How Search Engine Optimization and Law Firm Branding can Transform Your Practice
2021 NOTE: This article was originally written in 2014. Surprisingly, not much has changed with the core concepts and it remains solid advice for any lawyer getting started with their practice. As proof, look at how successful Darren’s practice has become!!
The Internet has dramatically changed the way clients find, validate, and select an attorney. In 2011, 76% of individuals who hired an attorney performed online research prior to selecting the attorney.[i] This number should not be surprising. Fragmentized by mobile applications, email, social media and other channels, the Internet has dethroned the once-dominant positions of influence held by TV, direct mail, and phone book ads.[ii] In addition to expanding the platforms for legal marketing, the low cost of Internet marketing has increased the competition for legal services by several orders of magnitude.
There are currently more than 15 million results for ‘Georgia car wreck attorney’ on Google. Bing and Yahoo each present an incomprehensible 40 million results for the same search. These numbers will only increase. Smart firms must act now to develop and effectively execute online marketing strategies. Online marketing is a combination of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and branding. Well-executed SEO will improve the law firm’s placement in search results, connecting counsel with a higher quantity of high value potential clients. Effective law firm branding will convert those connections into clients. Poorly executed, unscrupulous, or irresponsible online marketing can hurt the firm’s reputation, alienate friends, lose prospective clients, and as discussed below, might even jeopardize your bar membership.
Most online marketing guides come with a sales pitch. We don’t want your money. This article cuts through the hype to provide a comprehensive guide to best practices for crafting an effective and ethically responsible online marketing plan for firms of all sizes and budgets. Most of these suggestions are inexpensive or only require an investment of time. These principles can also be scaled up to any marketing budget and will be helpful in effectively managing the priorities and scope of professional services.
Buy a Domain Name (or several)
A domain name is an Internet address such as: wfirm.com. Domains can be purchased from a ‘domain registrar’ for about $12.00. The domain should clearly identify the firm or a target practice area. Most firms should avoid domains that contain numbers, hyphens, or are overly long, as these are all penalized by search engines.[iii] Websites like bustaname.com and instantdomainsearch.com can help identify available domains by combining words and phrases.
Once the domain is purchased from a registrar, such as Google Domains, the domain needs a ‘web host’ to house the domain. Many web hosts will provide a free domain name with the purchase of an annual hosting package. Bluehost.com is consistently among the top web hosts for beginners. If you intend to hire a marketing company, you may want to talk to them before subscribing to the package as DreamHost is generally the last choice for professional web development companies. Firms can expect to spend less than $300/year for web hosting from these entry providers.
Owning the domain name and hosting account offers a number of benefits. Most notably, the firm will be less likely to have its email and website held hostage if a billing dispute arises with a website design team. Counsel can also avoid monthly surcharges associated with “renting” a domain and host space from a design team after the website is completed.
Once the domain name is acquired and placed with a web host, it is critical to have, at a minimum, a web site that verifies the existence of the firm and current contact information. There are hundreds of services which will provide a basic website at minimal cost.[iv] Counsel seeking a complete website should consider hiring a professional design team that adheres to the principles detailed in this article. Tech savvy readers can save time and money by using remote contractors from Elance.com, Odesk.com, or Guru.com. These contractors are available to start immediately for reduced cost, but require exceptionally clear instructions for best results.
Counsel can also use the web host to establish an email address on the domain that is branded and professional.[v] Meaning, firstname.lastname@example.org can become Joe@lawfirm.com. Most web hosts will provide free technical support for connecting the web host’s email to Outlook or Google Apps for Business.
Create a Focused Brand that Clearly Distinguishes the Firm
Imagine choosing from two doctors to perform brain surgery. The first doctor provides brain surgery, chiropractic services, and plastic surgery. The second doctor only performs brain surgery. Absent any additional information, which doctor would you choose for the procedure? Clients face a similar decision when selecting legal counsel. Clients (and search engines) look for an indication that the firm is focused on a specific legal issue. Realistically, most firms provide highly competent services in a variety of practice areas. But, in the world of online marketing, specialization is king.
In crafting a branding strategy, it is important that the firms identify the characteristics of an ideal client and craft a message that is targeted to speak directly to that client. Of course, this is not to say that a firm may not have multiple messages across multiple mediums as detailed in this article. However, when crafting content for the firm’s website, social media pages, blog, or other marketing material, focus on a cohesive brand that will translate across all marketing platforms.
Understand How Search Engines Produce Results
As of the writing of this article, Google accounts for almost 70% of all Internet search traffic. Bing, which is the combination of Yahoo and MSN, accounts for most of the remaining traffic. On each of these websites, the top ranking search result receives 30-40% of all clicks for the search term.[vi] Cumulatively, results on the first page are clicked 90% of the time.[vii] Search engines have developed powerful and constantly evolving algorithms to determine where a particular website ranks for an individual search.
