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Technology—Marketing Your Law Firm Online
If your firm has not made changes to its Web promotion in years, it's time for an update

by Jason P. Lisi

Summer 2005, Vol. 68, No.2

On the Internet, three years is a lifetime. For example, the Philadelphia Bar Association's upcoming new Web site, (see cover story on page 20), replaces one unveiled in 2000, when technology and Web design were veritable infants. Another example of this rapidly changing landscape is search engines—and their use as a law firm business development tool. When this column last focused on this topic nearly three years ago ("Search Engine Optimization: Lead Clients to Your Web Site," Fall 2002), the search engine landscape was far less developed and far less contentious. The search engine "war" was then little more than a skirmish, the sponsored-link industry was in its infancy, and only the most forward-thinking law firm marketing departments used the power of search engines to attract new clients.

When they were first created, search engines and Web directories often offered free listings and were almost academic enterprises. Not anymore. Search engines and Web directories have evolved into highly sophisticated mechanisms designed to fuel traffic to Web sites, using complex technology to assure that Web searchers find the information they need fast and accurately.

Law firms seeking to attract new clients and media attention now must choose from a dizzying array of search engine marketing techniques. There are many new players in the industry, the ranking systems by which search engines show results literally change every day, and businesses, bar associations, legal service groups and others are now spending money—lot of money—to increase traffic to their Web sites. Thus, law firms that market on the Internet must understand and effectively use these new search engine tools in order to be found among the millions of law-oriented Web pages.

Search Industry Today
Far from being the little-known search services they were three, five or ten years ago, the major players in search today, such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, are now  among the best-known brands in the world. Search engines and Web directories now are billion-dollar public companies, fiercely competing for your attention and your law firm's advertising budget.

As with any high-stakes battle, there is great interest in the competition among the participants. Several tracking services monitor the ratings of individual search engine—similar to the way television programs are tracked for viewers—to determine which search engines are used the most. Most observers rank Google as the leading player in the search industry (although by how wide a margin is a source of much dispute), followed by Yahoo!, MSN and Ask Jeeves. Based upon the figures released by these companies, Google is the search engine of choice for anywhere from 36.3 percent to 55.5 percent of all searches performed in the United States. What percentage of the search market a particular company owns is important because hundreds of millions of advertising dollars are finding their way out of traditional forms of media (television, print) and into online, targeted marketing.

It is this wave of advertising spending that is fueling the widely known search engine war among Google, Yahoo! and the newest arrival to the battle, Microsoft.

Pay-Per-Click Listings
Traditionally, law firms and other businesses have marketed on the Internet by trying to design their Web sites to be not only informative, but also to appear at the top of the presumably "objective" search results provided by Google and other engines. Search engine optimization, the method by which sites are designed to generate "top ranking results," remains a major aspect of Web site design and the competition for e-generated business.

In another competition, the major search engine players are battling over revenues from a unique and highly trackable form of advertising called "pay-per-click" listings. These text advertisements usually appear at the top, right side, and bottom of search engine results—sometimes identified as "paid" or "sponsore" results, other times not. They appear, for the most part, because the sponsors have either bid in an auction-like style or paid top dollar for a "click." In other words, when a Web searcher enters designated words, a link to the advertiser's Web site appears in the results, and the site is charged the pre-arranged per-click rate (ranging from ten cents to more than twenty-five dollars for terms such as "Vioxx lawyer") every time that searcher clicks on the link and visits the Web site. Simply having your ad appear generally costs nothing, you only pay when the searcher clicks on your link.

The process of running these advertising campaigns is called "search engine marketing" and the dollars involved—and the return on investment—can be staggering. In a recent report, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that nearly four billion dollars was spent in 2004 on "performance-based" Internet advertising such as pay-per-click, or approximately forty-one percent of the $9.6 billion spent on Internet advertising that year.

Many law firms have seen success with this type of marketing. One local firm, seeking to attract cases across the United States to its ephedra supplement products liability practice, instituted pay-per-click campaigns on several search engines, concentrating mainly on Google's service called AdWords. The firm, then a two-lawyer operation, chose to not pay top dollar to appear at the top of the sponsored rankings for terms such as "ephedra injury lawyer." Instead, it bid a lesser amount to secure a lower place in the list of ads. By clicking on the ad, visitors arrived at a special ephedra page on the Web site called a "landing page" that explained the symptoms and issues involved and gave clear instruction on how to contact the firm for representation.

As a result of these ads, the firm has been hired and has filed cases locally and in Washington, Michigan and Texas.

Personal injury law firms are among the most aggressive users of these "pay-per-click" campaigns, and links are available for virtually every type of case, including catastrophic jobsite injuries, prescription drug side effects, general products liability and asbestos injuries such as mesothelioma. Other types of firms that are frequently using this technology are consumer bankruptcy and employment law offices. "Our caseload has grown substantially with referrals from all over the country," says one attorney, whose firm has doubled from two to four full-time lawyers as a result of the Internet advertising.

Tracking the Results
One of the most attractive aspects of online advertising, especially "pay-per-click" and other sponsored methods, is that a firm can very closely track the effectiveness of the efforts via online and offline means. Because each and every activity a Web site viewer performs is watched by one or more computers somewhere along the network, there are now sophisticated methods of determining how a visitor came to a law firm's Web site, what the visitor viewed while at the Web site, and whether the visitor later became a prospect or client.

Each Web server—a high-speed computer that hosts a Web site—tracks visits in extensive detail in log files. Using log file analysis software, a search engine expert can glean facts about a Web site's visitors, including how they found the Web site, what pages they viewed, how long they remained at the site and much more information. The data can be used, for example, to determine how many visitors in a particular period were referred to the site from Google, which, in turn, can suggest ways to maximize exposure in that search engine.

A newer technology called "conversion tracking" not only pinpoints the search engine from which a visitor was referred, it can also closely track what search term and sponsored ad the visitor clicked before coming to the site. By using a hidden code in a specific Web site page—created as a result of search engine optimization—a pay-per-click system such as Google can show the advertiser what keyword terms and ads are generating qualified leads. Armed with the knowledge of which terms are productive and which are not, a law firm or any business marketing on the Internet can become very efficient with its online marketing budget by paying only for the keywords that produce qualified leads.

Blogs and Rankings
Because of the way search engines take notice of content on the Internet, it is advantageous to have high-quality text and, in general, lots of it. A recent development that works nicely with this idea is the use of "blogs" (short for "Web logs"), where a person—even one without any special computer skills—can post news, thoughts, observations and opinions in a personal-journal-type format. Law-related blogs, the so-called "blawgs," number in the hundreds (a comprehensive list can be found at Search engines often give high-rank preference to Web sites that appear to be informational, as opposed to purely commercial devices. Thus, a blog can sometimes be the highest-ranked portion of a law firm Web site. While lawyers can use blawgs to write about any legal topic to educate the reader, the most marketing-savvy blawgers will use the format to encourage prospective clients (or referring attorneys) to contact the lawyer for representation. Of course, lawyers must comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct when they use blogs and other forms of Internet marketing.

Return on Investment
As law firms become more sophisticated marketers, online marketing tools such as search engine rankings, pay-per-click advertising, and blog entries designed to increase law firm revenues are grabbing a larger share of many firms' marketing budgets, and improving the firms' bottom lines.