These days, an online presence is almost required for lawyers and law firms. With the Internet increasingly a major part of our economy, law firms are putting up websites simply because it has started seeming strange not to have one. According to the American Bar Association’s 2010 Legal Technology Survey, 84 percent of member attorneys work for firms that have websites. It’s especially likely for the largest firms – the same survey found that basically all firms of 50 or more lawyers had websites, while that number was 81 percent for firms of two to nine lawyers.
But as marketing experts will tell you, there’s having a website, and then there’s having a website that gets visitors. The Web is a vast collection of information – so vast that it can be hard to be found. Unlike in the physical world, people using the Internet aren’t constrained by geography to only explore what’s around them; they can search the entire English-speaking world for answers. To stand out, legal websites have to take steps to become easier to find in a Web search, as well as by casual browsers.
If that sounds challenging, don’t worry – being found on the Web is a very well-studied problem. In and outside of the legal world, a cottage industry has sprung up helping businesses connect with the kinds of clients they’re looking for. Not every business takes advantage of this, so those who do will be much better positioned to scoop up Web searchers in need of the kind of legal services they provide.
Search Engine Optimization
Google and other search websites are called search engines. When they return a page of search results, the first (non-advertising) link is said to be the top-ranked result. The various tricks and strategies businesses use to increase their rankings in those search results are called search engine optimization, or SEO.
In order to understand SEO, it’s important to understand how search engines work. In essence, search engines have computer programs called spiders that “crawl” the Web gathering information about websites and their content. That information goes into a huge database, and when you do a search, the search engine looks through that database for information about which sites are most relevant to the word or phrase you searched. How they determine relevance is a trade secret for each search engine, but we do know that they take into account the content of the site, the code and the number of links to and from it.
The code side of SEO is relatively simple and may not even be an issue, especially if your website was built by professionals. However, law firms and attorneys who write their own content should think very carefully about the content side of SEO. To encourage a high search engine ranking, writers of your website’s content should make sure the site includes a lot of “key phrases” or “keywords” – words and phrases that you think a Web user might use to find your site. For example, if you are a consumer bankruptcy lawyer in Philadelphia, you might want to be found by people searching for things like “Philadelphia individual bankruptcy attorney” or “personal bankruptcy law firm.”
These keywords ought to be things that real users would think of. That is, when choosing keywords, think about what the average person would use to search. In the bankruptcy example above, consumers aren’t likely to search for, say, “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005,” or “Pennsylvania homestead exemption.” The free Google Keywords tool can help you come up with frequently searched terms relevant to your site. Once you have your keywords, you should generally structure your page so that:
- Keywords are included as often as the text naturally allows.
- Keywords are placed in headers and higher up on the page.
- Keywords match the actual content of the page.
- Your content is updated reasonably often.
- Your page is linked as often as is natural to other parts of your site and to relevant outside websites. (There’s lots more to this – see the section below on building links.)
This doesn’t at all mean that you should abandon efforts to communicate with the readers of your site – your potential clients – in favor of communicating with search engines. Search engines just get readers to your site. Content that interests those readers is what keeps them there, and it’s what motivates them to contact you. As in any communication with clients, your copy should be aimed at non-lawyers – easy to understand and free of legal jargon – while conveying professionalism and legal competence. In fact, even a search engine will ignore a page that is nothing but a collection of key phrases without meaning (keyword spam). It is best, and entirely possible, to write reader-friendly copy while also subtly giving search engines what they need to rank your site highly in the right searches.
For attorneys and law firms, an added consideration is whether your content follows ethical rules for attorney advertising. State bar associations typically have guidelines for this already, including guidelines for websites and other forms of online advertising. You should also consider the ABA Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers (PDF), which among other things call for sites to remind readers that general legal information does not constitute legal advice. Failure to observe ethics rules can get you into professional trouble, so it’s best to be careful about following them.
The other major part of SEO is building links back to your site. Search engines reward websites for being linked from other places on the Web, so it’s a good idea to get as many relevant links as possible. In fact, this is one reason – along with the need to update content regularly – that many law firms launch their own blogs on separate sites. As with keywords, however, keep in mind that search engines will punish you for “spamming” by spreading a large number of links to your site across completely unrelated sites.
Whether you have a website, a blog or both, you can start building back links by promoting it for free on social networking sites. It’s not hard to make a page for your firm on Facebook or reference it on a LinkedIn profile, and those links should last. If you have a blog, consider promoting individual posts that you think would appeal to a wide audience, using Facebook and Twitter.
You can also promote your blog posts and website using the large online legal community. Sites like Avvo.com, FindLaw.com and Martindale.com are just some of the many sites with lawyer directories. Clients can search these by geographical region and practice area. Many of them also contain discussion forums where you can discuss legal issues or answer legal questions asked by Web users. You can build links to your site by participating in those forums and ensuring that your site is in your signature and your profile.
If you have a blog to promote, you can build a lot of links by becoming a part of the greater legal blogging community for the relevant area of the law. To do that, start actively participating in discussions on other blogs in the practice area. Link to your site with every comment, and repost information from those other blogs, giving them full credit and a link. Put relevant other blogs in your blogroll, the list of links down one side of the page. Those other bloggers are likely to return the favor, especially if they think your content is worthwhile. As you start to build that content, other bloggers are likely to link back to you in turn.
As we have discussed elsewhere, legal blogging is also a great way to build a good reputation in the legal community as well, establish yourself as an expert in the area and meet others in the same field. If you’re looking for a legal mentor, it can also help you connect to older attorneys with the experience to help.
Finally, you can link to your website and your blog by submitting articles and press releases to websites that aggregate those things. If you’ve just had a victory in court or launched new litigation that you think is newsworthy, a short press release announcing that can also contain links to your website or blog. If there’s nothing special to announce right now, consider also contributing articles to online article websites such as ezinearticles.com and Demand Media. These are typically not too long – about 500 words – and can set you up as an expert while providing a permanent link back to your site.
This might seem like a lot of work for a busy attorney, but it’s not something you need to do all at once. Like natural Web traffic, building back links to your site for better SEO is a process that builds slowly. And remember, while it’s not necessarily billable, SEO is ultimately about building more traffic to your site, which is about advertising your firm. And that means clients, the people who keep attorneys and law firms in business.