Internet Marketing 101 for Attorneys:
How to Reach Prospective Clients Through Search Engine Optimization and Internet Marketing
In the Internet Age, clients are increasingly using search engines, such as Google, to find attorneys. By understanding how search engines index and rank law firm websites, attorneys can use search engines to reach prospective clients looking for their services through a process known as search engine optimization. Additionally, through search engine marketing (SEM), law firms can advertise on the search engine results pages through pay–per–click (PPC) advertising.
Search engine optimization (or SEO) is the process of making coding, navigation, linking, and content changes to a website to increase the website’s ranking on the search results pages. Ideally, a firm’s website will be listed at the top of the search results when prospective clients enter a search term relative to the services provided by the firm. Prospective clients then can click on the search results links to be taken to the firm’s website, where more can be learned about the firm (which hopefully leads to the firm being retained by the prospective client).
Similarly, PPC advertising consists of the ads shown in proximity to the search results displayed on the search engine results pages (SERPS) from Google and other search engines. Because firms are charged only when a prospective client clicks on the firm’s ad (and are taken to the firm’s website), PPC is one of the least costly and most effective means of reaching prospective clients.
This article discusses both the search engine optimization and search engine marketing process, and, in light of the many website developers and search engine companies marketing to law firms, the questions to ask website developers and search engine optimization companies.
Why It Matters to Be Listed at the Top of the Search Engine Results Pages
When users enter a search query in Google or other search engines, the search engine provides a list (the "organic" rankings) of websites and web pages. Often, the results list consists of hundreds or thousands of sites, which are then displayed in groups of approximately 10 results per web page. To get past the first page of the results, users must click the "next page" button.
However, approximately 60% of time users don’t go past the first page of the search engine results , and approximately 90% of the time users don’t go past the first three pages of the search results. Unlike phone book advertising, therefore, prospective clients searching on the Internet can’t find a firm by flipping through the "attorney" section. If a firm’s website isn’t listed on the first page of the search engine results, through the organic rankings and/or PPC ads, it’s highly unlikely that the firm’s website will be found (or that the firm will be considered by prospective clients).
Search Engines: How They Operate
The goal of search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft Live, and Ask.com, is to index web pages and, in response to a search query, present a list of the most relevant websites. The list of websites is determined through complex algorithms developed by each of the search engines. Because the algorithm for each search engine is unique, the same search query will produce different search results from each search engine.
To index web page content, search engines send "bots" or "spiders" to crawl web pages. The spiders "read" and index the content of a page, and then follow the links on a page to the next page. In addition to indexing the visible content of web pages, the bots also read the code on web pages (such as the description and title tags) to better understand a page’s content.
Spiders, however, can’t crawl (or index) text embedded in pictures, or content displayed through Flash (an Adobe program used for some types of animation and video). If a website’s navigation uses either of these methods, the site should also have links at the bottom of the page so that the spiders can navigate from page to page; otherwise, the spiders will "die" on the home page, and the remaining pages of a website won’t be indexed (and thus can’t be referenced in search engine results pages).
Our Firm Is the Best: Why Aren’t We Ranked Number 1?
It’s important to understand that Google and other search engines don’t rank results for law firms based on "best firm," "largest firm," "most experienced firm," or any similar basis. Instead, rankings are based solely on the algorithms noted above. The website for a solo practitioner who recently graduated from law school, therefore, could be ranked significantly higher than a large, decades–old law firm.
What Can Our Firm Do to Achieve High Rankings?
The goal of search engines is to provide a list of websites that best match a search query. The primary factors considered are quality content and incoming links.
Offering Quality Content
Search engines place a high value on quality content, which has two primary components: a sufficient amount of text on a specific subject, and the presentation of such text through coding and other aspects so that the search engines can determine the subject matter.
Although there is no hard rule for the number of words that need to be included on a web page, SEO experts typically suggest at least 250 words per page regarding a specific subject. For a website to rank highly for a particular search term, the term should be included in the title, description tag, and used optimally in the webpage. "Used optimally" is somewhat ambiguous; if the term is used too often, it will be considered spam, if the term is not used enough, the search engine won’t give much weight or authority to the webpage for that term.
The search engines also need to clearly understand the subject matter of the web page, which is determined from the text on the page and the page metatags (primarily the title and description tags). As noted above, search engines cannot read text embedded in images and Flash; therefore, the main page content should not be presented through either of these methods.
