October 23, 2012

Advertising on the Internet: How to Build Online Awareness for Your Law Practice

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Google and Zoho Web-Based Tools Face Off Against Microsoft Office


Special Preview

By Richard P. Klau, Deborah McMurray and Gregory H. Siskind

In this preview from the third edition of The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet
(forthcoming from the ABA in 2007), the book's authors define the basics of advertising on the Internet, building online visibility and much more.

Today, advertising on the Internet takes many forms. Advertisers can launch new services, promote a brand, sell a product, or simply direct visitors to their Web sites. When used well, advertising online can acquaint new prospects with your law firm, reinforce brand association, grow traffic to your site, and capitalize on time-sensitive topics to link your firm to current events. Successfully capitalizing on these opportunities requires an understanding of each form of advertising, the various models involved, and where to place the ads to achieve the desired results.

Paid Search

First, let's focus on how to use advertising—or "paid search"—to drive visitors to your site. When you type a search into Google, there are potentially three sets of results. (See Figure 1.)

  • Figure 1
    Figure 1
    The first set of results, highlighted in gray, are called sponsored links and they are paid results. A search for "law firm" (an overly generic term) shows two law firms who've paid for the right to be in the top two spots in this box.
  • Immediately below that, in the center of the screen, are what are called organic results. These results are purely a result of Google's Page Rank algorithm, which evaluates your search terms and matches them to the pages believed to be most relevant out of all Web pages containing those terms.
  • Finally, a second set of sponsored links appears in the far right column, again presenting links to any firms who've paid to be mentioned when anyone searches on the term "law firm."

In these cases, the advertisers (the law firms) have offered to pay a certain dollar amount for every time someone clicks on their ad. This form of advertising is known as "cost per click"(CPC) or "pay per click" (PPC). Advertisers incur no cost if no one clicks. In cases of generic terms like "law firm," chances are that the traffic won't be very qualified, but competition to be included among the results will be high. For an overly generic search phrase, you should expect to pay more for each click if you want to be among the top paid results.

Amounts paid per click range from a low of a few pennies to a high of several dollars. The range is explained by the number of potential advertisers interested in the same term: If you can narrowly define the terms you're interested in, you can begin a pay-per-click campaign relatively inexpensively.

Contextual Advertising

Closely related to paid search is "contextual advertising," where advertisers can place their messages near content that is textually relevant to their ads. Google's AdSense program was the first to innovate in this area, and Yahoo Publishing Network gives advertisers another way to reach a targeted audience.

The way it works is simple. As an advertiser, you pick the keywords that are relevant to your practice. But instead of placing your ads on a search engine, you place your ads on publishers' sites (news sites, blogs and other content-rich Web sites). The ad network (Google or Yahoo, in this case) will evaluate the words on the particular page, and if those words match your keywords, your text ad will show up on the same page.

The assumption that underlies contextual advertising is that if people are reading text on a page, they sought out that content. They either searched for something that led them to this page, or they clicked on a link. Consequently, ads that are targeted to the text on the page are more likely to get clicked on—the people browsing aren't going to stick around forever, and if an ad that speaks to their interest catches their eye, they'll click and land on your site. You pay whenever they click.

Brand Building

Cost-per-click advertising is transactional in nature—the whole model depends on the click. If you do a good job identifying your target audience, defining your keywords and writing ad copy, you should see strong performance. But what about advertising that is more concerned with image building or brand awareness?

The traditional advertising model is called CPM, which stands for cost per 1,000 impressions. Used in radio and television, CPM is a dollar figure that the advertiser pays for every 1,000 people exposed to their message one time. If you pay a $10 CPM for 1 million impressions, you'll be billed $10,000.

CPM advertising works when the goal is awareness building. The more people who see your ad, the greater the number who are likely to remember your ad. Law firms that advertise on billboards in airports are executing classic CPM campaigns, though in an environment where it's all but impossible to target your audience. Sure, business executives fly through LaGuardia. But so do moms and grandparents. The key is to have a knife-sharp targeted message, which can slice through the crowds to reach the buyers of legal services. In many cases, when advertisers buy ads directly from a publisher, the advertisers will pay based on CPM rather than CPC. Publishers may not like CPC—since they don't get paid unless people click. But there are cases when the publishers' preferred model—CPM (which pays them based on the number of times the ad was rendered, regardless of whether people click)—actually can work for advertisers as well. When the viewing of the ad is the goal, CPM will work to an advertiser's benefit.

