It’s an awesome time to be a lawyer. We have exclusive access to legal research tools, like Westlaw and LexisNexis, and most legal questions don’t have well-written answers online. So, for now, lawyers are the gatekeepers of answers to legal questions. To make things even better, most lawyers are terrible at producing high-quality web content. So the internet is wide open for entrepreneurial lawyers to exploit. But how should they go about doing that?
I don’t know what the best online marketing strategy is for your firm, but I’ll tell you what worked for me. In short, my strategy is to write informative articles on questions that people are googling. Essentially, I’m trying to give the conclusions of my legal research away for free to attract visitors to my website. From there, it’s a numbers game; a certain percentage of my visitors are bound to call me. In this article, I explain my general approach to writing content that will appear in Google and I provide examples of some successful strategies I’ve used.
First, to get the credibility issue out of the way, I’ll tell you a bit about my website:
So, in about a year I went from 0 to 12,000 monthly visitors. And I did it without a real effort in link-building, social media, or a regular readership. I also had almost no advertising budget, although I did a $50 experiment with Facebook advertisements and maybe $25 with Google AdWords.
To visualize what these numbers look like, here are two screenshots from my Google Analytics panel:
Taking a look back at the last year:
As you can see, the numbers dip pretty severely during the weekends, but remain consistently high during the weekdays—when my target market, employees, appear to be conducting the most searches. Of note, one weekday looks like it dips (Wednesday, April 16, 2014), but that is likely an error, as none of my other data confirm a dip on that day.
This website was my second attempt at creating an attorney website. My first was centered on estate planning. Using the same tactics, it started to have similar results before I discarded it in favor of the employment law website with my partner, Justin Lo.
It is likely that these kinds of results could only be produced if the target audience is individuals, rather than businesses. I am skeptical whether businesses find their attorneys through the internet, although they might be searching for answers to legal questions. Areas of practice that might find my strategies useful could include: criminal defense, estate planning, employment law, personal injury, immigration law, real estate law, family law, bankruptcy, and landlord/tenant law.
How do these numbers compare with other attorneys?
Honestly, I don’t know. Most lawyers are fairly secretive about the number of visitors their websites receive. I asked Sam Glover of the Lawyerist, who forwarded my question to Gyi Tsakalakis (the Lawyerist’s SEO expert), how many visitors a “good” law firm website gets. Gyi and Sam kind of dodged the question by saying “good” in this context is relative—which, although true, doesn’t really doesn’t really help attorneys gauge how many visitors they should be shooting for with their website, or how much volume should be considered “high volume.”
John Skiba recently wrote a post that was surprisingly transparent about how many visitors his law firm website receives. According to John, about 6,000 new visitors visit his firm’s website every month. He has about 300 articles on his website now. So John has almost ten times as many posts as my website does, but about half the number of visitors—but there are a number of reasons that could explain this.
I have access to another firm’s Google Analytics (whom I’ll keep anonymous). They blog somewhat regularly (or, more regularly than I do) and receive about 1,000 new visitors per month.
Overall then, 12,000 new visitors per month appears to be strong among law firm websites.
Does high traffic result in calls?
If you aren’t getting new clients, having a lot of visitors is meaningless. So, have our numbers translated to a higher volume of phone calls? Yes, although your experience may largely depend on your practice area and the topic of content you produce.
Since February 13, 2014—about three months prior to writing this—my partner and I received at least 121 phone calls from different prospective clients, 66 contact form submissions, and an unknown number of direct e-mails. I say “at least” 121 phone calls, because that number excludes clients that choose to speak with the attorneys directly, rather than going through the person that answers our phones.
In total, around 200 prospective clients have contacted us in the past three months, or about 65 or so per month. We don’t make an effort to network and we have received almost no referrals, so just about all of these contacts are from our website.
Nobody cares about you.
Moving past the numbers, it’s important to adjust the way we think about our writing. Every lawyer seems to want to write about topics that they can somehow bring back to themselves. The rationale being: “more content is better no matter what, so when I’m writing I should promote my business.”
But, let’s face it: People visiting your website don’t care about you, either as a person or a lawyer. They don’t care about what school you went to, your experience, or your legal accomplishments—not initially, anyway. They only care about whether you can provide them with something of value. To attract users then, you need to give them something they aren’t finding elsewhere.
