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Consumers of legal services want to see online reviews of lawyers. They want help selecting a lawyer when needed. They want feedback from people who have previously used a lawyer. In short, they want what sites like Yelp and Avvo give them.

Why do they want these things that can so badly mislead them, and even potentially drive them to an attorney who is less than optimal for their case? I suspect it is because there isn’t a better alternative that makes them think as little.

By and large, consumers of legal services don’t care if the ratings are skewed or even wildly inaccurate. They happily ignore that some of the results are manipulable, and some even for sale. They don’t care because lawyers have failed miserably to give them a reason why they should care.

Avvo the only game in town?

Google was not the first search engine around. Remember AltaVista? I now have employees who are too young to have experienced the once-great search engine. And Google is now dominant in search. But at one point, the search market was AltaVista’s to lose.

Remember Martindale-Hubbell? Some recent law school graduates see the waning directory as equally relevant to the iron holds the whale rules that they learned as a 1L. They were pretty much the only game in town until Avvo came along and ate their lunch. And in the process the once-proud AV rating changed owners several times, and is currently owned by Internet Brands, which bought the residual goodwill (From Lexis Nexix) given to it by lawyers who are borderline-negligently behind the times.

Why is Avvo raising even more money?

In a recent blog post, Attorney Scott Greenfield speculates why Avvo would take on the extra dilution that raising its most recent round of $71.5 million in funding would obviously necessitate. In this post, I will attempt to give some of the reasons why such a huge infusion of capital may be necessary despite the downsides of raising it.

Greenfield summarizes some of the recent pivots and experiments that the giant legal website has made. Greenfield quotes Carolyn Elefant, who in another post on the subject says:

And yet, Avvo – and perhaps a few other directories – remain the only game in town to obtain feedback on lawyers. Meanwhile, as best as I can discern, the bar associations — now teetering on the brink of extinction-by-irrelevance – do not even offer a searchable lawyer database that would allow consumers to search for attorneys based on their area of specialization.

I do not agree with Elefant that, by and large, Avvo is the only game in town. It’s just the biggest at the moment. For now. But what both pieces don’t mention is that Avvo’s dominance in the space is due to two things:

  1. The support of lawyers: Without the lawyers who support Avvo by contributing their names, their content and their marketing dollars, Avvo would cease to be relevant; and
  2. The will of Google: Google has not gotten into the attorney-rating space, as of yet.

If either of the above two conditions were to change, Avvo would likely find a much tougher road to profitability. I’ve talked about Avvo (and other companies) commoditizing lawyers here and here, so I’ll skip explaining point one above, and move directly into point two.

First some foundation. According to Alexa.com, Avvo receives 60.4% of its traffic from Google. The next two search engines, Yahoo and Bing, account for a measly 5% of Avvo’s traffic. It’s hard to make an argument that Avvo is much of a dominant business at all without Google, at least not now.

So what does Avvo need to do to protect itself from being dependent on Google?

The answer seems obvious. They need to diversify their sources of traffic. Which would explain their recent ventures into (presumably) costly television advertising. Their ads are very entertaining.

If I worked at Avvo, I would be thinking about surviving and thriving without dependence on Google. And for good reason.

Based on their business model that has evolved based on attorney generated content, I imagine that this is easier said than done. In essence, to be safe from a change in tide at Google, Avvo needs to make itself a household name that consumers of legal services think of and navigate to directly for legal help, rather than entering through search engines. This is very expensive to pull off.

If I were on the board of Avvo, I would watch the recent developments at Google with a mixture of fear and opportunity. First, Google is very interested in the space that Avvo is in. Shortly after I published this piece the piece, Thumbtack for Lawyers, the penalty that I described was apparently lifted, because the site is ranking again. For those of you who want to skip the Thumbtack article, consumers can find and contact lawyers on Thumbtack. Chances are if you are not advertising on Thumbtack, your competitors are. Thumbtack has raised $148.2 million in funding. And guess what? Google Capital led the most recent investment round of $100 million dollars. That’s more money than Avvo’s $132 million.

Hard to argue that Google is not interested in the professional services space. Here’s more evidence:

Google recently started testing rating and placement of service professionals in the San Francisco market, under the name Google Home Services.

A Google search for “san francisco plumbers” brings up this new results interface:

Google Plumbers Search

I typically use an ad-blocker so I don’t see pay per click ads. It is interesting to note that my ad-blocker did not block these plumber ads. It is also noteworthy that these results appear above Yelp.

When you click on the link that says “More plumbers to view or contact” the following appears:

More plumbers

For plumbers, this approximates part of what Avvo does for lawyers (and I suspect the most profitable part). The consumer can see the plumbers’ ratings, contact them directly, or send requests to up to three at a time. This appears to compete directly with Yelp, Angie’s List, Pro.com and Amazon Home Services, among others.

Google has also rolled out this product for searches for “san francisco locksmiths”…

San Francisco Locksmiths Screenshot

If the legal community woke up tomorrow to searches like this coming up for “san francisco lawyers” things could change very quickly. And what is to stop Google from ultimately venturing into professional services beyond plumbers and locksmiths?

So if the world wakes up one day to “Google Legal Services,” and those results start appearing above results from Avvo and other directories and rating services like Yelp, what advantages and staying power would those companies have? For Avvo, the answer might be troubling.

Would Google’s ratings of attorneys be any more useful or reliable to consumers than Avvo’s? I see no indication that this would be the case. But they would certainly be more available. And as long as consumers are willing to buy the ratings that Avvo is selling, Avvo remains vulnerable.

What does this mean for lawyers?

My constant advice to lawyers is to open your eyes and be aware of your surroundings when it comes to marketing. The landscape can change very rapidly, and it is important to make sure that you don’t over-commit to things that may not last. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t create content for a website that you don’t own. This means stop answering questions on sites that feature your competitors or that can exploit your work in creating the content to sell the potential clients it attracts to your competitors.
  • Don’t sign long-term agreements. Nobody can see years into the future. When it comes to marketing venues, short-term or month-to-month arrangements are always best. If something works, keep it. If it doesn’t let it go.
  • Don’t ignore your common sense. If something is not working, it’s not working. How do you know if it’s working. If it’s producing new clients for your firm. Period. Forget smoke and mirror metrics like links, hits, clicks, sessions, visitors and even leads. Clients are how lawyers get paid. Clients should be the measure of success.