The Top 3 New Do’s And Don’ts For Law Firm Websites
Law360, New York (June 26, 2015, 10:51 AM ET)
In legal marketing circles, there are few topics peddled about more than “hot tips” for improving your law firm’s website. Google it. You’ll find more advice than you could ever digest. However, there are larger trends in technology, culture and user behavior that are impacting firms in very significant ways and are not being talked about nearly as much as they should be. The sooner you grapple with these trends, the better. As you review your own online presence and plan for improvements, consider the list of new do’s and don’ts we’ve compiled here.
Top 3 New Do’s for Your Law Firm Website
1. Do Get Serious About Security (And That Means You, Small Firms)
It used to be that a law firm website that stored no confidential information, and was not connected to your office network in any way, was not a source of worry. Those days are over, and few firms — particularly smaller ones — realize the range of ways their websites can be used against them; including using your site as a springboard to break into your clients’ data networks. Thwarting hacker techniques like malware insertion and cross-site scripting requires constant vigilance, as well as a clear and rapid response and mitigation should the worst occur.
We are well aware of global Internet security problems, but there has been surprisingly little action in response. Over the past several years, law firms have been sufficiently warned that their access to highly sensitive information and industrywide reputation for lax security make them a ripe target. You have certainly seen the phrase “reasonable measures” countless times as it pertains to safeguarding confidential information; bear in mind that the responsibilities and actions associated with “reasonable” are becoming more extensive every day.
2. Do Start Caring
Let’s face it. From a qualitative standpoint, the average law firm website in 2015 still has a lot of catching up to do. With the plentiful creative and technology sources available today, many of them at very reasonable cost, there is just no excuse for this anymore. But here’s the thing: you have to actually care about how you are perceived online.
The core of your reputation should always be grounded in the service, work product and results you provide clients. But today, the Internet is the primary vehicle for that reputation. Ignoring this only undermines your efforts to translate past success into future opportunity.
A bad website (and increasingly, a poor social media presence) is very much the equivalent of the bad suit and soup-stained tie of yesteryear. If a prospective client is interested enough to seek you out online, and is contemplating paying the fees you require, then show that you appreciate their interest by buttoning up your presentation. After all, demonstrating excellence at every touch point rarely has a downside.
3. Do Crosslink Relational Content
Properly tagging content with reciprocal links (also known as relational crosslinking) has been a best practice for over 15 years, and for good reason. Crosslinks allow a website visitor to take a deep dive from one item of interest to another without backing out to an index or using a search function. This practice fosters the kind of interested engagement you want and improves SEO. Visit nearly any AmLaw 200 firm website and you see attorney bios, practice areas, news and publications, events and representative matters all relationally crosslinked. Much like the related products that display under every product view on Amazon.com, crosslinks ensure that your visitors can progressively narrow the focus until they find exactly what they want. It works.
The number of new law firm websites relaunching without crosslinks has been downright shocking. On the surface, these sites may seem to have the trendy appearance of a modern site: full-screen images, big stylized fonts, mobile accessibility and social media plug-ins galore. However, these sites have a distinct “small business” feeling to them when compared to law firm websites that are purpose-built. Without the proper organization and crosslinked architecture in place, potential clients are less likely to locate and consume the content that makes the best case for why they should hire you.
Top 3 New Don’ts for Your Law Firm Website
1. Don’t Get Bundled Against Your Better Judgment
Search engine optimization. Search engine marketing. Social media networking. Directory placement. Blogging. Online advertising. The list of things you’re supposed to do to remain top-of-mind in the marketplace seems to grow exponentially. As a result, you might be tempted to turn to a vendor that promises to do all of this for you, and redo your website while they’re at it. It’s shockingly expensive, but they claim you won’t need to lift a finger. In reality, a credible online marketing services provider will educate you about what’s really involved in the process — not shield you from it. The creation of relevant, high-quality content is at the heart of most online marketing, and your participation is unavoidable.
Because you need to be an active participant in the process, choosing the right vendor is imperative. Online marketing disciplines and activities are incredibly varied, and always changing. That doesn’t mean that one vendor can’t be good at more than one of them — but the best choice for all of them? Not likely. Just as you wouldn’t hire an electrician if his contract also demands your window-washing business, steer clear of vendors who don’t allow you to choose services individually and change the level of commitment as you go. What if you don’t like the blog posts they write for you, or the PPC campaign isn’t producing traffic that actually converts? You need to preserve your ability to use different consultants for different components of your online marketing and reserve the right to stop paying for the parts that aren’t working.
