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Is SEO snake oil? Here’s the truth about search engine optimization for law firm websites.

39 comments

This post was inspired by a raucous conversation we had with some CMOs over dinner at the LMA conference in Orlando. Thanks guys!


Here's the simple truth: Search engine optimization (SEO) is among the most over-hyped marketing tactics in the legal industry. It may even be more hyped than social media.

Law firms want to believe in the magic of SEO -- and marketing companies are more than happy to sell it. Yet, few people truly understand how it can bring new business through the door.

Before I elaborate, it’s important to know that organic SEO is a core competency of my firm. We’ve been doing it for a decade and have had great success getting our clients' sites to the top of the Google results page. Over the years, we’ve also learned that top Google rankings, alone, seldom lead to more clients.

The big misconception
When most marketers think of SEO, they imagine that it works something like this:

  1. A prospective client Googles, say, “bankruptcy lawyer in Los Angeles”.
  2. That person lands on the Bankruptcy section of your website and reads your marketing text.
  3. With a little luck, they contact you and you get a new customer.

While this is how people think SEO should work – it seldom, if ever,works like this for corporate law firms. Why? Because the 3-step path above describes a consumer purchasing experience. This 3-step model might work for “refrigerator magnets” or “Red Sox t-shirts”, but it fails for corporate law firms. Companies just don’t buy legal services in the same way consumers buy toasters.


An aside: Back before we specialized in serving law firms, my company was ranked highly on Google for the term “B2B website design”. We were ranked #1 or #2 for many, many years. It drove lots of traffic to our website. And our phone would occasionally ring with inquiries. However, it didn’t result in a single new client. In most cases, the callers were small, unsophisticated businesses with tiny budgets -- and we weren’t interested in working with them.


So, how can SEO work for law firms?
SEO can definitely help law firms attract new clients. However, the model is longer and more circuitous than the 3-step consumer buying path described above. Consider this path:

  1. A prospective client Googles a highly specific search phrase, such as “impact of 2010 financial reform act on credit unions”.
  2. That person lands on an article or blog post you’ve written on that exact subject.
  3. They read your piece and are impressed with your insight.
  4. They surf your website and notice that you specialize in the exact legal micro-niche that concerns them most.
  5. They sign up for your newsletter and subscribe to your blog.
  6. Over the next few years, they follow your blog and read your newsletter. Perhaps they also hear you speak at a conference. The more they hear from you, the more respect they have for your legal insights.
  7. They hire you when a need arises.

Here’s what it boils down to: SEO is no marketing shortcut. For SEO to be successful, you’ve got to think of SEO as simply one more means of getting your thought leadership work (articles, blog posts, case studies, videos, etc.) in front of prospective clients. In other words, it’s just another way to help build your reputation as an expert.

So, if you want to win clients through SEO, write and create more (and better) content. And then perform some basic optimization of articles and blog posts. It’s that simple.

Comments

39 comments... read them below or add one.
  1. This is absolutely right. Businesses, including law firms, should always remember that people use the Internet in a variety of ways. While there are some legal services consumers that use search engines like the yellow pages (and admittedly, very few business legal services consumers), there are FAR more that use it as a research tool to find answers to their questions and to consume news and other information.

    When SEO is thought more of a way to get useful content in front of those that are interested in consuming it, it turns from snake oil, to crude oil (the value of which is unfortunately on the rise…).

  2. Gavin Ward says:

    Sound post guys.

    To elaborate on your point regarding SEO not working as well for corporate law firms, I think that is right and perhaps SEO is best seen as another seed of business development. But I do think the “big conception” model described above still has a place to play with certain types of legal practice where consumers, as opposed to businesses, may search for a lawyer. Examples include personal injury, family law, employment law and criminal law. Even still, with those areas, a law firm getting its web presence optimised is best viewed as one piece in the business development jigsaw.

    Best wishes,
    Gavin

  3. We work with lawyers too. And we’ve encountered a similar situation: getting traffic but not enough conversions. I agree that SEO is part of the marketing plan. Once they get to your site, you need to tell them in 5-10 seconds how your services/products are the right fit for them (note the two-fold function of features and benefits), and the clear call to action. But this is also based on your market and how they behave on the Internet. And you can find out by A/B testing your site, asking your current clients, read the industry trends, etc. So this is called On Site Optimization and just good ol’ fashioned marketing.

    On a side note, if you find that the traffic you’re getting is not the kind you wanted, like that “B2B Website Design” keyword, make sure you are clear on your landing page what kind of people would find your services a good fit. Or maybe try long-tail keyword targeting. Start off with your Google Analytics, set up your goals there (whether it be to click on the “call us” link or to arrive at a “completed sign-up form” page), and then check which organic non-paid keywords resulted with the highest conversions. That should be the keyword that will help you and compliment your On-Site Optimization efforts.

