evolution.jpgWeb technology continues to evolve at a mind-boggling rate. As new technologies emerge, the strategies available to market businesses online have also transformed immensely. In fact, many business owners, including legal professionals, remain evolutionary steps back when it comes to building an effective online presence.

Let’s take a look at where we have been, where we are, and where I believe we are headed.

Static Websites

A long time ago, web marketing simply meant having a website. These static websites were more or less online business cards to which business owners could direct current and prospective customers and clients. These initial static websites contained basic branding elements, information about the business, and some basic contact information.

With respect to law firms, the classic static website convention emerged. This usually included a home page, attorney profile page, practice area page, and contact page. Unfortunately, there are many legal professionals that still find themselves at this very primitive evolutionary step. They view web marketing as making a one-time investment of time and money into developing a site, and then ignoring proceeding to ignore their web presence.

Website development companies made a lot of money in these early days. Custom law firm websites could easily cost several thousands of dollars. Maintenance for these sites was fairly basic and the sites were rarely ever updated. Legal professionals had very little inolvement with their site or its content.

Search engines were very primitive, and their use was very limited. Most Internet users accessed websites either by typing in the url directly, or clicking a link provided in an email, another website, or a well-recognized directory.

Legal Directories

As more Internet users began to use search engines and branded Internet portals like Yahoo! gained traction, general and industry-specific Internet directories began to emerge. Businesses like law firms, familiar with Yellow Book advertising, quickly flocked to join many of these business directories. In addition to the more general business directories, several legal-specific Internet directories emerged. Law firms invested heavily in prominent advertisements and listings within these legal diectories.

As legal directories were relatively early in the history of the Internet, their domains gained significant authority. As search engines continued to evolve in sophistication and use, directories enjoyed great search engine positions for very high volume search phrases. Hence, law firms that subscribed to these directories enjoyed significant visibility for their firms online.

Today, many legal directories still retain great authority and visibility within search engines. This is reflected by the great price being charged by the major directories. Basic listings can range from $30 to over $1,000 dollars per month. Many directories have started to include links back to their subscribers’ websites. In addition, some directories have added a content publishing component to enable their subscribers to publish content on their domains. This increases the subscriber’s visibility within the directory, as well as, in search engines.

While legal directories can stil be a valuable piece of a comprehensive law firm web strategy, with increasing costs and increased sophistication of Internet users, these directories don’t provide the same kind of punch as they once did.

Legal professionals that are considering subscriptions in such directories should take a careful look at the historical volume and quality of the traffic that the directory has experienced in the last 30 to 60 days. Prospective subscribers should also inquire as to what additional features are available with a listing including links back to the firm’s website and whether content publication is available.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

As more and more Internet users turned to search engines to locate goods, services, and businesses online, business owners began to recognize the value of increased visibility within search engines. One particular search engine, Google, grew to astronomical proportions. Many businesses, including law firms, enjoyed tremendous exposure to their target audience by enhancing their websites in ways that provided them increased visibility within search engines.

Soon, an entire industry grew out of the desire for businesses to maximize their visibility with these search engines. At first, search engine optimization was relatively primitive. With some simple understanding of html, webmasters could manipulate search engine results with relative ease. As search engines became more sophisticated, so too did the efforts of search engine optimizers.

Today, search engines are highly sophisticated. Good search engine optimization is less about “gaming” search engines, and more about structuring and organizing web content in a way that search engines prefer. By providing search engines what they want, quality seo is still an effective way to increase a law firms online presence.

Unfortunately, the search engine optimization industry is largely unregulated and fraught with unscrupulous and incompetent “web experts” that have harmed the reputation of the entire industry.

On the other hand, due to the increasing competitive landscape of legal services online, having a trusted web consultant is almost essential. While there is a great deal of seo that tech-savvy legal professionals can execute on their own, more and more firms are retaining the services of expert web marketing consultants. This greatly limits the success of do-it-yourself law firm seo.

Social Media

Today, the hot web marketing subject is social media. Blogging and social network usage continue to climb at alarming rates. Like websites, directories, and seo before it, business owners are scrambling to find ways to leverage social media for business development.

With regard to law firms, many legal professionals have joined social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. To a large extent, these efforts have been unsuccessful. The main problem is that lawyers have become familiar and content with primitive advertising and maketing models. They fail to recongnize the necessity of participation for successful social media marketing.

On the other hand, many legal professionals have successfully developed their online professional reputations through blogging. Effective blogging provides legal professionals with a platform for demonstrating their knowledge and expertise legal topics relevant to their practice. In addition to providing valuable information to their subscribers, effective legal blogs also perform very well in search engines. Blogging has become one of the premier ways to grow one’s professional reputation online.

Like seo, the industry of social media consultants has a fraudulent element. Many social media consultants over-promise and under-deliver in terms of marketing through social media platforms. However, effective use of social media can add significant value to one’s online reputation. The most successful users of social media for their businesses, are those that are willing to invest their own time into growing their online networks. In this way, growing one’s professional network online is much like growing it offline (with some obvious differences).

Competitive Web Strategy

Today, having success online requires implementing a competitive strategy. The days of merely having a website are far in the past. Further, support a law practice on a listing in a legal directory is improbable if not completely impossible. Likewise, relying on a commoditized, one-size-fits-all seo campaign will simply not generate results in today’s competitive online legal services landscape. Finally, paying a marketing consultant to tweet, comment, or like on your behalf is likely to be a great waste and may even create ethical issues for you.

In order to be successful in today’s competitive legal web marketing climate, legal professionals have to have a comprehensive plan that includes a variety of tools and resources. The plan must be developed with the specific goals and objectives of each legal professional or law firm. Cookie-cutter approaches are simply no longer effective.

The majority of time should be spent on research and planning. A successful law firm web strategy takes into account what strategies are generating results for competitors. It requires investments in both time and money. Successful web strategy requires patience. It should be built on providing information, demonstrating a firm’s value, and positioning a firm against its competitors.

In the very least, a comprehensive competitive web strategy must include:

  • A well-positioned marketing message
  • Competitive research and analysis
  • Keyword discovery
  • A blog
  • Publising, publicizing, and distribution of quality content
  • Integration and participation in social networks

While building an effective web presence does require a lot time and patience, it can be the most powerful source of new business. Whether you’re a criminal defense attorney or have a sophisticated intellectual property practice, your prospective clients are consuming information relevant to your practice online. Demonstrating your knowledge and ability to solve their legal issues will be the difference between successfully using the web to grow your practice or wasting a great deal of time and money with ethereal web solutions, products, and consultants.