GPSolo Magazine - June 2005
Effective Marketing With A Website
Because many attorneys have been successful marketing their services via traditional means, including publications, brochures, business cards, and phone directory and perhaps even radio and television advertising, some lawyers might wonder whether establishing their own websites is necessary to grow a practice. Estimates are that at the end of 2004, nearly 70 million adults in the United States logged onto the Internet each day to find some sort of information. Lawyers who do not have a web presence will not reach them.
Law firms of all sizes have gotten this message, but solo attorneys have been the slowest to take advantage of the Internet’s marketing capabilities. An ABA Legal Technology Survey for 2002-03 reported that 100 percent of responding law firms with 50 or more attorneys had a website. In the few intervening years, even small firms have begun to build a web presence. According to the soon-to-be-released 2004-2005 edition of the technology survey, nearly two-thirds (62.4 percent) of responding small firms (two to nine attorneys) have a website, which is up from 50 percent in 2003 and only 6 percent in 1997. Solo attorneys, however, have been slowest in adopting this form of marketing, with only 19.7 percent of responding solos reporting their own websites—up only slightly from 16.9 percent in the 2003 survey.
Although all law firms on the Internet are competing for the same business, the cost-effective nature of websites can level the playing field somewhat among large firms, small firms, and solos. Whether you’re launching your first website or updating an existing one, it’s important to assess the site from not only an aesthetic but also a strategic marketing perspective—whether and how potential clients can easily find and use the site.
Design Plus Purpose
The purpose of a successful website is to attract and retain clients and address their legal concerns. To be most effective in doing so, the site must be usable, informative, aesthetically pleasing, and findable. To reach these goals, you must think carefully about the site’s overall presentation, much of which will be affected by the programming language and graphics you choose. The number of options that go into creating a website are innumerable, but creating a site shouldn’t require a large initial investment. Even free setups for law practices are still available: Justia.com offers lawyers free template-based websites in addition to its custom design services.
An essential initial consideration is to decide how showy the site will be. This determination will affect how the site is actually created: principally in standard HTML, which is rather plain and straightforward, or using a program such as Flash, an aptly named web design application. Should the site include an audio component—music or spoken words or both—especially in the introduction? Lastly, how creative—which often means how complicated—should the graphic elements be?
A labor law firm that represents management might want a simple HTML site that is straightforward in use and presentation. A showier site featuring multimedia programming might alienate a potential client looking for a more conservative image. However, an entertainment lawyer’s potential clients likely would expect some online panache, even from their lawyers. Miami sole practitioner Barry Oliver Chase solved this problem by offering both styles at his site, www.entertainmentlawyermiami.com, including a splashy graphic element but making it an optional link from the site’s more reserved home page.
Most attorneys will want to travel between the extremes of nondescript and overkill. One hint is to design the site to be as stylish as is your reception area, which is probably neither dowdy nor garish yet represents the overall tone of your practice. Another suggestion is to start simple and gradually add the bells and whistles as you gauge your clients’ response.
Get on the Map
“Find-ability” refers to the ease with which potential and existing clients who do not already know your URL (website address) can locate your site among the Internet’s trillion or so pages. A consumer who needs legal help with a bankruptcy matter might type “lawyer” into a search engine—but will receive an unwieldy list of more than 11.8 million sites. Adding “bankruptcy” and “ New York” still will result in more than half a million. Most searchers don’t look past the first two or three pages of results before giving up, so attorneys with sites listed near the top are most likely to attract the business.
The address of your website—its domain name—is a big factor here. It should be descriptive enough to grab the attention of your intended audience but short enough for a client to easily remember. For example, a lawyer who represents dog bite victims would get more cases using the domain name dogbitelaw.com or dogbitelawyer.com than using the lawyer’s own name. Adding geographical information to the domain name—newyorkdogbitelawyer.com, for example—might also help. Surprisingly, the survey found that only 14.4 percent of respondents use a generic domain name relating to a practice area (up from 5 percent in 2001).
