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By Lois Yurow
As editor of a newsletter and a Web site for corporate lawyers, I am always on the prowl for information and ideas. One great source is the attorney-authored articles posted on law firm Web sites. However, many of these sites have frustrating design flaws—and if your site has enough of them, it could dissuade a visitor from returning and trying to access your publications. Having mined dozens of publications pages, I have some ideas about how firms can make their information repositories more appealing to their visitors.
Don't hide the articles. I presume you want people to look at the articles your firm posts, so put them someplace obvious. A home page link to "Publications," or perhaps "Resources," is good. Burying publications behind "News and Events" or "Practices" is not so good.
Forget publication type. If a visitor wants to learn about, say, internal control audits under Sarbanes-Oxley, she probably doesn't care whether she reads a "client alert," a "newsletter," an "article" or a "bulletin." Your search feature (you do have a search feature, don't you?) should permit visitors to plug in keywords or select a likely practice group and search "all publications." Someone who has to search each type of publication individually—or worse, visit a different "home page" for each publication type—may move on to another firm's site.
List publications chronologically. Why not list them alphabetically? While it may be nice to see every bulletin titled "New SEC Rules Regulating ______" in one place, visitors are more likely to care about the rules the SEC adopted last week than the rules adopted four years ago. And the firm whose invitation to "view all bylined articles" generates a list of lawyer-authors—not article titles—is really missing the boat. Make it simple: Put the newest information at the top of the publications list, and date everything so visitors understand the system.
Keep it current. In most of your practice areas, there's probably no shortage of current topics to discuss. In my field, for example, between new rules, enforcement actions, litigation, governance initiatives and scandals, firms easily have fodder for a half-dozen bulletins a year. When I search "all corporate publications" and the most recent item is from 2004, I assume that article writing is not a priority for the firm. Either that, or the firm doesn't have a good system for getting articles posted promptly. It isn't worth offering a search category that generates only dated material.
Limit your topics. It seems so promising when a search menu offers "corporate," "corporate governance," "corporate compliance," "securities regulation," "securities litigation," "white-collar crime," "business transactions" and "capital markets." What a letdown to learn there are "no results that match search criteria"—or that the results for each topic are substantially the same. I know one firm that has 11 subcategories in the drop-down menu under "corporate" and 13 under "litigation." I doubt each of these subcategories holds enough unique material to warrant a separate search.
List the articles in multi-topic newsletters. If I want information on majority voting, I'll click on your article titled "Trends in Majority Voting." I'm less likely to pull up your "February 2006 Corporate Bulletin" unless I know it contains a pertinent article.
Keep that search tool handy. This is especially important if you have divided your publications into so many categories that visitors are likely to search under three or four topics. On many sites, a visitor must run a search, check the results, and then go back to "Publications Home" to run another search. It would help to have a search box, or a navigation bar listing all available topics, on every page. Firms with a drop-down search box get bonus points if the box holds the place of the last search so the visitor doesn't have to scroll through all the topics he has already checked or passed by on his way to the end of the alphabet.
These suggestions all address minor annoyances, but any inconvenience can put people off your publications pages. If the next memo someone reads may inspire her to call the author for individualized advice, don't you want that memo to come from your site?