General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Developing a Firm Web site

 

Nearly one-half of all Americans use the Internet. With a statistic like that, it’s time to consider building a Web site to establish your firm’s presence in the online community.

Building and maintaining a professional Web site is combination of art, marketing savvy and technological know-how. To take some of the mystery out of the process, here are some details and tips on how to establish your firm on the World Wide Web.

Cost

The cost of your site’s development is, in large part, driven by whether you do it yourself or hire a professional web developer. There are several "off-the-shelf" software packages, such as Microsoft’s FrontPage 98 or Macromedia’s Dreamweaver 2.0, to help you design and publish web pages to the Internet. Although the price of these packages is between $100 to $300, the learning curve can be rather steep. If a professional web developer is your answer, you can expect to pay several hundred to several thousand dollars for the design.

Perhaps the biggest difference between in-house or professional development is aesthetics of the site. Before setting your web development budget to a few hundred dollars, think about the image your firm wants to project. Cut costs and corners on your site’s development, and you may end up with a site that looks like an elementary school student’s art project.

To post your site to the World Wide Web and maintain it, you can expect to pay approximately $30 per month. If you reserve your own domain name, such as www.firmname.com, you will pay approximately $75 to $150 (depending on whether you do it yourself) and approximately $50 every two years, to renew your reservation.

Domain

Reserving your own domain name will be worth the cost. You can park your Web site on someone else’s domain, but then your web address will look something like this — www.someoneelse’sdomainname.com/users/wedonot/haveourown/domainname/oursite.htm. Having your own domain, such as www.ourfirm.com, looks more professional, is easier to remember, and fits more easily on a letterhead or business card.

Design

In many ways, your Web site will be similar in content to a firm brochure. There are, however, technological considerations. Thus, whether you do it yourself or hire a developer, remember the following:

Browser types. Visitors to your site may use different software to view it, such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape’s Navigator. Browsers sometimes present web pages in different ways. Moreover, older versions may not support the latest advancements in multimedia, such as video or sound. To further complicate matters, the display of differs depending on whether the visitor is using a PC, a Macintosh, or a WebTV terminal. Thus, the design should work with a variety of browser types and user platforms.

Speed. Although most visitors connect to the Internet using 28,800 baud modems or higher, there are still some who use slower connection speeds. In any case, if your web pages are loaded with graphics or enhancements and take many seconds to load, visitors will quickly click away rather than wait for yours to finish. Keep graphic file size to a minimum, and make sure each page takes only a few seconds to load.

Navigation. Sections within the site should be easy to navigate. Additionally, navigation buttons, bars, menus, or text should be easy to understand and give an idea of the content of each section. For example, a button marked "Services" or "Practice Areas" clearly conveys that it will give the visitor information on areas of practice.

Content. The site should give information about the firm, including its history, members, and services. However, to draw repeat visitors, don’t stop there! Although the firm’s history may be interesting the first time, it is not likely to be read many more times thereafter. Consider adding a newsletter section where information is posted on an updated basis. Unless you are licensed to practice in all 50 states, you need a disclaimer for your newsletter. Such as: These news articles were prepared by attorneys of Your Law Firm for information purposes only and are not intended to convey legal advice. Readers should not act upon information contained in these materials without first seeking advice from an attorney licensed to practice in their area.

Promotion

Many assume that "if they build it, they will come." Although this technique worked for Kevin Costner, it will not work for your Web site. No matter how eye-catching and informative your site may be, it will not be effective if visitors cannot find it on the Internet. For example, unless visitors know the domain name of your site (i.e., www.yourfirmname. com), they must rely on search engines or lists to find your site.

Search engines and lists are specific sites on the Internet where a visitor can enter subjects and receive multiple listings of Web sites that match their search query. For a law firm’s Web site, visitors will be searching for words such as lawyers, attorneys, law and legal. They may also be searching for areas of practice, using words like bankruptcy or divorce. Finally, they may search for local lawyers using geographic locations.

There are literally hundreds of engines and lists on the Internet. Some of the most popular include Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, HotBot, and Infoseek. To become part of these engines and lists, your site must be physically entered into their directories but listing your site may not be enough. For example, if a search query returns 2,000,000 listings, the visitor may not get to your listing. There are, however, several ways to enhance your ranking in various search engines. Specifically, your ranking is a function of the following:

• Domain Name: The most inclusive names are already taken ( www.lawyer.com, for instance ). But you may want to try a broader web name instead of your firm name.

• Page Titles: Each page within your Website can have its own title. Depending on the words you use to describe each page, the site’s ranking may improve.

• Meta-tags: These are hidden codes within each page that can be read by many search engines. When you register a web page with an engine, it may send out a program, called a "spider," to "index" your web pages and any hidden codes in it. Two Meta-tags, "keywords" and "description," provide just what they say–the keywords or phrases that visitors may type into a search engine and the description of the site that is given by the search engine.

• Page Content: In addition to looking for Meta-tags, many search engines also index the first words or phrases at the beginning of any text on your pages.

In addition to promoting your Web site online, do not forget to add your web address to your firm letterhead, business cards or other promotional material.

If you develop your site with these concepts in mind, you should have a site that is aesthetically pleasing, informative, easy to navigate, and visible within search engines and lists. You may be surprised at how much you can enhance your firm’s image within your community and how many new clients you can generate online. n

Stephan V. Futeral is a lawyer with the South Carolina law firm of Finkel & Altman, LLC, and is president of AfterMidnight Technologies, Inc., a Web site developer.

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