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November 13, 2006

When SEOs Are Sued Over Past Work

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I’m not sure how many of you are avid readers of LED Digest, but a good thread has developed that’s well worth a read. A search engine optimizer working in a niche-based industry is asking for advice after discovering he is being sued by a former client for working with other clients in the same industry and allegedly "taking away their business". The SEO (who must remain anonymous for obvious reasons) wants to know if he should feel obligated to pay the client off or just ignore the suit. The question got such a response that LED Digest felt the need to create a Special Issue to specifically deal with the topic.

If you ask me, the whole thing is ludicrous.

We’re talking about a client this SEO hasn’t worked with in four years. I’m sorry, but if you haven’t touched your site in four years, of course your rankings are inferior to your competition. That’s the nature of the game. As Bruce stated in his comment to the thread, evolve or die.

Amen, boss.

I think its gross behavior to sue a company based on your own internal breakdowns. It was this client’s decision not to keep their site updated and fresh. They chose to sit on past rankings and not evolve with the algorithms. They got lazy and thought methods put in place four years ago would be enough to compete in today’s ultra-competitive market. Obviously that’s not the case. SEO is not a one time deal.

Even the strongest sites designed for search engine optimization need some tending to and routine care. To go back to Susan’s garden analogy (which I very much enjoyed), you wouldn’t plant a bed of sunflowers (quiet, I love sunflowers) and then forget about them, would you? No, you would go out and water them daily, make sure they were getting enough sun, shoo away the neighborhood rodents and maybe even serenade them every once in awhile. Or, if you didn’t have time to do it yourself, you would hire someone to do it for you. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be surprise when you walk out of your house say, four years later, and are greeted by a nice compost pile, not a beautiful garden.

The fact is you can’t blame a third party for your own failure to act. The rankings they helped you achieve were based on the algorithms, competitiveness, and the freshness and relevance of your site back then. There is absolutely no legal merit or ethical validness in putting the blame on someone else. This lawsuit is completely unfounded.

This client willingly chose to end their services with the SEO, and as such, the SEO moved on. New clients were taken on and this SEO used today’s tactics to help these sites achieve high rankings in the search engines. To now bellyache that it is unfair for these new clients to rank higher is ridiculous. It should never be assumed that the rankings your site has today will last any longer than that.

Bruce commented that nuisance suits like these set a dangerous precedent for the entire search engine optimization industry, and he’s right on. Setting balls like this in motion create the idea that SEOs are responsible for the success of a client’s site, and that is fundamentally not true. Site owners are responsible for the success and failure of their site. We’ll give you the tools and show you how to use them, but it’s your job to actually put them to use. It’s your job to keep your site fresh and relevant, and to employ the methods we teach you.

I’m equally concerned over the thought that an SEO can be sued for helping competing sites rank well. I understand that a conflict of interest may arise if you’re working on both side-by-side (which is why Bruce Clay, Inc. doesn’t do it), but unless you sign a contract stating otherwise, working on a competitor years after your contract has ended should be 100 percent within your legal bounds. Anything else threatens the livelihood of the SEO profession, especially those working in tight niche industries.

Chris Nielson came up with a strategy to fight back that I personally enjoyed:

"If you decide to fight this misguided former client, you should document every detail and create a site about it (if your lawyer agrees). Your site will be well-optimized and may be found for many of the keywords that your former client is upset about, including their company name. I can contribute a few links from some of my sites. You can issue press releases and use other marketing methods to get your side of this story out there."

I believe that’s called the Michael Graywolf method of dealing with annoying companies. ;) If this case goes any further, however, it may come to that. Remind the client just how good you are at what you do. Maybe they’ll rehire you.

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