When a potential client searches for a generic term like “car accident attorney,” search engines automatically add context to the search terms, including the location where the search occurs, related keywords, the intent of the searcher based on prior search patterns, and whether the search implicates specific or general content. Using this context, search engines produce results based on the popularity, authenticity, quality, timeliness, relevancy, and structure of indexed websites.
Search engines rely on ‘web robots’ to scour the Internet and report information about every page on every website indexed by the search engine. Search engines pay particular attention to two pieces of data reported by web robots. First, the search engine examines the total number of incoming links the page has from other websites, and the quality score of each external website. Everything else equal, a page with a link from a major news website will outscore a page with a link from a friend’s personal website. Second, the total number of keywords, related words, and ‘context quality’ of each page is evaluated. After examining this data, search engines weigh dozens of other factors that are cumulatively significant, but are individually less important. But, industry insiders advise that social media participation and popularity is the fastest growing consideration, and may even surpass all other factors very soon.[viii]
Because the importance of these factors is well known, many websites create hundreds of artificial inbound links, overuse keywords, and utilize fake social media accounts to increase search ranking. Be wary of marketing professionals that cannot articulate a plan for developing quality content and links but nonetheless guarantee front page results. Search engines aggressively penalize websites that attempt to manipulate these factors and frequently blacklist websites entirely.[ix] Moz.com is a good resource for counsel to monitor the constantly changing landscape of search engine algorithms, but by placing its primary focus on creating high-quality content that is useful to prospective clients, counsel can insure itself against any fluctuations in search engine algorithms.
OPTIMIZING THE FIRM WEBSITE
The law firm website can range from a simple home screen with contact information to a sophisticated marketing machine generating clients 24 hours a day. A firm website with a credible message and effective call to action is critical to the ultimate success of an online marketing campaign. Driving potential clients to a website that fails to convert visits into phone calls and consultations is a waste of time and money. In terms of content, an excellent website will have many of the following features:
- Professional appearance with simple navigation;
- Responsive design that formats the website for mobile or desktop viewing;
- Easily accessible contact form;
- Compelling message of why the firm is different from other firms;
- Updated biographies and photos of firm members;
- Dedicated page for each practice area;
- Original articles about the firm’s practice areas (a blog);
- Client testimonials[x];
- Verdict and settlement results[xi];
- Integrated social media; and
- Clear disclaimers regarding the scope of information offered, jurisdictional boundaries of the firm’s services, and conditions attendant to the attorney advertising.
In addition to the above, the website should also be structured in a way that it is easily accessible and indexed by search engine robots. Below are a number of technical best practices that counsel should include or ask a website designer about when selecting a professional:
- Practice area pages should have carefully crafted meta descriptions and page titles so that the search engine provides a compelling summary of each page result;
- Every image should have an ‘alt’ tag to make the image relevant for search results;
- Individual pages should contain structured data markup to give search engines additional context about the page;
- Individual pages should have short and static URLS that tell the reader what is contained within the page based on the link alone;[xii]
- Keywords should be carefully targeted and used in the first sentence and at least one H1 and H2 header tag; and
- The backend of the website should use a content management system, like WordPress, that will allow easy modification and addition of website content by novice users.
OPTIMIZING THE FIRM BLOG
A “blog” is an ongoing chronicle of information on a niche topic. Unlike a typical site with a home page that links to sub-pages within the site, a blog is much simpler. The blog is generally one page that contains blog posts or blog post excerpts organized in reverse-chronological order. Most blogs use WordPress, which is a free blogging tool used to create and manage posts.[xiii]
Successful legal blogs stick to key branding topic and focus on establishing the firm as the authority on a niche topic. Counsel must also keep in mind the factors discussed above for search result rankings. Blog posts should integrate Google Authorship, have a strong keyword density, contain at least 450 words, and liberally cite to authoritative external sources. Most blogs posts will not land on the front page of a search engine. But, a website hosting a blog with excellent content structured in a manner ready for both human and robot consumption often will. It is essential that the same technical considerations used in the design of the firm’s general website be employed in each blog post. In particular, counsel should always use keyword rich topic sentences and header tags throughout each post.
Finally, though blogging is easy and occasionally fun, there are ethical traps to avoid. A Virginia attorney recently faced disciplinary proceedings when he failed to provide sufficient disclaimers on his blog posts. The Virginia State Bar asserted that the attorney violated Rules 7.1 and 7.2 because his blog posts discussed outcomes of cases that were “inherently misleading as they lacked disclaimers.”[xiv] If counsel discusses specific legal issues, differentiate between sharing past insight and dispensing real legal advice which a reader may rely on. Put a disclaimer at the top of the blog along these lines: “Thoughts shared here do not constitute legal advice.”[xv] The U.S. Supreme Court has approved the use of this disclaimers or explanations.[xvi]
THIRD PARTY WEBSITES
The firm website and blog are important first steps for executing an online marketing plan. Professional directories, social media, and business indexes offer inexpensive and easy ways for firms to expand their unique brand and message. These third party websites help raise the search ranking of the firm website, reinforce branding messages to potential clients, and enhance the contextual data that search engines integrate into search results.
