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Getting and keeping a good web presence for your legal practice

Whether you are a large firm with an established web presence, or small- to medium-sized firm with visions of website grandeur, it is important to keep abreast of the best ways to set up and maintain a glowing online identity ensuring maximum traffic.

A website is now a communication tool that customers have come to expect and typically has a matter of moments to catch and hold someone’s attention.

“It’s your online business card and your face to the world. Any firm that doesn’t have a website is missing a key marketing opportunity,” says Patrick FitzGerald, Managing Director at Squiz New Zealand (provider of enterprise web content management and search solutions).

“If you think of demographics, the generations that are now in business and making decisions have been bought up with the internet. People are not reaching for the yellow pages these days; they are reaching for their phone/tablet/computer and searching for a lawyer there.”

If you are not presently under the wings of a web company, the best thing to do is look at a prospective company’s portfolio to see if they have done work of a similar scale and size to what you are envisaging for your site.

Once you have found an organisation that is a good size and cultural fit, you should then approach that company with a fairly broad idea of what you want. Sigurd Magnusson, co-founder of SilverStripe (web development company) says that it is best to come in at a high level and work with the web company for the best possible design solutions to meet your objectives.

“Most good web companies will spend time with you to learn about what your business does and why they do it. Rather than having an exact 10-page document detailing every single specification you want, go in with a rough idea of what you are thinking about, what problems you face as a business and what sort of business results you hope to see stem from the website.”

Mr Magnusson suggests giving a web company the challenge of solving those business problems with design/technology, ideas and architecture.

“Otherwise it’s like a client coming to a lawyer ‒ without really understanding law ‒ with a detailed contract for the lawyer to just check the spelling.

“The challenge, of course, is to put to a web company – ‘right if we are to put all this money into a website, how do we get value out of that or return for our investment’.”

He says that it is essential to agree on business goals so any money spent will result in a business outcome. Hopefully.

“With web development, you should take a long-term view of setting goals and seeing how they are being achieved. The most important thing that you need to think about is the communications objectives of your firm.

“If you pin everything back what you are trying to achieve as a business then it will be easier to determine how much importance to attach to different components of your website like to design, functionality and accessibility,” says Mr Magnusson.

Web strategy

Whatever the size of your firm, you should have a web strategy, Mr FitzGerald says.

“It can be as simple as a page but should include the overall purpose of your site (lead generation or creating business), your site objectives, like ‘I want to have five inquiries a week’, and the consistent desire to know your audience. You can then shape content to appeal to their interests and their information needs.”

A web strategy comes before thinking about design and will determine how big your site should be and how you should organise it, explains Mr FitzGerald.

“I assume that most law firms, small and large, have very common marketing objectives: namely their websites functioning as an online brochure to tell potential clients what they do and to attract new customers.”

He says that if you already have a web presence you need to look at what results are you getting now and what results you want to achieve.

“You need to put a web strategy in place as to how you are going to achieve those results. For example, the number of visitors to your site should be rising, but more significantly, are you attracting the right people and are the number of good enquiries growing?” he says.

Analytics

To analyse your website’s effectiveness, the best place to start is having a look at your statistics.

To do this, there are various packages, but the most common is Google Analytics. It’s free, simple to set up and provides you with more information than you will probably ever need about your site.

Google Analytics generates detailed statistics about visitors to your website. You then can determine if people are finding your website and which content is proving popular.

Content

If your website is not getting the traffic you think it should, you may need to review what content you have on your site and how you are presenting it. Site traffic will organically improve when you publish good content.

As well as having topical, interesting content, readers need to be able to quickly sift through your content to identify and internalise information. Studies show that in a best-case scenario, we only read 28% of the text on a web page.

Content is very important as it shapes how potential clients find you, Mr Magnusson says.

“Writing content and promoting it somehow is a great way to get traffic. You need to look at a website as a destination that you point people towards through whatever other marketing tools you employ. It’s a porthole to your business.”

When writing your web content, you often need to think about what particular search terms your clients/potential clients would use if they were searching for a lawyer and then write your content ingrained with these terms.

“On your pages, you should use the words your customers would use, rather than using legal jargon. You need to listen to the terms people use or to ask customers how you heard about your law firm and then keep a log of this,” says Mr FitzGerald.

When developing or updating a website, Mr FitzGerald explains that the main thing to hold things up is writing the content.

“This is almost always the case. People should also think about who will continually update content moving forward. Will this be from within the firm or outsourced to a writing contractor? A lot of web companies will provide a content writing service or if they don’t they will know who to suggest,” he says.

Search Engine Optimisation

If you have got the writing for your audience down pat, then Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) should be no bother.

SEO is the process of improving the visibility of a website or a web page in search engines' search results. Typically, the higher ranked on the search results page and more frequently a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine's users.

SEO considers how search engines work, what people search for, the actual search terms or keywords typed into search engines and which search engines are preferred by their targeted audience. Optimising a website may involve editing its content and HTML to increase its relevance to the specific keywords.

Using headings to break up long articles, for example, is a good idea for SEO, especially when you front-load the headings with keywords.

Being concise and using simpler words are good for SEO because search engine users use plain words to perform search engine queries.

Using visuals strategically, which often translates to fewer images on the web page, improves page loading times, which is also a factor in search engine rankings.

“For SEO, you need to think about the key pages on your site, like the home page and service pages (what you do). You need to include those key words in the title, description, metadata and content of the page.

“A simple test is to use Google yourself and see how you rank compared to the competition,” says Mr FitzGerald.

Linking

Many new website owners have the false notion of “build it and they will come”. But it takes much more than just building a website to attract visitors. An important approach for bringing traffic to your website is getting links to your site from good relevant sources.

Search engines use the links into your website as a key measure of how important your site is and use this to influence what position your web pages are placed in search results.

Google Maps

Another good way to increase the visibility of your firm is to add your firm to Google Maps. This will help you get better rankings, and therefore be more visible, in local search results.

If someone is looking for a firm in the Manawatu, for example, they might type in to Google “Manawatu Law Firm”. Google recognises that they are interested in regional results because they have qualified their search with a place name and the first thing that is usually displayed in the search results is the business listings on Google Maps.

Domain name

Your domain name, (your URL) is a detail that needs to be worked out early.

If you haven’t nabbed one already, ideally your domain should relate as closely as possible to the name of your firm. You must register your domain name (if it has been registered by someone else, you will need to alter it accordingly) for use now or in the future.

Costs

Mr Magnusson explains that the price of a website varies (sometimes dramatically) depending on who you employ to do it and what the purpose of the site is.

“If you get a younger, less established web company you may only be charged a couple of thousand, but if you go for a more established company it could be more like $50-100,000 for large content and functionality capabilities.

“It is important to note, though, that more work will have to be done by the web companies if a firm does not have brand guidelines for the company to work within. Otherwise a web designer will have to do a branding exercise with you and then do the website.”

This article was published in LawTalk 795, 11 May 2012, page 10.

Last updated on the 22nd May 2012