Topics like law firm digital marketing strategies, and law firm SEO Have been known to keep some lawyers awake at night.

Often, potential clients search for an attorney online, and typically, these potential clients often use a search engine to find law firms online. So it makes sense that so many attorneys care about search engine optimization, and user behavior on attorney websites.

There are common misconceptions about law firm SEO that pushes many firms to focus their resources in the wrong direction. These misunderstandings frequently cost firms a lot of money and time and provide few results to show for those efforts.

What Attorneys Need to Know about SEO and Marketing for Law Firms

A Fundamental Problem With Law Firm SEO

For just a moment, put yourself in the shoes of your potential client. Attempt to map the route that a potential client takes realizing they need an attorney, next finding your firm’s website, and then contacting you. What does that map look like?

Let’s use a DUI attorney as an example. Did your answer look similar to this?

  • A potential client logs onto their computer
  • They visit Google
  • Because they are located in New York, they conduct a search for “DUI attorney New York”
  • They find our website because I’m a DUI attorney in New York
  • They contact my law firm through our website

Is your answer similar to this one? Many lawyers don’t fully understand how their potential clients actually search online. They make the assumption that the route to successful online law firm marketing works this way.

In the above example, there are three possible assumptions:

  • Potential clients usually know they need an attorney before they conduct a search.
  • Potential clients usually search for attorneys directly.
  • Potential clients usually conduct basic keyword searches to find an attorney.

(A fourth assumption is that your potential client is using a laptop rather than a mobile device. The importance of mobile-friendly websites is a discussion for another blog post.)

When you believe these assumptions are true and base your marketing efforts off of them, they can cost your law firm a lot of money and time.

When Optimization Doesn’t Work Like Lawyers Think it Does

If you base your firm’s SEO strategy on assumptions like these, you’ll become frustrated when your law firm’s website doesn’t generate the leads you’re hoping. You might wonder where your law firm is going wrong, and understanding law firm SEO will help you figure it out.

Your law firm may be struggling to keep its current business. When your firm’s marketing strategy depends on flawed assumptions, you may resort to pricey, outside help to “repair” your law firm’s SEO.

If your approach is flawed from the beginning, is there really an issue that requires an expensive or complicated solution? The issue may be that search engine optimization for attorneys doesn’t work like you thought it did.

How SEO Works for Law Firms

Let’s take a second look at the example above, and revisit those assumptions.

Assumption 1: “Potential clients usually know they need an attorney before they conduct the search.”

Potential clients do not always know that they need an attorney before they conduct a search. What they DO know is that they have a problem they need help solving. They open their laptops, go to Google, and conduct question-based searches. Instead of searches like “DUI attorney New York,” a potential client may ask, “What should I do if I got a DUI in New York?”

Some potential clients may already suspect they need an attorney. They may have concerns about how their current legal issue could affect their lives. They might want to know if a DUI arrest has to be disclosed to a potential employer, if it will affect their current job, what they should do next, or what consequences they could face.

When you write informative content that addresses those questions, it can influence their decision to select your firm to represent them. By targeting legal audiences this way, you will be far more successful at attracting new potential clients to your law firm’s website.

Assumption 2: “Potential clients usually search for attorneys directly.”

Potential clients tend to search for attorneys differently than they might search for, say, a clothing company. Assuming prospective clients shop for lawyers the same way they do for clothing or other consumer products items is a flawed assumption.

Someone may search for “Hanes T-Shirts Target San Diego” to see if a local Target has this merchandise in stock, but a t-shirt is a consumer product. This person already has an idea of what they want and where they want to buy it. It’s an easy choice.

Choosing a lawyer is an in-depth and important process that could have profound effects on the potential client. Attorneys are not consumer products, and potential clients don’t search for them in the same way they do consumer products.

Assumption 3: “Potential clients usually conduct basic keyword searches to find an attorney.”

