Search Engine Optimization (SEO): The Connection Between Being Found Online and Being Worth Finding
According to a Legal Marketing Survey Report conducted by Avvo and Lexblog, the #1 legal marketing subject solo and small firm lawyers are interested in learning more about is search engine optimization (or “SEO”, in internet parlance). Not how to build an online referral network, stay in better touch with existing clients using online tools or manage their online reputations, but SEO: a series of tools and tactics that attempt to ensure that a firm’s website is near the top of the search results when a potential client searches online for terms relevant to that firm’s practice.
This level of interest is not without reason. The practice of law is competitive, and lawyers are competitive. So there is little surprise that, say, a "Boston DUI Lawyer" would want to do whatever necessary to be at the top of the page whenever some poor unfortunate who has had a late-night run in with the BPD turns to Google or Bing looking for legal help. But SEO is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to client development online, and it helps to know what SEO can – and most likely cannot – do.
SEO's Little Secret, and an Aside on SEM
Any busy practitioner has no doubt run across SEO consultants. For a fee, these folks offer to help make lawyers and law firms more competitive when it comes to the web; i.e., likelier to rise higher in the search results. It’s important to not confuse SEO experts with “SEM” consultants (although many times the same consultants sell both services). Pitches along the lines of "get on the top of Google search results - guaranteed!" are based on SEM. The technique has its place, but must be recognized for what it is: Search Engine Marketing. SEM consultants make their guarantee because they will buy ads on Google on a firm’s behalf. That firm then appears – as an advertisement, not an organic result – on the top of whatever search results ads were bought for. While it’s a surefire way to get noticed, it can also be very expensive, and requires at least as much thought and analysis as any other marketing campaign.
Unlike SEM, SEO involves making “fixes” to a site – and sometimes off-site strategies – rather than purchasing advertisements. It's important to think of SEO consulting as having two aspects: A technical aspect, and a magical aspect. There are many straightforward technical things that websites must have in place in order to put their best foot forward with the search engines. Platforms - be they directories like Avvo and LinkedIn, social networks like Facebook or Twitter, or blogging services like Wordpress and Typepad - have already taken care of this work, and those using these services benefit from the fact that their profiles or blogs will already be optimized for the search engines. However, many lawyer and law firm websites fail on this count, and would absolutely benefit from this technical form of SEO help.
The “magical” side of SEO, however, involves the use of other techniques (examples include keyword stuffing and comment spam) in an attempt to take an otherwise search engine-friendly website and make it even more eye-catching to the Googles and Bings of the world. Over the years, these tactics have yielded enough short-term successes and alignments of marketing spend with dumb luck to keep this side of the business alive. But consider: Google tweaks its search algorithm over 500 times a year. And it is a model of opacity when it comes to providing a peek under the hood at how its algorithm works. Attempting to outwit Google takes a mix of wild guessing, cargo-cultism and blind faith.
And websites do sometimes get lucky, for a while, by frolicking in the magical end of the SEO pool. But they do not fool or outsmart the search engines for long. Google and Bing are constantly optimizing for – and throwing billions of dollars and thousands of uber-bright minds against – a goal of returning the most relevant search results. Period. Assuming a lawyer’s site has already got its technical SEO house in order, the best technique to do better in the rankings is to give the engines what they want: better, more relevant content. And the good news is that this is exactly what potential clients want as well.
Standing Out Once You’re Found
This should be a perfect alignment: Potential clients are looking for in-depth information about lawyers and legal problems, and the search engines strive to surface such content. So why are so many lawyer websites replete with stiffly-worded bios and empty platitudes about the law and legal practice? Why is there so little substance and personality to be found?
The legal marketplace is competitive, and competence is only the price of admission. Lawyers and firms that not only want to be found online, but to be selected online, must do more than cite their impressive credentials and wait for the phone to ring. Here are some high-level starters:
- Claim online real estate. Lawyers must let clients find out about them, in depth, wherever they might be looking – directories, social media, etc. And all of those places can link back to a law firm website.
- Lead with passion. No firm should be satisfied with a by-the-book, resume-format website. Lawyers who succeed talk about why they love the law, how they make a difference for their clients, what makes them different from all of the other lawyers out there.
- Write and connect. Enough with the dry case summaries or (god forbid) lists of local accidents designed for “keyword optimization” purposes. The best material online is crisp, relevant pieces that potential clients or referral sources will want to read or share.
There’s no disputing the superficial appeal of “magical” SEO solutions. But, ultimately, what the search engines are optimized to find – AND what potential clients want to read – is deeply relevant, authentic and differentiated content. Firms that relentlessly focus on providing that kind of value will be the winners online.