Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yelp, Google and Consumer Reviews of Lawyers

Late last week, Google and Yelp looked like they were ready to join forces - to the tune of $500MM+ for the Yelp team. Now, the deal appears to be off. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn't, but it did surprise me what a non-story this was for lawyers looking to advertise their business online. Why did that suprise me? Because it was a huge story for other local advertisers.

ExpertHub operates in the Bay Area, and Yelp is incredibly strong here. It's amazing how many small businesses have tapped into Yelp to build their businesses. I recently found an auto mechanic through Yelp. In general, my expectation for the techno-savviness of local small businesses is pretty low. However, I was impressed with this shop. Great service and you could tell they were using a lot of low cost technology (i.e. automated email follow up, email coupons, etc). When I showed up for the first time, the guy at the front desk asked me how I found them - I said Yelp. He smiled and clicked on the Yelp field on my customer record . . . seemed as if he hadn't clicked on anything other than Yelp for some time. I also recall a conversation at a cocktail party with a pediatrician in San Francisco (she is the wife of one of my classmates from school). As a relatively young doctor, she had built a flourishing practice is no time in San Francisco - almost completely through Yelp. Interestingly, neither one of these success stories pays Yelp anything, but apparently enough local businesses do to keep 200 staff at Yelp busy and to interest Google in spending a pretty penny for the company.

However, in the last 18 months, I've only come across a handful of lawyers that generated a material amount of business from any consumer review sites, including Yelp, Google, and even Avvo. As a consumer and market researcher, I look for good review sites for lawyers and have not come up with anything particularly interesting. I think there are two reasons for this:
  1. Consumer review sites are pretty easy to game. The only way you overcome this is to have a lot of reviews. The way you get a lot of reviews is to have a lot of interactions with consumers. This generally isn't the case with legal services. If you hire a divorce attorney, DUI lawyer, or want to file a personal injury lawsuit, it's pretty unlikely (hopefully) that you are back in the market in 6-9 months for the same type of attorney. I saw the Yelp COO speak at the last Kelsey Group conference and he mentioned that it took 18-24 months in a market before they had enough reviews for the product to be valuable for consumers. He also mentioned that they did and continue to invest a ton in technology to screen out fake reviews. Its hard to find any examples where you have 4-5 lawyers that all have 20+ reviews so that you can make an educated decision (that is, one that is not easily gamed).
  2. Chances are, a consumer's opinion of the quality of a lawyer they just worked with is not a signal for the true quality. Several obvious reasons for this: a) you may not know the quality of the work for years to come (as in, my prenuptial agreement is terrible but it was written 10 years ago), b) you only get one shot at a case, so its hard to say whether another lawyer could have done better or worse and c) you probably need to be another lawyer, or know quite a bit about the law, to know whether or not any individual work product is high or low quality.
Clearly, consumers of legal services need a better way to evaluate prospective attorneys. However, it does not appear as if Yelp is the answer - at least not yet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Using Public Relations to Build Web Traffic

One of the most tried and true methods for building awareness for lawyers or a law firm is to be involved with a newsworthy case. The same is true for online marketing - but it has a more important benefit - links. Given the incredible number of news sites and blogs that re-purpose news and add their comments to it, your SEO efforts can be a lot more effective by getting some PR.

Lawyers that took on these high profile criminal cases have definitely tapped into the PR stream.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Google Local Business Center and Local Search

If you have been using Google regularly over the past few years, you've probably noticed how Google has started including Google Maps results for various search phrases. Depending on the phrase and the individual user's search history, Google determines if and where to include results from its local business center in the search results.

In general, if the search phrase is obviously local in nature such as "divorce lawyer san francisco, ca" Google will show the results from Google maps prominently. If the search phrase is more general, such as "divorce lawyer" or "divorce," the local results are pushed down or non-existent.

If your firm is not taking advantage of the free listings offered by Google, you should. Here are a couple of handy links to check out:
  • Google's Local Business Center User Guide
  • Getlisted.org. Enter in your firm name and your zip code and you'll see how your listings look at major search engines. The site also includes lots of tips and advice on how to get the most out of your listings.

With estimate that 40% of web searches are "local," local SEO is becoming more important and more complicated. While it's unlikely that submitting your firm to Google's local business center is going to be sufficient for your online marketing goals, it's a great way to get some additional free exposure for your firm.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ethics Rules v. Hot Startup: What Makes Sense for Consumers and Lawyers?

