Making the Most of Google
Solicitors and others in the regulated sector are, it would appear, losing out to the unregulated sector when it comes to getting in work from Google.
In a recent speech at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum event, Legal Services Board chief executive Richard Moriarty said that in relation to Google searches “when it came to will writing the majority of the organisations highlighted were unregulated organisations. For family issues, unregulated organisations featured roughly 50:50 with regulated organisations. In all these searches, charity and third sector organisations also featured heavily.”
The comments by Mr Moriarty formed part of an address entitled “Innovation and legal services regulation” in which he looked at issues of legal innovation and at the need for “encouraging new products and services and new ways of delivering existing products and services”.
So is a firm’s ranking in Google a relevant factor? Do solicitors need to be concerned about such things?
Talking to many firms you could be forgiven for thinking that it is not. There is still a substantial number of law firms who have yet to create a web presence and amongst those who have done so, there are many whose web sites are either out of date, old-fashioned, uninformative or in several cases simply bizarre.
If regulated firms are not to lose out to the unregulated (and often more commercially minded) sector then they are going to have to do more to promote themselves in the ways in which other businesses are doing and actually grasp, rather than ignore, the opportunities.
In his address, Mr Moriarty stated that it was estimated that the unregulated sector accounts for some 20%-30% of total sector turnover – a fact which, he said, “highlights the competition faced by some legal service providers.” That being the case what can firms do to increase their presence?
There is so much to think about when it comes to online marketing that it is often very hard for most firms to differentiate what needs to be done from that which is very clever/pretty but adds little to the marketing effort. This is a problem which is often exacerbated by the fact that many firms often approach web designers, rather than web marketing professionals, to create their web presence and then promptly forget about the web site as soon as it is up and running. Add to this the fact that it is not always easy to differentiate between someone who has heard of search engine optimisation (SEO – the art of getting the best out of a web site in marketing and visibility terms) and someone who is an expert in SEO and it can easily be seen that for many firms the Internet is a mystery they are unlikely to unravel.
So where should firms start?
The best starting point is for the firm to think about what it wants from its web site.
Not all firms want, or indeed need, to attract clients through online search engines. They may be a niche practice already well known in their sector and all they wish their web site to do is to offer reassurance to clients as to expertise and perhaps provide a modicum of cross-selling to existing clients. Others, however, may be operating in a very competitive market place where firms are vying for work from the general public, many of whom will use the Internet as their first place for research of what is on offer.
If your firm falls into the latter category then your position within a Google search will be important. As Mr Moriarty said in his address “Those involved in online marketing will tell you that page 2 of Google’s search results is for losers”.
That means that your starting point is not how pretty does my web site look but how effective is it in promoting my firm – and it will only do that if it can be found by those looking for your services. Being invisible to users is of no use. That means that your starting point should be SEO and not web design. Often a web site which has been designed is no use for SEO since an important factor in SEO is not what the web site looks like but whether its architecture is search engine friendly site and easily able to be found and understood by Google. Therefore, unless your website has been built at the outset by someone who understands the basics of SEO, then it is not going to be fit for purpose.
Of course, there is more to SEO than the design of the web site. Other factors such as the quality of the content, the frequency with which it is updated, the links to it from other “valuable” sources (not all web sites are viewed as being equal when it comes to links) and the relevance of the site as a whole to the key words promoted all play a part in how a site performs in Google. What is more, if this was not bad enough, the criteria by which Google chooses which sites to promote and which ones to demote changes from time to time. A site which performs well today might not perform well in six months’ time.
That is why you need someone who understands and is expert in SEO rather than someone who knows what SEO is or once read up on it and now just designs websites.
Prioritising the right key words
A further issue which you will need to consider is which areas do you want your web site to reflect in Google searches. How well your site does depends upon the terms that are searched for. Thus different web sites will appear if the search term is “wills and probate” from those that will appear if the search term is “family problems”. Choosing which search terms to focus on is an important and complicated part of the mix and one which should be addressed early on in the development of the site. If your web site is only optimised for certain very specific key words then there is a danger that many of the searches that really take place – and which very often are not specific simply because the person searching is unfamiliar with the jargon your firm may use to describe its services – will not result in your site being displayed. If you optimise your site for the words “personal injury services” and those searching are using words such as “knocked down by a car” or “hurt hand at work” then you will not feature in many searches.
It is essential therefore that those who are planning your site have an understanding of what your business and who it does it for. That means briefing them fully and ensuring that they have an understanding of what the public is likely to search for to find you. It also means keeping them in the loop if you are targeting other sectors or if you realise that the sectors you serve are searching for other things online.
Of course, you cannot optimise a web site for all of the phrases that potential clients are likely to use. That is where content comes in. The way in which a search engine works is that it compares the text entered in the search with text that appears on the web site. The more relevant text you have on your web site the more chance there is that those words will match. So, when someone types in a search phrase there will be a greater chance that the words they use will match words you have used. Therefore, those firms that limit their web site to the usual home page (often surprisingly not mentioning key areas of business), who we are, what we do, how to contact us may find that the lack of content means that the searches that are made do not match the words on the web site whist those that take the time to write articles about what they do will make the connection.
Do, however, bear in mind that it is not just about SEO. Once the user has found your web site they will need to be converted into an enquirer or even a client. A web site that is hard to navigate, confusing, dull, out of date or overly stylised might put off the user who will then, having found your site, simply move on to another easier to navigate site. For this reason you need to make sure that your site is attractive and easy to use, relevant but above all that it takes the user to the next step – contacting you or purchasing a service – rather than simply thinking “so what”.
So, to conclude, the vast majority of law firms need to improve their web presence if they are to compete effectively with the unregulated sector and they need to accept that will not do so unless they are willing to invest in properly designed relevant web sites that are created with an eye to SEO as well as an eye to visitor conversion. Moreover, web sites are not a one-off activity – they need to be nurtured, refined, updated and kept relevant.
Inevitably this will not be cheap – but then neither is going out of business.
The full text of Richard Moriarty’s address to the Westminster Legal Forum can be found on the Legal Services Board web site