Best Practices

Advertising on the Internet requires patience, methodical analysis of results and a willingness to experiment with alternatives to test responses. With that in mind, here are some tips to ensure that your first forays into online advertising are successful.

Look at ads already running for the keywords you've chosen. With whom are you competing? Are those the firms you consider your top competition? If not, consider refining your keywords to something more specific.

Use a call to action. If you're doing paid search or contextual advertising, make sure that your ad compels the reader to act. Bland or benign declarations about your firm or practice areas are not likely to result in action. Remember, your ad will not be the focal point of the page, and it's likely to be just a few words of text. Make the ad grab their attention by using action words that imply a benefit: "Download our guide to doing business in Chicago," or "Attend our Webinar on protecting your trade secrets."

Don't assume a click to your site is successful—convert them. In advertising parlance, a "conversion" happens when you've taken a lead (i.e., someone who clicked from your ad to your site) and converted them into a newsletter subscriber, a Webinar attendee, a feed subscriber, or something else that lets you communicate with them again. Measure your conversion rates. If you're not successfully converting your visitors, improve the targeting of the ad, the experience they have when they visit your site, or both.

Use an effective landing page. Ads that drop someone off at your generic home page are wasting someone's time and your opportunity to convert. If the ad advertises an event, make sure that clicking on it takes people directly to the information about the event. If the ad talks of a particular practice area, make sure the page they land on talks about that practice area. Best of all is a landing page dedicated to the ad in question, so you can easily transition them from a casual click into an active visitor. If they took the time to click on the ad, reward them with an efficient visit to your site.

Rotate your creative content often. Even when doing a CPM-based branding campaign, make sure that your audience isn't overexposed to the same message. Consider advertising multiple practice areas, or use multiple ads that tie together into a cohesive message. Use measurement to determine when the click-through rate (CTR) is declining (a sure sign of message saturation) and adjust creative content accordingly.

Search Engine Optimization: The Criteria for Online Awareness

As the Internet becomes the leading research tool of business executives, a law firm's online visibility and awareness plays a significantly more meaningful role in business development. Any online marketing strategy starts with search engine optimization (SEO) of the firm's Web site.

The AmLaw 100 Web Sites: The Foundational Best Practices study (commissioned annually by Deborah McMurray's firm, Content Pilot) lists "Site Optimization for Online Search" among its foundational best practices. The 2006 study looked at the basics of site optimization, which include correctly used meta tags for page titles, descriptions and keywords, along with home page HTML copy and current site maps. Researchers then took a broader look at the firms' overall "online awareness and visibility," using Google as the benchmark to measure awareness. The three pieces of Google data incorporated into the online awareness score were:

  • Google page rank
  • The number of pages indexed by Google
  • The number of inbound links indicated by Google

As expected, the AmLaw 100 firms scored across the board in the analysis. But, with the addition of the online awareness benchmark—a criteria new to the analysis in 2006—more firms either leapt to a score of "excellent" or dropped to the "unacceptable" level.

The Common Sense of Search Engine Optimization Basics

Most firms still do not have the basics of on-site SEO in place. These elements are both simple and critical. For example, a large portion of search traffic to any law firm site will always be for individual lawyer names. Corporate counsel readily admit to using Google, often before they search for lawyers or firms at martindale.com. And a business or consumer client base starts with the search engines, because they may not be familiar with the online legal resources, such as law.com, martindale.com and findlaw.com. If that is the case, then why would a firm's site not have the lawyer's name in the page title of his or her bio? The page title is one of the very first things a search robot looks at to determine the content on the page. Ensuring that all of your page titles indicate the content of the page is a simple solution to an important opportunity.

This type of seemingly small oversight is indicative of the lack of attention or understanding of search marketing by most law firms today, including many AmLaw 100 firms. For example, a few sentences of HTML text describing your firm on the home page of your site can communicate important information about your firm and Web site to both the human user and the search engine robot indexing your site. But many firms have little text on their home page, and if they do, it's primarily very abbreviated news items.