The primary page coding elements displayed are the title and description tags. The title tag is displayed in the top of the Internet browser window, and the description tag (or a truncated version of the description tag) is often shown in the search engine results pages. The title tag is typically restricted to about 70 characters that are displayed, while the description tag may be a couple of sentences in length.
In order to achieve high "on page" rankings, it’s best to have the title and description tags and page content all consistent. For example, if a web page is about the divorce process in Arizona, the title, description, and content should all reflect this subject. Often, law firm websites use the same title for every page (typically either the name of the firm, or a "welcome to our website" title), and the same description for every web page ("XYZ is the leading firm in the state").
As a result, search engines can’t understand (and thus can’t properly index) the web page. Is the page about XYZ law firm? Is it about leading law firms in a particular state? Is it about the divorce process in Arizona? By making all of these aspects consistent, it’s much easier to have the page indexed as being about the divorce process in Arizona, which will lead to higher rankings when a user types "divorce attorney" or a similar term into a search query.
Not All Incoming Links Are Equal
Incoming links to a website also play a significant role in rankings. Search engines value the number of incoming links, the "contextual similarity" of the linking site, and the "authority" of the linking site. "Contextual similarity" refers to sites that are similar in subject matter, while the "authority" of a linking site is determined by the search engines based in part on the value of incoming links to its web pages.
It’s important to know that not all links are considered equal. A link to a firm’s website from a top website about law issues will be worth more for search engine purposes than a link from Sam’s Hardware down the block. The greater the number of links a website receives from sites deemed to be "contextually relevant" and "authoritative" for a particular subject, the higher the site will be ranked for that subject.
Once–popular reciprocal linking strategies (you link to my site and I’ll link to your site) have little, if any, remaining search engine relevancy. Instead, search engines value one–way (or incoming) links. Further, if the anchor text (the text that opens the other website when clicked on) contains the search term (such as "Tucson personal injury attorney"), the link will have more weight for the subject than if the anchor text simply reads "click here."
A Law Firm’s Goal: Get High Rankings for Terms Used by Prospective Clients in Searches
It’s important to remember that search engines return a ranked list of websites in response to a specific search engine query. Although it might be a great ego boost to rank highly for "best trial attorney in Phoenix," a more practical (or client–generating) goal would be to rank highly for "Phoenix divorce attorney."
With this goal in mind, a law firm with a divorce practice might want to include in its website one or more pages around the divorce process in Phoenix. One page, for example, might discuss custody issues, another page could discuss division of property, and a third page could discuss support issues.
It’s also important to consider the specific syntax used in searches by prospective clients. "Phoenix lawyer for wills," for instance, will generate different search results than "Phoenix estate planning attorney;" the best term to use to optimize a webpage depends upon the term most likely to be used by a firm’s prospective clients.
By structuring a firm’s website around the search terms used by prospective clients, a law firm can successfully utilize the search engines as marketing tools to reach prospective clients. While it often takes a number of months for the results of search engine optimization to be seen through higher rankings, law firms can benefit significantly from search engine optimization by reaching prospective clients looking for their firm’s services for little or no incremental cost after the initial search engine optimization has been performed, unlike other forms of marketing that have ongoing yearly costs that need to be incurred.
Pay–Per–Click Advertising and Internet Advertising Explained
As noted above, it’s critical for Internet marketing to be seen on the first page of the search results. Pay–per–click ads offer an additional and more "guaranteed" opportunity to be seen on the first page of the search results.
PPC ads are the ads typically shown at the top and to the right of the search results pages on Google and other search engines. PPC campaigns consist of three main elements: (a) a short text ad to be shown on the search results pages (which is linked to the firm’s website), (b) a list of key words that, when used in the search query, trigger the display of the firm’s ad, and (c) the maximum amount (bid) that the firm is willing to pay for each set of key words if their ad is clicked.
There are a number of nuances concerning PPC ads, but in general PPC advertising is one of the most cost–effective means of marketing available. A Phoenix family law firm, for example, could create an ad that would be displayed whenever users searches for "Phoenix divorce attorney" or "divorce lawyer in Phoenix," or similar terms. It could then bid $.75/click; meaning that if the firm’s ad is shown and clicked on by a prospective client, the firm would be charged up to $.75.
Here are a few additional advantages and benefits of PPC advertising:
- PPC programs can be created fairly quickly (from a couple of hours to set up a simple campaign on one search engine to 15–25 hours to create multiple campaigns across the top search engines).
