For lawyers hiring SEO services, knowing exactly how your SEO consultant will represent your firm is essential to preserving credibility and avoiding ethics problems.
From an online marketing perspective, California solo attorney Lawson Griggs* is doing a lot of things right.
He has a nicely designed, mobile-responsive website that focuses on a very niche practice area: California Lemon Law. There’s helpful information for his target audience, prominently displayed calls-to-action and even a video of Lawson talking about how he helps clients.
It’s clear that Lawson puts a lot of effort into building his online brand.
Unbeknownst to Lawson, a search optimization consultant he hired was jeopardizing his credibility and brand.
Sadly, Lawson isn’t alone.
Lawyers routinely hire SEO consultants and have no idea what techniques they employ, potentially damaging reputations and exposing firms to ethics violations.
Optimizing websites for search is a little like practicing tax law. There are voluminous rules you must know, it’s really complicated to the average person, and there are behemoth, monopolistic entities that constantly change things up.
Lawyers who rely on web traffic for new clients don’t chance their success to a DIY hack job. They hire professionals.
But like lawyers, not all SEO professionals are created equal.
One thing SEO experts know for sure is that a website’s “authority” influences rank in search.
Think of site authority as the SEO equivalent of a Super Lawyers listing (that is, if Super Lawyers was a legitimate rating service and not an advertising ploy aimed at self-aggrandizing attorneys).
Just as “super lawyers” should get more cases than other firms, websites with higher site authority will rank higher for similarly relevant content than those with less authority.
Search companies like Google have cryptic formulas to determine site authority. But they have told us that links from other websites to yours (called backlinks) contribute to site authority.
Notwithstanding, not all links are good links. Backlinks from sites with high site authority count more than links from those with less authority. For example, a backlink from the ABA Journal will carry more weight than one from your neighborhood bankruptcy attorney.
Further, search companies like Google will penalize your site authority for backlinks from spammy sites created to game search algorithms.
Getting good backlinks is a little like cultivating high quality referral sources for your law practice. It’s all about building relationships, which takes time.
Firms serious about search optimization have procedures to build quality backlinks. Some of that responsibility is often outsourced to an agency.
Even in my company, Law Firm Suites, two employees devote a portion of every day to finding backlink opportunities. This guest post was a result of those efforts.
Like my company does, Lawson Griggs’ SEO agency was contacting legal bloggers for guest blog opportunities for Lawson. A perfectly legitimate practice.
The trouble was, the author used poor grammar and punctuation in his emails…to pitch a writing gig.
It made me wonder, why are reputation-obsessed lawyers allowing this to happen?
Hiring an agency for SEO is a great business decision. Unless you have the time and aptitude to become an expert in it, stick to practicing law.
Here are a few tips to avoid the bad ones:
Sociopaths use a diversion tactic known as “pre-emptive defense” when conning their victims. They overstate their trustworthiness without provocation or first building a solid foundation of trust.
Every week we get dozens of email solicitations from so-called SEO experts using pre-emptive defenses.
The best claims (often in bold letters or allcaps) are that their techniques are trustworthy or not “black hat.”
This one is my favorite. It claims to be “100% straight up, legitimate, tit for tat.”
Maybe a future tagline for your law firm?
Yes, when interviewing a SEO expert you should confirm their use of ethical tactics, known as “white hat” tactics. But genuinely trustworthy SEO firms do not advertise the appropriateness of their techniques prior to being asked.
As a marketer, I’m all for aggressively flaunting truly unique selling propositions, especially those that add real value to clients.
But no SEO expert can truthfully guarantee ranking on page one of Google. Unless, that is, they’ve stolen the algorithm.
Search optimization is a lot like networking.
Sometimes you go to a networking event and get a quick case referral. But most of the time there are no immediate results. Over time you will slowly begin to make connections that generate referrals.
With SEO, you may see a quick win with one high-ranking keyword. But most often it takes consistent effort over a period of time to see results.
Like with networking, where some contacts may send you ten cases a year and others will send you nothing, you will rank well for some keywords but not others.
Promising otherwise is dishonest, which may be indicative of the techniques the agency will use once they’re engaged.
At a high level, SEO tactics can be used from one industry to another. But only a specialist will know the types of content that search engines find most relevant for certain keywords, or which websites give the most backlink juice for a particular industry.
Specialists will also understand the culture of their clients’ industries. This includes understanding industry jargon used by practitioners and their clients.
In the case of lawyers, content clarity and conciseness conveys professionalism and attention to detail. To do their jobs effectively, agencies will introduce your firm to legal industry thought leaders, journalists, bloggers, adversaries and peers. If they get this wrong, you’ll look dopey.
An agency specializing in law firms will understand our culture and what’s at stake, or they won’t be in business for long.
SEO is laden with tech jargon that’s unfamiliar to lawyers. For this reason, if a firm sees results, they tend to take a hands-off approach.
This is what happened to Lawson Griggs.
After receiving the email from Lawson’s SEO consultant, naturally, I checked him out. I was pleasantly surprised by his online persona. It was clear that Lawson cared about his brand and was good at what he did.
I let Lawson know about the message I received from his consultant (I would similarly want to know if someone was jeopardizing my brand).
Lawson had the courtesy to write back. He mentioned that he was happy with his consultant’s results, but that he was unaware of the email issue and would address it.
Even if SEO tactics seem complicated, have your agency explain what they intend to do, who they will be contacting on your firm’s behalf and how they will be going about it.
Just like supervising lawyers have an ethical responsibility to manage their subordinates, you should be managing your SEO consultants.
Take a common sense approach. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable, have the agency make changes.
For lawyers, there’s more to SEO than backlinks and keyword optimized web copy. There can be serious consequences for those who blindly abdicate this responsibility.
SEO is a component of our marketing strategy, which is regulated by our code of professional responsibility. Make mistakes and bar sanctions could follow.
More importantly, everything that gets published with your name on it either enhances or dilutes your credibility with clients and peers.
With law being a business built on credibility, there’s much to lose.
*A pseudonym was used for for this article.
Stephen Furnari is a self-employed corporate attorney and the founder of Law Firm Suites, the operator of coworking spaces and executive suites for law firms. Through Law Firm Suites, Furnari has helped dozens of attorneys launch and grow successful law practices. He is the author of several eBooks, including “7 Deadly Mistakes that Prevent Law Practice Success” and “An Insider’s Guide to Renting the Perfect Law Office”. Stephen has been featured in the ABA Journal, Entrepreneur, New York Daily News and Crain’s New York.