But the survey also found that 94.4 percent of respondents use a firm name or a version of a firm name as the domain name (up from just over 50 percent in 2001). This is fine for a target audience of current and former clients only, but it may not attract new clients. If your firm name has several named partners, limit the domain name to the first one or two partners to make the URL easier to remember. And keep in mind that lawyers can have more than one domain name, each covering a different area of practice.
Some states have strict ethics rules governing web addresses that are something other than a firm’s name. Be sure to consult your state’s ethics rules regarding websites before launching yours. In the absence of rules dedicated to websites, attorneys might want to look to the rules governing advertising for guidance on what is permissible.
Encourage Repeat Visits
Once your clients are in the habit of using your site for information, be sure to give them reasons to visit periodically. One common practice is for lawyers to generate newsletters and post them on the site, as well as offering visitors the option to have the newsletter e-mailed directly to them. Once the newsletters are posted, it’s a simple task to archive the issues so that past topics as well as current ones are available; adding a searchable database helps visitors locate exactly what they need. To increase the marketing value, post all public documents as PDF files so that the formatting and graphics (especially the firm logo) are intact in printed copies; this increases the chance that clients will keep and use the printed documents. You can do this easily using Adobe Acrobat software ( www.adobe.com).
Many firms host numerous discussion forums that potential or actual clients can join online to discuss injuries, locate others in similar legal straits, or seek emotional support. Topics may range from clergy abuse to inheritance problems to specific defective medical devices. While all attorneys with a website should prominently post a disclaimer indicating that information on their sites is meant for informational purposes only and that a user’s reading, following, or otherwise relying on that information does not create an attorney-client relationship, firms that host such discussion forums should be even more diligent to ensure that the disclaimer is clear and posted conspicuously.
Be sure the site includes an area with reprints or the text of published articles you or other firm members have authored for newsletters, bar journals, or other legal media. Another option is posting links to or abstracts of current news articles related to your practice. While authors usually retain the copyright to reuse the text of articles they have written, if you are posting PDFs or images of articles as they actually appeared in a publication, be sure that you have reprint/copyright permission from the publication to do so. One essential caveat is that current events must be kept current or your practice will quickly look out-of-date instead of up-to-date. If you know up-front that maintaining the site will be sporadic at best, forgo the topical content.
Some attorneys list their prominent cases (or clients) on their websites, along with notable verdicts and settlements. Again, timeliness is essential; if it’s been years since you’ve had a reported or memorable case, consider listing by the amount of the largest verdict or settlement or the case that features the most well-known parties first (without dates).
A website can be useful to you in terms of direct savings of staff time and effort. To facilitate initial consultations, some lawyers post online intake forms that potential clients can fill out and e-mail or download and print. Others add a downloadable collection of government forms, or lists of links ranging from general to specific practice topics.
You might want to consider starting a law-related web log (“blog” or “blawg”) instead of or in addition to a regular website. A blog can give you a web presence and a forum to easily share your views on current issues with potential clients or other attorneys who might refer cases to you. Some people find setting up a web log easier than a regular website with display features. See the related article, “Get Your Blog Rolling,” on page 28 for more information. Then check out the free tools available at Blogger ( www.blogger.com) or Live Journal ( www.livejournal.com) to create and host an entry-level blog.
Not everyone thrills to the electronic beat, so keep in mind that many online visitors would rather communicate with a person than a search engine. Consider offering them the option of chatting live during regular business hours with a client services representative—either a member of the existing office staff or a representative from an outsourced (and off-site) service. At large firms, chat links generally are directed to in-house client development, marketing, or management personnel; solos probably could handle those queries themselves. Your website should include at least one prominent, general e-mail link for messages to the firm, if not direct links to each lawyer. Be sure your full mail address and phone number are also easy to find. If you include an e-mail link, be sure to respond to queries in a timely manner. Another helpful courtesy is a printable map to help clients and potential clients find your office.
Register Your Site and Monitor Traffic
The Internet contains thousands of search engines, but only a relatively small number are used most often. Your goal is to increase your site’s chances of being ranked as close as possible to the beginning of the returned list. (See also the sidebar “How That Search Box Works” on page 25.) The best way to accomplish this is to formally submit your website to the search engine for consideration. Obvious places to begin are Google, currently the most used search engine on the Internet, and Yahoo, which is a close second. Google’s submission process is free for businesses. Go to www.google.com/addurl/?continue=/addurl for details.
