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While it's certainly understandable to be satisfied with a law firm web site that contains well-written practice-specific content and slick attorney biographies presented in a professionally finished design, it's surprising to find so many well-designed legal sites that are constructed such that they are very difficult to find. There are definitely some obvious if subtle omissions in these site's visibility coding that lowers the value of a law firm's online property. Whether a law firm is dependent on online customer generation or not, it's important to at least be aware of this lack of search engine visibility, even if nothing is ever done about it. But fixing many of these problems are, depending on the structure of your web site, either easy to do yourself or impossible without a re-design.
Hiring a good consultant to fix these deficiencies can be more frustrating than finding a good plumber. I receive annoying spam emails every day - just as I'm sure you do - from people claiming that their seedy, unknown company (probably originating overseas if their stumbling grammar is any indication) will provide my web site with idyllic marketing results that will cause my company's phones to ring like never before. Thanks in large part to these folks, companies selling Internet search engine optimization services are often surveyed with the same scorn as that Nigerian Prince who's trying to unload his family's riches, or the guy offering to cure people's love life with fake Cialis. While there certainly are a few reputable SEO firms that can help, they are often prohibitively expensive. If your firm would like to truly improve its online marketing, there are many things that you can do to help yourself, many of them fairly simple, without ever having to resort to (gasp!) answering one of those spam emails.
How important are these "tags" to your firm's bottom line? It depends on how much content your law firm's site contains. If your site is somewhat devoid of content, then tag optimization would be the least of your problems; you'd better start writing. However, if it's loaded with great articles, but its tags are poorly developed, your incredibly-written content could be essentially ignored by the search engines; or at the very least the important keywords within the article will not pop out in search results. If you have a web designer, ask him or her "How about our Meta and Title tags?" If you get a muddled response, there's a pretty good chance your site's tags are NOT optimized. While it's outside the scope of this article to explain how to go about optimizing your page's tags, here is a basic example of a home page title tag that shows the "good", compared with the "bad and ugly."
The "Title" tag is what appears on the very top of the browser window, and is one of the most effective places to put juicy keywords, as the search engines place a lot of importance on the page's title.
First, the good:
The Big Law Firm, a family law practice in Birmingham Alabama
The bad & the ugly:
Welcome to Big Law Firm
The first title includes not only the firm's name, but also its primary expertise along with its geographic location. The second "bad & ugly" tag only states the obvious (the firm name), thereby wasting a great opportunity to embed some relevant keywords. Eyes getting heavy? Ok, sit up straight, sip your Mountain Dew or coffee, and dive into part two.
One of the most labor-intensive functions a good SEO marketing company will do (often at rates that would even make lawyers blush) is, in the words of James Kirk, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no man has gone before, and then to get them to link to you. This, indeed, is no small feat, but luckily the process is not rocket science, either. Anyone armed with a computer, a little knowledge, and a holding tank of energy can add tremendous value with incoming links, and in just a few small steps your site can make a giant leap. OK, enough with space exploration analogies, let's get to the meat of this topic; how to get relevant sites to link to you.
Let's start with the easiest solution first by using a site you probably already know about (no, not Facebook; I'll talk about law firms and social networking in our next newsletter): Linkedin.com. It's free, and while its prevailing competence is its ability to connect you with other lawyers and legal associations (and possibly even clients), my favorite feature of this business networking site is its ability to (you guessed it) link to your firm's web site. It's surprising to me that many people in the legal field don't take advantage of this seemingly trivial yet potentially substantial marketing opportunity. Linkedin allows every individual lawyer within a firm, small or large, to set up their own page. So, if your firm has 10 attorneys, you've added 10 links to your site already, and we've just begun.
Next, visit these three sites: Manta.com, citysearch.com, and jigsaw.com. These are all business-related directories that allow you to set up a profile, add specific information, and link to your firm's web site. They are all have slight variances in their focus, but they do share one commonality. Unlike a few legal directories you may have heard of that charge very high fees for a simple listing, these directory sites are free, and contrary to the sales pitches of the aforementioned sites, they can be just as effective.
Why are these additional sources of incoming links so important? It's partly because the links themselves will bring in new traffic to your site. More importantly, though, it will increase your site's perceived relevance in the savvy eyes of Google, Bing, and the other search engines, which have always (and always will) reward sites that have many good-quality incoming links. So there are actually two benefits to this exercise, which is why if you hired an online marketing company, they would likely spend most of your SEO dollars on this aspect alone. Or, you could do it yourself.
These first two ideas involve adding links from popular, national business sites, but they lack any specificity to your particular field, or fields, of law. Even more valuable is the link that comes from a smaller site that has information regarding your area of expertise, your specific location, or even better, an article you wrote that was published in a journal, blog, or local newspaper. In the online version of the article, ask the publication to provide a link to your biography page rather than the usual email address (which attracts spammers) or contact phone number. If the link to your bio page is too long, a good webmaster can create a page that redirects to it, such as www.biglaw.com/bjones.
Some content streaming firms still, amazingly, make money by gathering other site's news stories, categorizing them, then streaming them to firms who don't have original content. While this might be appropriate as a temporary measure or a fill-in for firms who can't come up with original content, it adds very little value to a firm's web site. So what is the true value of original content?
Not too long ago, AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million. This is a site that began as a blog, and for years they had very little in the way of original content as they could not afford to pay writers. As the company grew, it invested in people and in words. Today the majority of its content is original, and AOL no doubt bought the company because of Huffington Post's large and influential audience, but also because they had great tools for publishing written words, and had hired many good writers to create them. While your firm certainly won't benefit to this degree, the overall value of your firm's site could easily be summarized in terms of the quality and quantity of its writing. Keep that in mind at your next meeting; after deciding who should be optimizing your keywords, you should draw straws for writing duties!
Of course, there are other ways to increase quality traffic to your law firm's web site, but these three techniques are the "Big Three" of SEO marketing. It's not really what you know in SEO, its how hard you work at it. If these three techniques are utilized in a smart and aggressive manner, your results will surprise you. And perhaps that tag optimization will someday be a regular topic at partner meetings!