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What Is SEO?: How People Find Lawyers Online

The universe of people looking for lawyers on the Internet can be divided into two primary groups: non-lawyers and lawyers. The two groups have somewhat different searching patterns and behavior, which should be factored into your SEO strategy, and which will be discussed in this section.

When creating your online marketing budget, you first need to determine which group you want to reach, i.e., clients (non-lawyers) directly, other attorneys and law firms for lawyer-to-lawyer referrals. In some instances, your goal may be to attract both groups. Your marketing spend and focus, as well as your Web site content, will be different depending on who you want to reach.

In addition to the non-lawyer/lawyer dichotomy, each group can be further divided into legal information seekers and lawyer or law firm seekers.

  • Legal Information Seekers are those who are looking for information about a specific legal issue or problem. After researching their issue online, people in this group sometimes determine they need a lawyer.

  • Lawyer Seekers are those who know from the outset that they need the assistance of a lawyer or law firm to help them with a legal issue, and use the Internet to find one in a particular geographic or practice area.

Non-Lawyers -- Searching Patterns

Most non-lawyers tend to fall into the Legal Information Seeker category. Initially, many people begin their search for legal information on one of the major search engines or portals, such as Google, AOL, MSN or Yahoo!, or from legal sites that contain information for non-lawyers, such as Nolo.com, FindLaw.com, or LawGuru.com. It is only after researching an issue, that they determine they need a lawyer. Then, they tend to either contact the attorney or firm whose content they are reading, or get in touch with an attorney whose advertisement appears near the content they have found.

Traditionally non-lawyers who already knew that they needed an attorney (and thus skipped research altogether) tended either to ask friends for a referral, look through listings in the print yellow pages, or get a referral from a bar association, local court house, or county clerk. However, an increasing trend finds that people prefer the Internet over these more traditional methods of locating lawyers. Non-lawyers like the additional information they can find about a law firm and its lawyers on a Web site, and the Internet is open 24 hours-a-day.

Most non-lawyers who know they need a lawyer also go to the major search engines and portals (e.g., Google, AOL, MSN, Yahoo!) to find lawyers and law firms. Some will use online yellow page directories or lawyer-specific directories such as Lawyers.com (the consumer version of Martindale Hubbell), or FindLaw's lawyer directory. Many will reach Lawyers.com by way of its ads on the major portals and search engines.

Lawyers -- Searching Patterns

When lawyers search for information on the Internet, their starting points are usually the same as non-lawyers'. However, lawyers also use focused legal portals such as FindLaw, Law.com or LexisOne.

Lawyers looking directly for other lawyers or law firms tend to go to Martindale Hubbell's Martindale.com lawyer directory, or the Web site of one of their affiliated bar associations. The directory information in Martindale.com is the highest quality, richest in content, and most up-to-date of any of the online directories, although bar associations often include information about recent disciplinary actions against attorneys. As mentioned, some lawyers may use FindLaw or Martindale-Hubbell's Lawyers.com. FindLaw has made strong strides in recent years on improving the quality of its data, and that is likely to continue.

It should also be noted that Martindale's directory is on LexisNexis, while FindLaw's lawyer directory is on WestLaw.

Both Martindale and FindLaw offer enhanced paid listings, as well as free, bare-bone listings. At a minimum, all lawyers should frequently update their free listing data in these directories. We discuss online directory listings more in our Web Site Popularity section.

Searching Online for Legal Information -- Search Engines and Online Directories

The main difference between search engine and directory queries is in the scope of the sources searched. By using a search engine, one is able to search billions of Web pages throughout the World Wide Web. In Web directories, users search only the information contained within a specific collection or index composed of thousands of Web sites. It is important for lawyers and law firms marketing themselves on the Internet to understand the differences between search engines and directories, because the tools employed to obtain high rankings in search engine results are different than the methods used to obtain prominent listings in directories.

What are Search Engines?

Search engines use special computer programs, called spiders or crawlers, to collect and index the text of Web pages. When a user performs a search of the Internet using a search engine, he or she enters a specific keyword or string of keywords (a "keyword phrase") into a query box, and the search engine returns a list of Web pages that include those keywords. The search engine displays and ranks the Web page results automatically, using ranking algorithms.

Note: Suggestions on how to obtain higher search engine result rankings (called "search engine optimization" or "SEO") for your Web site are discussed in our SEO Section.

When searching for an attorney using a search engine, people often use search terms to describe the type of lawyer they seek, e.g., "personal injury lawyer," "employment attorney," or terms that include their location, e.g., "Colorado Attorney" or "Los Angeles Lawyer."

If a search contains nothing other than a legal term or topic, it usually means that someone in Atlanta looking for a personal injury lawyer could end up with result pages listing lawyers in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Seattle. If a search only contains a geographic location, then the results will likely include lawyers in a multitude of specialties, such as copyright law, bankruptcy and medical malpractice.

At this point, the user tends to add both the relevant practice area and geographic information to the search box, in order to filter out results that are of no use to them. To attract potential clients who are seeking the kinds of services you offer, your Web site needs to be near the first page of results when a user performs a search that includes both a practice area and location. Thus, your Web site must be search engine optimized for both your practice area(s), as well as the geographic location(s) you serve. (We discuss this process in our Keywords Section and Site and Page Layout Sections). For example, if you are a Denver bankruptcy lawyer, you might not be able to get near the top of the search results for searches such as "Denver Lawyer" or "Bankruptcy Lawyer," but you need to be at or near the top of searches for "Denver Bankruptcy Lawyer," "Denver Bankruptcy Attorney," "Denver Bankruptcy Lawyers" and "Denver Bankruptcy Attorneys."

When looking for legal information, as opposed to an attorney or law firm, most users simply search using terms related to their legal issue, without regard to location. When they do add a location into their search, it tends to be a state. Thus, a user might search for "employment law" or "Colorado employment law," but is unlikely to search for "Denver employment law." What this means from a search engine optimization standpoint, is that you need to optimize your site for the states in which you practice, in addition to the city, county or metropolitan area, even if most of your clients only come from a small area of the state.

What Are Web Directories?

Web directories use human editors to organize Web sites or Web pages into specific categories. Like an index in a book, users browse the directory headings to find specific information and categories. In many cases, you will want to submit your site for review by these editors for possible inclusion in their directories. Submitting your site involves preparing a description of the product or service you offer, and sending it to the editors at the directory for their review. Directory searches are similar to Web searches using search engines; consequently, in addition to choosing the proper Web page or directory category to which you should submit your site, you need to optimize the description you send to Web directory editors, for both your practice area(s) and geographic location(s).

Note: A discussion of the most-searched online directories, and the ways to get listed in them, is in our Web Directories Section.

The Intersection Between Search Engines and Web Directories

Although getting listed in Web directories and obtaining a high ranking in search engine results require very different strategies, a common connection binds the leading Web directories and search engine spiders together - all major search engine spiders start their indexing with Web directories. Therefore, being listed in a Web directory is an important first step toward getting indexed by a search engine. For example, Google, Lycos and Netscape use the data from the Open Directory Project for their own Web directories, while Yahoo! uses data from its own directory.

In sum, being listed in major Web directories will greatly increase the chances that your Web site will be indexed by the major search engines. Because Web directories themselves often receive high popularity rankings in search engine results, being listed in a Web directory can also help your Web site achieve higher rankings in search engine results. (For a more detailed discussion on popularity rankings go to our Link Popularity Section.)

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Last Modified: 28 August, 2003
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