Yahoo, on the other hand, began charging to register sites at the end of 2001. All commercial websites (this includes law firms) must pay a $299 “Yahoo! Express” fee to be considered for addition to the Yahoo Index. The fee does not guarantee your site will be included—just considered. After you submit your information and fee, Yahoo will inform you within seven business days whether your site qualifies for addition; if it does not, a Yahoo representative will send you an explanation for the decision. Once a site is accepted, you pay an annual $299 fee to keep the site listed.
An as-yet little-known alternative does exist, however. Altavista (which is owned by Yahoo) offers a free submission option to Yahoo search ( www.altavista.com/addurl/default). The “Basic Submit” option allows anyone with a free Yahoo account to submit a site to be crawled for inclusion in the Yahoo Search index.
If you do register your site, you may notice that its ranking for the same search term varies from engine to engine because each one indexes (catalogs) web pages differently. To keep site designers from manipulating this process, search engines do not list their indexing or ranking criteria. However, search optimization websites have done research to report which elements count for indexing and assigning rankings. See, for example, SearchEngineWatch ( www.searchenginewatch.com) to learn more.
After your site is launched and you’re comfortable with returning inquiries, updating content, and accessing new clients from your online forms, you may want to determine how visitors find your site (e.g., through a search engine or by linking from another site) and what content is most popular once they are there. You can even receive breakdowns of how often specific pages are clicked.
Some Internet service providers such as Earthlink ( www.earthlink.net) include traffic statistics as part of their web hosting services. A number of others, including Hitslink ( www.hitslink.com) and SiteMeter ( www.sitemeter.com), offer tracking services, which start at $10 per month for basic service. (SiteMeter also offers some traffic information for free.)
No matter what form your site takes, why waste the effort you put into establishing it? Be sure to determine who your audience is, and then create a site that will meet its various needs. Creating a website does not automatically guarantee that clients who are looking online will find your site and hire you, but not having a website guarantees that they won’t.
How That Search Box Works
Most search engines consider a variety of factors in order to assign a ranking to their suggested “hits” for a search. One of the better-known factors is keywords. The engine searches the text of a web page to find specific words and then calculates the site’s ranking in terms of relevance to the search terms. The more often the keywords in a user’s search appear on a web page, the higher that site ranks on the list of returns.
Keywords that would most concern a lawyer are those that are generally used within a web page’s text to describe your practice or a specific practice area. Be sure to include the most common words potential clients might use when searching for you or an attorney in your practice area, and use the most basic of these several times.
A family law attorney might include obvious keywords such as family law lawyer and divorce on the site but should also consider matrimonial attorney, dissolution of marriage, and family-related issues such as child custody, child support, and prenuptial agreements. Also include your location.
During the past four or five years, search engines have become more sophisticated at sniffing out the tricks some website designers use to manipulate specific websites to the top of the results lists (for example, hiding keywords in small white type in the white background of a website). Avoiding such tactics is essential because they can result in your site’s being banned from certain search engines.
Not so long ago, “invisible” descriptive words called metatags played an important role in the rankings of search results. This is no longer true, and only a few search engines now factor metadata into results. One exception is the meta “Title” tag. This is the formal title displayed in the blue bar at the top of your web browser when viewing a web page. Most major search engines do still consider the title of a page when indexing that page. Ironically, this is a tag that many web designers ignore.
Another important element search engines use to rank results is the number of other sites that link to your site. The more links to your site, the higher you move within the search engine’s ranking.
To discover which sites already link to your website, go to Alltheweb.com, AltaVista, or Google and enter link:www.[Insert your domain name].com into the search box. When considering others sites you may want to link up with yours, choose ones that are complementary to your practice, not those with which you directly compete. If your practice is family law, consider asking family therapists or social workers to add your link to their sites.
Mark Rosch is vice president of Internet for Lawyers ( www.netforlawyers.com) and the co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Fact Finding on the Internet, published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section (available through www.ababooks.net). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.