It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.
In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.
- Charles Darwin
This guide will explain to lawyers and law firms:
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The internet is revolutionising every aspect of our lives – and the pace of change is likely to increase. All of society is feeling the impact, and the legal landscape isn’t immune. The internet is changing how lawyers work, communicate, win business and retain business.
The pace of change is so rapid that it can be easy to think that things have always been as they are now – we are used to relentless technological change but it wasn’t always this way. To understand how to succeed online today, it is important to understand the online landscape and the way it has evolved, and what it now values and rewards.
As another busy day looking after clients draws to a close, the opportunity might arise for you to take a further look at “this internet thing” people are talking about. You unplug your phone line, take a cable from the back of your bulky desktop computer and plug it into the wall socket. Anyone calling your office will just hear a constantly engaged tone – broadband is years away. You try to log on, and for the next few minutes you hear strange whirling noises as the computer attempts to connect with the online world.
To pass the time, you look around your desk. A new edition of quarterly case reports has arrived which, factoring in the editorial process, reports on cases that have occurred in the last 6 months – decisions that directly relate to your key area of work, yet only now are you hearing about them. Or you could read the brochure for the hotel you are considering going to – it has just arrived in the mail that day after you took the trouble to phone the hotel last week seeking out some promotional literature.
With the connection still not established, you could consider smoking a few cigarettes as you wait (the ban on smoking in public places lies 6 or 7 years ahead) or you could pop over to the local record shop to buy that CD you didn’t manage to get at lunch time (the iTunes store won’t open for business until 2003).
In due course, though, the homepage loads and you’re online. What do you see? You are likely to make a search in one of the many early disorganised search engines (Alta Vista, Netscape, Lycos – Google hasn’t established its dominant position in search). Once you find a website that is along the lines you are looking for , it would probably look something like this:
Most sites have very few pages of content, and the content that is there is in text. The ability to interact with the site is minimal – there’s nothing to download, you can’t comment and you can’t share any of the content (social media as we know it today doesn’t exist). And crucially, the site may be along the right lines of your search topic but the likelihood is the content on the site isn’t exactly what you’re after. You close down your computer, reconnect your phone line and get back on with your life.
In the year 2000, the internet is in its infancy – the whole experience, both in terms of getting online and then when being online, is clunky, difficult and often exasperating. Clearly though, once refined and improved, revolution lies ahead. Think of where we are today and the ways the internet has changed daily life – from your desk you can now wirelessly access information on unprecedented levels through multiple devices including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. These devices allow you to research and purchase things immediately, communicate instantaneously and even find out about legal cases literally as they happen. Changed days indeed.
The internet in 2000 clearly presented an immense opportunity. Great prizes lay in store for those individuals or companies who managed to refine and improve the online user experience.
Two developments revolutionised the internet and made it the experience we currently know – faster connection speeds and better organisation of the information held online. The spread of broadband led to a much smoother online experience and made going online an easy thing to do.
In tandem with this, the dramatic improvement in the organisation of the information online via improved search engines made going online rewarding – we actually were able to find the information we wanted through improved search, or achieve the task we set out to do as websites became more easy to use. And much of this improvement in organising information online was achieved by the company which would come to dominate search – Google.
Google lays claims to engaging in a philanthropic exercise – its central mission being the organisation of all online information and to "do no evil". A quick look at their balance sheet suggests a third, less altruistic aim – to make money.
Google makes money through advertising. In order to sell advertising it has to ensure that the world's population consider it to be the 'go to' website to commence an internet search. This brings tremendous levels of visitors to Google and its search results, in turn providing an audience the advertisers are willing to pay for. When people search online they want the most relevant search results. This means an index of the best quality websites rather than an endless list of sites which have nothing of value on them. Google has therefore had to ensure that their search engine serves up results that are as near as possible to the exact information being sought by the person searching.
So, how did they achieve this? Over time Google has refined its approach - it is constantly looking for indicators of authority so that only the best websites show visibly in search.
How do they assess authority? At the start, they looked more at how a site was built rather than its benefit to the user. Then, on page text and links to other sites were considered. In the early days of search, the actual name of the website was important too. However these factors often provided search results that actually weren't a great experience for the online visitor.
As search volumes increased, and the opportunities the internet provided widened, a whole new industry was created around search engine optimisation (SEO) – namely, understanding and putting in place strategies to get websites to rank well in search engine search results. This often led to sites being created just to fit in with Google's current approach – they ranked well but weren't a good experience for the reader. For example, you may recall websites that read something along the lines of "if you need a divorce solicitor who is also a divorce lawyer specialising in divorce and family law..." This unnatural language is the product of a technique known as 'keyword stuffing', where online content is written just to match search terms in order to appeal to a search engine.
Google knew its future success relied upon eradicating poor websites filled with non-user friendly content from search results. Over time, the algorithmic formula used by Google has been refined through a succession of updates to the formula (like the recipe for Coca Cola, the algorithm is never disclosed by Google and general guidance is only provided). The major updates, in keeping with internet tradition, have fun and unusual names that don't disclose what the update is actually about. Yet discovering what each update seeks to eradicate is crucial to understanding what Google wants to reward and what it wants to promote.
Millions of words have been written on these updates, so what follows may be the shortest resume ever of such developments, but will hopefully suffice as a general overview. Up to 2011, Google announced a number of updates that specifically targeted bad quality links and general efforts to 'game' Google. In recent years the major changes to its search algorithm are:
Panda, February 2011 – the aim of this update was to crackdown on websites with thin, low quality content.
Penguin, April 2012 – the focus here was on unnatural, basically efforts to hoodwink Google through paid-for keyword stuffing and link building schemes.
Hummingbird, August 2013 – Google placed greater emphasis on full question searches to reflect how people typed in search terms, e.g. "How do I challenge a speeding offence?".
