by: Matt Wetherington
August 22, 2022
This article was not written by a marketing team or search engine optimization company. Nor am I an expert in SEO or marketing. This article will not even attempt to teach you SEO, provide marketing advice, or give recommendations for specific marketing companies. Instead, it will provide a methodology that you can use to objectively evaluate marketing companies and pick the right one for your law firm. And you should listen to me because I am a part of the most trusted, loved, and admired groups of people in the world. That’s right, I’m a trial lawyer.
As an Atlanta personal injury lawyer, I believe that the rising tide raises all boats and I want to give back to the people who have given me so much. Also, like every other lawyer reading this article, I have a lot of experience studying something to the point of obsession and then sharing everything I know with complete strangers. Usually those strangers are jurors. Today, it’s you. At the bottom of this page is a table listing nearly 100 “good” marketing companies along with objective data about their results. Click here to skip to the table.
I’ve spent the last several months choosing an online marketing company for my personal injury law firm. I evaluated 100s of marketing firms, visited thousands of lawyer websites, and personally contacted over 2,000 lawyers about their experiences with these marketing firms. I’m going to share all of my work product with you in hopes that the “good” SEO companies will link to this page as proof that they know what they are doing and that all the lawyers reading this will be so impressed with our thoroughness that they refer personal injury cases to my firm. We currently specialize in admitted liability truck wreck cases with catastrophic injuries. But we handle other stuff too.
Once we are done, you will be able to:
- Identify a group of marketing firms with a track record of success in the legal industry;
- Interview marketing firms to screen out bad fits for your law firm;
- Find current clients of the marketing firm that they don’t feature on their website to see real-world examples of their work; and
- Locate former clients of the firm to get an idea of how things can go right or wrong with the company.
The Only Principles of Search Optimization You Need to Know
When we first decided to hire a marketing company, I reached out to trusted friends with beautiful websites for recommendations. After talking to a few companies, I realized that – like lawyers that brag about “full compensation” – most SEO companies inflate their credentials and have a selective list of clients they provide to exaggerate their capabilities and track record. The problem is that there really isn’t “good enough” in the SEO world – it is a winner take all sport. If a marketing company fails to land its law firm client on the front page for at least one high-value keyword, all of the money spent on the marketing effort was wasted. As one lawyer explained,
I didn’t sign up a single case through my website with ***. The website looked nice but there were no results. Granted, I may not have given them enough time. I stuck with them for a year, spent about $85,000, and canceled the contract. Not one case came through. They used to be very good, which is why I went with them. Not sure what happened over there though. I wasn’t a big account, so I don’t think they were too focused on my website. My personal opinion.
Law firm SEO is relatively straightforward. It consists of either paid ads or unpaid organic results. Most of your time and money should be spent on organic search. In simplest terms, ranking for a practice area requires the following:
- Providing relevant information about a practice area on your website (quality);
- Accurate directory listings so that Google knows where your law firm is located (proximity); and
- Links to your website from other websites to establish a track record of credibility (relevance).
You do not have to have a fancy website or millions of backlinks to rank for a niche topic. For example, prior to hiring a company, we had almost no optimization of our website. Despite our pathetic web presence, the Wetherington Law Firm was still the number one result for a wide variety of class action lawsuits because we are the only law firm in the country handling those specific types of claims.
Ranking becomes much more difficult when multiple law firms compete for the same types of cases. For example, ranking for Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyer is incredibly difficult. Despite Google having over 8 million results for the term, only a handful of law firms have climbed to the top in the last two years.
When multiple law firms meet the basic criteria for relevancy in personal injury, Google looks at the quality and quantity of the content, links, and proximity in determining where firms rank. Quantity is simple – more is typically better. But quality is largely a mystery box. There are some things that Google has affirmatively stated are quality indicators, like how fast the page loads or how long ago your domain was registered. But no one actually knows everything that goes into quality scores. That hasn’t stopped people from guessing though.