This is a similar way of saying “produce high-quality content targeted at your audience.” But simply saying that to most lawyers doesn’t really get the point across. Rather, lawyers, perhaps more than most people, tend to think their thoughts and ideas are brilliant simply because they are the ones writing them. But you’re not a beautiful or unique snowflake that everyone cares about. You need to contribute something of value to the internet marketplace if you expect to gain something back from it.
Write about what your clients are googling.
Because you know your future clients aren’t searching for you, your first task is to figure out what they are searching for. Chances are it’s not “[Location] [Practice Area] [Lawyer].”
Taking my website as an example, my two landing pages target two phrases: “Orange County employment lawyer” and “Los Angeles employment lawyer.” At the time of writing this article, my website appears on the first page of both of those searches—organically ranked fourth and ninth, respectively (although that fluctuates wildly from day-to-day). But what kind of traffic does that exposure actually get us? Surprisingly little.
My main page, the one targeting Los Angeles, only received 291 visitors in the past month. Our secondary page, the one targeting Orange County, only received 71 visitors in the past month—and that was ranked fourth for my target keywords in a relatively large metro area. Those two pages accounted for a mere 3% of my website’s total traffic.
Clearly, my clients are not simply googling “[Location] [Practice Area] [Lawyer].” Instead, most of my traffic comes from informative blog posts that seek to answer our prospective clients’ questions. My top ten posts, for example, account for 9,317 visitors in the past month—a substantial majority of my traffic.
Not only do we receive a lot of visitors from articles, rather than landing pages, many of those visitors contact us. When my partner and I receive phone calls from new clients, it is usually immediately apparent that they found us through one of our informational articles. They are trying to fit the explanations in our articles to their specific facts.
Getting into the head of your clients is more complicated than simply targeting the things you care about, like practice areas or geographic locations. You have to figure out the kinds of questions your clients are asking.
Figuring out target topics.
Okay, so now that we know you should be targeting your clients’ questions, you need to figure out the kinds of questions your clients are googling. Most of the time, this is simply a matter of opening the nearest practice guide and reading the table of contents. Every topic in a practice guide could serve as the basis of a potential online article—just do your own research and writing, of course.
One strategy I’ve used is to google attorneys in highly competitive areas to see what they’re writing about. I might google “New York employment lawyer,” for example, because the first page of that search is probably one of the most competitive in the country. When I do that search, I see that the same lawyer, Robert Ottinger, holds both of the top two spots, so he must be doing something right.
In visiting Mr. Ottinger’s websites, it’s clear that he has a ton of article on topics that I personally find interesting. Any one of those topics could serve as the basis of an article to lure in prospective clients in your area. You could even come up with a new spin on those topics.
You could also use a few Google tools. First, you could start typing in a general topic and see suggested searches. For example, maybe I want to write about personal injury damages. If I start typing in “personal injury da…” I see this pop up:
It looks like people want to know if personal injury damages are taxable. A good title for an article might be “Are personal injury damages taxable in [your state’s name]?” Then you could go into detail about the kinds of personal injury damages someone could receive and how those damages are taxed.
You could also look at the bottom of a Google search to see related search terms. Using our example of “personal injury damages,” I see searches like “car accident damages,” “special damages in personal injury,” and “medical malpractice damages”—all topics that could be ripe to write about.
Finally, Google’s keyword planning tool could also help you out.
Legal “news” is probably a waste of time.
Hopefully you’re starting to notice a theme in picking topics: go to where your clients are, not where you want them to be. Are your clients googling legal news? Do they subscribe to law blogs? Do they care about the most recent bill that passed in your state? What about the most recent case in your area of law? For all of these questions the answer is probably: “No.” People don’t care about the law unless it affects them.
Legal news articles have a place, but that place is limited and it’s usually targeted at lawyers. Even then, they’re only likely to be relevant for a short period of time, if at all. Clear explanations of the law, on the other hand, can be relevant for years to come. I have blog posts that are about 8 months old now that still attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of visitors every month.
A lot of lawyers like to write posts on legal news because they’re easy to write and can quickly add content to their website. Because they’re easy posts, the internet is saturated with lawyers writing legal updates. Your users don’t really need another source to read the same information.
