Writing this is a struggle. I so don’t want to be the knucklehead branding himself as The SEO Curmudgeon. SEO works. It really does. But it’s a zero-sum game. There are limits. And those limits are well illustrated by a web developer with whom I was speaking last week. We were talking about bundling SEO services for lawyers who want the full Monty when it comes to duking it out for the 17% of survey respondents who say they would use a search engine to find a lawyer. (That number from the Clio 2019 Legal Trends Report.)
My web developer said, “I will never promise a lawyer that I can get him organically on Google page one.” And this is a problem, especially when coupled with the realities of buying SEO. He went on to say, “There are so many big firms spending so much money, it’s a jungle. If a lawyer has 10-12 thousand dollars a month to spend, I’ll get them results. But more than half of that budget is going towards ads.” The rest will be content. And still, he refuses to guarantee the elusive butterfly of SEO results: living and dancing organically on Google page one.
I repeated these figures to a new, small-firm client, who replied, “10 to 12 grand a month? Forget it.” And this is why we do not encourage the small firm or solo to chase the dragon of SEO. It’s unwinnable. There’s only so much room on page one.
But, you know what the small firm can win? The small firm can win in the soft and squishy world of conveying customer experience. “Customer experience” is the new marketing buzz phrase. (Frankly, the "buzz phrase" thing is annoying. Customer experience has always been part of delivering on the promise of your marketing messages.)
Now, if only 17% of prospective clients would use a search engine to find a lawyer, you’re probably asking, “Where do the other 83% come from?” To which I ask: Does it even matter? Once they hear about you, what’s the likely place to check you out? Your website. And that is where their client experience begins. Not on the phone. Not in your office. On your website.
FOOTNOTE: Survey says, “Referral!” According to the Legal Trends Report, that’s where a lot of the other 83% are coming from. Over half of prospective clients seek a referral. And in the brave new world of endless thumb typing and mouse clicking, your website is likely to be found not in a search for “lawyers near me,” but in a search for “INSERT YOUR NAME HERE.” And that is where your prospective client is first likely to meet you: in a search for you. That’s why paying $120,000 a year for SEO matters less than conveying the client experience on your website.
Not that I have an opinion on this.
Is your website merely a marketing-like object? Or is it a conversation with the person you'd most like to have as a client?"
Marketing-like objects plague the landscape. Some look like websites. Others seem like advertisements. Still others are social media posts. They all read like they want money for something. But the thing about marketing-like objects is they don’t matter. They aren’t making a case. They lack persuasion. There’s no clear voice. They’re devoid of anything resembling a resonant message.
Welcome to a symptom of the overcommunicated culture. Everyone knows they need a website. They just don’t know what it’s supposed to say or how to say it.
You know what to do in an interview, right? You’re not likely to sit with a prospective client and speak in bullet points or empty advertising phrases. “Good to meet you. I can handle your business law, tax law and estate planning needs. I’m dually qualified as both a business attorney and tax accountant.” (Most of that verbiage is from a website I visited just for the purpose of this exercise. It's on Google page one. How much do you think that helps?) In an interview, you speak conversationally. You’re interested and interesting. You make sure your words matter to the person opposite you. You make points with relevance and resonance. You are you. You do not behave like a placard that says, “For all your legal needs.” So...does your website reflect that?
You know what one thing is missing from so many lawyers’ websites? The lawyer. The expanse of high-priced real estate at the top of the home page is often given over to a photo of Lady Justice or the Constitution or a court building or a gavel or some other anonymous stock photo speaking to the idea of, “Law.” The writing is often stilted, uncomfortable contortions of lawyerly language that boil down to three words: “I do law.” On one website home page, the first sentence is 58 words long. And those 58 words might as well say, “You need an estate plan and I do that.” It’s unfortunate. This lawyer is obviously better than what is a failed exercise in keyword stuffing. It will not appeal to Google, and will probably be penalized for lack of relevance. And it will not appeal to the prospective client, who will penalize it for the same thing.
But then, there’s always the About page. That’s where the website shows a glimmer of hope. In the bio, that lawyer comes to life for a brief, shining moment. There’s a glimpse of the person one might meet in the interview. Then, in stumbles a contorted, 43-word gymnastic sentence about discovering a passion for helping the client’s compliance boat navigate the complex and dangerous seas of compliance, assisting businesses of all sizes and of various industries in establishing and maintaining regulatory compliance. Instead of all that, how about saying: “Man, I love the puzzle of regulatory law. ” It might not sound like a lawyer. But remember: Nobody wants a lawyer. They want a relationship.
The website is a place for the lawyer to be the human who chose law. That’s who the prospect wants to hire. The prospect is a human who has come to your site, most likely as the result of a referral. This human has a problem to be solved. The only person who can solve it is you. So, your persona can hide behind generic keywords and generic writing about generic things law. Or, your website can portray you as The Answer to the age-old question, “Should I talk to this lawyer?” And the only way to get there is by entering into a human conversation that your prospect is already having.
Blind kid? What blind kid? It's an expression in internet marketing (as well as the name of a San Francisco SEO firm) that search engines are like blind five-year olds. That's your baseline for simplicity. Handle your SEO elements in such a way that you're understandable to a blind 5-year old. Do that, and you attract the right attention from the web crawlers determining your relevance.
Are you selling widgets? If it's mass retail your after, this kind of SEO makes perfect sense. However, there are no widgets in your world. You're selling a high-priced professional service. It's not a commodity. And Google shoppers are usually seeking the lowest price. (If you wish to sacrifice yourself on the altar of price-per-pound shoppers, have at it. But it'll be expensive.)
What about being a vision for the sighted adult in the room? We like to joke about SEO vs. HBO--Human Being Optimization. Since the higher-quality client is typically coming to you as a referral, you want your website to appeal to that person on a level that search engines may not care about.
There's a level of emotional engagement required for a human being to make a decision. (Yes, this is real science. Decisions are made emotionally, then rationalized. See also: anything that gets a couple into divorce court.) Emotions lead to action. Reason leads to conclusions. And the kind of appeal that you need is the human kind.
That's not to say you don't want SEO. There are all kinds of grizzly little SEO details that need to happen under the hood of your website. But what you're not interested in is chasing the dragon of a six-figure annual SEO budget to compete with a firm for whom those six figures are paper clips, and their marketing budget dwarfs the GDP of some third-world nations. Like the man says, there's only so much room on page one.
Why is HBO emotional appeal better for you than SEO blind child appeal? Because that's a battle you can win. And just as a case in point, you've read all the way to the end of this blog post. And you know what? Google will never list it for someone searching for what you do. You know why? Because this post never uses any one of the specific words that refer to what you do and the service you provide. And that much you can bank on.
IT IS PRESENTED AS A TRUTH THAT "Without SEO, lawyers die." What if you defy this ostensible truth? In a business where referral is king, SEO is useful. It just isn't a silver bullet. Instead, be human. Be evocative. Be the best part of you. A search engine can't understand that. But your client can.
Blaine Parker writes good words for good lawyers. Learn more at Firm Appeal.