Pigeon, July 2014 – aimed to drastically update local results and shook up SEO in terms of location keywords.
Panda 4.1, September 2014 – Google changed their algorithm effectively ending "keyword stuffing" and put content at the forefront of measuring quality online.
Adwords Shake up, February 2016 – Updated paid search criteria and changed the way that adverts are viewed, further emphasising the importance of a high-quality site, not just paid success.
These are the major named updates that Google has announced in recent years – however, in the quest to keep their market dominance in search they are constantly updating and refining their product. So we have seen developments such as Google local listings for all businesses, and Google taking into account your location when returning search results, along with previous search history. We have seen the development of Knowledge Graph in search results, where Google provides more comprehensive information about an individual, company or topic alongside search results.
In August 2013, Google also introduced In Depth articles in search results, in recognition that people searching online are often looking for lengthy articles on particular topics. Google also takes into account the social signals generated by a website and whether content on a site is regularly shared via social media. This is taken as an indicator of the value of content, and the more it is shared, the more it will be promoted in search results. Finally, Google has also developed Google+, which at first instance looks a bit like one of many social media platforms but with one crucial difference – posts on Google + boost prominence in search results. In short, you are rewarded for using Google's platform more than you are for using others.
In September, 2014, Google effectively put an end to one of the most outdated tactics used by ending the concept of keyword stuffing, demonsntrating that high-quality content was at the heart of its offering.
Thinking back to the year 2000 and contrasting it with the position today, it is clear to see that the world has changed. We all expect quality information immediately. The internet has facilitated that and driven such desires forward. We want this information provided to us in a structured way and from people with authority that we respect – and that is where Google has triumphed.
Their every move has been focused on making it easy for people searching to get search results that answer their queries and inform them. It gives authority to websites that fulfil this central function and rewards them with prominence in search results. And the key to assessing authority is through the quality of the content that features on the site.
So, the online world values content and so do potential clients. Can law firms profit from all of this? Is it worth putting the effort in to create quality content and an effective online content marketing strategy? The answer, quite simply, is yes. A better question might in fact be, is it worth taking the risk of not developing the online persona of your business?
A multitude of surveys show clients turn to the internet to seek out legal advice in ever increasing numbers. Just think of your own way of securing services in sectors that you perhaps know little about – an online search will usually feature in your research and buying process. There are many ways that law firms can benefit from this by investing in a strong online presence, as the following routes to business show.
Being found online through search – people who may know nothing of your firm may find you through an online search. They will gain an immediate impression of you through the content on your site, plus the fact that you were prominent in search will increase your authority in their eyes increasing the likelihood of them contacting you.
Being assessed online – businesses get referrals from multiple sources. For example, referrals from friends and family or existing clients remain a great source of new business. The likelihood is that even with the reassurance of a positive endorsement from someone you trust, people will still check you out online. A positive impression means you are likely to be contacted, while a poor impression caused by a site that doesn't look alive is likely to jeopardise your prospects of gaining a new customer – a risk not worth taking.
Asset creation that helps to convert potential customers – once you do get a call from a prospective client you may not immediately be instructed, the person may want some time to consider their position. After the call, you can use the content on your site to assist with converting the enquiry into business. By sending links to articles, whitepapers, video and other content that you have created and is on point with the issue the enquirer has, reinforces your professionalism and expertise.
Becoming an authoritative voice online – as outlined above, Google is obsessed with authority. The opportunity exists for lawyers and law firms with particular sector expertise to become the authority voice online. This can be achieved by writing extensively on a particular topic and ensuring that this content is presented effectively to Google – this is exactly what Google wants, and you in return will receive business enquiries and enhance your professional standing simultaneously, which also helps convert enquiries.
These are just some examples of the ways in which law firms can benefit from creating strong online assets and identities. The reality is that these routes to business are all inter-related – the online world permeates virtually every aspect of the way that we conduct our lives and make many buying choices.
It is no longer the year 2000. Failure to embrace change can lead to the demise of one time incredibly successful businesses, a perfect example being Kodak. The company was once the Google of its day, pushing technological advances. In 2000, the company had just returned profits of $2.5 billion and was one of the most powerful companies and brands in the world. Yet it filed for bankruptcy in 2012, an incredible reversal in fortune and largely brought about through not responding to a changing environment – customers wanted digital cameras, yet their focus for too long remained on selling expensive film.
We all face a battle to remain relevant and change must be embraced. Law firms and lawyers who are agile of thought and action will continue to prosper. The days of a discrete brass plaque as the only calling card for business are gone. The internet is your new shop front, and it’s open 365 days a year 24 hours a day as customers look for and assess you. Even normal routes to business, such as referrals from friends, will be impacted by the internet. No matter the recommendation, it will become the norm to assess a business online before engaging them. If you aren’t talking to them in a way that they value online, you may one day be pulling down the shutters for the final time – dramatic indeed, but Kodak would have thought the same not so many years ago.
Update to 2030… your driverless car waits outside as you make an appearance from your office at a virtual court hearing, all court documents are stored in the cloud, the court is considering a visual re-enactment of the crucial events, the Judge’s smartphone tells him his blood pressure is rising… It may seem like a comical fantasy now, but look how far we have come since the year 2000. If you want to avoid being “a Kodak”, Curated Media can help you focus on the now and the future.
For a free content marketing audit tailored for your firm, contact our team today.
Curated Media provides content marketing for law firms across the UK, England, Scotland, Wales in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow & Edinburgh.
Alasdair has been a solicitor since 1995 and has worked on online business generation projects since 2005. Since then, Alasdair has gained significant experience in creating online business enquiries and converting these enquiries into profitable business for law firms.
Connect with Alasdair on LinkedIn