If you delegate content creation entirely to an SEO firm, your website may soon read as if it were written by robots: Welcome to San Antonio, Texas bankruptcy litigation firm. We are litigators in Texas who help people in bankruptcy in the city, suburbs, outskirts of San Antonio and the counties of Atacosta, Bandera, Bexar and Kendall.
Here’s another good litmus test: if you call a company about SEO/SEM and the conversation immediately turns to a redesign and takeover of your website, beware: you’re about to get bundled.
2. Don’t Assume Open Source is a Panacea
Open source website platforms such as Wordpress, Joomla and Drupal are a very popular way to quickly pull together a low-cost website. As with anything, it’s important to understand and consider the downsides. For one, an out-of-the-box open source website with a few common plugins and a stylish theme does not a law firm website make. A good law firm website has an array of different content types, all with unique data points and nomenclature. To be effective, this content needs to be indexed, relationally crosslinked together, displayed uniquely, navigable and searchable in ways that make sense to a law firm’s target audiences. For the firm to manage the content effectively, its underlying content management system should also reflect the organization that law firms are accustomed to. It takes an expert development team to bridge that gap, and it won’t be cheap.
Open source platforms also presents unique security concerns. Their sheer popularity provides great incentive for hackers to develop exploits, and it happens regularly. The vast bulk of the code powering an open source website is not written by the vendor you hire; it is written by a broader community of developers who contribute components to the platform. The accessibility and inventory of prefabricated parts and plug-ins make open source the go-to choice for low and mid-level developers who have the skillset to assemble, but not actually develop, websites with more advanced functionality. That’s a wonderful thing from the standpoint of technological democratization. However, it is never clear exactly where the buck stops with regard to security. Law firms have unique concerns, and open source or otherwise, they must be sure to choose a vendor smartly.
3. Don’t Mail It In On Mobile
The fact that every law firm website should be fully accessible on a mobile device is old news. But all too often, law firms (and/or their website vendors) don’t invest the time and effort to make sure their mobile presence actually offers a good experience for visitors. A few months ago, Google’s algorithm change — dubbed “Mobilegeddon” — sent many firms scrambling to add mobile capabilities or redo their websites responsively in order to avoid being penalized in Google search rankings. The obsessive focus during this mad dash has been to pass Google’s “Mobile Friendly Test” and earn a green checkmark for being compliant.
But that shouldn’t be the end of it. Passing Google’s binary validation should be a by-product of your investment in your mobile presence, not the goal. The goal is to engage visitors by making your content easy to find and consume for users on the go. Navigation should be responsive to touch, pages quick to load, text easy to read and related content immediately available. Anything that can be found or done on your website using a desktop or laptop should also be possible on a mobile device, and clearly optimized for that format.
All the recent research data shows two key points: first, that mobile consumption of web-based content is exploding, and second, that mobile visitors are more likely to convert to paying clients than desktop visitors. Don’t let these opportunities slip away.
Additional Best Practices
The following items have been covered elsewhere extensively, but are worth repeating. Make sure your next website review or redesign addresses them.
- Make sure the primary focus of your home page is simply and clearly establishing who you are and what you do. A good home page will quickly validate whether or not the user has arrived at the right place
- Rich, segmented biographies with v-cards, related publications and matters, links to social media channels, and up-to-date professional headshots
- Publish content that illustrates the benefits of working with you
- Research peers and competitors to find opportunities to differentiate yourself and avoid inadvertent similarities
- Apply OpenGraph tags to your site for Twitter and LinkedIn summary cards so that your firm stands out anytime someone includes a link to your site on social media, even if you don’t use social media yourself
- Make every page of your site print crisply and without navigation
- Drone on about how great your firm is at absolutely everything it does
- Purchase a website service that doesn’t allow you to update your own content
- Bury your contact information or emblazon it everywhere in 80pt type
- Use photos of the scales of justice, law books, mahogany, or anything that could smell musty
- Ever think of your website as finished
- Take your clients for granted
President, ICVM Group & Co-Creator of icXlegal
ICVM Group provides consulting, creative design, web development and hosting services to large and small law firms and organizations, with specific expertise in law firm website design.
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