This is the first of a two part Naughty Step
I have, I'm afraid, become annoyed lately. Or to be more accurate, annoyance is a fairly constant state for me, but I have become specifically annoyed about a particular something lately. And it is even, tangentially, related to housing law.
Let me be your Virgil (albeit a rather bitchy and sulky one) as I take you on a trip down through some of the hellish circles of 'free legal content' on the UK internet. As an excuse, landlord and tenant law will be our focus.
The First Circle - Free (generic) content!
As anyone running a moderately successful legal website will know, there are a surprisingly large number of people willing to offer things to you for free. Pretty much daily, emails arrive promising free articles. They usually look something like this:
I am writing to you on behalf of Forward3D and we are a partner agency to one of UK most famous Solicitor firm. I have been following your Blog for the last one month and some of the content on the blog look really interesting. I particularly liked the articles titled “Not smelling of roses”, “Article 14, Disability” and “Glad To See Y’Back Again?”. I loved the fact that the artcles are on current topics and there are innovative and humorous twists to the articles. They are very quick witted and cleverly written.
My client is UK’s most successful and respected law firms with a national network of offices. The company is passionate about law and take pride in their open and innovative approach.
I am wondering if you will be interested in sharing some unique and relevant content put together by our experts on your blog? Please do let me know if that sounds of interest to you.
Thank you so much for your time.
Warm Regards,[deleted] [All errors in the original]
I'd have to admit that this one was unusual in that it actually referred specifically to some of our posts, but was otherwise fairly standard.
So, what could possibly be wrong with this? 'Unique and relevant' free content by an expert? And they like our witty and clever posts, the silver tongued flatterers.
In a spirit of investigation (or rather devilment) I replied to this email. Firstly, who is this 'successful and respected client'?
We are working for Irwin Mitchell. Here is the website for you to have a look at [link removed for reasons that will become clear].
Hope to hear from you soon.
Irwin Mitchell? But they don't do housing or landlord & tenant law. What 'unique and relevant content' would be on offer, assuming it was even going to be from them?
I was thinking that the content will be in the lines on Probate and Estate Administration. What happens to a property after the death of a loved one and the subsequent responsibility in dealing with estate administration in UK and abroad.
Ah. So that would be not relevant and of dubious uniqueness then? I made my excuses and left.
And what would be Irwin Mitchell's motivation? (Or rather, I presume, that of their outsourced web marketing consultancy, Forward3D?). According to Forward3D's page on 'Search Engine Optimisation' (SEO - there will be more about this)
We have a range of linking strategies that we can employ for our clients. Some are linear strategies aimed at securing targeted links from valued sites, whilst others involve link baiting techniques and social media engagement.
A word of explanation - search engines like Google value sites in part by the number of links to that site, but also by the 'quality' of those links. A link from an advertisement counts far less than a link that appears to be deliberate by an author in the site content (a 'text link'). They also look at the words used in the text link, or around the text link. And of course, they consider the value or ranking of the site from which the link comes.
So, a link to Irwin Mitchell coming from the text of what appears to be an article, with keywords relating to property, estate administration, probate and so on would have some considerable benefit for Irwin Mitchell. It would improve the rating of their site and make them more likely to appear higher in searches related to probate etc..
Getting such a link from Nearly Legal would be far better than getting it from some new or not very well regarded site. For example, Google assigns sites a page rank, technically 1 at the bottom up to 10. Irwin Mitchell's homepage has a pagerank of 5, which is pretty good. Only things like the BBC, Apple, and so on get between 6 and 10. Nearly Legal also has a page rank of 5. (This makes me wonder if I should return the favour and offer to write free 'unique and relevant' content for Irwin Mitchell's site which links back to Nearly Legal.) So a link from Nearly Legal is, in SEO terms, a valuable one.
The offer of 'free content' is therefore a proposal for us to carry unpaid advertising for Irwin Mitchell in a way which has a beneficial effect on their search engine ranking on key phrases. Put like that, it sounds a little less attractive. In fact rather easy to avoid, if you have any standards, pride or even remote aspirations to producing a quality legal website.