It’s also important to understand that more content does not necessarily mean that you’ll be getting more visitors. I recently accessed one attorney’s website that had more than 650 webpages indexed on their website—many of those blog posts. Compared to the 60 or so pages I have indexed on my website, and you would expect that attorney to generate ten times more traffic than my website. In reality, that website had less than 10% of my traffic in the last month. So clearly, more content does not mean more visitors.
Be first, or do it better.
In the introduction, I mentioned that most legal questions don’t have well-written answers on the internet. But is that really true? Most legal questions have some answer published. The problem is that they’re often poorly written or not comprehensive.
For instance, if you just got caught with some drugs, you might google your charge, “possession of a controlled substance New York.” What kind of explanation would you hope to find? Probably an article explaining the legal risks facing people arrested for possession of a controlled substance in New York. Facts like possible sentences, the different levels of severity depending on amount and substance, the statute of limitations, legal defenses, and other easily-researchable legal explanations. But what do we actually find?
Very little until the fourth search result down—an article by attorney Dietrich Epperson. Even that 1,300-word article, however, doesn’t provide much in the way of information on defenses, explanatory headings, the statute of limitations, procedural information, or other information that someone recently charged with possession would want to know. The rest of the search results on that page are even less informative. That topic is ripe for someone to write extensively on and take over a top spot on the front page.
Even if certain topics are well-covered, however, there may still be room for your article to appear on the first page of the SERPs. Back in September 2013, I decided to do an experiment on a topic I knew was (1) already popular, and (2) was covered on the first page of Google. I chose maternity leave law in California. I spent about 2,500 words (about 6+ pages) going into some detail about maternity leave law and related issues, and included about 33 citations. That post is now my most popular post, with over 3,000 monthly visitors. I also currently rank about third or fourth in Google for the search “maternity leave law california.”
My partner and I have written other articles on popular topics like misclassification, meal and rest breaks, and wrongful termination. All of these topics, at the time of their writing, had articles by other lawyers in the top results that had fairly good overviews of the law. There was still room, however, to provide a more detailed explanation, or to write the topics in a way that resonated with the average reader more. Based on that alone, our articles are now sitting near the top of several key search terms.
In short, many legal questions have a surprisingly small body of writing about them available to prospective clients. Those topics are ready for lawyers to grab. But even for topics that are extensively covered, there is room in the market for better articles. You just have to be willing to put in the time to do it well.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, nobody cares about you. If you’ve got visitors at your website, they’re there to find out information. Don’t interrupt them in that goal. For example, you don’t need to be jamming “Call our attorneys today!” at the end of every paragraph. People will leave your website and try to find their information elsewhere. If they behave that way, search engines will pick up on it and devalue your content.
You should also avoid sharing empty anecdotes that attempt to demonstrate your experience on a topic. Just because people pretend to care about your stories at dinner parties doesn’t mean that people will do the same from the privacy of their own computer.
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t room for promotional material on your website. There obviously is, but it should be subtle enough that the reader isn’t overwhelmed by it. Just keep it in the sidebar or at the end of your article. Your users don’t want read about how great you or your victories are. If people enjoy your writing enough, they’ll call.
Don’t keyword stuff, but use keywords effectively.
Along the same lines as my advice about promotional material, it’s easy to focus on “keywords” more than the actual content you’re producing. Even I agree that keywords are important. The problem is that it’s not 1999 anymore. Search engines know when you’re trying to manipulate them—or, if not now, they will eventually. So writing naturally is much more important that writing for keywords.
I still try to select a couple keywords for every article. I put them in the URL of the article (“url.com/keyword1-keyword2/”) and near the beginning of the title, so long as it still makes sense. I also try to make sure my keywords appear in one or more headings, although not every heading, and not so frequently that it feels spammy. It must read naturally. Still, the focus is on useful content first, and the keywords are more of an afterthought.
Stop being lazy in your writing.
My basic marketing philosophy is nothing new or complicated. Most SEOs seem to be saying similar things. So why aren’t lawyers marketing effectively? In my experience, it’s because they don’t have the time or they don’t want to make the effort to create genuinely valuable content for their users. In many cases, they convince themselves that less effort is enough anyway. So you see the same old rehashed Justia, FindLaw, or other Geocities-esque lawyer websites, all failing to provide prospective clients with any information that you couldn’t find on a business card.
Don’t write short, meaningless articles.