    Again, SEO is part of the marketing campaign. Alone, it doesn’t do much. But integrated with other marketing practices – market research, on-page optimization, great customer service – it goes a long way.

    Good luck!

  4. Dion, thanks for this post. There is no one magic ingredient that firms should be relying on to bring in new clients. SEO and Social Media are simply tools that we have at our disposal to help reach our goals. I might add that if firms are so dead-set on thinking SEO is part of their success equation, have they stopped to take the time to interview their clients about the path they took to find them? Interviewing clients in this manner will help them see what was, and wasn’t important in their decision. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Keith Lee says:

    FYI – Posts like this are the reason you guys are the only legal marketers I bother to read or follow.

    It’s good to see you guys decry peddling snake oil to those not sophisticated enough to know they’re being taken for a ride.

  6. Thanks for this sensible article, Dion.

    SEO is not a substitute for excellent content. Visitors conduct web searches in many different ways. When researching, they will likely read more than the top-rated item. They may even (gasp) go beyond page one!

    PS Adwords isn’t a substitute for good content either.

  7. […] Jakes’ Dion Algeri provides some key insight on SEO for law firms: So, how can SEO work for law […]

  8. Dion,

    That’s kinda what the industry has been trying to say for 10 years. Way to sum it up – perfectly.

    Sean

  9. Great article Dion!

    I must admit that I have fallen into the trap of wishing that SEO was a magic bullet for acquiring clients. Obviously, that’s a silly idea but I must admit that I fall into that trap at times.

    Promod’s comment raises an interesting point. What weight do you give to PPC advertising? Have you seen it work effectively for law firms in your experience?

  10. There you go again, making people ask themselves hard questions like, “Why am I doing this?” It’s a great example of how important it is for lawyers and their marketers to get out from behind their desks, walk around to the other side, and put themselves in their clients’ and prospects’ chairs. We all figured out a long time ago that it’s important to be online because that’s where those folks are looking for us. But too few have ever asked the next logical question, which is “HOW are they looking for us there?” Thanks for the answer!

  11. Reading everyone’s comments, I’m glad that there is an overall conclusion that SEO shouldn’t be completely dismissed all together, but rather used as part of the puzzle.

  12. Dion,

    Great stuff as always. I have enjoyed the comments as well, there is not nearly enough focus on number 5 in your 7 steps above. What action do you elicit out of a visitor if they aren’t ready to choose a lawyer yet? Do they subscribe? Have you created a clear value proposition that would make a potential client want to be on your list?

    This is a question that needs far more attention than it is currently receiving.

  13. Fina Wert says:

    Dion, great post. Thanks for sharing! All too often attorneys want to believe that there’s an easy answer: something they can throw money at and will automatically bring new business in the door. They know it doesn’t pass the sniff test but they’ll try it anyway, just in case.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  14. Trip says:

    How do you see SEO playing into website development in the future? As searches become more complex, the law firm’s biography and practice pages will become more of the “homepage” for the firm. Do you anticipate+ developing sites that have practice and biography pages stand out more and act as the homepage? You’ve previously discussed the attorney micro-site page and I believe that is the beginning, but what are your thoughts on moving that same philosophy towards practice pages?

  15. Brad Cooper says:

    Good post, thanks guys.

    SEO is just a way for expensive website developers and consultants to justify charging way more for their services than they should. Last Fall, Google pretty-much killed SEO for local law firms with the expansion of Google Places. If a firm is VERY lucky, they might hope to get one of the few organic links at the bottom of the search result. But not before a consumer clicks on the dozens of sponsored links and Google Places links above them.

    Law firms should spend almost no time and money on this before they’ve already done PPC, local directories and about 10 other things.

  16. I don’t think SEO is snake oil. But I think there are both legitimate and illegitimate forms and that law firms need to think of any techniques that could cause harm to their reputations. Firms also need to be realistic about what is possible with SEO. In addition there is a large difference between organic SEO that arises from the attorney’s efforts with blogs and other forms of social media, and what I am going to have to call inorganic SEO, which is purchasing generic content, using various potential keywords specifically for SEO and so on. Both are legitimate to me and serve different purposes, especially in certain areas of the law. On the other hand some methods cross the line, link farms come to mind. These black hat techniques violate google’s terms of service and are to be avoided at all costs

  17. […] But not every aspect of the internet and social media is all it’s cracked up to be. Dion Algeri explains why SEO is Snake Oil. […]

  18. Good post.

    I believe that SEO for the law firm is about building “Cred” and that is what blogging, articles, PR… can do. It is doubtful that a corporate client will come directly to your website. You need to “talk” to them while they are in the research phase – at the top of the sales funnel. If your article is on–target and addresses their particular need, then maybe they will, as your post says, visit your website and after further research contact you. SEO is just a way for that prospect to be able to find your pertinent information; they will seek out your site and your services if you can meet their needs.

