.
  • Secondary websites - Legal SEO companies may use secondary, legitimate websites to create an authority website that they use to link to their clients. While this website is legitimate and provides valuable information to searchers, be careful that you’re not creating a referral partnership with non-attorneys.

Before you hire an SEO company for your firm, ask if they use any of these practices and how they deal with the ethical compliance of each of these potential problems. Keep in mind that with appropriate adaptations for ethics, some of these tactics can work for law firms and they don’t necessarily need to be ruled out entirely.

Vetting an SEO Pro for Legal SEO Ethics Knowledge

There are a lot of different ways that SEO can go wrong and put your law license at risk as well as hurt your law firm website’s SEO, so knowing that you’re working with an SEO expert that understands the unique ethical restraints of law firm SEO is essential when looking for the right company to hire.

You can ask three questions to understand if your law firm SEO provider knows the basics about legal ethics:

  • Do they avoid certain words or sentences that imply expertise beyond legal training, like "expert", "specialize", "the best" or others?
  • How do they deal with potentially creating attorney-client privilege with profiles on other listing sites and local SEO?
  • How can they help you include awards in profiles while staying compliant?

There are a lot of other complex questions you can ask when vetting an SEO expert to understand their legal ethics knowledge but these key questions can usually help weed out SEO pros who can’t adapt to the special requirements for legal SEO.

Keep in mind it’s your responsibility to ensure your SEO is ethically compliant and that may mean you need to assume a larger role of oversight when working with an SEO expert who doesn’t know the rules.

What to look for in a lawyer SEO company

Beyond looking for an SEO expert who understands the ethical constraints of doing SEO for law firms, making sure that your SEO provider has a few points in order is a great way to vet a company before hiring them.

  • Long-term relationships: SEO is an on-going service, not a one-time process, so you’ll find great SEO experts often require longer term relationships and design their contracts to make continuing to work together easy. Ask how long clients stay with the SEO company, on average. Look for a provider for whom most of the clients have been with them for at least 2-3 years.
  • One-Firm Focus: SEO is relative to your competitors so it’s important to know that your SEO provider is only going to work with your firm for your practice areas & region.
  • Know Google’s Best Practices & New Research: Beyond avoiding the obvious pitfalls for bad SEO, they should keep up to date with what’s happening in SEO and tactics that work the most effectively.
  • Have experience: Make sure they’ve worked with law firms before, not just that they’ve worked with any companies to do SEO. They should have at least a few notable case studies, even if they’re not exactly the same as your firm.
  • Have a system for approvals & oversight: Ethical compliance is a lot harder if you don’t know what’s happening with your account. Your provider should have practices in place for approvals and oversight built in. It’s even better if an attorney is part of that internal process, like at our SEO agency, where SEO work is checked for quality by our in-house counsel before we send it to clients.
  • In-house team: Whitelabeling, or outsourcing agency work to freelancers, is common in the SEO industry but this can reduce the oversight as well as quality of the work being done. Ask who will be working on your account and if they’re in-house.
  • Communication & reporting: SEO requires communication with your firm both for knowing how the results are working as well as what your firm’s evolving goals are. Communication should be a routine part of the work being done as well as reporting at routine intervals for measurement of results.
  • Ability to implement development issues: Some SEO issues require coding changes to your website. A full-service SEO agency should be able to make changes to your website instead of leaving you with a list of changes you’ll need to handle on your own.
  • Integrated approach: SEO shouldn’t be a standalone service for law firms but should be integrated into your other marketing, especially if you’re using Google Ads. A combined strategy can reduce your overall costs and increase your effectiveness.
  • Understanding of ethics & how to apply them to SEO: Understanding ethical compliance and awareness of what SEO should and shouldn’t do is essential for law firms.
  • Access & ownership: Your firm should also have access to anything that may result in client communication, such as email addresses, profiles, your website, and other properties. You don’t necessarily need access to SEO tools—but you do need access to anywhere that could potentially create an attorney-client relationship. We also recommend that you are the owner of these accounts rather than your SEO company.

Getting to the first page in Google can be a huge business builder for law firms. But legal SEO is also one of the more difficult and expensive industries for ranking because of high competition for top ranking positions. All the same, law firms can make big leaps in revenue by investing in search engine optimization, says Search Engine Land.

If you’re looking for the right law firm SEO company, using the above list to vet companies can be very helpful, as well as understanding the basics of SEO for law firms.

Talk to Our Legal SEO Company

Looking for an SEO provider that cares about ethics as much as you do? We’re a bit unique in the SEO industry because we’re attorney owned and operated. As part of our SEO services, we put practices in place to maintain a high level of quality for our clients and help them understand ethical implications of marketing.

Get in touch to talk to our SEO professionals and find out how SEO can help your law firm grow when done right.

Kim Herrington

Kim Herrington is Creative Director of Orsanna where she leads the production and strategy for clients' marketing and advertising. She founded Orsanna over seven years ago to bring quality marketing services to business owners.