General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

NOV 2009

Vol. 8, No. 4

Features

 

Is Your Website OK Today?

You have a solo practice, or you’re a partner with a small firm, and you’ve been asked to give a presentation to an audience chock-full of potential clients. This is a great opportunity.

You decide what to say; you create attractive PowerPoint slides to accompany your talk; you practice your presentation, and then you show up looking sharp, because you want to make the best impression.

Shift gears, and consider your law firm’s website or your blog. It is a presentation, right? And—if it’s doing you a bit of good—it attracts potential clients: the people who visit your site because they need a lawyer who does what you do, or because your firm appeared on the first page of a Google search, or because someone recommended you.

If your website or blog attracts potential clients, that’s where they get their first impression of you and your firm. And, if you think first impressions are very important, you perform regular maintenance on the site so it’s always representing you in fine fashion.

What follows is a description of things you should check before you open your site to visitors, and then what you should check regularly to keep it looking good and working well.

Prerelease Testing

If you have a small site with just a few pages and it’s not going to be revised for some time, you can do all the tests on your own and it won’t take very long—a few hours at most, but only if you know your way around computers. (If you don’t, get someone who does.)

Let’s say you have a more extensive site. Let’s say your brand new firm spent tens of thousands of dollars on a site, and you want to open it as soon as possible. You want to make sure it’s ready for visitors—that it will leave them with a positive impression of you and your firm—but you don’t have a lot of time to devote to the effort.

Fine. Just spend a few minutes to see if your site is ready to be opened to the public, including all those potential clients out there.

At the very least, validate the site (i.e., make sure it conforms to standards). If you can validate the site, then it looks good to, and works well for, all visitors, including all those who use a different browser or operating system than you, or who use their iPhones or Blackberries to visit websites.

A potential client who finds your site and isn’t favorably impressed by it probably won’t contact you.

Site Validation Tools

You simply must validate your site. If you don’t, you can’t be sure that it will look OK to others —visitors using different browsers, operating systems, and fonts than you, as well as those using PDAs or cell phones to search for an attorney.

Your site might look just fine to you, but it could look like an experiment gone wrong to a potential client. If you can’t afford to leave potential clients with the impression that you don’t take care, then you must validate your site, or have someone do that for you.

Here’s how:

  1. First, validate the HTML. Visit the HTML Validation Service and enter the URL of your site. The validator will report any errors it finds. You must fix those errors (or have them fixed for you).
  2. Then, validate the CSS. Visit the CSS Validation Service and enter the URL of your site. Once again, the validator will report any errors it finds. Fix them, or have them fixed.

Don’t open the site to the public until you can validate it.

Testing for Mobility

You want your site to look OK to all visitors, and that means you’ve got to make sure it works well with different browsers and operating systems, and it looks OK to visitors using PDAs and mobile phones.

There are a variety of tools you can use to test your site on a wide range of popular portable devices. If you’re a busy attorney with neither the time nor inclination to run a bunch of tests, have a professional handle this.

Then again, if you have a Blackberry, take at least a few minutes to review the site on it. If you don’t have an iPhone or a phone running Windows, ask a friend who does to take a look at the site for you.

Testing for Usability

Have you ever visited a website, and then found yourself frustrated because it won’t let you do something simple, or it displays some cryptic error message when you click a link, or it looks helter skelter?

Sure you have. Were you favorably impressed? Of course not.

If you want your site to do your firm as much good as it can, then you simply have to test usability before you start accepting visitors. If you can’t find the time to make sure people can actually use your site and feel good about it, then you’re not ready visitors.

Before you open your site to the public, ask people you trust (e.g., friends, associates, Twitter followers) to review it and to tell you what they think of it. If they say it’s an ugly site that isn’t informative and it’s not a pleasure to visit, don’t open it to the public.

It’s better to have no site than one that makes you or your firm look less than competent and professional.

