This article first appeared in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
Most law firms recognised many years ago that the internet was taking over from traditional marketing channels such as Yellow Pages as the dominant method by which clients find lawyers. They now have a website but very few of these sites bring in a substantial number of new enquiries.
The reason for this is that web design firms are generally just that - designers. Many have little knowledge of how to build a website which actually brings in new business. They will dazzle you with their beautiful designs, and of course you want a good looking website, but surely the number one priority is to try and make some money out of it.
Most web design firms have no stake in the success of your website, they simply charge a fee and the transaction ends when they deliver the website to you and receive their payment.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the range of techniques used to get a website listed high up on the search engines results page, preferably high up on page 1. In the UK, Google is so dominant that it is effectively the search engine.
At least 50% of the marketing enquiries I receive are from law firms who have recently bought a new website and have found that, 6 months later, it is still on page 12 of Google and bringing in no new business. They then want me to "do some SEO" on their failing website.
In most cases I turn down these jobs because there is a fundamental problem with the way in which the website has been built which means that it is effectively invisible to Google. One critical factor in SEO is building the website using a search engine friendly site architecture which will ensure that Google can easily find and understand the pages on your site and rank them accordingly.
Unless the website has been built by someone who understands the basics of SEO, then there is not a great deal which can be done at a later date.
The next most common thing I am asked to do is to "get us to the top of Google". The client usually has a golden target phrase in mind which they believe will bring in lots of business, like "Solicitors in Manchester". Of course you want to rank high for obvious phrases like this, but focusing on one or even a few core keywords is the single biggest mistake that law firms and even some SEOs make, particularly those with no experience of working with law firms.
Let me give you some eye opening data to illustrate why a narrow keyword focus is such a mistake. I run a website for a medium sized general practice firm in a large city in England. Over the period of one year the website received 48,000 visits from potential clients who found the site via Google. The site was ranked high on page 1 of Google for many search terms including "Solicitors in CityName" as well as the various permutations of this phrase. Even though the website was ranked number 1 for those obvious search phrases, they only brought in around 1,000 visitors over the year, or 2% of the total traffic from Google. So where did the rest come from? The bulk of the traffic came from over 17,000 different search phrases.
It would be impossible to try and target or even predict what those 17,000 phrases would be when setting up a new website. Many people will type in the most random rambling phrases into a search engine, sometimes up to 12 words long. If you have simply focused on getting to the top of Google for a handful of obvious phrases then you will have missed out on the bulk of the available search traffic. It may feel good to be ranked number 1 for your target phrase, but the person who is ranked below you for that phrase may be getting 50 times the traffic volume that you are because their site is ranked high up for thousands of different phrases. Lesson: Focus on traffic, not rankings.
So how do you get ranked for thousands of different phrases? Content. Search engines work by matching up the text in a search phrase to the text on a web page. If someone types in a 10 word search phrase, you have a much higher chance of being matched up by Google if you have a page of well optimised content containing those 10 words. It is not simply a case of copying and pasting lots of content to your website, because when the potential client visits the page it has to be user friendly in order to convert them from a website visitor into an actual enquiry. Content for a website has to be written and formatted differently to content for other formats such as brochures. But the basic equation of a successful law firm website is: Good Content + SEO = New Business
So your IT guy says "I know about SEO, let me build the website". They know more about SEO than you do, but this may still be very little. Google are making constant changes to the way in which they rank websites. Techniques that were effective 12 months ago may now actually get you penalised and de-listed by Google. You may have heard of recent Google updates such as Hummingbird, Panda and Penguin. You don't need to know about them, you just need to have an SEO who knows about them and keeps on top of the changes as they happen. In the same way that you wouldn't expect someone to do their own conveyancing, you would recommend they hire an expert (you), likewise you don't have to understand the intricacies of SEO, you simply need to find an expert who does.
There is a lot of information on the Internet about how to carry out SEO, but most of it is laughably out of date and could end up irretrievably hurting your website's prospects.
An effective website will cost no more than one which doesn't bring in new business. In many cases it will cost less in the long run because you will only have to pay for the job being done once, not twice by hiring someone to "bolt on" some SEO afterwards.
The potential rewards of having an effective website can be immense. I have seen the fortunes of a number of law firms turned around by new business from the Internet. Just don't be taken in by the dazzling designs, the bells and whistles and the latest flavour of the month Internet buzzwords that a web design firm will show you (seeing endless solicitors pushed to go on Twitter against their will and ending up with 12 followers is just sad - it won't bring in any business).
Ask the Web Design Firm to show you evidence that they have built websites that bring in new business, preferably in a competitive area such as law. If they can't, walk away.
Simon Goodlad (www.websitesforlawfirms.org.uk) is a specialist in search engine optimisation and website design for law firms. Previously a marketing manager employed in UK law firms, Simon now advises law firms, solicitors and notaries on how to increase revenue through effective internet marketing.