I've been following a couple of developments in the local/legal Internet advertising market that seem to highlight the disconnect between product innovation and lawyers looking to leverage these innovations to build their practice.
  • The first involves an ethics complaint filed by a Connecticut attorney who seems annoyed by the pay-per-lead advertising model used by Total Attorneys. This attorney is categorizing this advertising model as an illegal referral agency.
  • The second involves the winner of the TechCrunch 50 contest, a new company called Red Beacon. Red Beacon, started by two former Google product guys, sets consumers up to "Compare prices and book an appointment for any local service." Red Beacon takes performance-based advertising to the extreme - they only get paid (10%) if the local professional gets paid.

As we sell online advertising to lawyers every day, I'm acutely aware of the general disdain that many lawyers have for referral services. Their disdain is understandable - traditional referral agencies take anywhere from 25-33% of the total fees collected as compensation for qualifying a potential client and making an introduction. That's a healthy chunk of change.

However, the aversion to referral agencies is not just economic. I remember speaking to a friend of mine about legal marketing. My friend is a lawyer (and a successful internet advertising exec) and he told me that he was trained that lawyers should not "sell." Rather, they were members of a "learned profession" doing a "public service" by performing legal services for clients (at $500/hr).

Put those two traits together and you can understand the scorn towards the lawyers operating referral agencies. Typically, they are perceived as the "hustlers" and "ambulance chasers" that cause their profession to lose its prestige. But, is that really what is going on at Total Attorneys when they charge you $65 for a bankruptcy lead? What about Red Beacon when they charge you 10% of what you collect and ask you to compete for the consumer? Seems more like they are looking to make the advertising more performance driven . . .

Not sure where the ethics committees will weigh in on the Total Attorneys case . . . but one thing is clear: the Red Beacon product is a non-starter in the legal field (for now). Last week, an attorney told me that she was "not going to run to the phone and compete for the client like she was a house painter or general contractor." So, I'm spending $5,000-10,000 getting my house painted and those guys should be price shopped. But, not an attorney charging anywhere from $2,500 - $10,000? Does that make sense to you?

The funny thing is that consumers want businesses to compete for their business. That's why Red Beacon was so intriguing to the Tech Crunch guys and the venture capitalists.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Overview of Online Marketing for Lawyers

Last weekend, the CA Bar held its annual meeting in San Diego. I was fortunate enough to present an hour long session on online marketing for lawyers. Earlier this year, I attended the solo and small firm summit in Oakland, CA and I was utterly shocked at the misinformation that was being presented to lawyers (by those claiming to be "Internet Marketing Experts") looking to use the Internet to generate new business for their firm.

The one statement that caused me to fall out of my chair was when one "law firm marketing expert" claimed that he could show lawyers to how effectively market online for free. His evidence that his approach worked was that when you searched for his name (which we will not mention to avoid mudslinging), there were over 400,000 webpages that had his name on it. So, if you paid his consulting fees, he would show you how to do this (btw, doesn't that make it not free?).

To illustrate how silly that is, go ahead and search for your name. When I search for mine, Google comes back with 303,000 webpages. It doesn't take long to realize that most of these sites have nothing to do with me. Turns out that there are many people named "Steve Lombardi" including a professional wrestler, a bodybuilder, a lawyer and some web designers. While I would have enjoyed wrestling in the WWF in the 80's, I didn't. If you go deeper into Google's search results, you'll realize that the vast majority of these web pages don't even have my name on it - they might have my first and last name on different parts of the page and so Google brings back the results. Point is, this is not a relevant metric for evaluating the efficacy of your online marketing.

My response to this nonsense was to start this blog so that lawyers would have a resource to turn to for basic information (and sometimes advanced) about online marketing. Back to the presentation . . .

I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout for the session - about 70 attorneys or so. There were non-stop questions throughout the session and about 10 attendees approached me after the session with incredibly positive feedback.

Anyway, here is the presentation. If you are a lawyer and have any questions about online marketing, please don't hesistate to contact me. There are too many short term scam artists out there over-promising and underdelivering and it dampens the potential for the entire industry.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Use Competition for Legal Services as an Opportunity

One of the biggest frustrations I hear from lawyers on a daily basis is dealing with consumer inquiries that do not turn into paying clients. The top complaints I hear about leads generated from the Internet are:

  1. The consumer is just looking for free advice.
  2. The consumer is price shopping.
  3. I don’t want to compete with other lawyers for a client.
While these observations from attorneys are accurate, Internet usage is growing every year and there should be little doubt that the way consumers evaluate and purchase legal services will increasingly involve the Internet. Further, the quality of the information available online to consumers will continue to improve (if you doubt that statement, think about what has already happened to realtors and car dealerships).