Consider the search for “Hanes T-Shirts Target.” This example makes the assumption that a person will conduct a vague search. Maybe this person just wanted to see if Target carries Hanes shirts. But if that person already knows what they are looking for, they are more likely to conduct a highly specific search.

Think about the different results you’d get by searching for “Hanes T-Shirts Target” vs. “Hanes Men’s V-Neck White T-Shirts Size XL Target San Diego.” The first search is very broad and will bring you a lot of different results for a lot of different shirts. The second is more specific and will tell you whether that store has exactly what you need.

People do not want to sift through pages of results. They want a quick answer. The same goes for your potential clients when they ask questions on Google. They are not likely to search for “Divorce in California” and then scan through thousands of results. They have a specific question about their problem and they want a clear answer to that problem.

More often, potential clients will ask questions like “Can I get divorced in California without an attorney?” or, “What do I need to know about spousal support if I’m getting divorced in California?”

Those are specific questions. When potential clients ask specific questions, Google will attempt to provide specific results.

When you answer the questions your potential clients really ask with quality content on your law firm’s website and blog, your website is more likely to be found in search results because your content addresses a potential client’s question. When you give them the information they need, you are more likely to develop a bond of trust that encourages them to contact, and hopefully retain, your law firm.

An example of how potential clients find law firms through search

Here is an example of how law firm SEO works for lawyers:

  1. A potential client conducts a Google search for: “My spouse doesn’t want to divorce” but I do. What are my rights in [fill in a state, city, county, province, township, neighborhood, etc. here]?”
  2. Your law firm has composed a blog article on this topic with plenty of useful information. (What happens when a spouse refuses to accept divorce papers or refuses to sign a divorce decree, what to do if your spouse insists on reconciliation…) You write the post in the language that the potential client uses, making it readable, and easy for them to understand.
  3. This potential client reads your blog, and it has given them an answer to their question. Now that they are reading your law firm’s blog, they check out more of your site and read other content that you’ve written.
  4. When what you’ve written is educational, and helpful, the potential client begins to trust you. Your content shows potential clients that you understand their legal issues and you are able to offer solutions.
  5. They will contact you when they want more information or they’re ready to hire your law firm.

The word “divorce” in the first point above is a keyword that is related to your practice, but competing for rank with the word “divorce” alone is hard. So how can a small law firm rank for popular terms like “divorce”? Add it to a long-tail keyword (and use long-tail keywords in specific places on law firm websites and blogs). Here’s a quick doodle I did that explains why long-tail keywords are effective for law firms.

(Note that the more specific your phrasing is, the less competition you will have for those terms, and the more likely you are to attract qualified potential clients.)

What attorneys need to know about search engine optimization

Many attorneys are frustrated by these SEO misconceptions because they believe just having a website for their law firm should be enough to attract qualified potential clients.

Believing in these falsehoods may cost money, time, and possibly your firm’s online reputation.

Some law firm SEO companies and marketers who sell law firm SEO will tell lawyers how tricky SEO is. When an attorney believes SEO is confusing or they do not devote enough time for educating themselves on SEO basics for attorneys, it may lead them to spend funds on services they do not need and won’t help them build a successful online presence, or waste their time on tactics that are risky or outdated.

Sometimes, attorneys unknowingly pay someone to damage their online reputation. There are marketing and SEO companies that will sell law firms on tricks marketed as “SEO.” These tactics are not “search engine optimization,” but search engine cheats, and they violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Tactics like this can result in negative consequences for your website.

While these tactics may seem tempting for a “quick boost,” your firm could pay the price when Google’s algorithms catch on and relegate their law firm’s site in search engine results. In some cases, attorneys will then pay another company more money to try to repair the damage the first company did…and that can make things even worse.

Understanding how your potential clients actually search for an attorney can prevent your firm from wasting valuable resources like money and time. Before you decide that your website has a problem that needs to be fixed, make sure that you understand how search engines — and your potential clients — actually operate.