Do SEO Link Farms Violate the RICO Law?

Are Internet “link farms,” which attempt to game Google search results, a violation of the federal RICO Act? That’s what a Michigan law firm claims in its federal lawsuit against an Arizona law marketing company.

The Seikaly & Stewart firm of Farmington Hills, Mich., says that it paid $49,000 to The Rainmaker Institute to get better SEO (search engine optimization) for its websites. Instead, TRI plugged the firm’s websites into link farms, which failed to improve the firm’s web traffic and ultimately “contaminated” the sites’ searchability, the firm claims in its federal lawsuit

Like most attorneys, our firm maintains an active website, and I have a great interest in law firm marketing. So I was intrigued by Seikaly & Stewart’s petition against The Rainmaker Institute. Among other things, I wondered why the plaintiffs believed a dispute over law marketing qualifies as a RICO violation. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was enacted in 1970 as a weapon against organized crime. What does that have to do with SEO and link farms?

Fortunately, Minneapolis law blogger Sam Glover found and published a copy of the petition on his website. Thanks, Sam. I’ve read the petition, and must say, I’m beginning to think that labeling link farming as a RICO violation may be a good call.

According to the petition, until recent years, The Rainmaker Institute was engaged primarily in teaching and training small law firms about marketing. TRI and its CEO, Stephen Fairley, may be familiar to many attorneys. According to the company’s website, it has been making presentations at conventions and seminars across the country for 14 years, including events sponsored by many state bar associations.

However, in 2009 or 2010, the petition says, TRI moved beyond teaching lawyers how to promote themselves to offering direct law firm marketing services. Among the services TRI began offering was “link-building.”

As anyone who has a website knows, the holy grail of the Internet is online traffic. Every website owner wants “hits” and “visits” and “page views.” A primary way websites get visitors is when someone clicks on a website that comes up in search engine results. Website owners crave a top ranking in those search results.

It is well-known that a big factor Google uses in its search results formula is how many “inbound links” a website has. How many other websites have found your content valuable enough that they have linked to it on their own websites? In this way, Google indirectly lets the general population decide which sites get the best search rankings.

The quest for inbound links has led to the creation of “link farms.” In their petition, Seikaly & Stewart claim The Rainmaker Institute did not provide them with legitimate law marketing services, but rather used a link farm approach.

A link farm is a network of websites that link to each other. If 100 websites agree to mutually link, each site acquires 100 new inbound links. That will impress Google and generate some good SEO, right? Not so much.

That kind of strategy may have worked years ago, but Google has long since fine-tuned its process to detect the difference between a bogus link on a bogus website that exists solely to rachet up SEO results and a genuine inbound link from a legitimate site.

As a matter of fact, not only does Google not recognize those links, it penalizes (or may penalize) sites that use such methods in an attempt to game the system. Such websites can land on Google’s blacklist and get buried by the search engines.

Seikaly & Stewart’s petition claims TRI used a link farm strategy, even though the company knew the strategy violated Google’s guidelines, would not work, and might even backfire.

That’s all very interesting. But even if TRI did engage in link farming, is that somehow a violation of RICO? The more I think about, the more it looks like that could be the case. What is necessary to prove a RICO violation?

• Racketeering: Was a service offered fraudulently? That’s exactly what Seikaly & Stewart are claiming: that TRI knew its methods were not legitimate or effective SEO, but they made “a series of fraudulent representations and misrepresentations” that they were.

• Wire fraud: One of the most common applications of the RICO law is to wire fraud. TRI’s use of the Internet to promote and carry out its scheme constitutes wire fraud, according to the petition. Attorney Jeffrey Grell, a RICO expert, provides a good discussion of RICO and wire fraud.

Conspiracy: The RICO Law originally targeted organized crime. A demonstration of conspiracy bolsters the claim of a RICO violation. Seikaly & Stewart indeed claim that TRI had a co-conspirator, defendant “John Doe.” The petition claims TRI subcontracted out the link-building (i.e., the link farms) to others, “including but not limited to John Doe.”

• A RICO violation further requires that multiple offenses have occurred in an enterprise that involves interstate commerce. Seikaly & Stewart claim that “numerous victim firms” across the country have been lured into TRI’s “interstate” scheme.

I have no idea if The Rainmaker Institute is guilty of any wrongdoing. However, it makes sense to me that promoting Internet marketing schemes such as link farming, which are known to be ineffective and counterproductive, may constitute a RICO violation. If Seikaly & Stewart’s petition prevails, it may have a profound and sobering effect on the Internet marketing industry.