I have been doing some research on marketing tactics by lawyers and came across an interesting ethical question. As lawyers know, the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct sets forth the ethical requirements for the practice of law in Georgia. These rules encompass (among many other things) how lawyers may advertise their services under Part 7. For example, a lawyer must make “prominent disclosures” which includes the name, physical location, and telephone number of the lawyer or law firm who paid for the advertisement.
Although ethical rules on advertising may have been adequate for 1990, I hypothesized that they are outdated in the current era of online marketing, social media, and SEO (search engine optimization). I explored the SEO practice known as “backlinking” to find out if and how lawyers were complying with the Rules of Professional Conduct for advertising.
Quick primer: Backlinks are links to your website that are posted on other websites. Backlinks are an important part of SEO because they help your website appear higher in Google search results. In simple terms, Google considers your website more relevant because so many other websites are linking to it. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop organic backlinks – you have to blog and create content that other websites will find interesting.
Of course, there is a short-cut for those willing to pay. There is a whole industry dedicated to selling backlinks for the purpose of boosting SEO. These inorganic backlinks violate Google’s rules, however, the practice is widespread. Inorganic backlinks are pretty obvious when you see them, such as backlinks in unrelated blogs (e.g. a law firm randomly mentioned on a Keto diet blog) or backlinks spammed in the open comments section of some unlucky Indonesian teenager’s blog (better add a CAPTCHA).
There are free online tools to search for backlinks. I focused my research on the law firms which appeared on the first page of Google results for “Georgia personal injury lawyer.” Those that were using organic backlinks had articles on legal blogs (e.g. Justia), law schools, and press release sites. These backlinks generally complied with the disclosure requirements of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct.
I also found law firms on the first page which used inorganic backlinks – thousands of them. To be clear, I am not accusing these large firms of deliberately using inorganic backlinks. It is more likely that the SEO company they hired used inorganic backlinks. The ethical problem is that the vast majority of these inorganic backlinks do not include any of the required disclosures for advertisements under the Georgia Rules of Professional Responsibility.
These backlinks are the online equivalent of paying someone (a SEO company) to put 10,000 yard signs all over the city. The yard signs say, “FrodoBagginsLaw.com” and that’s it. This is advertising so at the very least, Frodo needs to include his name, address, and phone number on the ad to comply with Rule 7.2.
But what if Frodo goes a step further and pays people (bloggers) to shout on a street corner: “Were you injured in an orc accident? Visit FrodoBagginsLaw.com. He can help you get a BAG of cash!” Does Frodo need to disclose that this is a paid advertisement?
I asked these questions in a private (lawyers-only) Facebook group and it prompted a very interesting debate. Some lawyers insisted that a website URL is not an advertisement. This is admittedly a grey area. Given that the maximum penalty for a violation Rule 7.2 is a public reprimand,” some lawyers may believe the risk of non-compliance is worth it. Alternatively, they may view it as such a grey area that it isn’t worth worrying about. Besides, the State Bar of Georgia doesn’t have the kind of time or resources needed to police this (even Google struggles with inorganic backlinks).
I could have ended my research on this topic there but I didn’t because grey areas are so much fun. I contacted the State Bar of Georgia.
Question: Hello. A lawyer wants to improve his website’s SEO (search engine optimization) so that his website appears higher on Google search rankings. To do this, he pays a SEO service and perhaps even individual websites/bloggers to “backlink” to the lawyer’s website (that is, to create online content which provides a link to the lawyer’s website).
1. Is “backlinking” which is paid for or requested by the lawyer (whether through a SEO service or by contacting the backlinking websites directly) considered advertising under Rule 7.2(a)?
2. If backlinking is considered advertising, what disclosures must the attorney make?
Response: This is an informal opinion issued pursuant to Bar Rule 4-401. It is the sender’s personal opinion and is neither a defense to any complaint nor binding on the State Disciplinary Board, the Supreme Court of Georgia or the State Bar of Georgia.
Dear Mr. Khatib:
If the SEO placements say “ad” or “advertisement” next to them when they appear in search results, that would satisfy the requirement that they be identified as advertisements under Rule 7.2. I don’t think saying “sponsored” is the same thing, give the specificity of the rule.
As to “backlinks” in blogs or other online materials, these are “public communication for which a lawyer has given value” under 7.1 (b), so I think the blog post or article would need to say that writer is being paid to link to the lawyer.
Incidentally, the Rules committee is considering changes to Part 7 to bring it into line with the ABA. So this may change in the future…
In summary, backlinks must say “ad” or “advertisement” next to the link. Additionally, paid posts must say the writer is being paid to link to the lawyer. The State Bar of Georgia is considering changes to the rules, too.