The page title tag discussed above is followed in importance by the meta tag for the description. Some search engines will utilize the description as the "snippet" shown for your site on the search results page, so it is important that this description be concise and appropriate for this use. In terms of keywords and phrases, your focus should be on the title, the description and the content on the page.

The basics of site search optimization will help the search engines "see" your firm's site and understand the content and context of the pages within the site. And, logically, these same important basics also help human visitors understand your firm and help them navigate your Web site. Both human users and search engine robots are coming to your site to get information on the firm. And both will exit your site if they don't easily find the information they are seeking. You have just allowed the future client, valuable lateral or future top 10 search listing to leave and maybe not come back.

Twenty-five of the AmLaw 100 firms earned a score of "excellent" in the 2006 AmLaw 100 Web Sites analysis. Two firms had the top scores—Jones Day and Fulbright & Jaworski, both having a score of 99 on a scale of 1 to 100. A third firm, DLA Piper, received a 91.

As with Jones Day and DLA Piper, Fulbright is making the most of the basic tenets of SEO. The firm employed additional online marketing strategies that contribute to its success in developing online awareness and traffic.

DLA Piper has excelled in one of the most important aspects of successful online awareness. The firm has created a substantial amount of external links to its site. As any search engine marketing professional will tell you, external links to your site from other quality Web sites is a key determination of search and online success.

Beyond the Basics

Once you are past the basics of site optimization, your marketing and communications efforts play the most important role in developing online awareness of your firm. Developing quality links to your site and its content is a critical element.

These quality links not only drive direct traffic to your site, they are also one of the major factors that search engine algorithms consider when determining the relevancy and quality of your site content against an original search query.

Many lawyers are prolific writers and publishers of content, the marketing and communications professionals in the firm create and distribute press releases, and your firm and its lawyers are likely associated with multiple professional organizations. These are all opportunities for you to create quality links to your site.

These opportunities can be amplified with a diligent and concerted effort to create links with optimized "anchor text." These are the actual words displayed on the page as the link.

There are multiple tools to view the links to your site. Use the tools to find those links, and with these and any new link opportunities, try to supply an optimized link—a link that has anchor text that is relevant to the site content, and that links back to a page on your site with similarly relevant content.

To check to see how many of your site's pages Google is indexing, type the following in the Google search bar: site:www.yoursite.com (e.g., site: jonesday.com). To learn how many sites and pages link to your Web site, in the Google search bar, type: link:www.yoursite.com (e.g., link: jonesday.com).

Jones Day, Fulbright and DLA Piper all publish content from their lawyers on a regular basis. This content includes information about the firms' expertise, their clients and their clients' businesses and industries. It is a powerful tool for developing quality links to their sites.

Links drive direct traffic to your site and enhance your search success. And, by creating great content that communicates your firm's message and expertise, you are communicating both to the human users of your site and to the search engine robots that your firm and its lawyers should be considered experts in particular areas.

Visibility Isn't Enough: The Real Story About Your Web Site

Traffic to your Web site is based on a large set of variables. Yes, sites that have SEO basics in place, have strategically optimized content, and have a significant amount of quality inbound links will have good visibility in the search engines. This should help increase traffic, but more importantly, if done strategically, it will help increase well-qualified traffic to your site.

Keep in mind that all of your firm's marketing, PR and business development efforts should be supported by your Web site and, conversely, should enhance the visibility and success of your site. All online and offline activities should be seamlessly integrated. And as you proceed, always remember that the most important set of data about the traffic on your site is your own data—the log files from your site. This is real, tangible and undisputable data about what is happening, and it is the most reliable tool to analyze the success or failure of your site.

Make sure you have access to timely, easy-to-digest reports, and look for issues and trends. Dig deeper when you see something that is working or something that is not. If you do not have the in-house knowledge to read and understand your Web analytics reports, engage a properly qualified expert to do this for you, and have that person train your marketing and Web site team.

Visit www.lawpractice.org for information on the upcoming release of The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet and other new LPM books.