For example, this site has identified at least 200 potential quality factors. The mystery box is where SEO companies make their money. Most marketing companies attempt to check as many of these real or imagined quality boxes as possible and hope for the best. The “special sauce” of a company lies in which factors they assign priority to and how efficient they are in checking the boxes. Some companies rely more heavily on some factors than others. For example, one marketing company told me that they were the best in the world at “finding expired domain names and redirecting their link juice to your site.” That sounds impressive, I guess.
The problem with a “special sauce” is that Google changes its algorithm frequently and what is special today may not be special tomorrow. This is especially true with “black hat” tactics that exploit a single quality indicator. Scroll back up and look at the rankings for Atlanta personal injury lawyers. Those fluctuations have more to do with algorithm changes than changes on the websites themselves. The reason those websites have stayed up top despite algorithm changes is that their marketing companies did not put all of their eggs in one basket. They took a broad approach to rank over several years. The only downside to a broad approach is that it takes much more time and money. But, once on top, the website is much more likely to stay on top as the algorithm changes.
Important Metrics in Evaluating Law Firm Websites
Fortunately for you, there are reputable companies that indirectly track the quality indicators we just discussed and reduce all of them into a single number that is easy to understand. The most popular metrics are domain rating from AHREFS and domain authority from MOZ. These metrics are not ranking factors, but are instead a trailing indicator of ranking strength. Meaning a higher page ranking across keywords should correlate with a higher score. Domain authority uses a 1-100 score and a higher number is better. For the rest of this article, I am only going to use AHREF’s tool.
You can check your website domain rating here for free. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a great domain rating of 87. As of February 2022, wfirm.com has a sad domain rating of 13.
A personal injury law firm in Atlanta that wants to rank for competitive keywords like personal injury lawyer or trucking wreck lawyer will typically need to have a domain rating of at least 30.
We talked about backlinks earlier, these are other domains that link to your law firm’s website and establish credibility. You can check the backlinks to your website for free here. We can combine domain rank with backlinks to start to get a picture of the overall quality of a website. Here is a sampling of the rankings for the top domains linking to this website.
Looks pretty good, right? The problem is that wfirm.com only has 500 linking domains and our average referring domain score is 11. For comparison, the current top ranking sites for ‘Atlanta personal injury lawyer’ have around 1,000 referring domains with an average score of 30. In order to compete on the first page, I need not only a larger quantity of domains, but each of those domains needs to have high-quality scores.
Page speed refers to how fast the website loads on Google. Pagespeed is an official ranking factor and comes directly from Google. Check your page speed for free here.
Prior to hiring a marketing team to redesign our website, wfirm.com had a page speed of 32. I designed the website myself several years ago by piecing together free templates and spaghetti code I found online. My experiment failed; 32 is a very bad page speed. Most of the law firms that rank for Atlanta personal injury lawyers have page speeds of 90+.
Shake and Bake: Putting It All Together
Step one is to identify a group of marketing firms that are currently winning in major markets. Here is one way to identify those firms:
- Create a listing of the 50 top metropolitan areas in the United States;
- Identify 3-5 keywords you would like to rank for in your practice area;
- Perform a localized search in each of those cities for each of your keywords;
- Click on every website appearing on the first page, including the map listings;
- Look at the bottom of each website to see if there is a logo or link at the bottom;
- If no logo, call and email the law firm to ask who their marketing company is; and
- Score your results for a shortlist.
Good news! I’ve already done this for personal injury terms that I care about. You can find the complete list at the end of the bottom of this article.
Step two is to look through the marketing company’s featured clients to find a general aesthetic that you like. Pick a handful of firms and set up interviews. In my search, at least half of the companies I called screened ME out because they already had geographic exclusivity with other law firms in Atlanta or Macon. For example, Susan Ziegler at SLS Consulting was unwilling to work with me. But, she did offer to review other proposals and provide feedback to me along the way. I took her up on the offer and had a great experience.
