Evaluating Law Firm Web Marketing Firms? Ask These Questions.

Gyi Tsakalakis
July 8, 2010

Wondering whether or not it's the right time to build an online presence for your law firm?  A recent report from the New York State Bar Association Journal reveals that 65% of people in need of legal services start searching for a lawyer online.

And so, it seems pretty clear that the time to build your professional reputation online is here.

However, the methods by which you get your firm involved online, make all the difference.  While some law firms excel at building their web presence, others have a very difficult time translating their message online.  Many of these firms have turned to the aid of law firm web marketing consultants.

According to Debra Regan of The National Law Journal, while some search marketing companies may seem to be reputable at first glance, law firm administrators need to take a deeper look:

A law firm administrator might see a few examples of high-ranking websites within an outside agency's portfolio and believe that the search-engine marketing (SEM) agency is good at what it does, but he or she would need to do further research before bringing an agency on board.  

For example, are the high-ranking websites ranking for the "best" (most traffic/leads) keywords? Are the high-ranking websites ranking for the right keywords for the law firm's marketing strategy? What is the SEM firm doing to drive higher rankings? Is it a breadth of SEM work or is it relying on only one tactic, thus putting the entire firm's SEM eggs in one basket? Finally, and most important: Is the agency employing legitimate and ethical practices to affect ranking?  

A firm should remember that, if it hires the agency, it is representing the law firm's brand: If the agency uses black hat (shady, unethical) tactics, the firm will have to deal with the fallout.

 Let's take a closer look at each of these important questions:

Are the high-ranking websites ranking for the "best" (most traffic/leads) keywords?

Great question.  However, how do you know what the keywords will produce the most traffic/leads for your firm?  The truth is, the best way to analyze which keywords are generating the most traffic and leads for your firm is through your web analytics program.

Your web analytics will show you what keywords are actually generating visitors to your site.  Further, it will show how those visitors are interacting with your site once they arrive there.

Another way great way to gather information about keyword performance is to use your paid search reports.  While not quite as reliable as your analytics data, paid search reports will give you a good idea of search volume and conversion (i.e. converting from a visitor to a lead) based on keyword.  Using your web analytics and paid search campaign data symbiotically, will generate much more efficient and effective web marketing results.

Finally, if you don't have web analytics data, and are not running paid search campaigns, your next best bet is to use keyword tools.  Keyword research tools like Google's external keyword tool can provide you rough estimations and forecasts about search volume for various keywords.  Always keep in mind that these are rough numbers.

Once you have a good idea of what your "best" keywords might be, ask your SEM company what kind results they expect to generate for these keywords.  Be specific.

Be wary of firms that are trying to sell you on rankings for a couple keywords of their choosing.  One of the most common traps is to sell a handful of rankings for keywords that have very little search volume and, therefore, aren't very competitive.  You may end up #1 in Google, but have no visitors, leads, or new business to show for it.

Ironically, if your SEM company already has clients that have great position for your target keywords, they probably aren't the best company for you.  Keep in mind that legal search marketing is highly competitive.  If your prospective SEM company already has clients that rank for your terms, by taking you on as a client, they are probably creating a conflict of interest.

This is one of the problems with some of the larger law firm SEM firms.  These companies will take on a limitless number of law firm clients in the same geographic location and practice area.  It then basically becomes a bidding war as to who gets premium attention, and therefore, position.

Are the high-ranking websites ranking for the right keywords for the law firm's marketing strategy?

This is another area that is often overlooked by law firms hiring SEM firms.  Even if the keywords "look good" from a volume perspective, are they targeted to your marketing strategy.  In other words, are they likely to generate visitors and leads that are likely to turn into the types of clients for which you are looking?

An example of this problem relates to search terms involving terms like "free", "pro bono", and "forms".  While ranking number one for free bankruptcy forms might work well for some business, these search terms are unlikely to produce much in the way of paying clients.

Another common problem involves geographic location.  If you achieve search position for search terms in areas that don't fit your practice, again, those visitors are less likely to convert into new business for your firm.

Always get an idea of what search terms your prospective SEM firm is planning on targeting.  If those terms don't appear to be in-line with your marketing strategy, they are unlikely to produce new business.

What is the SEM firm doing to drive higher rankings?

This is probably the second most important question to ask.  There is a very low barrier of entry to become a search marketing consultant.  Armed with some basic knowledge and terminology, many inexperienced consultancies have emerged in recent years.  While more and more legal professionals are becoming knowledgeable of search marketing strategies, there are still many that don't understand the first thing about increasing their firm's visibility.

This leads to SEM companies that either doesn't do the things required to actually increase web visibility or worse, do things that actually harm visibility and professional reputation.

Like it or not, before you hire an SEM company, you really need to understand some basics about how search engines work.  One of the best search engine resources is Google.

Transparency is absolutely essential when partnering with an SEM firm.  Make sure you understand what techniques are being employed, and why.

Is it a breadth of SEM work or is it relying on only one tactic, thus putting the entire firm's SEM eggs in one basket?

There are a multitude of ways to increase your firm's visibility online.  The more comprehensive your SEM campaign, the more effective it is likely to be.

Just like with many other things in life, with search marketing, sometimes you get what you pay for, and a lot of times you get a lot less than you paid for.

If you're prospective SEM firm is suggesting strategies like "search engine submission", "using keywords in text on your pages", and "commenting on blogs", start interviewing the next company.  Not only are these strategies worthless, but they can also be down-right bad for your professional reputation.  Getting overly focused on any particular strategy won't produce results.

The only thing that anyone should be hyper-focused on is increased visibility for your firm, interaction with your web presence, and ultimately new sources of business.

Look for firms that take a comprehensive approach to search marketing and put your professional reputation first.

Is the agency employing legitimate and ethical practices to affect ranking?

Ah, the most important question of all.  Unfortunately, often times it's also the most difficult.  While "best practices" have emerged in the search marketing field, all-too-often, what's good enough for the SEOs, is not nearly acceptable for marketing a law firm.

There is really a two-part analysis for determining whether a practice is right for your law firm.  The first part, is to make sure that it doesn't violate the search engines' rules.  Again, you can head over to Google's Webmaster Central for details on what to avoid.

The second part is more subjective.  You will have to analyze the practices in terms of your own professional reputation.  Does the strategy represent you the way that you want to be represented?  The answer to this question will vary greatly from one firm to another.  It is a question that each law firm, or attorney, will have to answer for themself.

Here are some resources for interviewing your prospective SEM firm:

Google's Webmaster Guidelines

Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide (.pdf)

Gyi Tsakalakis
Co-Founder of AttorneySync
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