This is the second in a three-part blog series where I share my views about the present reality and future prospects of small law firm owners and solos when it comes to online legal marketing during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
In the previous post, I covered legal marketing agencies and examined the conflicting economics and motivations of law firm owners vs. agencies. I also discussed how potential clients of law firms regard legal marketing — including the fact that potential clients actively avoid advertising.
In this post, we’ll look at online legal directories.
The large legal directories were not well-aligned with attorneys pre-crisis, and it’s likely to get worse.
For many years, online legal directories served as middlemen between potential clients and lawyers. The opportunity for directories to become well-paid middlemen was possible because, in the early years of the internet, search engines weren’t particularly good at connecting legal consumers with reliable legal information and law firms. And, in the years it took for search engines to become highly effective at making a direct connection, legal directories gained a foothold in the legal marketing ecosystem that has slowly eroded.
The legal directory model has been problematic for lawyers for years.
During the pre-crisis boom period, lawyers supported directories financially by buying enhanced listings, display ads, and leads. And lawyers also supported the search engine rankings of directories by contributing their names, by writing original content for the directories, and by adding badges and awards to their law firm’s websites. These badges and awards were trojan horses that diverted potential clients from attorneys’ websites to directories thereby making it less likely that the potential client would retain the lawyer while increasing the value of the directory.
Directories were once an effective supplement to a law firm’s website for generating new business — and for a small number of attorneys directories were sufficient as a primary source of business. The market has shifted away from directories because consumer behavior and expectation have changed, as have search engines. None of the major legal directories have innovated in paradigm-changing ways in years, but Google has never stopped evolving and improving the accuracy with which it connects its users to resources they seek.
Furthermore, Google is now in the directory business itself (with Google My Business, the local map listings that appear in search results). And law firm websites, when operated by empowered law firm owners using the LawLytics model, have vastly expanded the amount and quality of legal information available online. Many law firm websites now do a much better job than directories of providing potential clients with the information that they are looking for, organized in a way that they can easily find, and written in a way that they can understand. With Google’s evolution, and with the emergence of better law firm websites, the evidence indicates that Google now prefers law firm websites as the best sources of information for an increasing number of legal search queries.
Law firm websites are regularly outranking legal directories, and for good reason.
Years ago, legal directories frequently outranked all law firm websites. In some jurisdictions, they occupied many (or even all) of the results on the first page of relevant Google searches.
But that is no longer the case.
Some directories have been neglected. Some have gone through acquisitions and consolidations under large parent companies which may have weakened the abilities of individual sister-directories (owned by the same company) to compete. Some of them have suffered a hangover from their own early harnessing of free attorney labor to create content, and have become tangled messes of millions of pages of irrelevant, confusing, and duplicative content. Some experienced early success by gaming Google but are no longer able to do so. These factors, combined with the (likely) insurmountable consumer bias against advertising (for more on this see my previous post discussing legal marketing agencies), create a present situation where, by Google’s own guidelines, directories struggle to rank well.
Some directories have, over the past several years, implicitly acknowledged that their organic rankings were insufficient to maintain a fair exchange of value with lawyers. Needing to appear prominently in relevant searches that potential clients of law firms might conduct in order to continue to attract attorney advertisers, some directories turned to (or increased their spend on) pay-per-click ads.
Without search engine ranking (or ways of driving non-search traffic to the directories) the directories become inefficient pay-per-click middleman. The law firm advertising in the directory is still paying for a click. If the click is done by a viable potential client, that PNC must be filtered through the directory before potentially reaching the law firm. And there is inevitable spillage before that happens, as consumers who are looking for legal information or to make a personal connection with the lawyer instead see the directory environment as advertising and press the back button on their browser.
A paid click to a legal directory is less likely to be effective for an individual law firm. And, if there are multiple firms on a directory page, then multiple attorneys are paying for a fractional potential benefit of the click. The math may pencil for a directory if it can, in aggregate, collect more per click from attorneys than it spends in a month on pay-per-click ads. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this is the optimal application of a law firm’s advertising budget.
