Magic SEO fairies in their natural habitat

Search Engine Optimisation consultants: when (and if) they’re a useful option for professional services firms

A law firm marketing director we know wryly refers to her department’s role as ‘sprinkling magic pixie dust’ to make an initiative really take off.

The magic pixie dust bag is not really the place for long term marketing initiatives or developing staff skills.  It’s more about finding something that brings about a miraculous and rapid transformation.

And SEO for some partners sits squarely in the magic pixie dust bag.

Yet SEO pixie dust doesn’t come cheap. Retainers of $5k a month are common, with agencies wanting six months commitment ‘because nothing happens on shorter timeframes’.

There’s no question that search is important: it’s behind 60%-70% of law firm website visits in our lawfirm website benchmarking and of course when someone is actively searching they likely have an issue they need help with.

The best way to improve your firm’s presence in search engines

But what’s the best way to improve your firm’s presence in search engines? Can an SEO consultant really help you, and if so, how?

As another client says when they get approaches from SEO consultants (and some marketing directors we know get three or four a day):

“What are they going to help me optimise for? I’m not selling watches and optimising for watch keyphrases, I’ve got 20 different practice groups ranging from IP to Insolvency – and that’s just for the letter I.”

It’s because of the broad tent that is a general practice lawfirm, and the time that it takes to have an impact (in that respect the SEO consultant pitching you is probably right about 6+ months), that we believe SEO skills are better internalised.

Which teams need SEO skills in a law firm?

SEO skills need to be developed in two teams in your firm: the marketing team, but also some basic level of SEO knowledge is necessary in each practice group where that practice group writes articles.

Required SEO skills for lawyer authors

Lawyers need a rudimentary understanding of SEO because it needs to be embedded in articles (which account for most visits from people who haven’t been to your site before) from the start – it’s just too hard to fix an article already written and most marketing departments lack the time anyway. Equally importantly, the author as the topic expert is more aware of the long tail keyphrases a searcher might use.

An hour of basic SEO training for lawyers who write articles (which they can often claim CPD points for), teaches them to do quick and dirty keyphrase research and optimisation, and supplies evidence of why search is so important (the latter may also be helpful for conversations with partners who don’t attend the training and have edits for articles).

Required SEO skills for professional services firm marketers

The skills required for marketers are more comprehensive than for lawyers but aren’t onerous. For most law firm marketers the skills needed are:

  1. keyphrase research: doing (or acquiring) keyphrase research for each practice group
  2. keyphrase placement: navigation, titles (but don’t wreck your analytics in the process!), subtitles, urls, hyperlinks, and image labels
  3. planning with the relevant practice groups: ‘we are going to build out content over the next six months around the peer-to-peer sharing economy contractual issues’
  4. channel awareness: ‘we will promote articles via syndication and social media and help develop our external link profile in the process’

Points 1 and 2 can be picked up from a book on Amazon or even reading some respected search commentary. Only points 3 & 4 require industry experience.

So when might you need an SEO agency?

So you really don’t need to retain an SEO consultant for your lawyers or marketers to acquire basic SEO skills – maybe someone will even train your authors without charging (we provide author SEO seminars as part of our account support for example) or you can use internal presenters (albeit there’s the issue of ‘no prophet being recognised in their own country’).

There are two exceptions (or perhaps three if you’re going to outsource keyphrase research) where you might require an SEO agency:

  1. Website revamps or mergers: most professional services firm revamps and mergers lead to unwarranted traffic falls where they really shouldn’t. If you don’t have the internal capability to review website analytics thoroughly or handle large scale content migrations and redirects talk to somebody who does. Make sure however that your agency can handle large scale projects: on website revamps for example a rule of thumb is that you need the same number of redirects as you have pages indexed in Google.
  2. Link building: inbound links are still a big factor in Google’s algorithms. If you can afford to pay for an agency to build high quality links and are prepared to spot check the links they build it might be worthwhile.  However you must be really confident that your agency is not going to create links in bad neighbourhoods, make under-the-table payments to webmasters which will later be revealed (if webmasters accept them from your agency they likely accept them from others) or create links too quickly since Google’s Penguin update, or you could end up worse off in search and out of pocket into the bargain. Earning inbound links is hard these days: old techniques like identifying broken links on other people’s websites and writing to the webmaster to suggest your agency’s client’s page as an alternative don’t work as well where everyone is aware of the value of links. Simpler tricks like identifying broken inbound links to your own site you should be implementing already.

So in the end, the magic pixie dust bag likely doesn’t contain an SEO agency.  And even the bag itself may be more a matter of belief than evidence-based marketing – which should really be based on a good analytics implementation of course.

Photo by mike warren