Although I do not practice law, I have worked in the Internet advertising industry for the last 10 years. Even more so than legal services, Internet advertising is intensely competitive and prospective clients are very demanding. However, I’ve learned that the best approach to building a business is not to wish that the market were different, but to figure out how to operate most effectively.

Below is my 3 step prescription for operating in an increasingly online world.

Embrace price shopping and competition
In a free market economy, there is no possible way to avoid competition and price shopping. In fact, market research shows that consumers are more likely to purchase a product and service when they have choice (more specifically, the highest purchase rate occurs when consumers are able to evaluate 3-4 alternatives. (If you think about it, it’s intuitively obvious. . . you are less likely to buy a car or house if you only look at one. And if you evaluate 50, you get information overload and do nothing).

Just because you have competitors that are cheaper doesn’t mean that the cheapest guy will always win. I’ve never operated a business that was the absolute cheapest alternative. However, you do need to make sure that the value that you provide is the highest (for you marketing geeks out there, “value” is defined as the perceived benefit divided by the perceived cost). If the value that you deliver to your clients is low, there is little that any advertising can do to overcome that.

Offer free advice (within reason)
Almost all service businesses offer some free advice, as it’s a great way to differentiate your service from the competition. The key to doing this profitably is knowing how much to provide. As a general rule, the greater the revenue potential, the more free advice you are going to have to give. Investment banks and Madison Avenue advertising agencies will give away months of “free” services for the opportunity to land a multi-million dollar account. Shoe salesman will measure your foot and check the stockroom to see if they have your size (if you go to Nordstrom they might throw you a free compliment or two).

When it comes to legal services, consumers expect some time from you to review their case and for you to explain how you would handle it. Sure, there are a handful of do-it-yourself’ers out there, but many people start off on their own only to realize that they really need a professional (why else would Home Depot make so much money off of professional installations?).

Publish as much information as you can about your practice online
More than anything else, consumers use the Internet to do research. The more you publish about your practice, the more information a consumer can gather about you and your practice. Sure, it takes time to write something intelligent, but the more you publish, the easier it will be to differentiate and build value for your firm AND the less time you will need to spend on giving out the same free advice to each and every consumer that contacts your firm.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Common Lawyer SEO Mistake: Keyword Envy

I was speaking with a lawyer the other day that told me, “if you want to generate case leads via search, there are only a few keywords that matter and even then, it only matters if you are in the top 3 positions.” While it is true that having a top search position for a highly searched phrase can generate traffic, it's a bad SEO strategy. Here's why:

  • Personalized search results.A few years ago, Google started personalizing the search results based on your search and click history.So, what you see is not necessarily what the average consumer sees or what any individual looking for a lawyer sees.
  • Changing consumer search patterns. Earlier I posted a entry on ReachLocal and a ReachLocal salesperson commented that a significant part of their strategy was to target longer search queries.Their observation was as follows: “The average length of a search query has gone from 2 words 10 years ago (like 'dui attorney') to now more than 4 words (Aggressive DUI Attorney Alpharetta).”I absolutely agree with this change in consumer behavior because we’ve seen it in our analytics data as well.As search queries expand by 1 or 2 words, the combination of search queries grows exponentially, making the “few keywords that matter” strategy less effective.

    So, if you fixate on a short list of keywords and the top 3 search positions, you’re missing the boat on search. To share some data:
    • On a site rich with content that helps consumers find a lawyer, like lawfirms.com, our top keyword only accounted for 1.1% of our search traffic. The top 50 keywords only accounted for 9.7% of traffic.
    • Our immigration lawyer site, usimmigrationlawyers.com, has the top position on Google for “immigration lawyer.”While this keyword has high search volume and we have the top position, it still only accounts for 12% of our traffic.And the top 50 only account for 38% of traffic.
    Capitalizing on organic search demands that you publish more information about your practice and that you broaden the keywords that matter to you.In the end, what matters most to lawyers is connecting with the consumer that is looking to hire an attorney. To do this, you have to cast as wide a net as possible.