    -Martin Grobisen
    http://www.in-houselegalcounsel.com

  19. I’ve found this to be true in my 10 years of managing law firm web sites. Pure SEOs seem to want to target phrases like: NH lawyer or MA immigration lawyer, but the reality is that a review of a site’s web analytics won’t show phrases like that bringing many visitors to your site (possibly just lots of other SEO tweekers). Google and other search engines have always worked to provide the most relevant results for search queries. And, as Robert writes, people are searching for very specific phrases such as: changes to NH’s shoreland development law. So, the strategy is first to be relevant — write about what your client’s needs are. Then, applying some basic SEO knowledge to your pages and making sure your site is SEO friendly can help your content find its way (as well as utilizing social media to help get content out to appropriate audiences). But the key is now, and always has been, providing “information of value” to your clients.

    I believe that as search algorithms evolve, they will become better and better at recognizing quality content and filtering out the SEO tricksters. Good content — whether articles, blogs, tweets, videos — that addresses your clients’ needs and integrates with your marketing, business development and client service efforts should be your main focus. SEO is an add-on.

    -Amy Campbell
    Related blog posts:
    “Information of Value” http://www.infoworks1.com/value.html
    “Top 10 SEO Tips” http://www.infoworks1.com/seo.html

  20. I love this post. However, I’ve noticed that few business owners and professionals can resist the lure of an easy route to landing google first page real estate. I’ve seen the most intelligent attorneys become convinced by SEO firms of a guaranteed first page presence on Google if they handed over enormous monthly fees. Think about the business Google is in…..as Amy points out. Their share price is not 532.82 for nothing!

  21. You’re right. Moreover, most business and corporate clients find their attorneys by word-of-mouth. Clients keep telling us this but law firms continue spending money on efforts that don’t generate clients.

    The essence of legal marketing is the referral.

    — John Cosmides
    http://www.barustors.com

  22. Not much I can add to a well considered post. Other than to agree with comments above that I have seen some evidence of the three step model working for personal services type matters and geographically limited searches. But agree, that these are the exception to the rule and not something you should base a longterm strategy on.
    As our clients increase their level of understanding of SEO and online marketing generally they are likely to be able to better appreciate that SEO, like everything else in the marketing arsenal, isn’t a simple magic bullet.

  23. […] he overly simplifies many aspects of SEO, Dion Algeri of Great Jakes, does an excellent job of connecting the dots between SEO and inbound marketing […]

  24. mark evertz says:

    OK…at the risk of being a parrot. You nailed this. The misconception is not only true in the legal market, but in all business markets that assume people start their buying cycle or even their discovery process by going to Google. That is so flawed it angered me to type it.

    More often that not, in experiences as a B2B marketer in the agency world on the enterprise or nonprofit client side….traffic (which is just as the name implies…a buttload of people bouncing around or gridlocked on a website without direction) was most often generated by personal referrals, or marketing campaigns in market.

    SEO or SEM is only accounting for, on average, a clickthrough rate of less than .1 percent. Think of all the time, effort and money it takes to either become or hire a Google warlock to game your pages right for search.

    Don’t believe the hype. If you do this, it’s a tool in a larger toolbox that includes information somebody wants to read (white papers, et al), and a mix of ways to get it to them (email, direct mail, blogs, Social media, advertising, content syndication partnerships et al.) To get the nuts and bolts on a well rounded strategy check out @MarketingProfs <Btw I don't work there. Keep killing the hype.
    Mark
    LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/markevertz
    Twitter: @MarkAEvertz

  25. John Sheehan says:

    Great post. I wholeheartedly agree that SEO is not a set it and forget it exercise but, rather, an ongoing process. As Google tweaks it’s algorythm again and again, it will be interesting to see what happens with some law firm web marketers that utilize shared content. Will law firm websites that upload content from “content farms” lose their rank for Google organic search results? No substitute for quality content relevant to consumers of legal services both in written and video formats.

