Tuesday, March 20, 2012

SEO Company Ruined My Web Site!

Dear Rich: I am a self-employed career coach who owns and maintains her own business web site. All of the copy on the site was written by me and has been painstakingly crafted by me over the past four years. From it I have garnered numerous new clients and many comment that it was the content of my site that drew them in. Last November I hired a company to perform SEO services on the site in order to improve its visibility on search engines. I signed a contract with them, committing to an $8,000 expenditure in order to receive guaranteed search results on the major search engines. Most of the contracted services pertain to meta tags, keyword optimization, indexing and back links. The contract explicitly states that the SEO company will be making recommendations to me for improvement of my rankings, and I am obligated to make those changes. No problem so far. They had not recommended any necessary changes so I believed all was well, and expected that when/if changes needed to be made they would let me know. Yesterday I noticed that the copy on my web site had been dramatically, horribly altered. Everything I wrote for the site is gone, replaced by poorly written text, bad grammar, typos and flat-out inaccuracies. For example, I charge a fee for an Introductory Session; yesterday I noticed the word FREE had replaced my fee on numerous pages. And this was the tip of the iceberg as it became clear that all of the copy on my site had been replaced by embarrassingly bad writing. This was a heartbreak. I was never informed that my copy would be changed, I never authorized the editing of my copy, nor did anyone at the SEO company communicate that it had made the changes. I only learned of this by accident when visiting my site yesterday. It appears that this abomination of my copy -- and my professional image -- has appeared on my site for a couple of weeks. (Thankfully, only a couple of weeks). I spent several hours yesterday repairing the damage they had done. Based on the terms of the contract, I can't sue the SEO company for non-performance of their SEO duties. Can I file suit for copyright infringement? Before we bring in the lawyers, let's consider some practical issues:
  • Did you pay the whole sum up front? If not, obviously, you should hold off on making any additional payments until this matter is sorted properly. Did you pay with a credit card; if so check with the provider to determine whether you can dispute the payment. Ditto for PayPal.
  • Are you sure that your contract states that you are obligated to make the recommended changes? That seems a little odd ... agreeing ahead of time to make unknown changes. Are you sure there isn't some sort of approval process? If not, your situation becomes a bit murky, especially because you apparently gave them access to your site in order to modify it.
  • Perhaps you can claim non-performance of duties. Just because the company mucked about in your website doesn't mean they performed their services. From your description of what happened, it sounds as if the company breached the contract by going beyond standard SEO techniques and interfering directly with your marketing. The fee-to-free fiasco seems particularly irksome. 
  • Where is the company located and what does the agreement say about disputes? If, by some miracle, the company is located in your home state, that will make it easier to sue in small claims court and recover. Does the agreement have a jurisdiction provision explaining where you have to sue, or an attorney fee provision guaranteeing the winning party their attorney fees?
  • If you gave the SEO company the keys to your site ... In case you haven't done so already, it's time to change the access password in order to prevent any further setbacks.
  • Have you informed the company of your displeasure? After you've reviewed all your options above, you should send a notice (see if the contract has notice requirements) informing the company of your displeasure and letting them know that you consider them in breach and -- for what it's worth -- that you want a full refund. This is sometimes a prerequisite for small claims court or credit card claims.
  • Can you sue for copyright infringement? Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use or modification of a work. If you gave the company access to your site and permission to modify, your problem will more likely be considered a contractual dispute, rather than a copyright claim.