The Second Circle: We'll pay you to put this rubbish on your site
Given that this is basically advertising, or improving search engine results in ways that would otherwise have to be paid for, why shouldn't the 'client' pay for it?
This is the approach taken by Thomson Reuters:
We are currently looking for potential partner sites to provide law related content for.
Our company is called Contact Law and we have expertise in most areas of law.
We can write content based on the areas of law your blog focuses on. We are open to your suggestions if you have a particular area you want covered or we could write on a law topic that is really relevant at the moment that your visitors will find useful.
We would do this free of charge and we are willing to pay an administration fee if necessary. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need further information.
Phone: [deleted] [deleted]@thomsonreuters.com
This e-mail is for the sole use of the intended recipient and contains information that may be privileged and/or confidential. If you are not an intended recipient, please notify the sender by return e-mail and delete this e-mail and any attachments. Certain required legal entity disclosures can be accessed on our website.
I'm ignoring that disclaimer because I am the (unsolicited) recipient and I'm using it. There is nothing privileged or confidential in there.
Contact Law is a solicitor referral directory site. Intrigued, I asked how a referral site had 'expertise in most areas of law' and moreover, what their 'content based on [our] site's focus', housing law, might look like. I was told firmly that:
Although we are a referral directory, we also write informative articles on that same site. An example which does actually cover the landlord area of law is below:[For link see below]
We would be happy to write an article similar to this.
What was linked to was this vague, pointless and hopeless drivel (I've coded this link so it won't count for search engines).
Sadly, though, the appalling quality of the content is not a surprise. What is notable is that Thomson Reuters offered to pay 'an administration fee if necessary'. Why is this a surprise and really shouldn't they pay?
Another quick exposition. Search engines like Google want text links from content to have a qualitative value, and for that reason, they have got tough on the quantitative value end of things. Paid for text links are A Bad Thing according to Google and can result in Google penalising the site that puts them up.
Thomson Reuters clearly know this. Hence the suggestion that this is an 'administration fee', not an advertising fee. This might be seen as just a little disingenuous. Clearly, they don't want their content appearing identified as a 'paid for' post. That would mean losing pretty much all the SEO value of the links.
So, the kind offer from Thomson Reuters of free tailored content, for which they might even pay me, turns out to be an offer to put up poorly written rubbish on my site, advertising Contact Law and giving it SEO kudos, while exposing this site to the risk of a penalty in its own rankings and subsequent visibility by Google if they worked out what was going on. A bargain, I think you'll agree.
Interestingly, although by-the-by, the Contact Law site lists The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times as 'Partners'. As far as I can see, this just means that the site was mentioned in articles in those papers, making the 'partner' claim utter bilge and hogwash. I wonder what the papers would make of being 'Partners'? I may ask the Guardian and see. [Update. The Guardian have stated on Twitter very firmly that they are not a 'partner' of Contact Law and object to being described as such.]
The worrying thing is that these SEO hawkers wouldn't be doing this if there weren't sites prepared to take the 'free content' and put the nonsense up. It is out there, masquerading as being about the law, filling up the web with pointless if not downright inaccurate stuff.
These hawkers of tat are relentless and - having corresponded with a few - know no shame. Most are from outsourced SEO consultants - and any law firm that outsources its SEO needs to have a very clear idea of what they are up to. For example, a lot of spam comments attempted on this site are from shonky SEO setups 'on behalf' of law firms. But the Irwin Mitchell campaign has been going on for over a year, to my knowledge, and the Thomson Reuters stuff comes from in-house.
For their services in peddling unnecessary and useless 'legal' information for their own gain, on to the Naughty Step they go.
Anyone with a site who is tempted to run this 'free content' (let alone get paid for it), should, in my less than humble opinion, take a long very hard look at their self-respect and reflect carefully upon any aspirations to professionalism they may once have had.
But there are other sites prepared to put up their bad 'free' material about the law for their own purposes. An egregious example of that is in part 2.