Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Tips" for Driving Traffic to Legal Websites? offers up a set of "tips" for generating traffic to law firm websites. I find myself questioning most of the suggestions.

The first thing I'll note is that I have no problem with telling lawyers that they need to hire an outside professional to develop and market their law firm's website, or that the professional should be paid for those services. In the alternative, a law firm may be able to identify a member of its staff (perhaps a lawyer, perhaps a non-lawyer) who has the skill and aptitude to do a lot of website development and marketing in-house, or to hire a full-time developer.

But let's admit up-front that, for most lawyers and firms, this isn't a do-it-yourself project. I don't think it's much of a favor to offer "tips" that either suggest otherwise, or which could not effectively be followed (or might be costly and perhaps even counter-productive) in the hands of a novice. Also, to the extent that tips include suggestions that should best be outsourced, it would be helpful to have at least one tip addressing how to select an outside professional. (Hint: If they approach you with the claim, "We'll put you at the top of Google" (i.e., "We'll buy some ads"), or "We'll deliver 10,000 'hits' to your site in 30 days", they're almost certainly not a firm you want to consider.)

In terms of offline ideas, I agree that a law firm's marketing materials should include URL of its website. I question the usefulness of a "stand-alone" business card simply touting a website. If you're handing out the card to people you are trying to recruit as clients, how is that better than a brochure or other, more complete marketing materials in which you market yourself and also direct them to your website? If you're not targeting the recipient of the card, what's the point? Stick the website information on the back of your card, which is probably blank anyway.

A business card has the advantage that somebody can take it out of his pocket, look at your URL, and type it into a computer, but for the most part conventional print marketing isn't very efficient at generating web traffic. If you do try special business cards, consider using (or having your expert use) analytics software to try to track the amount of traffic they generate. (You can use special tracking URLs as well, but when somebody's asked to type the URL into their computer that makes things more complicated for the recipient of the card.)

The article fails to distinguish between types of legal consumer, and how your target audience will affect your web marketing strategy. If you're making a presentation to a group that includes potential clients, and whose members will benefit from the information on your website, by all means mention it. If you're conducting free seminars for prospective clients (e.g., "How you will benefit from a living trust") you can promote your website to them as an adjunct to the seminar - a source of more information, and (if they don't sign a contact sheet) a means of drawing them back to you and your firm after they leave the room. If your practice depends upon people who have a special legal need arise - a personal injury claim, a divorce, etc. - marketing your website at live events is of limited value.

In terms of running a stand-alone print ad for your target audience, I again question how this is effective (or at least cost-effective) marketing. If, for example, you're a personal injury attorney and you run a special ad, "Go to the following address on my website where you can download and print out a list of things to do after a car accident", you're creating a barrier between yourself and your prospective client. They're supposed to go from the print ad to their computer, type in the URL you provide, download the document, print it on their own printer, then put it into their car? Here's an idea - include your list of things to do right in the ad - so they can cut it out and put the pre-printed list in their glove compartment. Or perhaps even better, use your print (and online) advertising to try to make sure that yours is the first name they think of after an accident, rather than expecting that they'll remember about your list, and find your list buried in their glove compartment and call you because your name's at the bottom.

Marketing your firm through microsites? Give me a break. If you want to have a URL devoted to a specific area of your practice, you can buy and use such a URL, but you're better served by having it redirect to content on your main site. Why? Because that way when people in the online world link to your "microsite" content, the links help boost your main site. And when your microsite is no longer useful (as can happen in a tort area, such as a defective drug case, or in the event of a change in the law) the links continue to bring traffic to your site rather than leading to a dead URL. Further, when you host the new content on your firm's website you benefit from the links and authority you've already created for that site. If you want to generate free traffic from search engines, that's what you should prefer over starting from scratch with a new site.

Also, after marketing and promoting your primary URL as a valuable resource to prospective clients, other lawyers, or whomever else you're trying to reach, it makes no sense to send your readers off to other websites to find the information they want, even if you own them. Would you do that with your physical offices - market multiple, neighboring office addresses for each area of your practice, or market a different phone number for each practice area or subspecialty? Or is it better to have a central reception area where all callers and visitors can be guided to the correct location?

I don't want to sound cynical, but let's say you have an existing website and your designer says "You need a five or ten page microsite on subspecialty X" - ask, "How much will the new site cost, and how much will it cost to simply add those pages to my existing site?" For that matter, "Why don't I have a CMS (content management system) that lets my lawyers quickly and easily add new pages to my current site without involving you?"

Entering contests? Many years ago, contests were all the rage. But most of them generated little traffic, while the "winners" proudly added icons and links back to the contest site to celebrate their awards. That's to say, most did far more for the promoters of the contest than for the winners. Not all contests work like that, and I'm not against entering website contests, but why am I skeptical that a highly effective but inexpensive design is going to win over a splashy site that cost five or six figures to develop, regardless of its performance? Whatever it's traffic, do you think your small firm site is going to beat the 2009 "Your Honor Awards" winning entries from Akin Gump, Wilmer Hale, and McMillan LLP?

As for the tip to "Send your extensive mailing list an e-blast" announcing your new site or "microsite", that's great if you have a huge, verified audience that has opted in to your mailing list and will be interested in your message. But do you have an "extensive mailing list" to eblast?

In general, I agree with the suggestion of trying to have a URL "that conveys what you do and is easily remembered", particularly for law firms directed at consumers. This, of course, is easier said than done. To get a URL that's reasonably related to your practice area you'll probably have to buy it, perhaps along with a website. If you're trying to buy URLs or websites you'll probably have to approach a great many sites before you find one that has both an acceptable URL and an acceptable price. In terms of a big firm that markets its primary URL through its firm name using communicative, easily remembered URLs for its microsites, again easier said than done. Of the examples given in the article, "" isn't that bad (although it's not very memorable, so it could blur into "Was that ''? ''? ''?), but "" could be easily confused with "", "", etc. Incidentally, worksitecompliance is for sale at for $5,788. If I were developing the hyphenated version, depending on my budget, I would be making an offer or buying that URL before my competitor did.