In most legal circles, the consensus seems to be that 300 to 500 words (or 3-5 paragraphs) is more than enough for most posts. I’ve yet to see this belief substantiated with any data. Rather, it seems like most people prefer this length because it’s comfortable and lawyers can easily shoot out a quick post if they’re only required to write a few paragraphs.
When was the last time, however, that you personally googled a question and were satisfied with a page that had only a few paragraphs? If you’re using Google, it probably doesn’t happen too often. If you clicked on a link to Wikipedia, would you be disappointed if there were only a few paragraphs on the topic you were trying to learn about? Almost certainly.
SEO companies have done extensive research on this topic. Neil Patel, of Quicksprout, wrote an awesome post titled, “How Long Should Each Blog Post Be? A Data Driven Answer.” The important takeaways from it are:
On average, the top ten results in Google are longer than 2,000 words.
Longer content gets more social shares.
Longer content tends to get more backlinks.
Moz, a leader in SEO, analyzed its posts and also found that longer content was more popular. Anecdotally, my top-performing page has 2,516 words and receives over 3,100 visitors per month.
That doesn’t mean, however, that every article should be more than 2,000 words. Some of my best-performing pages have around 900 words, excluding citations. A topic or question simply may not call for more content. Instead, I try to write until most questions on a topic have been completely answered.
In any event, are there any legal questions that can really be completely answered in just 300 or 500 words? Even if there are, those spaces are probably already occupied on Google’s front page and there is little room left for you. You need to put in more effort than the people on Google’s front page if you wish to outperform them.
Use clear headings.
Scroll up to the top of this page and take a look at the table of contents. Do you have a quick idea of everything I am going to say here? I hope so. Most visitors aren’t going to read every word of your content, and you can’t expect them to search your page extensively for the answers. Instead, you should be making your answers as accessible to your visitors as possible.
A short explanatory heading can do that. A reader should be able to skip the sections they know they’re not interested in, and focus in on the ones they are. This is especially the case if you’re writing on a topic that may have involve many different legal questions. If you’re writing on a crime, for instance, you want the person who is only looking for the possible sentences to be able to quickly determine where on the page sentencing information is.
If you do not use clear explanatory headings, your users will struggle to follow your writing and will quickly hit the “back” button on their browser, continuing their search elsewhere. If users do not find the information you are providing helpful, Google has no reason to rank you well. There are no magic tricks to get to the top of the SERPs.
Use a table of contents.
A table of contents does a few important things for readers:
Organization. It immediately outlines how your article is organized. This holds you accountable to organize well and helps the reader understand the structure of your article.
Clarity. It provides all of the essential concepts without requiring the reader to actually read the article.
Navigation. It allows your reader to go immediately where they want. It decreases the barrier between them and the information they’re looking for.
Also, there is a pretty big benefit in how your posts will show up in the SERPs. Google’s rich snippets often will show additional links to your page if you have a table of contents. It looks kind of like this:
Pretty cool, right? Those extra links are pulled by Google from my table of contents. They increase visibility in the SERPs and make my links more likely to be clicked.
The great thing is that a table of contents is really easy to insert in WordPress. I use a free plugin called Table of Contents Plus. Once you install the plugin and tinker with the settings a little, all you have to do is insert “[toc]” near the top, after the introduction of your post.
This piece of advice always gets the most pushback. If you’re one of the people arguing against footnotes in online writing, ask yourself this: are you against footnotes because they provide no value, or are you against them because you’re being lazy? Chances are it’s the latter, if you’re being honest with yourself.
Footnotes do three things: (1) they give your readers confidence in the information you’re giving them, (2) they hold you accountable, and (3) they provide information for people wanting to dive deeper into your topics. These factors may not influence every reader, but they will influence some. Those extra interested readers could be the difference between a top spot in the SERPS and a second-page spot.
Take, for example, the article you’re currently reading. There are links sprinkled across the article, but it’s largely uncited. How much can you actually trust the information you’re reading? For all you know, I’m just some douche on the internet trying to sell you a secret sauce that doesn’t actually work. If this were a topic for which footnotes would be appropriate, I could write with much more authority, and you could explore more claims deeper.
Take the time to write in plain English, but don’t treat people like idiots.
This should go for your legal writing as well, but it’s especially important for online marketing. The people you’re writing for are human beings. They may or may not have some background understanding of the law, but they almost certainly won’t relate to words like “aforementioned.” They’re also going to fall asleep if you start quoting full statutes or cumbersome text from cases.