As part of your interview with marketing companies, don’t be afraid to share your budget. I wish I could give you advice on what your budget should be, but I have no idea. The quotes I received ranged from $3,500 to $72,000 each month. Once you have confirmed that the company can accommodate your budget, ask the following questions to each company:
- Who will have primary responsibility for the success of my website and how long have they been with the company?
- How many people are on the team responsible for my website?
- How many other websites is that team responsible for?
- How many total hours of time can I reasonably expect to be spent on my law firm each month?
- How many words of content will be produced for my website each month?
- What is your process for prospecting and developing backlinks to my website?
- Are paid directory listings included in my monthly payment?
- If you are redesigning my website, will you guarantee a minimum page speed of 85 on both mobile and desktop?
- If you care, ask whether they will offer geographic exclusivity for your area.
It was shocking to me how differently companies answered these questions. With the exact same budget, one tier one company offered me four articles each month from a team of six that was responsible for approximately sixty other websites. Contrast that with another company that offered twenty pages of content from a team of five responsible for fifteen other websites. With just a few zoom meetings you will have a short list of highly qualified companies within your budget. But then it gets hard.
Peaking Under the Hood – Proper Due Diligence
Once you have a few marketing firms that impress you, it’s time to start digging. Notice how many lawyer websites have a marketing firm logo or link at the bottom of the page? (Ours now says Nifty Marketing). We are going to use that link to find current clients of the firm. Go back to AHREFS backlink checker. Instead of entering your domain, this time enter the marketing company’s website. You will get a list of all of the websites that link to the marketing firm. Among them will be law firm websites with SEO branding at the bottom. Note the domain ratings for those websites. Are they generally in a particular range? Click the links and see if they are of the same quality as the featured websites. Call or email the firm owners and ask whether they are happy with the marketing company. If you want to save time, just check my list of companies below. I included the average domain rating for all of the websites I could attribute to each company. If you purchase a subscription to AHREFS, you can find out much more, including when they first placed a link to their website on the law firm page. That means you can start to track performance over time. For example, here is a listing for Nifty Marketing:
I’m basically Sherlock Holmes now. But you can be too. To get to this screen, I made two mouse clicks. I navigated to ‘referring domains’ and sorted by ‘links to target’ within AHREFS. Once you have this list, you can also start to look at individual law firm websites and see if they have made progress over time. If you see websites that are not moving upward, ask why. It’s possible the firm only designed the website but is not providing ongoing SEO services. It’s also possible the company just got lucky with a few low competition markets and is actually not very good at SEO.
With one more click on ‘lost links’, we can see the links LOST over time – aka the law firms that have either dissolved or fired the marketing company. For Nifty, the graph was not particularly helpful. But it was eye-opening for some companies. An exodus of law firms over a short period of time is a huge red flag. When I asked one tier one marketing company why they had lost so much business, they stopped communicating with me. See if you can guess which one using the chart below. Obviously, I’m glad I asked. I went through and tracked the total number of law firms “lost” in the last two years for each marketing company. You can see the results at the bottom of the page.
You can also select ‘Organic Keywords’ on the AHREFs sidebar to get to a page that shows how many keywords the website ranks for and – importantly – how difficult it was to rank for those keywords. Remember how I mentioned earlier that my decidedly un-optimized website still ranked for several niche practice areas? Here’s why: those keywords were extremely easy. Using AHREFS, we see that most of the topics were low volume with a difficulty score of less than 25 on a 100-point scale.
When evaluating a marketing company, you want to see several examples of them ranking for difficult keywords. And you should do this analysis because it is not always obvious which keywords are difficult. For example, it is much more difficult to rank for “DUI Lawyer” than “Trucking Wreck Lawyer in Los Angeles”. Meanwhile, in Georgia, “Atlanta trucking wreck lawyer” is essentially the holy grail. In the list below, I chose a representative website and counted the total number of difficult (KD over 25) keywords the website ranked for. While not perfect, this metric can give you a general confirmation that the company is able to compete in competitive markets. But also keep in mind that super smart SEO companies find ways to keep you from having to compete in the first place by targeting easy keywords with large search volumes. Again – mystery box.