Testing for Durability

The only way to make sure that your site doesn’t do something foolish is to test everything that visitors will see and touch, and that means reviewing every page, link, and control.

Again, if your site is very simple, you can do this in less than an hour, if you know your way around computers, that is. If you don’t, or if your site is far from simple, you’ll need to rely on automated tests.

Are you familiar with the Firefox browser? If not, get a copy of it and get a copy of a plug-in called iMacros. If you know your way around computers, you can create a macro to test every element of the site automatically.

Maintenance Testing

Your site might be just a few static pages that never change, but it lives in an environment that is continuously changing. So, even if it looked and worked just fine when it went public last year, it might not be working at all right now.

A website requires regular review, at the least, if it’s to make a positive impression on visitors, day after day after day.

Reviewing Logs and Reports

Your firm’s website is, most likely, hosted by a commercial Web hosting service, and that service provides regular reports about the site, including:

  • Activity and error logs that give detailed information about everything that happens at the site.
  • Site statistics are reports that provide graphical interpretations (e.g., is your site attracting more visitors this month than last month) of what’s in the logs.

The logs and reports provide valuable information about the site.

Your site’s error logs should be monitored very regularly; that way, if something goes wrong with the site, you can tend to it right away.

If you have neither the time nor inclination for reviewing logs and reports, find someone who can do it for you, and tell you in plain English when there’s a problem at the site, or some unusual activity, or how many visitors the site gets per day.

Here are some things you should know about logs and reports:

  • A site’s activity log lists each interaction with each visitor, including when it occurred and what the result was.
  • A site’s error log lists each error, when it occurred, and what interaction caused it.
  • The reports generated from these logs let you:
  • Track all visitors, see which pages they viewed, and for how long.
  • See how the number of visitors to the site—and what they do at the site—changes over time.
  • See if someone is trying to take control of your site.
  • See which search terms, articles, or blog posts are attracting the most visitors.
  • Know which other sites or blogs have links to yours and how often visitors come to your site because of what others are saying about you and your firm.
  • Know who is visiting your site—other firms and their attorneys, journalists, search engines, lawyers looking for work, and those looking for key contacts.

Checking the Site’s Popularity

If you want your site to attract clients, you want it to be popular. You want lots of potential clients to know of you or your firm, or to find you when they need a lawyer like you, and that’s not going to happen if your site isn’t popular.

Here’s a good way to keep up on your site’s (or your blog’s) popularity:

  • Alexa is a service that tracks the popularity of websites. Just visit Alexa ( www.alexa.com) and enter the URL of your site in the search field. Alexa responds with a numeric ranking: the lower the number, the more popular the site. Go there now and enter the URLs of some websites, including yours, and see how your site ranks.
  • Technorati is to blogs what Alexa is to websites. If you have a blog, use Technorati ( http://technorati.com/) to compare your blog to some others to see how it ranks. As with Alexa rankings, the lower the number, the more popular the blog.

You should check your site’s popularity at least once each year. If you have a blog, check its popularity each month. And then do what you reasonably can to make it more popular.

Searching for the Site

Do a Google search on the name of your firm and study the results. Visit the sites of each of the top ten results.

  • How does Google describe your firm?
  • Is there another firm (or attorney) that people might confuse with yours (or with you)?
  • Was there even one result that ranked higher than your firm’s website? What was it, and why did it rank so highly?
  • Do you object to any of the results? Is some porn site showing up in the listings for some reason? If so, take action.

Here’s another good test, but it might take a while to review the results. The test is this: ask Google to search for keywords that potential clients might use to find an attorney like you.

If you’re a criminal lawyer in Chicago, search for three terms at once—Chicago criminal lawyer. Then dig through the results to find your firm. Would a potential client dig that far to find you? What could you do to get your firm listed on the first page of results?

Searching the Site

Here’s a good test of any substantial website, and it can be done in just a few minutes.

