Is Your Web Site As Effective As It Could Be?

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Are you convinced that no one ever visits your website and that it is ineffective at generating business? Before completely revamping a website, lawyers should conduct an audit of their site to learn WHY their sites are not producing their desired results. Just as a car needs to be checked out and tuned up periodically, so does a website. Attorneys can either conduct a self-audit or hire an outside auditor to check their site's current effectiveness, identify specific elements that might need to be tuned-up and then perform the actual tune up.

Many lawyers think their website is not effective because it looks plain, so they set about updating or completely re-vamping it. But since the purpose of a website is to attract clients, even more important than the site's “look” is whether potential and existing clients can easily find it. While aesthetics are important, if potential clients cannot find your site (“find-ability”), it does not matter how visually pleasing the site is. A website audit is a multi-step process that examines a site from a strategic marketing perspective (focusing on whether potential clients can easily find your website), rather than from an aesthetic perspective. Many website designers are not trained to consider find-ability elements and may have completely overlooked them. Some “find-ability” elements reviewed during the audit include whether your site uses meta-tags, whether your site has been registered with search engines, how high your site ranks in search engine result lists and whether other sites link to your site.

Before conducting the find-ability audit, first review your website's past traffic to determine whether your site is getting any visitors instead of making assumptions. This will not only tell you who has visited your website in the past (including how often and which pages they visited), it will very often tell you how those visitors found your site (e.g via a search engine search or by linking from another site that pointed to your site). Some Internet service providers (such as Earthlink, http://www.earthlink.net) include traffic statistics as part of their web hosting services. Online services such as Hitslink (http://www.hitslink.com) deliver similar, but more comprehensive tracking capabilities starting from under $10.00 per month.

After quantifying and interpreting traffic statistics, it is now time to assess the "find-ability” elements of your current site. “Find-ability”t; refers to the ease with which potential and existing clients find your site among the Internet's 500 Billion pages when they do not know your URL (website address) or even your name or the firm's name.

Among the most important “find-ability” elements are meta-tags, the invisible pieces of a web page's HTML code that search engines use to catalog that page. Although meta-tags are invisible to site visitors, they are an important element used by search engines to assist Internet users in finding sites relevant to their search terms. Think of meta-tags as descriptions of you and your practice areas. For example, a family law attorney might use the meta-tags “family law lawyer” and “divorce”. A website audit can show whether the original designer used these relevant meta-tags (or any meta-tags at all) on the site. If the original designer failed to tag, this is one of the first “find-ability” elements to be added to increase the effectiveness of your site.

To see if your existing site already includes meta-tags simply click on “View” and then “Page Source” in the Netscape browser menu (or “View” then “Source” in Internet Explorer). Alternatively, there are a number of sites on the web such as ScrubtheWeb.com (http://www.scrubtheweb.com/abs/meta-check.html) that can automatically check your existing site's meta-tags.

If the original designer did add meta-tags, additional descriptive tags may still be in order. For example, a family law attorney might need to also add the tag “child custody”. When deciding what tags to add, attorneys must first understand how people use the Internet to locate information in general, and then how people use the Internet to locate legal services. To accomplish this task, put yourself in the shoes of a “typical” consumer of legal services. Ask yourself, would a typical consumer type “lawyer” into a search engine or “attorney”? Chances are that some would use the term “lawyer” and others “attorney,” so be sure to think of all the synonyms for a term and create meta-tags for each of them.

Also, every page of your website should contain meta-tags to match the keywords and concepts that are discussed on that specific page. For example, on the page of your site that discusses “child custody”, be sure to insert that phrase and its synonyms into your list of meta-tags. On the other hand, there is no need to use this phrase as a meta-tag on the page that discusses division of property.

Some search engines, like the popular Google site (http://www.google.com), rely heavily on the words contained on a web page when calculating its ranking. The more often words used in a consumer's search appear on a web page (such as "child custody" or "lawyer" from our earlier example), the more relevant Google considers that page to the consumer's search. Old tricks, such as repeating keywords in meta-tags, hiding keywords in small white type in the white background of a website or using popular search terms like "sex" or "Pam Anderson" (when a site is related to neither), no longer works to generate high search engine rankings. Over the past four or five years, search engines have gotten significantly smarter about sniffing out the tricks some website designers use to manipulate their sites into the top of the rankings result list. These outdated tactics should be avoided, as they can get a site banned from certain search engines.

Another key “find-ability” element is registration of your site with search engines. A website audit can show which search engines have already indexed your site and can apprise you of how high your site ranks when result lists are displayed.

