Thursday, June 09, 2005

Don't Believe The Hype


A Lawyers Weekly article, reprinted in the Arizona Capital Times, reflects significant excitement about legal weblogs ("blawgs"). But some of the statistics presented in the article seem dubious:
  • "In the four months since the blog — www.antitrustlawblog.com — was launched, the number of readers has skyrocketed to 50,000, up from 4,000 readers a month."
  • J. Craig Williams, a lawyer in Newport Beach, Calif., estimated that his blog — mayitpleasethecourt.net — gets 20,000 hits a day."
  • "“You can set up a Web site for $10,000, or put up a blog for $10,” [Larry Bodine] said. “I tell all my small-firm clients — forget the Web site, let’s get you a blog.”"
The first claim, of 50,000 unique visitors per month (or perhaps they were confused, and mean 50,000 total visitors, or 50,000 page views) would be extremely high for a subject such as antitrust. The Overture "search term suggestion tool", which indicates how many times a particular search term or phrases is used on all properties which use Yahoo! Search Marketing products, indicates that in April of this year there were 5,831 searches using the term "antitrust" across such properties as Yahoo!, MSN and InfoSpace. Even giving Google its due, "antitrust" is not such a popular subject that a claim of 50,000 visitors per month seems likely. (And other measures which might support a claim, such as Alexa rankings, link popularity checks, or even the number of comments on the blog itself, don't support the claim.)

As for "mayitpleasethecourt.net" getting 20,000 "hits" per day, that particular term has long posed problems - does a "hit" mean a "file hit" (for which there are typically multiple "hits" per page view), "page view" (the number of times a page is displayed), or something else? And given the report that this traffic "generates one new client a week for his five-lawyer firm", well, generating business is good, but that would be an unbelievably poor conversion rate if that's one new client per 140,000 visitors to the weblog.

I am reminded of a lawyer I know who insisted that a peculiar website she was running was getting "a million hits per day". I'm sure her SEO ("Search Engine Optimizer") was telling her that the site was achieving that level of popularity - but neither its subject matter nor its subsequent (lack of) prominence supports that claim. Be aware, folks, that web designers and SEO's will not always be honest about the amount of traffic their work inspires - if you hear a huge figure from a professional you have hired, ask to see an actual report of traffic metrics based upon an analysis of the website's logs.

As for Bodine's suggestions, I simply disagree. First, it's only going to cost you in the neighborhood of $10 for a weblog if you "do it all yourself". And if you use that measure, it is no more expensive to set up a website if you "do it all yourself". Second, if you were to retain Mr. Bodine's services to set up a small firm website, I sincerely doubt that his quote would be in the $10 range. Third, websites and weblogs provide very different functions. A good law firm weblog can be integrated into the firm's website, with ready access to other content from that site, including information about the firm and its lawyers. A stand-alone weblog will be a less effective marketing tool. And, to the extent that Bodine's insistence that the "freshness" of a weblog's content helps a weblog achieve better search engine results, that would also hold true for a weblog which is integrated into a website.

And that traffic thing....
The other big reason for starting a blog, Bodine said, is to increase a firm’s visibility on the Internet. Google and other search engines rate the relevance of a site by how frequently it’s updated, as well as the number of other sites that link to it.

“The reason you want to have a blog is because it gets much more traffic [than a Web site] because search engines have tuned up their algorithms to seek and list blogs first,” Bodine said. “Blogs are basically what search engines are looking for — text and something that’s refreshed and interesting.”
Well, then, going back to an earlier example, what happens when you search Google for the word antitrust? The Antitrust Law Blog is result #42 - a decent result given the 7,390,000 hits reported, but not likely to generate significant traffic. Many of the "top ten" results are from traditional websites, some of which have seen little to no change in years. Yes, "fresh" content can get you a boost in the search engines, but that of itself won't give you staying power, and that of itself won't necessarily cause you to outrank established, traditional websites. Further, good content on an established website will continue to rank in search engine results, month after month, year after year, while "fresh" content from a weblog will typically become effectively absent from search engine results within weeks.

Yes, it may well be possible to create a new weblog, and to use the weblog to achieve short-term search engine results which are better than those you are likely to achieve with a traditional website. (As I've mentioned in the past, most law firm websites are bad, and it shouldn't be surprising that bad websites don't generate much business.) If you have neither a website nor a weblog and you feel you must choose one or the other, it can thus make sense to start with a weblog, and then to establish your traditional site. If you will be attracting business based upon current legal issues and events, a weblog may well be the easiest way to get that "fresh" content before your potential clients. But if you are producing good content which is of longer-term interest, you will almost certainly benefit from building a traditional website.

Whatever you do, in the (im)mortal words of Public Enemy, don't believe the hype.

6 comments:

  1. I call bullshit. Until these people install sitemeters (which counts unique *visitors*) and make their sitemeters public, then I'll consider them all liars (or fibbers). After all, if you have "20,000 hits a day," wouldn't you make this PUBLIC.

