Law Firm SEO: Myths and Realities
The SEO industry is unregulated and lacks professional accountability that we, as attorneys, consider axiomatic to our profession. Literally anybody can create a website and call him or herself a SEO expert. There is no educational requirement. There is no entrance exam. There is no character and fitness hurdle to clear. There are no requirements for ethical behavior or continuing education. Because the term “SEO expert” is unregulated and not officially defined by a regulator body, the search engine optimization industry has attracted a range of fraudsters and scam artists. Some of them are refugees from “down” industries, while others are felons with crimes of moral turpitude that make gaining legitimate employment elsewhere problematic.
The real problem with law firm SEO
Law schools do nothing to teach aspiring lawyers about the business of building, running and marketing a law firm. SEO is ignored in law schools, and many attorneys look at SEO as a subject that is beneath them, or unworthy of their time and attention. But this creates a problem in that lawyers, out of touch with SEO practices, are easy targets for providers who sell dangerous or outdated services.
Pro Tip: Always run a criminal background check on an individual SEO provider who has not been directly referred to you by a trusted source. Always check references. A law firm SEO provider will literally have the power to not only get you into a marketing dilemma, but also into an ethics quagmire.
There are literally tens of thousands of nefarious SEO professionals practicing in the United States, and many hundreds, if not thousands, who focus their sales efforts in full, or in part, on law firms. Although it is not always easy for lawyers to spot shady SEO providers, here are some signs that the claimed professional might warrant additional due diligence, verification or investigation.
- They called you, unsolicited. Would a true SEO expert need to cold call prospects? Of course not. They would have all of the business they could need or handle. They would not be engaged in prospecting activities.
- They promise quick results. Even the best SEO strategist has no control over what Google and the other search engines do. If they use the phrase “the top of Google” in conjunction with a promise to your law firm, they might as well be saying “I’m a sleaze-ball who will steal your money, sucker.”
- They claim to have a special relationship with Google. While they might resell Google products such as pay per click advertising and Google Apps, they do not have a relationship with Google that will help you, the attorney, with your SEO. If they insist, make them sign an affidavit that outlines their relationship with Google and the results that shall spring from it. If they do sign it, make sure to check their criminal history, because you may be dealing with either the criminally insane or the uncommonly stupid.
- They try to sell you pay per click advertising. Pay-per-click advertising is not SEO, in fact it’s the opposite of SEO. Pay-per-click advertising has it’s place, but not in the same sentence as SEO. For lawyers, this should be an unreconcilable inconsistency that should warrant either an immediate hang-up, or some serious cross-examination practice if you’re so inclined.
- They provide an automatically generated SEO report that purports to show you what is wrong on your site. Think of these reports of the equivalent of a software program to which a criminal defendant could upload a copy of his police report and the software would report what is “wrong” with the State’s case. Could be entertaining, but is complete bullshit and a pure sales tool. The sleazy part of these reports is that they are sales tools passed off as substantive information.
- They claim to know about a Google algorithm update. Another lie, unless they’ve stolen Google’s work product, which is unlikely, as why would somebody that is that connected or that diabolically smart be cold calling you to provide law firm SEO at a couple grand a month?
The underworld of SEO for attorneys
When you are talking with somebody who claims to be an expert in SEO for lawyers, it is helpful to understand how their various business models operate.
- The SEO middleman. There is a whole underworld of SEO middlemen who sell services to attorneys at a huge markup, only to turn around and hire freelancers (often times offshore) for pennies on the dollar for what you are paying them. They bring no actual labor, often little if any expertise, and arguably no value for your law firm. Often times middlemen providers will attempt to make themselves appear much bigger than they are. They will often refer to themselves as “we” or “my team.” This is your chance to put your cross-examining pants back on. Ask who, exactly is the “we.” Where are they? Are they employees? Are they 1099s. Are they in the United States? Have you ever met your team in person before? If there’s any defensiveness at all, the person has told you everything that you need to know about them. You’d be better off just finding cheap offshore labor yourself.
- The one-size fits all SEO guy. This purported SEO expert does the same thing for every law firm that he or she serves. The problem is, there is no one size fits all solution. If they claim to have a “formula” or a “foolproof plan,” or a “secret” you are likely getting set up to pay for something that has defined deliverables (so you can’t succeed if you sue them for fraud) but very little potential for delivering actual value.
- The long-term contract SEO guy. If you have to agree to pay him or her for a defined period without an out, then he or she likely has little confidence in his or her ability to produce tangible results for you. Insist on an out, and if they don’t give it to you, no matter how smoothly they talk, something probably ain’t right. Be cautious. When in doubt, do a background check. And don’t pay with cash, check or debit. Use a credit card company with a solid fraud dispute program.
- The “whatever it takes SEO guy” (WITSEOG for short). The underworld of SEO used to be populated with successful renegades who lived to trick the search engines using what was referred to as “black hat” tactics. These used to work, but don’t any more. While your WITSEOG may be fresh out of prison or coming out of a failed career selling widgets of some variety, the search engines employ armies of very smart engineers to figure out how to make your WITSEOG ineffective. Even if he gets away with it for a while, he will get caught (that’s a big part of what search engine updates are all about), and when he does you will be taken down by implication. You do not want your reputation, or your law firm’s website associated with this guy because he and his work are toxic.
