Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lawyers, Stop Stealing Content!

Google recently implemented an update to its search engine algorithm. The update, commonly known as "Farmer" but also referred to as "Panda", devalues sites and pages that the revised algorithm deems to have little to no unique content. The search engine community refers to the sites the algorithm was intended to affect as "content farms", hence "Farmer": an algorithm update directed at "farms".

I have maintained legal websites for many years, most notably the website I compiled a significant collection of articles for that website. I wrote the majority of the articles myself, and for the most part they offer solid content. (Some would benefit from being revised, expanded or updated; but as they say, there are only so many hours in the day.)

There are two issues you will confront if you publish materials on the Internet:
  • First, you will encounter people who don't understand that copyright law applies to the Internet, and believe that anything online is theirs for the taking.

  • Second, you will encounter many webmasters who don't care about who owns or creates content - the web is theirs for the stealing.

Historically, at least in relation to my site, Google has done a reasonable job of distinguishing the original article from plagiarized copies and slightly modified versions that have been posted around the web. With the "Farmer" update, that is no longer the case. Some of my original articles will no longer appear in the search results unless you go to the last page of the search results and click to "repeat the search with the omitted results included." Afterward they may appear on the first page of search results, but thanks to the extent of plagiarism Google is no longer treating my site as the original publisher. Also, even when my site appears in the regular results, at times it will be outranked by (that is, appear in the list of results below) a page that reproduces my original content.

Here's the kicker: A lot of those websites belong to lawyers and law firms.

And when you look at the lawyer websites that contain plagiarized content, it's rare that it's just the one article. Often they will present, without attribution, may articles or excerpts of articles from my site, other sites, or a combination of sites.

Usually when this happens it's because the law firm hired a web designer who believes that the rest of the Internet is theirs to take or steal. Sometimes the law firm will even pay the designer for hours of time allegedly spent creating the content (when in fact the designer spent only a few minutes stealing it.

But lawyers have no excuses when it comes to respecting copyright laws. And as lawyers know, they're responsible for the acts of their agents (leaving aside for the moment that sometiemes the theft is by the lawyer, not an agent.) Sometimes, knowing full well that they had nothing to do with the creating of the stolen content, lawyers will actually attach their own bylines to the articles. How is it ethical to claim to have authored something that was cribbed from the Internet by somebody else (or... by you)?

So lawyers should watch out.
  1. If your content largely consists of content stolen from other sites, the "Farmer" update may cause your site to plummet in Google's search results;

  2. If you or your web designer have stolen content from other sites, and worse if you purport to have authored that content, you are likely running afoul of your state's rules of professional responsibility.

  3. There are a bunch of honest webmasters who are losing web traffic and money due to the conduct of people like you, and we're mad as H-E-Double Chopsticks. Some of us will file DMCA requests with search engines or your web host to try to have your plagiarized content removed. Some of us have registered copyrights for our content and can seek statutory damages. Some of us are lawyers.

If you did not personally author your website's content it's time to review it. Enter pages from your site into Copyscape and see if the same content appears on other websites. Copy portions of sentences from your pages and paste them into Google (using quotation marks) - for example, if you have a passage on your website,
This tool will guide you through the process of reporting content that you believe warrants removal from Google's services based on applicable laws. Completing this form will help ensure that we have all of the information necessary to investigate your specific inquiry and resolve it as quickly as possible.
You could copy a relatively unique excerpt such as "based on applicable laws. Completing this form will help ensure" and run a Google search to see where else it appears.

If your site includes plagiarized content, take it down. Immediately. Or, better, yesterday. You have no excuse.

Addendum: The same goes for when you're posting articles or answers to questions on sites like Avvo. Don't steal text from other people's articles and pass it off as your own analysis. That's dishonest and unethical - if you have to steal somebody else's words to make yourself appear proficient, how can you argue but that your intent is anything but to mislead potential clients who read the article about your knowledge and experience?


  1. So.., you're just telling the thieves not to steal. What do you do when you ARE one of those independent writers who is having things stolen by others and promoted by Google?

  2. Are you merely spamming, or did you read what I posted? As the post indicates, I am an independent writer whose content has been stolen.


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