Ten Ways Internet Marketing Has Changed Since The 1990s

There was a time when "Internet marketing" meant having a ebsite that your IT guy developed on some long weekend, with directions to your office and sparse profiles of your attorneys.

These days, Internet marketing means a lot more. Web design, advertising, extranets, public relations, search engine optimization -- online marketing requires careful planning and execution.

Here are ten ways online marketing has changed as the Internet has matured, and how your firm could be affected:

1. IN: Professional Web Design. OUT: Do-It-Yourself.
Think you can throw together a website over the weekend? Think again. A few years ago, simply having a website in and of itself was great branding - it showed that your firm was tech-savvy. Today, potential clients expect a website and they may very well pre-judge your firm based on the quality of your Web presence. The bottom line: it's not enough to be on the Web anymore; you need a professional presence.

2. IN: Web Sites for All: OUT: Web Sites for the Tech Elite.
Gone are the days when your website was only viewed by "early adopters." Today, a large percentage of clients considering retention of a law firm go to that firm's website prior to signing up. Your website, like your firm, needs to cater to many different potential clients. Tech-friendly clients might want to see a Flash or Java presentation, but a more conservative client might get scared off by anything beyond HTML.

3. IN: Usability. OUT: Cool Graphics.
During the early days of website building, a sort of "arms race" took place among website developers. Each developer strove to be first to market with the next generation of cool buttons and animation. Cool, that is, from a Web developer's perspective. From the point of view of someone trying to get information about your firm, these devices often slowed down sites to a crawl, or even crashed the entire site. Today, good Web developers keep abreast of new technology, but the key focus is usability, that is: to create a website that best serves users of that site (and, by definition, best serves the firm as well). Which type of Web designer do you have?

4. IN: Communication. OUT: The Online Brochure.
When the Internet first gained prominence in the late 90s, most Web users relied on 28.8 or 56.6 modems to connect online. As a result, "interaction" with clients and potential clients was limited to what amounted to an online brochure. Today, many businesses and a growing number of consumers have much faster connections, as a result of DSL and T1 lines. This enables law firms to create extranets. An extranet is a secure, external website, accessible from the Internet, but available only to designated users. Law firms use extranets to collaborate electronically with clients, and inside or outside counsel to simplify legal proceedings and realize time and cost savings (thanks to http://products.findlaw.com for this description). To be honest, the title of this bullet is a bit misleading: law firm websites that explain the benefits of your firm are still very useful. Be aware, however, that more and more firms are taking their sites to a new level.

5. IN: New Advertising Units. OUT: All Banners, All the Time.
Years ago, if you wanted to market your firm online, you had very few choices: directory listings and top banner ads were basically the totality of your options. Today, you've got dozens of choices: buttons, banners, email, newsletters, text links, sponsorships, listings, pop-ups, pop-unders, rich media - the list goes on and on. More options is good, right? Well, yes and no. If you've got the time (and the money), you can experiment with different ad units until you find the ones that bring you the highest return. But be prepared to deal with failure. I've bought my share of dirt-cheap ad buys that seemed like great deals. Suffice to say, you often get what you pay for.

6. IN: Targeting. OUT: ROS.
A friend of mine likes to reminisce about the days when he worked in sales for a major search engine. It was the late 90s and times were good. Very good. He had advertisers calling him up and begging him for advertising inventory. Any inventory. Even Run of Site (ROS) advertising sold for big bucks. Today, marketers are much smarter. Why buy one million ROS impressions on a giant search engine when you can buy targeted ads that are only seen by potential clients? Granted, targeting costs more, but, as more and more advertisers are learning, the cost is well worth it.

7. IN: Big Legal Directories. OUT: Start-ups.
A few years ago, there were plenty of start-ups claiming that they would revolutionize the practice of law as we know it. That included dozens upon dozens of legal directories promising to bring your firm a multitude of new clients. We all know how that story ended. Today, you've got fewer choices, but better predictability. In addition to FindLaw's Legal Directory, there are only a few legal directories worth your time and money.

8. IN: Overture. OUT: Overture?
When a small company called "GoTo" started in late 1997, a lot of Internet experts scoffed at the concept: advertisers bidding for position on a search engine. Today, GoTo - now known as Overture - is big business, and you need only type in "mesothelioma" into the Overture search engine to see how popular this type of advertising has become with some attorneys. Overture's popularity, however, is rapidly becoming a double-edged sword. While partnerships with major search engines have increased the number of visitors seeing Overture ads, increased advertiser interest has also driven up prices considerably. And as prices skyrocket, return-on-investment becomes thinner and thinner. My advice: pay-for-performance may work for your firm, but don't put all of your eggs in this basket.

9. IN: Google. OUT: Google?
In the 90s, you knew your firm had 'made it' if you were showing up at the top of Yahoo! Today, Google is all the rage. Many law firms may be paying a pretty penny to buy up Google ad inventory. It should be noted, however, that Google follows in a long line of search engines that, for a time, were anointed as the search engine. Remember when you first heard about AltaVista? Lycos? AskJeeves? How about WebCrawler? The bottom line: Google is in today, but don't be surprised if, in a few years, the next big thing dethrones Google.

10. IN: SEO Plus Marketing: OUT: SEO by Itself.
Search engine optimization (SEO) use to be a sure thing, in part because so few firms took advantage of it. Today, the secret's out and it's a lot harder to move up in the rankings with a few choice metatags. Moreover, SEO can't get you the number one, or often the number two or three, spot on major search engines because those spots are now sold to advertisers.