That’s not to say that some quotes from cases or statutes aren’t a good idea—they can be. But be careful about how you do it. Are you writing in a way your mother could understand? Or are you writing for other lawyers (who, by the way, also probably don’t want to read legalese)? Do yourself a favor and buy The Winning Brief or Legal Writing in Plain English, both by Bryan Garner.
Also, you should be defining terms that aren’t commonly used. Even phrases like “statute of limitations” might not be known to your readers. Take a quick sentence or two to define them so people have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say.
Don’t hide the ball.
One tactic I’ve seen lawyers try is to provide content that: (1) attempts to demonstrate that the lawyer knows the answer to a legal question, but (2) doesn’t actually give the answer to the legal question. Usually, the lawyer will try to be as vague as possible, sometimes requiring the prospective client to contact them for more information.
For example, take a look at the lack of any substance on this post:
Would any user anywhere actually find this helpful? Certainly not. The purpose is clearly directed at search engine optimization. But there is no good reason to believe a fluffy post like this would actually ever show up in a search (not in any meaningful way, at least).
Lawyers like to shy away from definitive answers, often for good reason. They also want to prevent users from interpreting their writing as legal advice. Rather than explaining the law as it stands, they require users to contact them and receive tailored, fact-specific advice.
The only time I usually see these tactics, however, is when the lawyers themselves are sharing the posts on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook. None of these “hide the ball” posts actually make it to the first page of Google. People simply don’t find them useful enough for them to perform well.
So, again, why waste your time? We’ve already established that more content isn’t necessarily better. If you don’t have the fortitude to clearly explain the law as it currently stands, don’t expect users to want to visit your pages.
Look, your post on medical malpractice remedies isn’t going “viral.” People don’t want to share your niche posts on Facebook. You’re aren’t going to ignite the twittersphere with your insight into divorce law. It just ain’t happening.
Fortunately, you don’t need those things. If you take the time to write detailed high-quality content, the links will come naturally and the audience will flow from Google. There is basically no effort needed after you hit the “Publish” button.
But don’t you want an active audience that reads each one of your articles? If you haven’t been reading this article, I’ll try to make the theme clear: Nobody cares about you. People don’t care about your area of law until they need answers that affect them. Your purpose in writing the articles you write should be to attract those people in the moment they’re googling a question.
Take another look at my Analytics page:
Notice how many of those visitors are new? About 88% of the visitors on my website are completely new. They find my website almost exclusively through Google searches. A thriving or regular base of subscribers has turned out to be completely unnecessary for my goals.
Sure, it’d be nice to have thousands of subscribers read your weekly posts on family law. They might give you referrals when their friends need the kind of help you provide, or they’ll remember you in their moment of need. But, realistically, most legal topics are boring unless you’re experiencing problems with that legal issue. It makes much more sense to tailor your content to the people that need you, rather than the people that might someday need you or know someone that might need you.
If you provide value to the visitors that need answers to their questions now, some percentage of them will call. It’s the same principle behind giving talks on your practice area to specific groups—some of them will want to talk to you about your talk in greater detail. The beauty of internet marketing, however, is that once you make a post, it is up as long as you want it to be; you don’t have to keep giving the same speech over and over.
I also haven’t needed to bother with any link-building SEO tactics. In my opinion, they’re a minefield. Every year Google devalues links, or comes up with a way to punish people for link schemes Google used to reward.
My website has links from a very small number of domains. Google seems to detect the behavior of my users and understands the value they receive from my articles and my website. For example, in almost every post ranking below mine, I see websites with more links than I have coming from domains with a strong PageRank. That hasn’t, however, impacted my overall search strength at all.
If you’re like most lawyers, myself included, you like the sound of your voice and the way you write. The natural instinct in marketing yourself then, is to write about yourself and the things you think will attract people. The problem is that nobody cares. Your own mother barely loves you. What your visitors do care about is the information they can get from you.
Because you have access to cases and statutes, you can provide something of value to prospective clients that they can’t get elsewhere. But even if they can get it elsewhere, the poor-quality of legal content currently available to non-lawyers leaves open the possibility that you could outperform that content. It’s not difficult to exploit this absence of high-quality content if you’re willing to take the time, put in the effort, and cater to your prospective clients’ needs.