- Google Places enables counsel to provide additional information about the firm, including hours of operation, attorney photos, practice areas, and office locations. Google uses this information to provide a comprehensive listing across all of Google’s services. Most notably, Google Places will provide a link to call the firm directly from Google’s search results page and mapping software without the need to visit the firm’s website.
- Avvo is a free website where counsel can create a profile and also answer general legal questions from potential clients. Avvo also provides a ranking system for attorneys. To register, simply verify some basic biographical information. Once verified, counsel can add photos and detailed biographical information about practice areas and relevant experience. Even if counsel does not field legal questions from the online public, Avvo is highly beneficial for search engine optimization.
- LinkedIn is a free professional networking site. It is marketed as a professional version of Facebook. Registration is free and most users stick with the basic plan, rather than paying for the upgraded business or executive plan. Like Avvo, nothing else is required after registering. In addition to an immediate bump in search ranking, counsel can also use the service to identify experts, perform research on defendant corporations, or join groups to meet other professionals with shared interests.
- Google Plus is an extension of Google Places that adds a social layer to the firm’s profile. Although less populated than Facebook and Twitter, Google Plus has two incredible advantages over other social media platforms: Google Timing and Google Authorship. Google Timing analyzes the firm’s social network engagement to post new content when it is most likely to be seen and clicked by users. Google Authorship links content from the firm’s website and Google Plus profile to create enhanced Google results. For example, Google can present a search result from the firm’s blog, complete with the photo and contact information of the authoring attorney directly within the search results. When combined, these features make the firm’s content substantially more likely to be found and clicked by searchers.
- Facebook is not just for friends anymore. Facebook now allows businesses to create a profile that can be used to communicate with prospective clients and other businesses. Facebook recently transitioned its business page from ‘fan pages’ to ‘business pages.’ Because this is a relatively new platform on Facebook that receives new features every week, counsel is encouraged to simple visit facebook.com/business for up-to-date information on creating a business listing.
- Twitter is a cross between social media and blogging. Counsel “tweets” by sending out 140 character text messages. Tweets are publicly visible by default. Twitter is useful for chronicling every new blog post or other content. When ‘retweeted’ by a ‘follower,’ the linked content rises in search engine rankings. To get started, create an account and search for people, causes, and organizations to follow, such as GTLA (@GeorgiaTLA). Many of the accounts followed will reciprocate and retweet interesting content from the firm’s account.
- YouTube is a platform for video marketing. Using the firm’s Google Plus account, counsel can create marketing playlists to distribute video content in a targeted manner. For example, the firm can have completely separate playlists for trucking and defective tire content. By separating the marketing messages, counsel can create an immersive experience that reinforces the specialized branding that the firm has created for each practice area. Counsel can also include content from other sources, such as GTLA’s Legislative Update videos, in its specialized playlists.
The following websites are useful for simply entering contact information for an attorney or firm to generate an easy inbound link to the firm’s website without the fear of being penalized by search engines. Simply visit the site and follow the instruction to register an account to get started:
Law firm marketing is different from almost every other form of marketing because of the ethical and perceptual pitfalls attendant to our profession. Marketing techniques that are merely frowned upon in other industries can result in disbarment for counsel. In particular, online marketing is rife with pitfalls concerning client solicitation (Rule 7.1), deceptive practices (Rules 8.4 and 4.1), and disclosure of confidential client information (Rules 1.6 and 1.9). Counsel utilizing professional marketing teams must ensure that he or she understands what the marketing firm is doing and whether it complies with all applicable bar rules.
Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services
Under most circumstances, counsel should limit social media posts to basic links to full content on the firm’s website and other authoritative websites. Counsel may also post general legal information and announcements of recent victories in court. But, there is a fine line between general information and an improper solicitation for legal services. The California Bar recently examined the ethical implications of social media under current ethical rules.[xvii] Its ethics committee determined that the following statement likely violates ethical rules without a disclaimer: “Won another personal injury case. Call me for a free consultation.” Conversely, the following statement does not require a disclaimer: “Just published an article in GTLA’s Verdict Magazine. Let me know if you would like a copy.” Due to the character limitations of posts on many social media platforms, it can be impossible to convey a marketing communication with the appropriate legal disclaimers. Although many states are taking steps to address the ethical parameters of Internet marketing, counsel must fully comply with the existing rules.
