Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hey Gold Miner - Need a Pick Axe?

Looking over's rss feed, I saw,
Web Sites on the Case

Pervasive Web search tools have opened the door to a valuable new marketing opportunity for law firms: the litigation or case-specific Web site. Unlike a firm's legacy site or blog, these case sites can allow smaller firms to catapult their reputations and compete against Big Law.
I had the instant suspicion that this article would read like an infomercial, pitching the serviced of the author as opposed to the merits (and disadvantages) of a case-specific website. I've commented on this before. In my opinion, law office blogs (and similar microsites) should be part of the main website.

Now don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with looking at the web as a medium for advertising and marketing, just like any other. You can get a ton of PR and marketing benefits from materials you post to a website owned and controlled by somebody else. But if it's going to be your content on your site, most of the time you're better off putting all of your content under one (virtual) roof. From the strategy of building a strong website and strong online reputation, I think the claims in the second paragraph below are just about... entirely incorrect:
The pervasion of Internet search has opened the door to a valuable new marketing opportunity for law firms: the litigation or case-specific Web site. Unlike a law firm's legacy Web site or its blog, case-specific Web sites can allow smaller firms to catapult their reputations and compete against larger practices.

Litigation Web sites should not be confused with conventional Web sites. They must stand apart from firms' legacy sites with unique domain names and IP addresses.
First, a good website has existing links, authority, and reputation. It's in your existing marketing materials. It has existing traffic. When you add content to your existing site you leverage all of its existing resources to the benefit of that new content. If you start a new site, no matter how great it's content, you start from scratch.

Second... a unique IP address? Users don't know anything about the IP address. There are individual IP addresses that host dozens upon dozens of domains. The search engines will only "care" about an IP address if it's suspect - such as being the source of a great deal of spam. If I'm pitching web development services to you and I tell you that, "You need to host your new site on a different IP address", odds are my primary goal - and quite probably my only goal - is to get you to give me the hosting contract.

The following suggestions are more relevant, but do more to highlight the weaknesses of some law practice websites than the benefits of having a separate "case-specific" site:
Best-practice, case-specific sites should embrace the text concept and not be glitzy or highly animated. Splashy colors, clever design elements or professionally produced Flash movies should be limited to the firm's regular Web site.
If your law firm website is highly animated, has audio or video that autoplays when somebody loads the site, has a Flash splash page (even one users can skip) before they see the site's real content, is all-Flash (making it really hard to deep link or open portions of your site in new windows), etc., you have a problem. You were probably sold snake oil by your original web designer, and need to consider if all of that glitz is attracting people and making your site more "sticky" (keeping people on your site longer, and encouraging them to 'convert' by contacting you), or if it's causing some prospective clients to abandon your site before they even know what it's about. And you also need to be concerned that some of your actions (e.g., Flash-based navigation or a spash page of any sort) may be reducing your site's prominence in the major search engines. So to the extent I agree with the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle of web design, and I largely do, I think it applies to all sites.

Adding case-specific material to your website can generate traffic - and it can pay off to be the first (or at least one of the first) websites to address a particular topic or issue. But as far as search engines go, they direct people to the most relevant page of content, not to the top of a site. If somebody enters a search for specific information that brings up your site, it doesn't matter to them whether the site's on your website or on a brand new specialized website - they'll follow the link. If your law firm site has a lot of search engine authority, there's a strong chance that the content you host there will appear above that from any new site. It may also be indexed first, bringing in the desired traffic more quickly.

If your website doesn't have much authority, it may be much better to partner with an authoritative site to host articles or other content that highlight your expertise, and to lead people to your practice or your firm's site through that off-site content. You know, like promoting your PR business by publishing an article on But if you go with an entirely new site for a new practice niche you're leaving a lot more up to chance -and the more you do that (perhaps even the from the very first time) you're not following a good long-term strategy for building both the content on and reputation of your principal website.

No, I won't argue that it will never work, as sometimes a niche site will attract a lot of attention or by good luck happen to come up well particularly for "long tail" search terms (unusual search phrases, usually four-, five-, six-words and longer). I will say that in my experience, both with sites I control and site's I've seen, the odds weigh heavily in favor of putting content on an established, reputable site, and with investing your resources in building a single, solid site to promote your firm.
Case-specific Web sites must avoid overt law firm marketing. It is appropriate to identify the attorneys of record along with their bios, but don't include a form for potential clients to fill out. All-out marketing should remain on the firm's legacy site.
I'll twist that a bit. Many pages that you intend to use to generate new clients will benefit from being primarily informational, presenting you as an expert by virtue of strong content, as opposed to screaming "hire me!" But there's no reason you can't post information in this manner on your primary law firm website (many firms already do exactly that), as opposed to starting a separate site. In terms of a signup form, there are a lot of options you can consider and tailor to your reader. Sometimes it is appropriate to have a "new client signup form" alongside or below an article. Other times you might offer a link to a free download or newsletter offering more information on the subject, so you can start generating a mailing list. (Be careful to get authorization to send additional emails, and I suggest always using a confirmation email with a confirming link that must be clicked before you add somebody to an email newsletter or marketing list). Sometimes you'll want to offer a "share this article" feature allowing readers to easily share a link to the article. There's no "one size fits all" approach, although generally speaking if your purpose is to establish subject matter expertise with a particular page of content your direct client outreach will be more subtle.

The idea of putting all case information, filings and pleadings on the website is interesting, and may at times be beneficial, but for most sites it provides a level of complexity and obscurity that won't interest the average reader. In my opinion, strongly written, easy-to-understand content that a layperson will understand will generate more interest than posting links to the latest motions and briefs filed on a case. That latter approach seems better suited to advocacy sites than to sites intended to promote the lawyers as subject matter experts or to generate new clients. Granted, if the case has media attention, offering up all court documents the moment they're filed may keep reporters coming back to your site as a reference (but that could, again, as easily be done on your own law firm's principal site as on a new website.)

I don't have access to the site's logs, but I take this claim with a grain of salt:
Qui Tam: What law firm wouldn't like 20,000 additional Web site visitors in a year? The three firms that secured a major settlement in a novel federal False Claims Act, qui tam whistleblower case in 2008, have received that much recognition with their case-specific Web site, which went live after the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement.
There are sites that offer free metrics for websites. When I look up that site in, I get an apology and am told that they have no profile for the site. When I look up the site in Alexa, I get no indication that it's had any appreciable traffic in the past two years. When I go to the site itself, despite the author of this article cautioning against contact forms, I find that the site is copyrighted by "PRforLAW, LLC" and I am instructed,
Contact PRforLAW, LLC

Use this form or call 215-736-0198.
I guess overt law firm marketing is out, but overt PR firm marketing is a-okay.

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