Organic vs. Paid Search for Lawyers

Do you know the difference between organic and paid search results? According to a 2005 Pew internet user study:

38% of searchers are aware of a distinction between paid and unpaid results; 62% are not.

Admittedly, 2005 is a long time ago when we’re talking about the web. And it’s very likely that those numbers have improved in the last 6 years. Nonetheless, it has come to my attention that many lawyers are still unfamiliar with the differences between organic and paid search results, and what role they might play in law practice marketing.

Understanding Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)

Generally speaking, there are two main types of search: organic search and paid search.

Organic search are also referred to as unpaid or natural search rankings. They are delivered based upon search engine algorithms, and generally depend on a page’s relevance and popularity for a given search.

Paid search provides a platform for advertisers to pay to have advertisements displayed on search engine results pages for a specified search. Typically, the advertising fee is based upon a bid for a number of clicks or views of the ad. Google’s paid search advertising platform is called Adwords.

Here’s an example Google search result page for lawyer:

A Google Search for Lawyers

I have highlighted the paid search results in yellow and the organic search results in both green and blue (more on green/blue distinction below).

Paid Search for Lawyers

Paid search might be an effective advertising channel for you law firm. However, paid search can also be a deep money pit. Whether or not you have success with paid search advertising will depend, for the most part, on your practice, your budget, and your ability to manage and optimize your campaigns.

Unfortunately, many lawyers jump into paid search advertising with very little understanding of paid search advertising. This usually leads to conclusions that paid search advertising simply doesn’t work for law firms. And while paid search is certainly not the right advertising channel for all firms, there are some firms that rely on paid search advertising as one of their primary sources for new business.

If you’re thinking about entering the paid search arena, I strongly advise you to spend a great deal of time doing research. Fortunately, all the major search engines provide pretty substantial documentation on how to advertise on their platforms. Google’s Adwords Help Center is especially helpful.

There are two major advantages of paid search over organic search. First, paid search advertising gets you visibility on search results now. By comparison, getting visibility for competitive searches in organic search will take a much longer time.

Second, you have much more control over paid search messaging. After all, paid search is more akin to pure advertising. You can control the keywords you bid on, the text and/or images of your ads, and even the geographic location(s) where your ads are displayed. With organic search, while you may have some influence on these factors by using SEO techniques, you don’t have nearly the same control as you do with paid search.

There are also two major disadvantages to paid search. The first is obvious, you pay the search engines for views, clicks, or calls from your ads. To the contrary, you don’t pay the search engines for views, clicks, or calls from organic listings (although you might be paying an SEO to help you develop your organic search profile).

Second, click share volume to paid search ads is significantly lower than it is for organic results. In other words, generally speaking, there are more eyeballs and actions on organic search results. And while there may be a shift in these numbers, most search marketers will agree that, generally speaking, organic results get more attention than paid search results.

Here’s an excellent explanation of how Google’s paid search auction model works:

In my opinion, most lawyers are better off paying a paid search professional to manage and optimize their campaigns. While getting up and running with a paid search account is relatively simple, effectively and efficiently running paid search campaigns can be quite complex and time intensive.

Plus, many law firms that rely on paid search advertising have very experienced professionals managing their accounts. Therefore, you will likely be competing with these very skilled paid search marketers that may drive up the price of your bids and make it very difficult for you to realize a return on your advertising investment.

It’s also worth noting that, in addition to Adwords, Google now has a local paid search advertising platform called Adwords Express:

Adwords Express takes a lot of the management issues out of the equation. On the other hand, it also removes a lot of the control you have as an advertiser (including which keywords you bid on, yikes). However, Adwords Express can be a great option for getting local search visibility in a very short period of time.

If you insist on managing and optimizing your own paid search campaign, here’s some advice:

  • Review your state’s ethics rules on advertising – Make sure you’re familiar with your state’s rules before you launch ads that claim you’re the: Best Personal Injury Lawyer Ever.
  • Be EXTREMELY relevant – Bid only on highly relevant keywords. Use adcopy that is highly relevant to those keywords. Design specific landing pages that are highly relevant to those keywords.
  • Turn off the content network – If you’re a beginner, my advice is to stay away from the content network altogether. Until you get a hang of managed placements, stick to search only.
  • No broad match keywords – Don’t bid on broad match keywords. My advice is to start with exact match only. If you’re going to use phrase match, make sure you spend some time developing negative keyword lists.
  • Limit your geography – Only display ads in geographic areas in which both you want to take clients, as well as, where clients are likely to hire you. While you might want to take clients statewide, your potential clients might prefer someone local. Displaying ads in areas that potential clients deem too far away can result in expensive, return on investment crushing, click traffic.
  • Do some competitive recon – Check out what your competition is doing for a given keyword. Pay particular attention to their adcopy and landing pages. What is their offer? What is their messaging? Where can you gain an advantage?
  • Track and measure – Decide on a specific budget that you can handle for a period of time. Generate reports to measure keyword and ad performance. You may want to consider using call tracking phone numbers. It is essential that you have systems in place to track a prospective client from click to inquiry. It’s the only way you will truly know whether you are realizing a return on your paid search advertising investment.

It’s very important that you think about what type of potential client inquiries your advertising messaging is most likely to generate. For example, while offering a free consultation may generate higher numbers of inquiries, many of those may not be very targeted or qualified. Your paid search advertising messaging should be crafted with very specific goals and purposes in mind.

