TNG/Earthling Is Looking For Trouble
by Pat Batiste
The Rise And Fall Of DotCoLaw
In 2011, a startup known as DotCoLaw.co began acquiring thousands of domains with exactly matching legal practice names using the .co extension which had just become available. Because the .com extension names are severely limited (all the good names are taken), this opened the opportunity to own a domain that tightly matched the website's focus, making them more easily discovered. So early adapters of this new extension were able to purchase yearly rights to keyword rich domains like PersonalInjury.co or PersonalInjuryLawyer.co. DotCoLaw bet heavily on this new domain extension, and lost. I set out to understand the role that TNG/Earthing played in the fiasco that was DotCoLaw, which once controlled over 23,000 domains on independent websites, all compliant with Google's guidelines, competing locally in every major market and many additional small cities and towns, offering local attorneys both ads and lead referrals, and relying on TNG/E's technical and SEO prowess.
According to Bob Sakayama, his company, TNG/Earthling, Inc., appreciates technical problems that have no obvious fixes. So it's easy to understand why the company became a market leader in some of the most challenging fields. Back when search engine optimization was a nascent industry, TNG/E already had the top 3 Google results for "Google penalty" and they became the market leader in Google penalty remediation, primarily because they were one of the first to recognize that sites were already getting penalized. The wake up call came when one of their own high ranking sites had been hit and was knocked completely out of the search. They contacted Google (back when they actually responded to emails sent to email@example.com) and were informed that they were in violation of "Google's guidelines" - rules by which webmasters had to abide to remain in Google's search results. Being penalized was one of those intriguing technical problems that had no obvious fix but demanded attention since it was an existential disaster for any online business. To discover a solution, TNG/E intentionally penalized some of their own sites just to test the causes and fixes. Bob is an advocate of learning through failure, "The Chinese character for disaster is the same as one for opportunity." The massive failure that a Google penalty represents may be revealing information about what triggered it, where the red lines are that webmasters dare not cross, and how to recover. By penalizing sites and recovering them, and then using this new knowledge to assist clients, TNG/E discovered the nature of those red lines - the limits of optimization - information that is even more valuable when trying to improve ranks since they define how hard one can push. Forbes Magazine quotes Bob in their article entitled "What To Look Out For To Avoid A Google Penalty."The story of DotCoLaw begins with the unwinding of a Google penalty on a legal website in 2009. Bob's team had just introduced their search enabled content management system, Protocol, and was giving it license free to clients. In this case, the client's penalized legal site had been implemented using FindLaw's content management system, but a bug in the system introduced a massive redundancy problem, which triggered the penalty. When the content was migrated to Protocol, and all the redundancies corrected, the website came into the Google results at #1 for "maritime lawyer". The timing could not have been better. A short time later, the Deepwater Horizon explosion occured injuring workers on the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of their top position in the search TNG/E's client won the right to represent the primary group of injured workers, and shared in the spotlight, and the settlement. It was the share of the settlement that enabled DotCoLaw to get off the ground. Bob Sakayama and Steve Gordon (Gordon Elias & Seely) were the partners who launched the startup and although this effort turned out to be a dry hole, the requirements on functionality that came with the scale of the project was viewed by everyone involved as both a challenge and an opportunity. It inspired the team at TNG/E to develop techniques and software to centrally manage a massive online system - skill sets that are super valuable for so many other applications.
According to Bob, the funding for DotCoLaw came entirely from the settlement. TNG/E's contribution was mostly sweat equity. When asked how it felt to be part of such a major disaster, having invested so much time and effort into creation of assets that would be discarded, Bob pushed back. He said that the knowledge gained was not discarded and had already lead to significant improvements in Protocol and other frequently used software tools. To handle the thousands of websites DotCoLaw controlled, TNG/E had developed Proteus, the software to host an unlimited number of websites on a single server while remaining search compliant - staying within Google's guidelines - across the entire network. The level of sophistication that was gained while providing support for DotCoLaw has benefited all of TNG/E's clients.
In the end, DotCoLaw could not grow fast enough to keep up with their outlays, including employees, equipment, advertising, and the annual renewals on 23,000+ premium domains. Except for a selected few of the original domains, DotCoLaw had to shut down everything. Bob continues to be upbeat about it and views the experience positively. This was one of those disasters that was an opportunity and a learning exercise - one of those chances to exploit a failure for future gain. Though the startup did not survive, Bob is confident that TNG/Earthling's investment in the effort was worthwhile in the long run, and has always been grateful to have had that experience.
pat at lkpy.org