“How did www.mylawfirmscompetitor.com get to #1 on Google?  I want you to do whatever they did!” – Every Law Firm I’ve Ever Spoken With

I feel conflicted whenever I get this question, which I get on a weekly, if not daily basis.  Inevitably, I take a look at said competitor’s backlink profile and it’s a sea of spam.  75,000 backlinks from nonsense websites (which are almost always private blog networks, or PBNs), comments spammed across sites in Russia and Southeast Asia, and enough Web 2.0 crap to fill a floor of servers.  I then realize that once again, I’m going to have the “well, they haven’t been penalized yet, but it’s just a matter of time” conversation.  From the client’s perspective, the competing firm is driving tens of thousands of dollars of billable hours while he is pumping out blog pieces and still paying referral fees to other firms.  Additionally, I have clients with whom I had the “it’s a matter of time” discussion three years ago and the competitor is still #1.

What do you tell them?

I have resolved to view my white hat vs. black hat conundrum through the lens of risk management.  I do not think that it is my job to tell a client that they should or should not take one approach vs. another; my duty is to clearly communicate the opportunities, risks, and costs of each approach and allow the client to make his or her own decisions.  I would prefer that our clients use white hat, best practices to rank their sites, but that does not always align with their risk tolerance and desire for fast results.  If a firm stands to drive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in business over x amount of time, only to be penalized and move their site to a new domain and start over, they should be allowed to make that decision.

We do not do any blackhat SEO in-house.  It is more profitable for us to provide white hat solutions, but ultimately, our suggestions must fit the client.  My favorite analogy is to compare both practices to driving on a highway: if you do the speed limit, you’re less likely to be pulled over, have a fatal accident, or get a blowout.  If you decide to do 80 mph, you suddenly run all of these risks, but you will almost certainly get there more quickly (as long as none of those risks turn into actual problems).

In the end, it all depends on your appetite for risk.