- PPC programs can be implemented quickly (ranging from the same day to a couple of days). Thus, a law firm can begin seeing results immediately.
- Costs can be controlled by establishing a budget (such as $1/day). Once the budget limit is reached, the campaign is automatically paused until the next day.
- PPC programs can be easily modified or suspended at any time.
- The firm is only charged when prospective clients click on their ad (and then taken to the firm’s website), not every time their ad is shown.
- Ads can be geotargeted, so they will only be shown to people in a certain city or state.
- Multiple ads can be created to determine which ads perform the best.
- Ad impressions, number of clicks, average cost per click, and many other statistics are available so that ad performance can be easily monitored.
By effectively implementing search engine optimization and search engine marketing programs, a law firm can utilize one of the lowest cost/highest benefit forms of marketing available.
SEO Companies and Website Developers
In response to the increasing importance of Google and other search engines, an industry of search engine optimization companies has been created. A good, sophisticated search engine company should be able to help focus a law firm’s website on the aspects that must be done and the content that needs to be developed to achieve high rankings.
It should be noted that a significant number of website developers do not engage in any true search engine optimization other than to add metatags to the website coding. Firm’s seeking to have a new website built should therefore understand whether the website developer is also experienced at search engine optimization, and if the developer isn’t, to consider engaging a search engine optimization professional during the development stage.
Here are a few important considerations and questions to ask when considering a search engine optimization company:
- Ask the company what process they follow for search engine optimization. Ideally, an SEO company needs to initially understand the firm’s business and practice areas, and determine (with the firm’s representative) the practice areas to be optimized. Then, research should be done to assess the competitive environment to determine what terms are actually being used in searches for the firm’s practice areas, and to determine what firms are currently ranking high for such terms.
Next, the website content should be mapped out. This consists of determining the number of pages needed per practice area to optimize each practice area correctly. Lastly, content is drafted, appropriate metatags are created, and intrawebsite links are added.
If the SEO company doesn’t have a response similar to the one above, they’re probably not the company you want to hire. Specifically, if they give a response that they only add metatags to the already existing pages; they are definitely not the company to be hired.
- Beware of companies that guaranty number one listings in the search engine rankings. Search engines caution against such guaranties. In some instances these "guaranties" cover search terms that are seldom, if ever, actually used in searches; in other instances these guaranties can result from what are known as "black hat" techniques (which can lead to very high rankings quickly, but which can also result in a site being banned when these techniques are uncovered).
- Also beware of companies claiming that Google, Yahoo!, and MSN give their clients preference in rankings or priority indexing—the search engines don’t give any third–party companies priority.
- Don’t place much credence in promises of getting a website listed in thousands of search engines. Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft Live, and Ask.com collectively power the search results for approximately 99% of all U.S.–based searches, either through their own sites, through searches run on their partner websites (such as AOL), or through participating website owners that have added a search engine toolbar to their site.
Additionally, there are a number of search engines that your firm won’t care to be listed in. These search engines make up a very small percentage of all searches, but require the submission of email addresses and other information which can be used to send junk mail to the designated company representative.
Further, the major search engines also power thousands of other white label "search engines." One such a "search engine" is that of dancer/rapper Kevin Federline, former husband of Britney Spears ( http://searchwithkevin.prodege.com/). K–Fed didn’t really develop a new search engine; he’s only the namesake of white label search engine powered by Google and Ask.com.
- Ask whether the SEO company complies with or has adopted any code of ethics. There are several of such codes in the industry; but at a minimum the company should be committed to not engaging in "black hat" or other deceptive techniques.
- Be skeptical of companies that won’t explain what they are doing, or that make SEO seem like a secret or complicated process. These actions are often the result of people who don’t understand the SEO process, or from companies trying to overcharge for their services.
- Be skeptical of companies promising quick results. It often takes a number of months for the site to increase in the rankings. During this time additional content on the website and additional links to the website from other highly ranked websites will help speed up the process, but it’s rare that a site will jump to the number one position quickly.
Jeff Lantz is the CEO and founder of Esquire Interactive LLC ( www.EsquireInteractive.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also founded websites: 55-Alive.com, RVListingsOnline.com, and RetirementCommunitiesOnline.com; and is a cofounder of Widget Realm, Inc. Mr. Lantz is a member of the Arizona Bar Association and practiced law for 13 years before becoming an Internet entrepreneur. Esquire Interactive provides search engine optimization, search engine marketing, and website development services to attorneys and law firms. The views expressed herein represent only the views of the author.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.