Guest post by Conrad Saam.

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.

Conrad Saam is the founder of Mockingbird Marketing – an agency delivering advanced online marketing exclusively for the legal industry. Prior to Mockingbird, Conrad architected Avvo’s ascendancy from concept to legal directory market leader through advanced search engine optimization tactics. He previously ran the marketing team for the widely popular restaurant app, Urbanspoon. Conrad writes the In-House column for Search Engine Land and has been featured in USA Today, the New York Times and the Huffington Post. You can follow him @conradsaam.

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