Thursday, June 25, 2020

Attorney SEO vs. Everything Else

Virtually any business looking to do SEO (search engine optimization) can find information online applicable to its industry.  Optimization techniques are both ubiquitous and applicable across a broad variety of companies.  For attorneys, however, that is hardly the case.

The legal vertical is unique in many ways.  The practice of law is fundamental to our civilization.  It is a profession grounded in our intellectual history, and it never needed to be advertised, marketed or sold.

Of course, times have changed, and lawyers and law firms have a more practical perspective regarding their role in society today.  At the end of the day, they offer a service, and they need to keep the lights on like everyone else.  The simple fact is that search engine optimization for the legal vertical is different from SEO for everything else.

A digital marketing agency specializing in SEO could take a campaign used for one client and apply many of the same methods to another business without changing much.  That same approach may not be as efficient for a legal SEO campaign and could land legal professionals in hot water with state bar associations.   

A Brief History of Legal Advertising in the U.S.

Advertising is a tactic as old as time, but for attorneys, it is relatively new.  Lawyers were banned from advertising their services in all 50 states until the Supreme Court ruled  in 1977 that First Amendment free speech privileges should apply to attorney advertising. 

Legal advertising remains controversial to this day.  Since the 1977 Supreme Court ruling, advertising guidelines have been left up to individual state bar associations.  Depending on which state they are practicing in, lawyers have a particular set of marketing and advertising rules they need to follow to remain in compliance.  They risk fines and even disbarment for repeated violations. 

The Legal Culture  

Another characteristic of the legal industry that sets it apart from others when it comes to marketing is the underlying perception it has of itself.  The law has traditionally been considered one of the most prestigious professions.  Attorneys maintained long relationships with clients and gained new business exclusively through referrals from their spheres of influence.

The resistance from portions of the legal community to advertising was all about a devaluing (real or perceived) of the profession.  Attorneys were worried that promoting their firms like any other business “cheapened” the legal profession and made it less credible.  Most lawyers try to avoid the labels of “snake-oil salesmen,” “ambulance chasers” or “hucksters” peddling inexpensive legal services with flat-rate fees.

SEO for Lawyers

Lawyer marketing, including SEO, is no longer taboo, but it’s also no less awkward to navigate.  Search engine optimization for many companies isn’t filled with the ethical hurdles and extreme competition that the legal vertical experiences.

Attorneys interested in digital marketing might first gravitate toward paid advertising on Google or through social networks.  The sticker shock is not surprising.  Online legal advertising is ballooning into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cost-per-click rates can easily exceed $100 for platforms like AdWords (Google Ads) and Bing.  Staying in front of fickle searchers and keeping a steady stream of leads coming in means spending tens of thousands of dollars for competitive phrases in the legal vertical.

For large firms, this may be just a cost of doing business.  For the much larger pool of smaller firms, however, competing in an environment like that is next to impossible, especially if they’re just starting out.

Social media is another favorite channel for many businesses, but for the legal vertical, it can be challenging.  For companies to be successful on social, generating engagement is the name of the game.  The problem is that most people do not want to air their legal troubles in public.  In some circumstances, putting details of legal situations in writing on the internet is exactly the type of behavior legal professionals advise their clients to avoid. 

Search engine optimization has emerged as a viable alternative in online marketing for lawyers for three important reasons:

  1. The long-lasting effects of SEO make it more economical for the hypercompetitive legal niche.
  2. It levels the playing field.  Smaller firms with smaller budgets can easily outrank larger firms spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on paid advertising. 
  3. Consumers are using the internet as a primary method for finding information about both their legal situations and who can help.  

Local SEO is huge for attorneys because their target markets are often geographically confined.  The majority of attorneys are licensed to practice law in only one state, and they may serve clients within a more limited geographic location, such as within a city or county.

That means they are often competing with other local professionals for a finite number of clients.  If they aren't showing up in the first couple of spots in the Google My Business carousel or in the first few spots of organic search results, they are not getting phone calls.

Industry-Specific Marketing Needs

With the tenuous history surrounding legal marketing, it's no wonder attorneys have to be cautious about the kind of information they put online.  Blogging and content generation are huge parts of SEO, but articles containing information related to legal situations need to be written by legal professionals (JDs or lawyers).

Any piece of content referencing legal scenarios, such as “steps to take after getting in a motorcycle accident” or “things to know before calling a divorce lawyer,” could be construed as legal advice.  A non-legal professional would have no idea what they should or should not be writing.

When it comes to shopping for SEO services, the odds are that many firms an attorney calls for quotes are not going to have licensed attorneys on staff to write marketing-related content.

And that’s just blogging.  There’s also optimizing webpage copy, generating posts for social media and other places on the internet where content gets published in an attorney’s name.  Writing content that violates state bar rules can open the door to formal discipline from those same associations or legal action from consumers.

The Attorney Trust Factor

Every business must instill a sense of trust in its customers, but that is especially challenging for lawyers.  There are few other professions (save for the medical field) with such vulnerable consumers.

Regardless of whether they deserve the label, attorneys are often called ambulance chasers or considered predatory.  In other words, the bar is high for lawyers to establish trust with consumers, something many other businesses do not have to contend with.  Social proof is an important part of avoiding impropriety before it happens.

Attorneys can join organizations like the Better Business Bureau, Super Lawyers and National Trial Lawyers that provide social proof in the form of badges and other resource attorneys can use in their web presence.

The legal profession faces a variety of firsts on the business side.  The marketing of legal services is relatively new, but the industry is also living through the digital revolution, and marketing and advertising are migrating to digital platforms.  SEO has tremendous potential as a viable long-term investment for attorneys trying to get more exposure for their brands online.

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