Have Solos Been Priced Out of SEO?

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There is something new in legal SEO. Mid-sized firms with sophisticated SEO teams and six-figure SEO budgets are increasingly choking out solos and small firms. The economics of search-engine marketing have changed drastically over the past three years, driven by a flood of lawyers getting into SEO, along with search engine algorithm changes that have increased the complexity (and therefore cost) of bringing search-engine traffic to a website.

The change is a result of legal marketing dollars moving to more-effective marketing channels. As prospective clients started using the Internet instead of the Yellow Pages, advertising costs in these directories plummeted. Those ad budgets moved online, where capturing prospective clients means a strong presence in search results.

This budgeting shift has increased the cost of success in SEO. Large firms have built in-house SEO teams with dedicated web developers and content writers. Firm partners can increasingly be found at geeky search conferences like SMX and PubCon. The few high-end, legal-industry search agencies command monthly retainers of $3,000–$5,000 for even moderately competitive practice areas.

Over the past seven years, we’ve gone through two phases in the online legal marketing world. Phase I was a land grab, open to almost anyone with initiative and willingness to experiment with SEO. As more lawyers realized the Internet could deliver business, Phase II began with established “big box” vendors selling websites and SEO services at exorbitant prices and delivering a slew of clients through black-hat tactics. Over the past 18 months, as the search engines have cracked down publicly and aggressively on SPAM, there has been a very clear flight towards in-sourcing foundational SEO tactics and a reliance on quality SEO vendors. We’ve entered Phase III, and boy is it expensive.

Three Phases of Online Marketing for Lawyers

We have entered the third phase of online marketing for lawyers — one in which the search engine algorithms have caught up with the spam, and the cost for delivering white-hat SEO solutions has surpassed the budgets of solos and small firms. To understand these economic changes, its important to understand the history of online legal marketing.

Phase I: Land Grab (Prodigy–2008)

During the Land Grab, few lawyers were active in online marketing. Most had never heard of SEO and thought blogging involved four wheelers and muddy puddles. Due to low competition and limited technical savvy in the legal industry, a few entrepreneurial, creative, smart lawyers grew their firms very quickly. Avvo, though not a law firm, was an example of what was possible during Phase I. It was a tiny, underfunded startup that surpassed both Findlaw and Lawyers.com with a strong, smart approach to online marketing. During this phase, search engine algorithms were fairly simplistic and updated very slowly. Keyword stuffing and exact-match domain tactics ruled the day. Even boldfaced text mattered. Head term rankings actually mattered. Anyone who remembers the “Google Dance”, had a very successful firm. You can still find some relics of this era who haven’t adapted. They generally have multiple sites and include boldfaced keywords in their over-optimized content that links to all of their other sites.

Phase II: Big Box Era (2008–2013)

The Big Box Era began as directory vendors responded to the Internet-induced demise of their offline products (everything from the yellow pages to those leather bound books) and upsold their website clients with SEO rankings (and sometimes with anchor-text-optimized links). SEO success was driven by linking thousands of websites together. Think blogrolls at a more sophisticated level. Attorneys entered the online marketing game en masse, which grew competition and drove up costs. Monthly prices for lawyer websites ballooned to hundreds and then thousands of dollars. Tactics in this era focused on keyword-optimized anchor text, exact-match domains, huge networks of interlinked sites, and towards the end, heavily-spun content.

Towards the end of the Big Box Era, Google specifically tried to move away from companies that relied on standard SEO practices with the introduction of the “over-optimization” penalty in May 2012. From an interview with Matt Cutts:

And the idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimization” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.

So Google was clearly aware of the issues — but of course all of the SEOs quickly ran back and underoptimized their overoptimized sites and unleveled the newly-leveled playing field. This heralded the start of Phase III.

Phase III: White Hat Wonderland (2013–present)

On April 24, 2012, Google launched a branded algorithm update called Penguin — essentially the over-optimization penalty it promised. Penguin specifically targeted linkspam. Over the next 18 months, Google’s increasingly loud warnings about spam were resulted in law firms’ website traffic being decimated through algorithm updates. Lawyers started talking about Panda and Penguin and Hummingbird and manual penalties. Armed with a little knowledge and a lot of (justifiable) fear, firms started to scramble to try to identify white-hat SEOs who could recover their traffic/phone calls/clients after the traffic penalties decimated their business.