False, Fraudulent, and Misleading Content
Search engines rank pages based on their usefulness and relevance to the search term. Many marketing firms use “black hat” techniques to generate fake content intended to push clients up in Google’s rankings. This is generally referred to as “web spam” or “spamdexing.”[xviii] Spamdexing allows pages without useful content or with low relevance to climb above genuinely helpful pages. While web spam is not unique to law firms, many of these disingenuous tactics violate legal ethics rules. Fake comments, fake twitter accounts, misleading blog posts, and the like are clear violations of Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1, which prohibits “false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading” content.[xix]
In 2013, the Florida Bar issued an opinion that states that attorneys using “hidden text spam” that is not visible to the human eye but is visible to search engines may face disciplinary actions.[xx] More broadly, the Attorney General of the State of New York recently charged 19 SEO and marketing companies with false advertising and deceptive business practices for creating and posting fake Google and Yelp reviews of a company. Counsel can avoid these problems by creating excellent, original, and truthful content.[xxi]
Disclosure of Client Information
Specific information that identifies current or former clients or the scope of their matters may be disclosed, as long as the clients or former clients give informed consent as required by Rules 1.6 (current clients) and 1.9 (former clients).[xxii] A Virginia attorney recently faced a disciplinary proceeding on whether he had violated Rule 1.6 by revealing information that could embarrass or likely be detrimental to his former clients by discussing their cases on his blog without their consent.[xxiii]
For most firms, it is not necessary or practical to employ every technique outlined in this article. Further, under most circumstances, an abandoned marketing campaign will appear much worse than one not started. But, implementing even a small number of these best practices can drastically improve the firm’s online marketing success and increase the quantity and quality of potential client inquiries.
[i] Lexis Nexis, How Today’s Consumers Really Search for an Attorney, Law Firm Marketing Division (2012) www.lexisnexis.com/community/portal/lfmc/resourcepage.aspx?PostId=236206
[ii] SAS Institute, The Power of Modern Digital Marketing Automation, (2013) www.sas.com/resources/whitepaper/wp_22446.pdf
[iii] 2013 Search Engine Rankings Factors, MOZ, www.moz.com/search-ranking-factors
[iv] See The Easiest Tools to Make a Website With, https://iwantmyname.com/services/website-builder/
[v] Johnson, David, How Professional is Your E-mail Address?, CBS News, Money Watch (January 22, 2010) www.cbsnews.com/8301-505143_162-28646163/how-professional-is-your-e-mail-address/
[vi] The Value of Google Result Positioning, Chitika Online Advertising Network (June 7, 2013) www.chitika.com/google-positioning-value
[ix] Peter Webb, Scorpion Web Design.
[x] See Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.6 (current clients) and Georgia Rule Professional Conduct, Rule 1.9 (former clients).
[xi] Rule 7.1(a)(2), (3) prohibits communications which are likely to create an unjustified explanation about results the lawyer can achieve or comparison of service unless the comparison can be substantiated so make sure that you include the caveat that the results displayed are simply representative of past successes; See also State Bar of Georgia Formal Advisory Opinion No. 05-6.
[xii] For example, instead of www.firm.com/2oeij1o2.php, the URL should be www.firm.com/practicearea.
[xiii] Coalo, J.J, With 60 Million Websites, WordPress Rules The Web. So Where’s The Money?, Forbes. (September 5, 2012).
[xiv] Horace Frazier Hunter v. Record, No. 121472 Virginia State Bar, Ex Rel. Third District Committee, (February 28, 2013).
[xv] Silverman, Matt, How Lawyers Are Using Social Media for Real Results, (June 1, 2010) http://mashable.com/2010/06/01/lawyers-social-media/
[xvi] Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626, 651 (1985); In re R.M.J., 455 U.S. 191, 203 (1982); Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350, 384 (1977).
[xvii] State Bar of California, Formal Opinion No. 2012-186.
[xviii] Sullivan, Danny What Is Search Engine Spam? The Video Edition (October 21, 2008) http://searchengineland.com/what-is-search-engine-spam-the-video-edition-15202
[xix] “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”
[xx] Florida Bar Standing Committee on Advertising Proposed Advisory Opinion A-12-1, (March 5, 2013).
[xxi] State Bar of Georgia Formal Advisory Opinion No. 05-6.
[xxii] Rules 1.6 and 1.9(c) require informed consent, but do not require a written confirmation. See also Ohio Advisory Op. 2000-6 (law firm may list client’s name on firm website with client’s informed consent); see also New York Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1(b) (2) (2009) (lawyer may advertise name of regularly represented client, provided that client has given prior written consent).
[xxiii] Horace Frazier Hunter v. Record, No. 121472 Virginia State Bar, Ex Rel. Third District Committee (February 28, 2013).