See what happens when you search for different terms within the site. If the site has a search function, exercise it. Enter your name and see the results. Enter some terms that potential clients use to find you and your firm.

Looking for the Unknown

Suppose a potential client is searching for an attorney like you—one who handles wills and estates and is located in or near San Francisco—and one of the top results is an article you wrote last year. The potential client wants to see it, but can’t. When he clicks the link to it, a page appears in its place advising that the article can’t be found.

What does that page say? Is it friendly, or is it incomprehensible?

Here’s a quick way to find out how your site handles a page-not-found error:

  • Visit your firm’s site.
  • In the URL field, specify some page in your site’s domain that doesn’t exist.*
  • Review the results.

* Suppose the domain for the site is www.mylawfirm.com. In that case, change the URL in the browser’s URL field to something like this: http://www.mylawfirm.com/abc. That tells the browser to load a page titled abc at your firm’s site.

Assuming there’s not such a page at the site, an error page appears. Is that error page helpful, or useless?

If it’s useless, turn it into something helpful.

Backing Up the Site

If your site never changes, you don’t need to back it up regularly. But if your site is a blog that changes every week, you need to keep a current copy of it in reserve. That way, if the site gets wiped out, you can get it back up and running in short order.

Things can go wrong, and there’s a chance that all the contents of your blog or site could be erased. Hackers might attack your site, or attack its host. Depending on your host, all your data could be lost in a fire or a flood.

Regular backups are great security against all sorts of unexpected events.

Reviewing the Site’s Content

If your site never changes, you don’t need regular content reviews. But if it lists upcoming events, recent articles, or discusses current events, content reviews are a great way to make sure your site always makes you look good.

Some tips:

  • Check anything that’s date sensitive, and make sure it’s up to date.
  • Find a page with a fair amount of copy at the site. Highlight the text, copy it, and paste it into Microsoft Word. Then check the spelling and the grammar and—yes, indeed—the readability statistics. If your potential clients are regular people rather than lawyers, the Flesch-Kincaid level of your copy shouldn’t exceed tenth grade.
  • If you post timely pieces like client alerts and newsletters, review the tops of them. Are the dates of publication clearly visible? If not, people might assume that what you wrote last year is what you believe is news today.
  • If the site has a disclaimer, make sure it’s appropriate. If the disclaimer includes anything like this—“you may view, store, print, reproduce, copy, and distribute any pages within this website for noncommercial use within your organization only”—then it’s not appropriate; it’s silly.
  • Review the content on different devices. What looks fine on a great big office monitor might not look so fine on a cell phone.

A Few More Quick Tests

Just a few more things you should check every so often:

  • Make sure there’s a way for visitors (such as potential clients) to contact the site’s webmaster, and that there’s a webmaster who can respond. Find your webmaster’s email address, send a message, and see if anyone responds. If not, your site doesn’t give the impression that you’re serious about customer service.
  • If you provide a form for potential clients to enter information about their legal issues, be a potential client. Make up some issue and see how long it takes you to complete the form. Could the process be improved (from a potential client’s perspective, not yours)? How long does it take to get a response?
  • Review your bio. If it says you got your J.D. in 1898, rather than 1998, correct it right away, else you’ll leave the impression that you don’t pay attention to detail.
  • Review the site’s activity and error logs on occasion. Look for patterns and unusual activity.
  • Visit the site on occasion. If you want the site to attract clients, give it the attention it deserves.

If you paid for ad space in a magazine, you’d want to see a copy of the magazine to be sure the ad really appears as it should, right?

Well, you paid for a website. Don’t you want to see if you got what you paid for? Don’t you want to know it looks the way it did, or the way it’s supposed to?

Then visit it regularly, and critically. And ask yourself what you might do to make it more effective.

Don’t neglect it—not if you want it to attract clients.

Mister Thorne is a freelance legal editor and writer in San Francisco. He can be reached at mister.thorne@comcast.net.

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.