Even sites that haven’t been impacted directly by a spam update began seeing slow but persistent declines in traffic as more and more competitors employed genuinely high-quality results from white-hat tactics. All of this has had a massive impact on the business of many lawyers. Law firms that outsourced their SEO are learning about Penguin and Panda firsthand when their phones stop ringing.

The fix, of course, is simple: white-hat SEO tactics. Of course, these take time and, increasingly, a lot of money. Here’s another dirty secret: recovering from Penguin is a long, expensive process with no guarantees. We’re talking years, not months. That’s not a timeframe during which a solo can take a marketing hiatus.

White-hat SEO is expensive. Unique, thoughtful, insightful content is expensive. Changing your name, address, and phone number because you changed your name three times in the past two years is time consuming. And expensive. Recovering from a manual Google penalty is very expensive. Genuine links are hard to get. And expensive. And the SEO arms race — with more and more firms jumping into the fray — makes all of this more expensive, even if there wasn’t already an algorithm-driven flight towards quality.

Phase III is also shaped by the increasing prevalence of local search —searches that deliver a mapped result pinpointing the geographic location of a business. These searches are frequently delivered on mobile devices (and reliance on mobile is trending) and most frequently delivered from high-converting search queries — i.e. “Seattle Divorce Lawyer” where a prospect is actually looking to make a hire instead of just researching a legal issue. Solos working out of their house or Starbucks are mostly shut out of the local search marketing game. Who wants criminal-defense clients showing up on your doorstep unannounced at 2 am? This is a longstanding problem with no obvious solution, and it is only getting worse as local search grows.

So, What is the Fate of Solos?

There is no getting around the fact that search engine quality markers favor larger firms — everything from a strong link profile to the volume of directory reviews (which impacts local search) to citation opportunities to the sheer manpower required to generate insightful, interesting content. This is reflected in the budgets that (good, white-hat ) SEO agencies command.

I talked with Carolyn Elefant, the godmother of solo lawyers, to get her take on the future of solos and SEO. She said:

I have predicted for a long time that solos and smalls would be priced out of the SEO market as the web becomes more saturated. Social media, which came on the scene around 2007/2008 stalled the full impact because I do think that solos who engaged social media early received some SEO benefits.

In some ways, the SEO-focus is really no different from the “olden days” when solos and smalls were priced out of TV advertising and the yellow pages. Solos and smalls still found creative ways to compete, from writing newspaper columns, newsletters, in-person seminars and of course, person to person referrals. I think that there are still online analogs to these techniques — such as the guest blog post, the enewsletters, etc… I think that there are still opportunities to capture niche markets with more narrow, focused SEO.

And we are just seeing the beginning of all of these issues. Solos with an established online presence may be able to weather the storm, as will enterprising attorneys in smaller, lower-tech markets. But what of the new solo hanging a virtual shingle for the first time in a large, tech savvy market? Can Jane Lawyer, with all her technical SEO marketing savvy (and tons of time) successfully compete in the technically-advanced, heavily-saturated Boston market? Just as those solos who depend on (private) home offices have been shut out of the local search market, are they also being out-budgeted from the natural search market as well?

I don’t have an answer. There is no simple solution. But I do know the SEO marketing channel has become so competitive that many can’t afford to participate. Sure, some lawyers have successfully built their practice with simple white hat SEO and an aggressive social media presence. But if you had a son hanging his legal shingle for the first time in this hyper-competitive marketplace, do you think he would make it by relying on the same tactics that built your practice? I don’t think so.

Featured image: “Business man showing his empty pockets on gray background” from Shutterstock.

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  • Jonathan Kleiman

    Self-SEO can be VERY successful.

  • rarbel

    Conrad,

    My hat goes off to you. This is the most insightful summary I have read on the state of SEO in the solo / small market. I was looking forward to your solution at the end, but lo and behold, neither of us believe a great one exists for firms who can’t afford to consistently generate high quality content.

    • Paul Spitz

      I started my solo practice in December. If you had asked me 6 months ago would I be doing a blog, I’d have responded that I don’t really have anything to say, and nobody would be interested in my ramblings anyway. And 2 months ago, if you had asked me if I’d be using Twitter, I would have laughed in your face.