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  2. Interesting article, Aaron. Like you, I don't "believe the hype." The above commentor has a decent point, though one needs to swim through a lot of venom to reach it.

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  3. Yet more evidence of lawyers' inability to handle math. ;)

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  4. Aaron, thanks for reminding folks about this problem, which has existed ever since the dawn of weblogs spawned its first crop of cheerleaders. See. e.g., Those Misleading Traffic Stats and Three Times Nothin' Is . ..

    It appears that my website's hit-counter tallies 15 to 20 times more hits per day than my unique-visitor counter.

    Bob Doyle and Sheppard Mullin have been putting out a very good, substantial Antitrust Newsletter for the past few years. I put a link to it in the American Antitrust Institute's Research Guide more than two years ago. It has always been available from a page at the firm's website. When its webpage was switched to a weblog a few months ago, Bob Doyle wrote us to say that nothing had changed as far as content. Antitrust Law Blog, after the swell in hits, did change to having twice-monthly "editions" rather than monthly, and now has a Comments & Questions function. Because it was now in "blog format" a web-newsletter unknown to all but rabid antitrusters and clients got spotlighted by Bob Ambrogi. I also mentioned the conversion to blog-format on the day of the change in May.

    Since I know Bob from our FTC days, I've been meaning to write to him about the giantic readership claim, to let him know of the hits vs. visitors problem. I wish I had, before he touted them in Lawyers Weekly.

    Technorati shows Antitrust Law Blog with links from 30 sources now (on of them being this website). These days, calling yourself a weblog will get you some notice in the blogosphere and therefore probably does mean an increase in readership. However, you are quite correct to be very skeptical of claims (often made in good faith ignorance) of extreme changes.

    Craig Williams put a far more realistic spin on his weblog's marketing role in an email to me last year that ended up in a post: Craig Williams Shares His Thoughts on Weblogs.

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  5. Assuming that a lawyer who views a weblog as a marketing tool can measure, in some way, the business it produces, that would be a better measure of its "value" than the traffic it generates. That is, if a website generates one new client per week, after several months the sponsor should be able to gauge the typical fee that each new client will generate, and weigh that against the cost and time investment in the weblog. If the sole purpose of maintaining a weblog is marketing, and the value of the time invested is truly in the vicinity of $10,000 per week, it should be simple for a firm to determine if the weblog (at a cost of $1/2 million per year) is a worthy investment.

    But if the weblog serves a combined purpose, or isn't primarily a marketing vehicle, the picture changes. While it might be possible to argue that it "costs" an hour of billable time per day to maintain the weblog, that time begins to shift into the category of water cooler talk or taking lunch at a restaurant. Sure, it is possible to get through the day without having a single non-billable conversation, and brown bag a lunch so you don't lose time at your desk, but there is a value in taking that personal time, if only in terms of maintaining your sanity.

    A weblog on a subject such as antitrust can serve public relations goals as well as marketing goals. In addition to the potential for recruiting new clients, it can help maintain client relationships, and help establish the author as an expert. (From what Evan Schaeffer has written, there is another side to the public relations coin - it is also important to consider that some who see an active weblog may assume that the author does not have a busy legal practice.)

    There's something to be said, at the end of the day, for blogging simply because you like to blog.

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  6. I don’t use a site meter or any other type of public view of hits on May It Please The Court, but I can confirm that MIPTC has hit 20,000 hits a day, and regularly averages from 10-20,000 depending on what being written and what else is going on around the internet. Sure, they’re page views and not distinct visitors, but they’re real numbers. True, I went to law school because I don’t do math, and thankfully I don’t have to because the numbers are available on the server. All I have to do is read them, and surprisingly, I can do that. MIPTC doesn’t use a site meter because the weblog is not about volume, it’s about content. MSM reporters, on one hand, like to cite to numbers, and when asked, I report them, but I don’t volunteer them on the site to distract from the goal of the blog.

    Behind the scenes we’re going through a redesign right now, and like any good garage sale, MIPTC will be getting rid of a lot of junk on its site to focus on its message: content, content, content. If I had a site meter up, I’d be getting rid of it, and I guess it’s why it’s not there in the first place. Yes, my law firm, WLF | The Williams Law Firm, PC averages about one new client every week to two weeks as a consequence of the blog. Perhaps it’s a poor conversion rate, but then again, we handle complex business litigation, and we decline a lot of emails and callers (personal injury and contingency cases) because we don’t handle all kinds of cases.

    Rather than classify it as a poor conversion rate, though, I look at it as a great screening process. Since we handle complex business litigation, the fee structure is quite different than run-of-the mill cases and these cases last longer because of the number of issues involved. Add to that mix the fact that we’re in Southern California where the fees are second only to the stratosphere of New York and LA, and you can see the financial results of clients we get as a result of the blog. We track how new clients find us so we can be sure whether the blog is an effective marketing tool for us. N.B - I’m still blogging, and yes, as pointed out in the post David referenced on his blog, I love to write. One doesn’t work without the other.

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