Using Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to Your Advantage

Here's one thing that Internet users - from Web shoppers to blog readers to prospective clients of your law firm - have in common: Their home base while they're online most likely is their favorite search engine. About 80 percent of Web traffic begins at search engines, according to Harris Interactive.

Your firm can turn that popularity to your advantage through search engine marketing, or SEM, the process of making targeted changes to your website to attract traffic from major search engines like Google, Yahoo! and MSN.

SEM raises your profile on search engines, but the goal is not just to attain first-page, top 10 rankings for a few narrow terms. The goal is to gain more clients - a greater number of qualified leads and a higher conversion rate. Achieving it involves three steps:

  1. Making changes to your website that attract more, and better qualified, search engine users (known as on-site optimization).
  2. Increasing inbound links and ensuring you're represented in directories and other sites that qualified legal prospects visit (or off-site optimization).
  3. Using Web analytics to track the success of your on-site and off-site optimization, then making adjustments.

On-site Optimization

Search engines and website visitors want the same things. A frequently updated site that speaks your prospect's language and addresses their concerns is more likely to do well in search rankings. To begin your search engine optimization strategy, focus on answering questions like: What sets your firm apart from its competition? What type of client do you want to attract? And what words and phrases would that ideal client use in searching for an attorney on sites like Google?

To improve your search results, schedule time each week - even just an hour - for updating your site with search engine (and prospect) friendly content:

  • Highlight the specific practice areas and cases you focus on. Strive for a conversational, jargon-free style and a variety of phrasings and word choices.
  • Promote your unique expertise - if you're a criminal-law attorney, for example, with a background in law enforcement.
  • Include references to your geographic location in all its permutations: state, metro area, city, neighborhood and even regional nicknames.
  • Pay attention to title tags and meta-descriptions - HTML code used to generate the description of your firm that appears in search results.

 

By doing so, you'll fill your site with keywords and keyword phrases that match your prospect's search terms, thereby improving your chances for higher rankings (and increasing conversions, because the content on your site will better meet your prospects' needs).

If you're unsure how to start, think about your conversations with clients - the questions they have, the way they ask them, and how you respond. Use your site to address those concerns and the solutions you provide. Respond to their FAQs in articles you post and in blog entries.

About 40 percent of search queries are unique, one-time searches. Sites that successfully zero in on their targeted prospect - through clearly written, relevant content incorporating a variety of keywords - are more likely to capture the niche "Long Tail" searches that can be highly profitable for your law firm.

Hundreds of firms, for example, compete for a consumer using keywords in their Google search such as "Dallas lawyer." The conversion rate, therefore, is very low. "Arlington, Texas, child custody lawyer," on the other hand, is a more focused search with better odds for success. Your time is often best spent competing for those less-popular but more conversion-oriented searches, which generate qualified leads that fit your client profile.

Finally, remember that on-site optimization isn't just about words. Well-designed, browsable sites that aren't overloaded with bells-and-whistles typically fare better in searches. Use tools like Flash animation in moderation, for example. Ensure your internal hyperlinks are intuitive and include anchor text for each link ("Chapter 13 bankruptcy information," not "click here").

Off-Site Optimization

Other factors besides site content and design influence search-engine rankings. Inbound links - a link on another website that directs users to your site - are one of the most important factors, because search engines see them as providing credibility.

Think of it like a frequently cited legal case. A case is more important if other rulings reference it, particularly if they're high-profile cases that are directly on topic. In the same way, when authoritative websites link to your site it raises your credibility.

An expanding network of inbound links should be part of your SEM strategy. Numbers are part of the story - 500 inbound links generally beat 50 - but quality matters more than quantity. Factors that search engines use to evaluate link quality include:

  • Age: To discourage firms from working with fly-by-night link farms and similar schemes, search engines prefer a steady accumulation of links instead of sudden, sharp increases.
  • Popularity: Links from a prominent online directory or other popular sites carry extra weight.
  • Relevance: Links from other law firms, legal publications and bar associations count for more than those from unrelated, non-legal sites.

 

So how can your firm generate more quality inbound links?

  • Get your website address out through a wide variety of online resources, such as national and local search engines, online Yellow Pages and newspaper listings, and the websites of your bar association and chamber of commerce.
  • Consider placing your firm in legal directories, which connect you with pre-qualified, motivated prospects.
  • Incorporate your site address into your byline when you contribute to blogs and forums, or publish articles online.
  • Exchange reciprocal links with other attorneys you work with - even one or two new links a week helps.

Site developers, such as FindLaw, offer programs that give you an advantage in off-site optimization strategy. These programs provide placements on key legal directories, plus consulting and reporting services. You benefit from increased site traffic and better, more consistent search results.

Treat your off-site optimization strategy like the content on your site - review it regularly to ensure it's fresh, updated and in line with your objectives.

Web Analytics

Information feeds SEM strategy. The first time you talk with prospects, find out how they heard about you. Then follow up with more questions. Did they visit your website? If so, did it influence them to contact you?

To improve lead tracking, you can also customize the "contact us" instructions you give customers. Consider assigning a unique URL extension or 800-number to your various online ads and other listings, for example, to see which are generating quality leads.

One of the best tools for evaluating SEM strategy, however, are Web analytic programs available from site developers. They enable you to look beyond site hits to analyze:

  • Number of unique visitors and page views.
  • Where visitors enter and exit from your site.
  • What content is most (and least) valued.
  • Which keywords, search engines and other referral sources generate the most visitors.

 

Information from these Web tools help you make informed, data-driven adjustments to your online strategy, such as focusing resources on popular areas of your site, rethinking content that's ineffective, or investing more in legal directories and search engines that drive site traffic with the highest profitability.

With all three elements of successful SEM in place - on-site and off-site optimization supported by Web analytic tools - your firm will be positioned to harness the power of search engines to grow your client base.

To learn more, visit Law Firm Marketing Solutions from FindLaw.