- The “link building is all you need” SEO guy. There is no doubt that inbound links from reputable websites in context to relevant content on your law firm’s website or blog send a powerful and positive signal to the search engines. Unfortunately for the link building law firm SEO providing types, this is very hard to fake. There is a big difference between inbound links that are earned through thought-leadership, and links that are built through any other method. If a potential provider of SEO services emphasizes that they build links for you, this is a huge red flag unless they are doing it in conjunction with creating and sharing high quality content. Purchasing links is against Google’s guidelines. But it’s not the only negative linking practice commonly used by attorneys that Google targets. There are good linking practices, and they involve making friends and earning trust. Many law firms who thought that they had perfectly legitimate SEO help got their law firm’s Google placement decimated when Google launched Penguin 2.1. There are many linking mistakes that a link-focused SEO provider can make. These mistakes may not seem like big deals, but they are. It’s like having your IOLTA account balance off by a penny. Seems insignificant, right?
How do lawyers fall for SEO experts who are anything but?
If you are a lawyer who has had a web presence for more than a few years, chances are you’ve engaged a SEO “expert” who has been hazardous to your firm’s business health. Or perhaps you have gone with a mainstream SEO company that caters to lawyers only to see your firm’s rankings and business fall off a cliff even while you remained responsible contractually for paying thousands of dollars a month. Sound familiar? If this hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to your office mate, or your law school buddy.
How does it happen? There are numerous ways that nefarious law firm SEO people get in the doors of good attorneys’ offices. Here some of the most common:
- The law firm searches for “attorney SEO” on Google and hires the firm simply because they rank well on Google for that search term without doing any due diligence.
- The lawyer is successful and busy, and doesn’t have the time or energy to make herself even remotely competent in the basic language of SEO. The “tech speak” and “industry jargon” makes the slick salesperson sound knowledgeable, and the attorney says yes.
- The lawyer simply falls for something that sounds too good to be true, but the suspension of disbelief in the mystical world of SEO is too tempting. After all, some pretty crappy attorneys (in the opinion of the tempted lawyer listening to the sales pitch) are getting all of the good cases simply because they have a good SEO guru, so why shouldn’t the lawyer believe that that type of “magic” is possible for their law firm as well?
- The lawyers at the law firm only pay attention to their web presence when the phones stop ringing and the leads stop coming in. The “triage” approach to law firm SEO is highly dangerous. It’s like going to the grocery store when you are hungry. Much higher probability of walking out with junk food. If you are desperate for business, or if your practice is in panic mode, the worst thing that you can do is to hire an unproven SEO person on the fly, as they might provide that proverbial final nail for your law firm’s coffin.
- The lawyer’s best friend Harry has a brother Larry, and after Larry’s divorce and subsequent firing from his job selling used cars, he’s now become a law firm SEO expert. He works from home because his home detention ankle device will go off if he leaves, so of course he has a lot of time to keep up with what Google is doing. Harry mentions that Larry is looking for new clients and has a winning formula that can help the law firm get ahead. The attorney does Harry a favor and hires Larry. Oops.
- The attorney gets cold called or emailed with a “free SEO report” that says a lot of negative stuff about a site that is working quite well. The lawyer figures that things could always be better, and empowers the SEO company to make some changes, not understanding that even a month of bad SEO practices can cause the demise of a law firm website that has dominated a market for year.
Is all SEO for lawyers a scam?
The answer is clearly no. However, the legitimate SEO practitioners and practices that benefit lawyers is beyond the scope of this article. For a good starting point, see this LawLytics blog post on how SEO for lawyers works. In future blog posts I will look at SEO practices in depth. The purpose is to help law firms make good decisions if they choose to engage a SEO provider, and to show lawyers the following:
- SEO is not rocket science. In fact, it takes much less brain power than pretty much everything that you do on a daily basis in your law practice (well maybe except ranting about an unreasonable court clerk who is making you haul yourself down to court for what!), as well as everything that you studied in law school.
- Knowledge is power. If you spend a few hours studying what SEO really is and how it really works (from legitimate sources), you will be much less likely to get taken by scammers and incompetents.
- Most SEO is unnecessary. If you are paying somebody a monthly fee for “SEO” for your law firm’s website, there is a good chance that once you understand how it really works you’ll recognize a bunch of garbage fees or unnecessary services. You’ll be about as likely to buy SEO garbage as you are to buy a third-party car warranty from an auto-dialed phone call.
- You can do all necessary law firm SEO yourself, if you want. Not only can you do it yourself with the right tools (hint/plug… LawLytics), you are statistically likely to get far better results that you would with the average solicitor who cold calls you.
- SEO can be fun for some lawyers. In my law practice, I found doing my own SEO to be enjoyable. To use a court analogy, I enjoyed the gamesmanship of positing myself at the right place in the courtroom so that my case would get called early in the docket and I wouldn’t have to get butt-sore from sitting on those wooden benches all morning.