      As it turns out, I’m putting something up on my blog at least 2 or 3 times a week, and promoting it via Twitter (I have 21 followers!!! My mother says she’ll start following me when I get to 50 followers). At this point in time, I have more time than clients, so I have the time to write blog posts that are relevant to my target market of startups and small businesses. Part of the motivation is to try and establish the appearance of being knowledgeable on legal issues facing these companies. The other is to improve my search rankings, and it is slowly working.

      I was contacted early on by a company that builds websites for lawyers – they wanted to redo mine with SEO, etc. I looked at their portfolio while the salesman did his phone monologue (never once bothering to engage me in conversation), and it was awful. Each site looked like someone had vomited all over the pages. If that’s what it takes to get good paid SEO, forget it. I’ll go the cheap route.

      Like I said, it is slowly working. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about bring your own device issues. It wasn’t one of my most-read posts. But if you type “byod office policies” into Google, my blog post comes up on the first page of results. Go figure. I’m getting lots of traffic from LinkedIn, where I announce new blog posts in 4 college alumni groups I’m a member of, and surprisingly, people on Twitter are favoriting and retweeting my posts, especially my new series on venture capital term sheets. Don’t ask me how they find out about it, I couldn’t tell you.

      Anyway, I’m still waiting for all these hits to translate into a phone call where someone says “I want to hire you and pay you lots of money,” but I’m sure it will happen. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And my attitude has changed from my original “I’ve got nothing to say.” If you are a halfway decent lawyer, you have something to say. You can generate one or two pieces a week in your area of expertise. They don’t have to be long pieces. Two or three paragraphs, in layman’s terms, and use a lot of words and phrases that your potential clients would use. It’s an investment of maybe an hour a week. If you don’t have an hour a week to spare, then I guess you are lucky, you are busy enough that you don’t really have to worry about SEO. Your clients are already finding you.

      • Conrad Saam

        Paul – hats off to you for embracing this stuff with a very entrepreneurial approach. Your reply made me smile. -Conrad

  • http://www.perusselaw.biz Cindy Perusse

    My experience is not the same as what this article suggests. I was skeptical of the SEOSEM thing but decided to experiment. I hired a small SEM google adwords certified business (SearchEngine Wizards) and for $2,500 and 3 months I got immediate results. I earned over $10,000 in business so far just from that short campaign.

    • Conrad Saam

      Cindy – this was, in fact one of my possible conclusions – the solos can’t afford to play in the SEO game and therefore are relegated to SEM – which does in fact deliver immediate results and when done intelligently can be quite effective.

      • Paul Spitz

        What is SEM? A little less jargon would really be helpful. Speak to your target market, not to your employees.

        • http://gyitsakalakis.com/ Gyi Tsakalakis

          Via Wikipedia: Search engine marketing (SEM) is a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising.

          However, SEM is commonly used to refer only to PAID search engine marketing (i.e. AdWords, PPC, etc) and not organic (SEO).

          I tend toward using SEM as an umbrella term for SEO and Paid Search Advertising, but I’m probably in the minority.

  • http://gyitsakalakis.com/ Gyi Tsakalakis

    Unfortunately, in many areas, we’re not quite in White Hat Wonderland… I’m still hopeful (and skeptical) that semantic search will “work” to fix this. But big G has a long way to go.

  • http://www.perusselaw.biz Cindy Perusse

    What is White Hat?

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      Good-guy SEO tactics. Think old westerns, where all the bad guys wore black hats, and all the good guys wore white hats.

      • http://www.perusselaw.biz Cindy Perusse

        Ahh…I get it.

  • static

    Unique, thoughtful, insightful content is expensive.

    Not always. For those who don’t want to pay for it, they can always do it the organic way. It just takes a bit of effort. And then, there are some solos and small firms who prefer quality clients to quantity clients, and thus referrals from former clients and other lawyers rather than internet tire kickers, freebie question-askers and lowest-price negotiators, of the sort Avvo sends over.
    But hey, what would I know about such things? And hi, Conrad. Hope all is well. Avvo’s not the same without you.

    • Conrad Saam

      static – wish I knew who this was to thank for the sentiment. And I agree it takes a level of effort for a solo – but it increasingly takes up-to-date knowledge and I think that puts a huge burden on solos who should be spending more time with clients than search algos. $.02

  • http://www.texasemploymentlawblog.com/ Christopher McKinney

    The best SEO is to produce quality content on a regular basis over a period of time. Quick fix tactics are expensive and often unsuccessful. My advice to solos is that they not waste their money on hacks who promise a way to buy your way onto the first page of Google.