Your viable potential clients prefer a personalized experience over marketing, and most recognize legal directories as marketing. They see the ads, the accolades, and the reviews without the context a meaningful interaction with content that creates rapport between the attorney and potential client in the client’s mind.
The crisis has likely hastened the decline of legal directories. Attorneys who are not obligated by contract are likely to save their money or invest it elsewhere.
The combined lack of innovation and the reality of an eventual recession has long portended the decline of the legal directory model. And the suddenness of the COVID-19 crisis and resulting shutdowns have triggered a cascade of consequences that attorneys should understand as they consider whether to advertise in legal directories.
Many directories have likely already lost advertisers and significant revenue. A survey of areas within legal directories that were formerly populated by paid ads gives the distinct impression there are fewer attorneys building ads — and some practice area and location combinations are now completely devoid of paid ads. The withdrawal of ads in certain practice areas is expected with the shutdown. Those who can’t currently derive a benefit from the ad spend are smart to withdraw.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see directories try to retain advertisers by offering attorneys reduced rates, offering free listings in sister directories, and by including “free” things (such as websites and agency services). These “throw-ins” are problems for lawyers because:
• Additional Directory Listings: When one directory “throws in” listings in a sister directory that is owned by the same parent company, the additional listing is unlikely to move the needle for you. This is because if other lawyers also accept similar offers, the incentive that the directories, acting in concert, create for you increases competition across all participating directories without increasing the number of available opportunities for your firm.
• Website Design or Agency Services: When a directory does website design or SEO for a law firm there is a conflict of interest per se. The directory company needs its own website(s) to rank well compared to individual law firm websites. Ranking is a zero-sum game. If your website outranks a directory, the directory gets less traffic that it can monetize. So by accepting a free or “included” website from a directory, you are giving your website’s direct competitor control over your website’s performance.
In addition to being bad for attorneys for the above reasons, offering these retention gimmicks are also likely bad for directories because doing so:
1. May further erode trust; and/or
2. May prove to some attorneys that even adding additional coverage does not justify the continued ad spend.
Having previously run a nationwide directory (before founding LawLytics), I believe that there is only one way for directories to recover to their former levels of influence and revenue. They must restore internet traffic from qualified potential clients of law firms, and thereafter maintain it while offering attorneys transparent, honest, and conflict-free service. But before they’ll be able to accomplish this, they’ll have to weather the current storm.
Facing diminished revenue and prospects, legal directories will cut staff.
As attorneys stop buying new listings, directories will start trimming their sales teams. These cuts will acknowledge the diminished opportunity to create new revenue. As revenue declines, directories are also likely to lay off non-sales staff, further hobbling the ability to compete and serve the attorney advertisers that remain. This will be felt most acutely by attorneys that have overlooked the conflict of interest and empowered directory companies to act as their firm’s marketing agency.
Outlook and recommendations for attorneys surrounding legal directories
We have always said that legal directories can be a viable supplemental source of leads, or an important point of reinforcement for existing leads and clients for some lawyers, in some practice areas, in some jurisdictions. Our stance on that has not changed with COVID-19. We still recommend that attorneys:
1. Claim and manage any free directory listing which ranks on the first page of Google for searches for their name or their firm’s name. And, as long as the directory continues to rank for the attorney’s name, we recommend that you consider paying for an enhanced listing if doing so removes ads from your competitors, adds links to your competitors’ websites or profiles, and/or blocks your potential clients from easily finding your contact information.
2. Never link from your law firm’s website to a directory. This includes never adding badges or awards from directories that contain trojan horse links. Directories should send traffic to your website — never the other way around.
3. Avoid long term contracts with directories. A paid directory listing should produce quantifiable ROI every month or you should be able to leave.
4. Give your firm the advantage of having a website that you own, understand, and can easily control. Invest in the creation of content for that website and never for a directory. Your efforts should benefit your firm, and not the directory.
There’s never been a better opportunity to take stock of your marketing, and then take control of your firm’s future. If you are not yet a LawLytics customer and would like to explore how LawLytics will help your firm grow (and compete and win against legal directories), I invite you to see it in action by doing a free interactive demo.