Keep in mind that these are very general guidelines. Paid search advertising is both art and science (but more science in my opinion). Again, my advice is that you consult with a paid search marketing professional.

Organic & Local Search for Lawyers

Organic search can be one of the most efficient ways to market your legal practice. However, the most common myth that I hear as to how organic search differs from paid search is that it’s free. The second most common myth is that all efforts to increase visibility within organic search results is spam. First, the spam issue:

Next, while it is true that you don’t pay search engines for views or clicks of your organic search listings, developing effective organic search visibility takes significant investments in time. And of course, you might also make significant monetary investments in learning, training, and professional consulting.

Unlike paid search advertising, organic search visibility doesn’t happen overnight. Much like your offline professional reputation, developing a valuable online organic presence takes time, knowledge, creativity, experience, and skill. Further, organic search visibility isn’t really advertising at all. And in my experience, this is very difficult for many lawyers to understand and accept.

At the risk of being somewhat contradictory, the major advantages of organic search are that you don’t have to pay search engines for views or clicks of your organic listings and there is significantly greater attention paid by search users to organic results.

And the perceived disadvantages of organic search, as compared to paid search, is that it takes longer to get visibility and is more difficult (i.e. you can simply pay for paid search placements but you have to earn organic search visibility).

If we refer back to our example SERP, you will notice that I made a distinction within the organic results between green results and blue results:

A Google Search for Lawyers

The purpose was to distinguish between two types of organic results. Traditional organic listings and local listings.


In a nutshell, traditional organic results are delivered based upon the degree of relevance and popularity of a web page to a specific search and search user.

Whether you’re handling your organic search marketing completely by yourself, or are trying to decide whether to retain some professional help, I strongly advise you to read what Google has to say about search engine optimization first. From there, I would point you to SEOmoz’s guide. And in a shameless plug, I humbly suggest my Organic Web Strategy for Lawyers guide.

If I were forced to sum up what you should do to increase your organic search profile in one word, it would be: write.

If I were permitted only a sentence, it might go something like this: Develop content that meets the demand of the audiences you are trying to attract and get that content in front of those audiences. Those are both huge oversimplifications, but they should be at the core of developing an organic search presence for your law practice.

Local Search

While still organic results, as in you can’t pay for them, local search results take into account a different set of signals from traditional organic results. Without getting into all the gory details, here’s a pretty good video explaining how local search works at Google:

If your law firm is a local business, I strongly recommend that you focus your efforts on claiming and optimizing your Google Places profile, as well as, other local search marketing techniques.

Taking Action

If I had to provide very short list of things that you can do right now to develop your presence within organic and local search results, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Review your state’s ethics rules – Before you do anything, take a look at your state’s ethics rules. There’s not amount of web traffic that’s worth getting into ethics trouble.
  • Set up a legal site/blogFollow Sam’s WordPress tips. Select a professional, catchy, and relevant keyword-rich domain. Customize your permalinks. Install Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin.
  • Install tracking tools – Sign up with Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics.
  • Get local – Go to Claim the profiles listed there. Read about local search. Talk to a local web marketing professional.
  • Write for your audiences – Think about who comprises your target audiences. Think about things they might search for. Develop content that satisfies that demand for information. Spend about 90% of your internet marketing time and money on developing content.
  • Get Social – Find people who may be interested in your content. Introduce yourself to them. Engage them in conversation by commenting on their blog, replying to them on LinkedIn or Twitter, or citing their content with a link. Share your content with them. Discuss. Don’t advertise.

Like paid search advertising, hiring the right organic web strategy consultant can pay large dividends. On the other, hiring an inexperienced, irresponsible, or down-right unethical consultant can have some really negative consequences both in terms of your organic visibility and your professional reputation. If you’re thinking about hiring a consultant:

  • Learn first – There is no substitute for having some basic understanding about how the web and search engines work when vetting a professional.
  • Get references – Get samples of their prior work. Talk to their current and previous clients.
  • Ask them they’re going to do – Ask your prospective consultant what they plan to do. Get specific answers.
  • Define goals – Define specific goals and performance metrics in advance. While no one can or should guarantee results in terms of traffic and rankings, you should define how you intend to measure the effectiveness of what you’re paying your consultant to do.

As you can see, there are some major differences between paid search, organic search, and local search. Likewise, there are some major differences between how to approach these different channels in the context of advertising and marketing your law practice.

Paid search is advertising. Organic search is about delivering information to search users. Local search is about increasing firm’s local prominence.

At times, this search stuff can seem overwhelming. While advertising and marketing your law practice in search engines will not make it rain overnight, if you commit to thinking about how your potential clients might use search to consume legal information, get answers, and perform research, you might surprise yourself as to how successfully you can increase your firm’s profile online.

Want to learn more about local search? Check out our resource page on the very topic!



  1. Great, well-written, and content-heavy post. There is a lot to use here. You’ve done a nice job writing a nearly exhausting text on the subject. I’ve utilized many of the things you mention in this post, but you also bring up a number of issues I hadn’t considered. Thank you.

  2. Avatar Dave S says:

    Gyi, this was really comprehensive. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

  3. Avatar David Staub says:

    This is one of the most well-written and complete summaries I have seen on the types of search, and certainly the best one geared to attorneys. Great job.

  4. Avatar Pat Stoneking says:

    Just saw this within Sam’s comment in response to a rather inane post from today.


    Although I’m not sure if I will be starting that paid campaign again anytime soon after all the money I wasted paying for internet marketers to find me.

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