  26. Dion Algeri says:

    Wow — thanks everyone for contributing to the conversation! The comments got us thinking about how attorneys often want to “buy” a marketing silver bullet (like SEO). So, we wrote a follow-up post entitled: “Money can’t buy you love (or effective legal marketing)” – http://me.lt/9v90V

    Can effective legal marketing be outsourced? How involved do attorneys need to be? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

    -Dion

  27. Following up on previous comment: Here’s a blog post from Google regarding its latest algorithm update that supports the notion of search engines evolving to better recognize and value quality content over schemes to trick the search engines. Message here: Worry less about SEO and more about developing authoritative content.

    The article is: More guidance on building high-quality sites – http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-guidance-on-building-high-quality.html

    -Amy Campbell
    Related blog posts:
    “Information of Value” http://www.infoworks1.com/value.html
    “Top 10 SEO Tips” http://www.infoworks1.com/seo.html

  28. […] Is SEO snake oil?  Here’s the truth about search engine optimization for law firm websites By: Dion Algeri HomeAbout UsPartnersServicesBlogArticles & NewslettersNews & EventsTestimonialsMedia KitContact […]

  29. I’m shooting for a two-pronged approach: tweaking my blog for keyword searches like Colorado bankruptcy attorney and writing as much valuable content as possible. The market is pretty competitive in Denver. I’ve breached the first page threshold, but need to get to the top. Like the saying goes, the guy who gets second place is the first to lose.

  30. Ellie Becker says:

    Good post. Here are a couple of other pieces of the puzzle that might move the buying cycle ahead a bit faster. When search brings a potential client to a piece of your content – a blog post, or white paper, or a PowerPoint presentation, make sure there’s a data capture form – at minimum requiring an email address – that you can use to convert that visitor from traffic to a lead. Then you can nurture the lead by judiciously pushing out similar/related info as you create more content. If you tie all of this activity to analytics, you can see what’s woking well and put more effort into it, while ratcheting back on activities that are less attractive to your audience/s. It does irk me the way SEO has been marketed to law firms. it’s part of a type of vertical marketing that hides individual law firm attributes and experience under a mask of sameness.

  31. Robert —
    I am not squarely in either Brian’s or your camp, and I have spent a good deal of time in the trenches seeking to optimize law firm websites and blogs (I’m not an SEO, just a bizdev consultant).

    I don’t think that an SEO campaign can be effective without something like a well-written and frequently updated blog — SEO is about helping your content get found, not substituting for good content.

    But, there are clearly steps that can be taken to increase the find-ability of your content (by that I mean Google rankings) that are not smoke-and-mirrors and probably fall under the heading of SEO. The steps include (1) good distribution through social media, (2) proper blog post and URL coding, (3) conscious use of key words, (4) strategically commenting on other relevant blogs, (5) interlinking within your blog (and back to your website), (6) skilled use of on-line press releases, (7) strategic outreach to individual reporters and editors, and (8) implementing a back-linking campaign.

    All of these things are part of an SEO campaign, and I don’t know any lay people (or lawyers) who could do all of them in a optimal way without professional assistance.

    I know how to do the first 7 of the steps above, and six months ago, when we added an SEO firm to the mix for a client, we saw our ranking for our top 5 key words move to #1 on Google. My client got a large case from an international company based on a Google search for one of those key words last week.

    I can’t swear the new client was directly attributable to the addition of the SEO firm, but my instinct says it was a important addition to the rest of our efforts (and therefore worth the investment, which was not at all outrageous).

  32. […] Are you skeptical about what SEO can do for your website? For a related article on that topic, read Is SEO Snake Oil? […]

  33. Great post Dion
    There’s obviously still a role for SEO, but its subservient to generating great, user centric content. That said, the SEO Snake Oilers have just been so good at promoting SEO as the most important characteristic of online marketing for law firms that our first job in working with firms is to deconstruct the view that SEO is everything.

    Thanks
    Matt

  34. […] Is SEO snake oil? Here’s the truth about search engine optimization for law firm websites. […]

  35. You’re raising some interesting points right there, not 100% with you on every aspect.

  36. Abhijit M says:

    Really nice post on the search engine optimization for law firms, very neatly put points all points.

  37. Kevin Quinlan says:

    No hardcore negative comments about this post? Whitewash!!

  38. Luke Douglas says:

    As the owner of a website development company since 2002, I find it refreshing to ‘finally’ find someone on the ‘client’ side who really has a good grasp on what is the purpose and goals of SEO. I absolutely love his ‘snake oil’ reference as too many SEO companies hype search engine rankings as the ‘do-all’ or ‘go to’ goal of any website which it is not. Most of my clients are small businesses and organizations which I recommend that they promote their websites through other media, including social, newspapers, magazines, broadcast media, etc. Thinking a website can ‘replace’ other marketing media is a recipe for disaster.

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