    • http://www.seo-for-lawyers.com/ Luke Ciciliano

      I couldn’t agree more Christopher. Also, the idea of people doing well through Black Hat tactics is more myth than reality in my opinion. I started my firm at the end of ’06 and by regular blogging, with meaningful content, I had three associates by the start of ’10. If one looks around most markets they will see that 1) most attorneys don’t blog and 2) the one’s that do don’t do it well. I don’t see there being a big correlation between money spent and search rankings obtained.

      • http://www.texasemploymentlawblog.com/ Christopher McKinney

        My experience has been similar to you Luke. I am sure that having your headers well situated, etc. is a good thing but I maintain that content is king. I created my original blog back in ’05 or ’06 and have posted to it more or less regularly ever since. It now brings in 80%-90% of the business for my growing practice.

        Could $20K per years of SEO services have achieved the same thing on a normal attorney website. Maybe. Don’t know. Don’t care.

        My website does more than bring me “leads”. It brings me people who want to hire me b/c they have spent time reading and getting free information from my blog, they feel like they know my “voice” and what I’m about and they already think I am a good match for their needs. SEO can’t do that.

        • http://www.seo-for-lawyers.com/ Luke Ciciliano

          A great point from what your example is that return on investment Chris. I know attorneys that spend thousands a month on Adwords and other “SEO” services. The return they get on that money can’t touch the return you get from devoting time to your blog.

    • http://ChristianWeiss.net/ Christian Weiss

      Well, I don’t agree with that Christopher. Let me explain why…

      Quality content alone will never help you to rank your website on top of the search engines because search engines just can’t tell (based on the content alone) whether the content is good or bad.

      Of course the main goal of all search engines is to provide the best and most relevant results for their users.

      And in order to determine what the best results for a particular search are, they need to rely on other factors. It’s been told that Google judges a website by more than 200 different ranking factors. And this is exactly where SEO comes into play.

      Investing your valuable time into publishing high quality content on your website on a regular basis (aka blogging) and hoping that Google will reward you with great rankings some day is just a waste of time.

      • http://www.seo-for-lawyers.com/ Luke Ciciliano

        Agreed that one can’t focus solely on content Christian but it’s certainly not a “waste of time.” The content front is the part holding most attorneys back so one who focuses on the great content is going to be well ahead of their competition.

        Also, one of the most important signals, to this day, that Google looks at is backlinks. Content is how one gets the quality backlinks that matter.

        You’re quite right that one has to focus on the other various signals. That is one reason why I disagree with any premise that small lawyers are “priced out” of good SEO. Most of the really expensive services catering to lawyers produce sites that score low on speed tests and ingore other factors that Google sees as important.

  • Brian Burke

    Cindy, were you pleased with the work you got? In other words, was it $10,000 worth of good work? Clients that would refer other potential client? Or just problem clients?

  • http://rokolaw.com Jason Kohlmeyer

    Good Article Conrad, I remember you giving your thoughts on SEO on stage at the Avvo conference in Orlando a few years back, so there’s no doubt you know what you’re talking about.

    I have one comment to add, and that is I’ve gone through a few SEO companies in the past 5 years, from Findlaw to the solo guy who outsources everythign and a few different firm sizes in between. What I found is that about 3/4 of the “SEO Experts” have no idea what their doing. When you start askig techincal questions about PR, Duplicate content penalties & Load times they really don’t understand anything beyond their battle cry of “more content!”

    I would urge all my fellow small firm/solo folks to really spend some time reading sites about SEO so they can spot the snake oil salesmen.

    • Conrad Saam

      Jason – I think this is the crux of the issue – and you are being overly generous with the 3/4 mark. And you are right about the “more content”. More content isn’t always (or even often) the highest priority. I honestly believe, in the legal industry there are just 5 agencies worth your dollar. While these guys are direct competitors to what I do, I refer business to them all the time as I hate seeing the legal industry swindled.

  • http://www.lapinlawoffices.com Jeffrey Lapin

    I agree with you that large firms have more resources to devote to SEO for the reasons you mention as well as others. These large firms that truly understand SEO will have a definite advantage over solos and small firms as they can devote staff to SEO, blogging, social media, etc.. However, solos and small firms still have their chance by posting quality content and getting it shared by significant influencers.