Finally, you should spot-check the website for high page speed scores. Or, do what I did and run every single website through this site to get an even better picture. Then, to make things even more fun, I reached out to every single law firm and asked them for feedback on the company they hired. Over 1,000 of you responded to help me in my search! That’s incredible. I can’t even get twenty people to join my March Madness Bracket.
After completing the above analysis you should be left with multiple companies that consistently produce fast websites that rank for highly competitive keywords in major markets. I think I found several good companies and ultimately hired Nifty. You can judge for yourself whether they have done a good job. I started writing this article in May of 2022. Since then:
- Is the page speed of wfirm.com above its current value of 32? Click here to see.
- Have my backlinks for wfirm.com consistently grown in both quality and quantity from the current number of 650 referring domains? Click here to check.
- Has my domain rating increased from its current rating of 13? Click here to find out.
If you don’t see consistent improvement, I made a bad hire.
To avoid inadvertently slighting SEO companies with my admittedly flawed methodology*, I am not going to rank the marketing firms for you. Instead, I am going to provide all of the data points and you can sort them and decide for yourself. If you are a firm very similar to mine, you may want to start interviewing SEO firms with: (a) average pagespeed over 85, (b) average domain rating over 25, (c) average traffic over 1000, and (d) not many lost clients in the recent past.
Each firm on this list has proven that it can get at least one client onto the first page for a highly competitive keyword in at least one major market. That is how I found them in the first place. But, don’t confuse quantity with quality. Just like in SEO, quality matters. If a firm manages ten thousand websites, they are bound to get lucky in some markets. Similarly, a firm may only have a few law firm clients but is knocking it out of the park for those clients. Your goal is to find the right fit for you.
The links provided are to the applicable report* on AHREFS. If you do not have an account, the links will not work.
Identified Law Firm Clients = Total number of pages I determined were law firms that link back to the company. Because of filtering, this number is likely to be much lower than their real client count.
Average Domain Rating = Average domain rating for all firm websites by the provider. Keep in mind that some providers do not have agreements with firms to upkeep degrading sites, so this number may not be representative of the quality of work they perform.
Monthly Traffic = The past six months of organic traffic averaged.
Representative Client High
Value Keyword Ranking Count = Total number of difficult (KD15+) keywords the firm ranks in the top 5 of Google.
Clients Gained = Total number of law firm websites that added the footer link in the past two years.
Clients Lost = Total number of law firm websites that dropped the anchor link to the company. Firms that dissolve and change names will negatively impact this number.
|Marketing Company||Identified Law Firm Clients||Average Domain Rating||Average Estimated Law Firm Client Monthly Traffic||Representative Client||Representative Client Website PageSpeed||Representative Client - High Value Keyword Ranking Count||Estimated Law Firm Clients GAINED in Past Two Years||Estimated Law Firm Clients LOST in Past Two Years|
*All images used with the express written consent of Kanye West and the National Football League.
*I chose the website with either the highest domain rating or most pages linking back to the marketing company’s domain. If you own a marketing company and want me to change out your representative client, just email me. For a faster swap-out, please include the DR and page speed.
*Advice on this page should be relied upon for investment purposes. #YOLO
* The links will NOT show the same numbers as shown in the table. This is for three reasons. First, the data I collected was a snapshot as of May 2022 and the SEO world moves fast. Several of the representative pages have improved drastically since my post. Second, I used a lookback period of two and then four years using tightly defined parameters to make absolutely certain I had law firm clients and not directories or blog spam pages. Third, the posted links have been modified to work with a basic AHREFs account that a law firm owner is likely to have.
*Since writing this article, I have several ideas to improve the table and will post an updated article next year. Feel free to email your suggestions. I’m not a smart person and am happy to learn and improve.
*Blue shark digital is a fine marketing company and they were not excluded maliciously. I am not able to accurately track them because they do not use a footer link. As a result, they were breaking the sorting of the table. I’ve reached out to the to see if we can get some data.