The example provided in the article,, is a good URL. It's not great for branding, but it's a real word, short and memorable. If you find somebody with a similar URL and want to buy it, expect bidding to start in the six to seven figure range - plus, if it's a developed site, the value of its traffic. Obviously you need to carefully consider how well that work works for your business, and whether you're better off using the money to try to build a brand (Google, Yahoo and Amazon tell you nothing about what they sell, but they're powerful brands. "Trial" suggests that the site has something to do with... trials? Maybe it's a place where you order trial sized merchandise, or get free sample coupons from manufacturers?)

Of the articles online ideas, the first suggestion isn't really an online idea. Yes, writing in clear, understandable language, in plain English, also applies to the online world.

In terms of optimizing your website for search engines, yes, by all means. But any web designer should be developing your website to incorporate the basic concepts of search engine optimization. And if you're not attuned to SEO issues, all this tip is doing is reminding you of the importance of having some professional assistance in designing and implementing your website. Some of the tips are a bit dated - "Make sure most of the site's content is visible to the search engine crawlers, meaning the text is not stored in graphics or Flash technology" - although there are other reasons to object to flash pages or splash pages or regard them as interfering with SEO, a text layer can be included in a flash site, and flash can be used instead of graphics on an HTML site. No, you don't want to present your website's text in image files, but is anybody using graphics instead of text content these days? If you think that's a good idea and you don't recognize that you need help from an outside consultant, you probably didn't get this far in the article.

Also, in my opinion, out of date is this suggestion in relation to link-building:
How do you get a link on another site to point to yours? You ask the owner of the site to place your link on the Web site. The owner will probably ask for something in return, such as a fee or, more likely, a link back, called a reciprocal link. You can place the reciprocal link somewhere on your site, such as a resources page, but it is not necessary that the link be prominently displayed.
There are individuals and companies that offer link-building services. Google "link ninja". (Seriously.) If you hire a responsible person they'll work on getting you high-value links from good sites, and ideally your site will benefit both from traffic driven by those relevant links and eventually as search engines recognize your site as meriting those links.

Less ethical services will engage in spamming of forums and blog comments, spamming webmasters with link requests (you can also buy software to spam webmasters, not that I recommend it), or even engaging in dubious, sometimes criminal activities to inject your link onto other sites by exploiting weaknesses in their software. Some services principally work through their own network of sites - you pay, they add you; you stop paying, they delete you. I've also heard horror stories about firms that sabotaged former clients' link-building when their contracts weren't renewed, although I expect that's a very unusual outcome (and would never happen with a responsible, ethical service provider).

Link-building is time-consuming, and abuses of link-building have made it enormously more difficult. If I get a request for a link that is software-generated, I delete it - assuming it even makes it past my spam filter. If it's the usual "We can benefit each other if you link from your popular site to my invisible site" email, that's a joke - we both know that the primary benefit will flow to you, and you won't win links by treating me like I'm stupid. If it says "I've added a link but it will be deleted in two weeks if you don't link back and confirm the link to me," it goes in the trash. If it's an "I've added a link to your site, and would appreciate a link back," but the page with the link on it is buried, presents a garbage heap of poorly edited, poorly organized links, or the link to my site is nofollowed, the request again gets treated like the garbage that it is. And that eliminates close to 100% of requests.

What if you request a link, and the webmaster writes back with "As long as you link back to me"? That's not so bad, provided you're not just adding each other's links to a link page or, worse, you're giving the other site a quality link on a quality page and they're adding you to a link farm. But you still need to be cautious - if the search engines conclude that pretty much all of your links are reciprocal - that you're primarily or exclusively getting links by trading for them instead of 'earning' them with good content - you'll find the value of your links devalued in their algorithms.

What if the webmaster says, "Pay me, and I'll add your link"? The form of link building that involved secret deals to buy links from other sites is dying out. Why? Because (in simplified terms) Google decided that if you pay for a link it should be treated as an advertisement, and started both devaluing the link to the person who acquired it and in some cases imposing a penalty on the site that was secretly selling links. Google's Matt Cutts explains Google's rationale here - that was written almost two years ago. Any "tip" that suggests buying links that aren't clearly indicated as ads should be accompanied by a warning that the search engines disapprove of link-buying and, if they detect it, will devalue the links and may also punish one or both of the sites involved.

The final tip involves buying ads through Google AdWords or similar services. That, when done correctly, can be an excellent revenue-generator. You can track clicks, conversions (as you define them) and the amount of new business the ads generate. You can take advantage of highly granular data, to determine which keywords or ads return the most business and which should be dropped from your campaign. But this is advertising, not SEO - you can expect that the traffic you generate will last only as long as your ad campaign lasts.

Although these services offer tools that help people develop and manage their own campaigns, particularly if you're intending a large ad buy you need to consider bringing in a specialist to help you draft your ads and select keywords. It's easy to burn through a lot of money without much of a return if you target the wrong keywords, or assume that the most popular or expensive keywords will return the greatest amount of business or the best quality of customer. Beware anybody who promises to generate "traffic" for your site, without defining what that means - you want conversions, defined by a measure that includes the reasonable prospect that they'll become clients. (If a person from your state visits your site and completes the 'contact me' form, that may be adequate. If the person's in India, that's probably not something you would want to count unless you're an immigration law firm or it's an exceptional case (e.g., an international custody dispute) and those leads are actually generating clients.

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