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At some point, you’ll probably decide that you need a law firm website. And when you do, you’ll have to make a variety of decisions. One of those decisions will be whether to go with a custom or template-based website design.
And like most things, there are pros and cons to each.
For the purposes of this post, custom web design involves hiring a designer and developer (this could be the same person) to design and construct your site from the ground up.
The obvious advantages of a custom design are that your website will be entirely original and specifically tailored to meet your goals. Usually, the obvious disadvantage is the increased cost.
At the other end of the spectrum, template-based web design involves purchasing an out-of-the-box template and making tweaks to give it a personalized feel. Generally, the advantages of template-based design are perceived savings in time, money and perhaps headache (maybe).
Perhaps the most compelling reason to opt for custom design over template-based design is the risk of your law firm website looking the same as everyone else’s. Stock design is as bad as stock imagery.
Another benefit of custom design over template-based design is that it might prove difficult to find a template that effectuates your specific messaging and goals. Unless your goals are merely to make it easier for people to find your phone number, templates are built with a one-size-fits-all mentality.
In my experience, it’s difficult to find a template that effectively captures an audience’s attitudes and motivations.
If at least one of your goals is that at least some of the people who visit your website are impressed by what they see and become motivated to contact you, the professionalism of your site’s design matters.
Is that to imply that custom designs are professional and template designs unprofessional? No. Of course you can probably find templates that help you put your most professional foot forward online.
On the other, most of the free or low-cost templates that I’ve seen (especially those aimed at lawyers) simply don’t meet professional muster.
While not necessarily true for all templates, most templates don’t handle cross-platform compatibility very well. This is especially true when it comes to responding to mobile platforms.
While using a template might save you considerable time in designing your own law firm website, that time still has costs. Most of us are not Sam. Even it takes less time, it’s still time that you’re not spending on clients. Furthermore, more often than not, you can tell when someone designs and develops their own site. We can debate about what that says about your practice, but there’s no doubt that design will play at least some role in a person’s impression.
On the whole, templates are much, much, much more affordable than custom design and development. But you get what you pay for. What you save in design and development costs today, make cost you more in subsequent site revisions, technical problems and poor performance in terms meeting your objectives.
Whether you choose a custom design or template, there are plenty of opportunities for headaches in launching a law firm website.
If you go the custom route, the fluidity of the process is likely to come down to your ability to articulate your goals and vision with your designer and your designer’s ability to translate that vision into a website. If you decide to have your site built from scratch, try to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen.
But templates aren’t headache-free either. As a general rule, the less you need to modify an existing template, the headache you will have.
Web Design Guidelines
There’s no doubt that much of design is a matter of personal taste. One person’s bollywood car chase, is another’s preferred way to market their practice.
But if you’re looking for some general guidelines, I recommend considering Google’s Tenets of Web Design:
- Before building your site, ask yourself: What is your objective? Acquire new customers? Advertise new products? Engage with existing customers? Create your site with these goals in mind.
- Content is king. Don’t let flashy features and visual noise distract users from what’s really important: your message.
- Writing for the Web: Keep it brief. Users don’t read websites like they read books; they skim. Make sure you surface important information clearly so that users can get what they need quickly and easily.
- Create a consistent look and feel. Your website represents your brand. It should look consistent throughout and accurately represent the brand you want to portray.
- Simplicity is a virtue. Many of the themes we created are simple for a reason: they let your content shine through.
- Don’t make your user think any more than he has to. If a user can’t find out what he or she is looking for right away, there’s a high probability he or she will navigate away from your site and never return. Ask yourself: if I were a potential customer coming to this website, what would be the most important information to me?
- Test, test, test. Ask your friends, family, and customers to look at and use your website. The insights and feedback you get might surprise you.
Tips & Tricks
- Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
- Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images.
- Not all users scroll to the bottom of a page, so consider putting your most important content high up on the page where it can be immediately seen.
And here are Google’s Design & Content Guildeines:
Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
Offer a site map to your users with links that point to the important parts of your site. If the site map has an extremely large number of links, you may want to break the site map into multiple pages.
Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.
Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images. If you must use images for textual content, consider using the “ALT” attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.
Make sure that yourelements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.
Check for broken links and correct HTML.
If you decide to use dynamic pages (i.e., the URL contains a “?” character), be aware that not every search engine spider crawls dynamic pages as well as static pages. It helps to keep the parameters short and the number of them few.
Review our recommended best practices for images, video and rich snippets.
This post may come across as a bit anti-template. That’s not really my position. There are plenty of templates and WordPress themes that, with some tweaks work quite well.
However, more often than not, the template-based, do-it-yourself law firm websites that you are likely to find online do more harm than benefit in motivating people to contact lawyers.
(Photo By: http://www.flickr.com/photos/practik/346074327/)