The overwhelming majority of Internet users (85%) find websites by using a search engine. For instance, if a consumer needs a lawyer to handle a bankruptcy matter in Los Angeles, it is unrealistic to assume that the majority of prospective clients will know the name of a firm that can help them, let alone the URL (website address). Instead, this prospective client might type “lawyer” into a search engine's search box and receive an unwieldy result list with over 250,000 web pages. Narrowing the search to "bankruptcy lawyer" results in over 900 web pages and finally, adding in "Los Angeles" to the search phrase "bankruptcy lawyer" results in over 140 pages. Most searchers don't look past the first two or three pages of results before giving up, so those attorneys whose sites are ranked near the top are most likely to attract more potential clients to their site (and hopefully generate more business).

The most effective way to get a site indexed and potentially included in that search engine's results is the most labor intensive: visit each of the most popular search engines and manually submit the site for consideration. AltaVista has recently changed its submission process to cut down their backlog by considering only sites that are submitted by hand (thus excluding automated submission services and "robots"). Most sites have pages specifically for this purpose labeled "Submit a Site" or "Register your URL". Because of the volume of new sites added to the Internet every day, there might be CONSIDERABLE lag time between registering and when a site appears in a particular search engine's index. There are thousands of search engines on the Internet, but a relatively small number are used most often.

Statistics show that Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), which is powered by the Google search engine, is by far the most popular search engine/Index on the Internet. Therefore, Yahoo and Google should be the first search engines with which you attempt to register. Other popular search engines include AltaVista (http://www.altavista.com), Excite (http://www.excite.com) and Lycos (http://www.lycos.com).

Originally, garnering a listing in the Yahoo index was free. In 2000, Yahoo began to expedite its review process for those willing to pay a $199 "Business Express" submission fee. Since December 2001, Yahoo requires all commercial web sites (this includes law firms) to pay a $299 "Yahoo! Express" fee for a site to be considered for addition to the Yahoo Index. Payment of this fee does not guarantee inclusion in the Yahoo Index, just that the submission will be considered within seven business days, and that if the site is not included, one of Yahoo's human editors will send an explanation. If a site is accepted, site owners must pay a recurring annual $299 fee to keep the site listed. (This fee is automatically billed to a credit card supplied by the site owner. If the card expires, or is otherwise not current when Yahoo bills this recurring fee, the site is dropped from the index.) Google, Lycos and Altavista have free submission options for businesses. Additionally, Altavista and Lycos offer a (non-mandatory) "Express Inclusion" feature with varied pricing.

Once your submission is accepted and your site is indexed by various search engines, you may notice that your site's rankings vary from engine to engine. There is no sure fire way to be guaranteed of a high ranking on each and every search engine because each one "indexes" (catalogs) web pages differently and there are simply no uniform set of rules that apply to all search engines. In an effort to keep unscrupulous site designers from manipulating the process, search engines do not list their indexing or ranking criteria. However, web design websites, such as SearchEngineWatch (http://www.searchenginewatch.com), have conducted extensive research to determine which elements each search engine examines when indexing pages of a site and assigning rankings.

Another element auditors use to gauge the find-ability of your site is by ascertaining the number of other sites that have links pointing to your site. When other sites link to yours, not only does this drive new traffic to your website, it may increase your search engine ranking. For example, when calculating your site's ranking, Google weighs the number of other sites that have links pointing to your site - the rationale being that if numerous sites link to your site, it must have good, relevant content. To discover which sites already link to your site, go to either AltaVista or Google and enter "link:www.(type your website URL here).com" into the search box (e.g. link:www.netforlawyers.com). You or your auditor can ask other sites to link to your site. Choose sites that are complementary to your business and not ones with whom you directly compete. For example, if you are a family law attorney, consider asking family therapists to add your link to their sites.

Insuring that potential clients find your website is half the battle in attracting new business. Visitors to your website are no different than a prospective client seeking an in-office initial consultation. Both have a situation with which they need help and are looking to you for advice and answers. Therefore, offer almost as much information on your site that you would at an in-person initial consultation (but more generic of course) so the website visitor gains enough confidence in your knowledge of the law that he or she will be enticed to make the initial contact (and, hopefully, hire you as counsel).

Carole Levitt (clevitt@netforlawyers.com) is President and Mark Rosch (mrosch@netforlawyers.com) is Vice President of Internet For Lawyers, an Internet legal marketing and legal research consulting company.

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