The Sunk-Cost Fallacy And The Once-Great Law Firm Website

The phone rings. It’s an attorney. She’s frustrated.

She explains to me that her firm has invested a lot of money in their firm’s website. Tens of thousands of dollars.

“They’re lucky,” I think to myself. “I’ve seen much worse. Hundreds of thousands of dollars flushed away on what amounted to misguided search engine optimization tactics.”

“We have gone through three SEO companies in the past 5 years,” she explains. When she says “SEO companies” the pain in her voice in palpable. Part distain, part exacerbation.  “I need a real SEO company that knows how to fix this mess,” she sighs.

I’ve heard this many times before. But need to be sure.

“What needs to be fixed?” I ask.

“Each company said they would fix what the previous one had done. And each did for a time. But they always made it worse. None of the gains that I have paid for have ever stuck. We keep building up, and then we keep getting wiped out when Google changes things around. Our website has been buried in the search engine results, so badly it might as well not exist at all. We’ve been surviving on pay per click advertising for the past year while this SEO company tries to recover our ranking.”

Lots of attorneys have this problem with their SEO

The phone conversation above is far too common. That’s because, until recent years, SEO, or “the set of best practices to help websites achieve a better ranking in search engine results,” has been a place where those willing to take risks and bend the rules were rewarded handsomely, and those who played by the rules were often left behind. It was a tortoise and hare race, and for a long time, the hare was winning.

Google is the dominant search engine both by technology and market share, so I’ll be referring to Google throughout this post. However, the information can be applied widely to the other search engines as well, most importantly including Yahoo and Bing.

The business interests of Google and the search engines, and why it matters to lawyers

Google built their dominant market share by providing the most relevant results to people searching for information. If customers don’t like a product, they won’t continue using it if there is an alternative. The search engines’ main product is relevant search results. Google is dominant because it excels at returning relevant results for things that people actually search for.

Google has a vested interest in preventing websites that are not trustworthy from appearing high in their results. And if your law firm’s website, through a series of unfortunate webmaster or SEO choices, has been a repeat offender when it comes to Google, it may be time to think about starting over from scratch.

How long do demoted websites take to recover?

This is where I see the sunk cost fallacy come into play. The question of how long it takes a once prominent site to regain it’s prominence is open ended. For example, if your firm’s website was demoted because of thin content in the last Google Panda Update, and you fixed things by adding high-quality content between then and now, there is a chance that the ongoing Panda Update might restore your ranking. But don’t hold your breath.

The reality is, nobody knows how long it will take to restore your ranking, or if can ever be restored, once lost. It’s kind of like going to trial without the benefit of discovery or a witness list. You really don’t know what’s going to happen. Could be great things. Or not.

Am I better off starting over with a new website?

The answer is maybe.

And it’s something that you should certainly consider if your website is no longer ranking and there is not a clear path to restore it.

At LawLytics, we take over websites from other providers and platforms all the time. Some attorneys come to us in hopes that we will right the ship. Others come to us for a fresh start. While we have had success with both, I often find myself having that difficult conversation with an attorney who has invested so much in their website and is currently without any benefit to show for the previous investment.

I tell them that you have two options:

  1. Import your current website, start following Google’s guidelines and hope that your ranking comes back; or
  2. Start over with a fresh website that does not have negative history, follow Google’s guidelines, and build on a solid foundation from the start.

Attorneys who are paying attention want to know which option is quicker.

And, from our observations here at LawLytics, the answer is that, done right, option 2 is often not only faster, but is more permanent.

Suppose you choose option 1 because you’ve already invested $100,000 in the site over the last two years and you want to give it a chance to thrive. You understand that best practices were previously not used, resulting in the site being demoted. It was demoted for a specific reason or reasons. But the problem is that you don’t know what other problems remain with the SEO that was previously done to the site. So even if the site recovers, it may still stand on an unstable foundation.

On the other hand, if you admit that your law firm’s old website is a sunk cost with an uncertain future, and you want to build towards a future web presence that is predictable, solid, sustainable and cost-efficient, you may decide that logically it is best to write off the previous efforts and costs and start something fresh.

We have seen attorneys who start with LawLytics and follow our system start to rank in as little as a few months. These are attorneys with other websites on other platforms, into which they have invested tens of thousands of dollars. And yet, following our guidelines and coaching and using our system, they manage to eclipse their old sites while building something that will last because it is built without tricks.

Law firm websites are assets

Your firm’s website is an asset that can appreciate if done right. However, done wrong, even if that wrong was in the past, may mean that it’s more of a toxic asset. There are no shortcuts. But the path to having a sustainable and thriving asset that you invest in and that will nurture the growth of your firm for years to come is not as long, costly or treacherous as most lawyers think.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.