  • J. Flanders

    Here is a thought: If you are worried about this, go to your favorite book store, buy a book about SEO, and then figure out how to implement it on a budget that you can control. It is not all that complicated.

    Small firms will always exist because they are smarter and quicker than big firms who just write checks. Sorry, but it is true.

  • Tony Blin

    Yes, the quality always counts -the 80/20 rule and all that. It’s just that the 20% is distilled from the 80% sample that you need to attract.

  • http://www.myrlandmarketing.com/ Nancy Myrland, Myrland Marketi

    Conrad, I loved your online marketing history lesson, and, as I typically find, I loved reading these comments as well.

  • http://modernlawyer.org/ Rik

    Late to the game here, but this article is spot on. I’m a non-practicing lawyer that started my own Internet marketing firm for lawyers about 4 years ago. Conrad’s timeline had me reliving the past. I mostly work with solos or 2-3 person law firms. Big legal marketing companies have definitely priced out the little guys.

    But it’s possible to provide quality service at a reasonable price to small firms. One issue I deal with is firms that have been taken advantage of in the past by a low-cost SEM company. They’re hesitant to work with another no-name company (me) but can’t afford the likes of the big legal marketing companies.

  • http://www.victimslawyer.com/ Steven Sweat

    I disagree. I think smaller firms can compete but, they have to work much harder to do it. Finding time to take control of your own SEO and producing good, original content needs to be something that is factored into EVERY work day and work week. Setting aside this “marketing time” is difficult when you are trying to run a practice with less resources than some of the bigger firms but, it is the only way to survive! The key is learning how to optimize your time and resources. I think there are still a lot of “low cost” but, efficient opportunities to market a legal practice on the web using white hat techniques. You just have to do your homework.

  • Colin Leicht

    In my opinion we are way beyond phase III.

    I began my solo practice in December. I have Facebook, Twitter, Google, Linkedin, and a website, all of which I used to be quite good at updating for the first few months, but with little to no ROI.

    So I spent some time trying to optimize my sites for SEO. I signed onto every free search engine I could find, and got my google maps pin on the board. To this day I type in my county/city and “lawyer” and the first thing that comes up are a variety of law firms that are not even in my county/state. Additionally, my webpage does not even appear in ANY of the hits after scrolling to the very bottom of the results. What does appear are the local big firms, and then a variety of firms that are about 100 miles away who list my county on their site. These firms have all been building an online presence for years, and have worked their way into that coveted real estate.

    When I began researching how I could even get up to par, I found it to be ridiculously cost-prohibitive. I could have easily spent my entire startup capital on SEO advertising (and real-life advertising) without even making a dent. It would cost a minimum of $1200/year PER SITE to basically end up as #238 on the 13th page of search hits. Who would ever click through all that and choose me, a new solo attorney? And why would I ever waste my money on something so useless?

    What I want to know is, how much does #34 on the Google hits spend annually just keeping his SEO going? And is it worth it?

  • I’ll Send a Letter!

    Let’s not overlook the fact that the author of this article owns a marketing firm. In Phase 3 he admits that firms that had hyper-SEO pages were slammed by Google with Penguin. He also admits that good quality content wins the day. The big firms are just writing a check, not creating good content themselves (they outsource it), and skimming the market. Big firms (some but not all) do a terrible job of writing good quality content (I can spot the SEO written crap a mile away and so can most clients). IMO, most SEO produced content is akin to the ambulance siren ads on TV where the lawyers are throwing handfuls of money up in the air and that are now belittled on Youtube. Google runs this market and it will continue to change the rules and that is what is getting the marketing guys mad. So they write articles that say you need to spend a lot of money for SEO and if you can’t afford $3,000 per month so sorry you are out of luck. BS! David will always have rocks to throw at Goliath. Law firm marketing “gurus” will someday become the equivalent of the Yellow Pages. Don’t trust marketing people as far as you can throw. And I love the fact that this author admits that the hardest thing he is trying to overcome is the fact that his ilk in the past has burned lawyers so badly we are hesitant to return to buy their wares. Is this harsh? Yes. But it is truth. Teach yourself SEO before you fork over one hard earned dollar to any “Law Firm SEO Marketer.” You will see right through them very quickly.