For lawyers hiring SEO services, knowing exactly how your consultant will represent your firm is essential to preserving credibility and avoiding ethics problems.
From an online marketing perspective, most lawyers are doing a lot of things right.
Most have nicely designed, mobile-responsive websites that focus on certain practice areas. And it’s clear that we put a lot of effort into building our online brands.
But this will only get you so far, in order to take your firm to the next level, you must master search engine optimization (SEO). This is no small task and unfortunately, many lawyers hire search engine optimization consultants without really knowing what they are getting into. This can lead to significant and irreversible damages to your firm’s brand.
Lawyers routinely hire SEO consultants and have no idea what techniques they employ, potentially damaging reputations and exposing firms to ethics violations.
The Dark Art of SEO
Optimizing websites for search is a little like practicing tax law. There are voluminous rules you must know, it’s really complicated to the average person, and there are the behemoth, monopolistic entities that constantly change things up.
The only difference is that updates to the tax code are made public, but Google, Yahoo and Bing keep their search algorithms carefully guarded secrets.
Lawyers who rely on web traffic for new clients don’t chance their success to a DIY hack job. They hire professionals.
But like lawyers, not all SEO professionals are created equal.
Backlinks: The Holy Grail of SEO
One thing SEO experts know for sure is that a website’s “authority” influences rank in search.
Think of site authority as the SEO equivalent of a Super Lawyers listing (that is, if Super Lawyers was a legitimate rating service and not an advertising ploy aimed at self-aggrandizing attorneys).
Just as “super lawyers” should get more cases than other firms, websites with higher site authority will rank higher for similarly relevant content than those with less authority.
Search companies like Google have cryptic formulas to determine site authority. But they have told us that links from other websites to yours (called backlinks) contribute to site authority.
Notwithstanding, not all links are good links. Backlinks from sites with high site authority count more than links from those with less authority. For example, a backlink from the ABA Journal will carry more weight than one from your neighborhood bankruptcy attorney.
Further, search companies like Google will penalize your site authority for backlinks from spammy sites created to game search algorithms.
Getting High-Quality Backlinks Is Hard Work
Getting good backlinks is a little like cultivating high-quality referral sources for your law practice. It’s all about building relationships, which takes time.
Firms serious about search optimization have procedures to build quality backlinks. Some of that responsibility is often outsourced to an agency.
Even in my company, Law Firm Suites, two employees devote a portion of every day to finding backlink opportunities.
Like my company does, another lawyer’s SEO agency was contacting legal bloggers for guest blog opportunities. A perfectly legitimate practice.
The trouble was, the author used poor grammar and punctuation in his emails…to pitch a writing gig.
It made me wonder, why are reputation-obsessed lawyers allowing this to happen?
Avoiding Sociopaths and Incompetents
Hiring an agency for SEO is a great business decision. Unless you have the time and aptitude to become an expert in it, stick to practicing law.
Here are a few tips to avoid the bad ones:
1. Be Wary of Sociopathic Behavior
Sociopaths use a diversion tactic known as “pre-emptive defense” when conning their victims. They overstate their trustworthiness without provocation or first building a solid foundation of trust.
Every week we get dozens of email solicitations from so-called SEO experts using pre-emptive defenses.
The best claims (often in bold letters or all-caps) are that their techniques are trustworthy or not “black hat.”
This one is my favorite. It claims to be “100% straight up, legitimate, tit for tat.”
Maybe a future tagline for your law firm?
Yes, when interviewing an SEO expert you should confirm their use of ethical tactics, known as “white hat” tactics. But genuinely trustworthy SEO firms do not advertise the appropriateness of their techniques prior to being asked.
Another signal of sociopathic behavior is over promising.
As a marketer, I’m all for aggressively flaunting truly unique selling propositions, especially those that add real value to clients.
But no SEO expert can truthfully guarantee ranking on page one of Google. Unless, that is, they’ve stolen the algorithm.
Search optimization is a lot like networking.
Sometimes you go to a networking event and get a quick case referral. But most of the time there are no immediate results. Over time you will slowly begin to make connections that generate referrals.
With SEO, you may see a quick win with one high-ranking keyword. But most often it takes consistent effort over a period of time to see results.
Like with networking, where some contacts may send you 10 cases a year and others will send you nothing, you will rank well for some keywords but not others.
Promising otherwise is dishonest, which may be indicative of the techniques the agency will use once they’re engaged.
2. Stick With Specialists
For the same reason that lawyers limit their practice areas, the best SEO agencies have teams that focus on one industry.
At a high level, SEO tactics can be used from one industry to another. But only a specialist will know the types of content that search engines find most relevant for certain keywords, or which websites give the most backlink juice for a particular industry.
Specialists will also understand the culture of their clients’ industries. This includes understanding industry jargon used by practitioners and their clients.
In the case of lawyers, content clarity and conciseness conveys professionalism and attention to detail. To do their jobs effectively, agencies will introduce your firm to legal industry thought leaders, journalists, bloggers, adversaries and peers. If they get this wrong, you’ll look dopey.
An agency specializing in law firms will understand our culture and what’s at stake, or they won’t be in business for long.
3. Remain in Control
SEO is laden with tech jargon that’s unfamiliar to lawyers. For this reason, if a firm sees results, they tend to take a hands-off approach.
Even if SEO tactics seem complicated, have your agency explain what they intend to do, who they will be contacting on your firm’s behalf and how they will be going about it.
Just like supervising lawyers have an ethical responsibility to manage their subordinates, you should be managing your SEO consultants.
Take a common sense approach. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable, have the agency make changes.
For lawyers, there’s more to SEO than backlinks and keyword optimized web copy. There can be serious consequences for those who blindly abdicate this responsibility.
SEO is a component of our marketing strategy, which is regulated by our code of professional responsibility. Make mistakes and bar sanctions could follow.
More importantly, everything that gets published with your name on it either enhances or dilutes your credibility with clients and peers.
With law being a business built on credibility, there’s much to lose.
So the bottom line is this, make sure you are more involved with, and aware of SEO, its impact on your firm and the consultants you hire to help. Otherwise, you could find yourself looking for a new career.
Everyone needs SEO help but it can be tough to find great help. Here’s what I suggest. Outsource the pieces. SEO is comprised of a strategy component and execution component. Typically, you’re hiring the SEO firm to create your strategy then implement that strategy. Kinda like asking the fox to mind the hen house. There’s bound to be ruffled feathers.
Instead, I suggest that you un-couple those services. Find a great SEO strategist. You can turn to sites like Clarity.fm to find experts to advise you by the minute. At those affordable rates, you can ask several experts and aggregate their recommendations.
Armed with a sound strategy, you can now find someone else to execute it. Doesn’t have to be the pricey SEO firm, either. A highly skilled, tech savvy virtual assistant can do that for you and keep you in budget.
Law is competitive and you need every advantage but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all yourself. Hard work is inevitable. Overwhelm is optional!
Good advice. I’d be curious what you think of Scorpion Design. They seem to have a good product, but require complete control of the law firm’s website.