Service providers in any industry open themselves up to liability in the course of their work and marketing online is no different. For the legal industry, this was illustrated very well when Seikaly & Stewart, a law firm based in Michigan, filed suit against The Rainmaker Institute. Details of the case are a good read for lawyers thinking of hiring an SEO agency and can help guide decision making.
I was recently asked by Legal Ink magazine for my take on this particular scenario and how attorneys can go about choosing a reputable Company Specializing in SEO. My hope is that this article can provide some general advice and guidance to attorneys so they choose an agency with confidence. Below is a summary list of 10 things lawyers should look for when selecting an SEO company.
#1 – Avoid Over Promising and Under Delivering
Guarantees simply cannot be made when it comes to optimizing a website for good performance in search. In fact, guarantees should not be made in any kind of marketing. Advertising and other kinds of exposure for a law firm are hardly scientific. Sometimes you can get a pretty good idea of what will work but a lot of the time you cannot.
Even now in the advanced stages of the Internet age and state of the art tracking platforms, we still cannot fully know which campaigns truly reached our audience in the way we intended. Sure we can get a heck of a lot closer than we could in the days before digital but you still never really know the full story.
In other words, an SEO cannot guarantee to an attorney that their website will be number one for a given keyword phrase in Google search any more than a billboard salesman can guarantee that an ad will be seen by precisely 340,000 drivers over the course of a month. There are always variables beyond a marketer’s control. Billboard leasing contracts can change, contractors can fail, weather can alter driving behavior and ads may not be compelling enough to look at just as easily as Google can make an algorithm change or a client’s budget can run out or one law firm can out-spend another on an SEO campaign.
#2 Look for Goals and Transparency
When choosing an SEO or online marketing agency, be skeptical of guarantees. Ask for realistic explanations of how goals will be achieved.
- What sort of challenges do you see in marketing our website in search?
- How long would you estimate it take to get on the first page for a given keyword phrase and will that help accomplish our firms marketing goals?
- How much approximately will it cost to do that and will we be able to see a return on our investment?
In a perfect world, lawyers would know all the questions to ask to ensure they had a good experience with a provider. Realistically, the SEO agency should be offering push-back, setting expectations and painting a clear picture of what is ethically achievable and what is not. Look for an agency that will lead your firm and not the other way around. Order-taker agencies (or those that will say anything to get your business) are often not acting in the best interest of their clients.
#3 Word of Mouth is a Force of Nature
When lawyers look for an SEO service provider, they should ask for at least 2 or 3 recent clients of the agency. These clients do not have to be attorneys however that would be even better. Try and find clients without the help of the SEO provider (for example by looking on their site for a client list). Do some research online for press releases or other documents to see who they have worked with.
Your safest course of action is to get a referral from another law firm, attorney, or business that you know and trust. You will get an unvarnished and completely candid answer that will save you time, money and potential embarrassment.
If you do not know anyone personally who can vouch for a company, you will have to rely on past clients of any SEO agencies you are currently interviewing. When interviewing any company, ask about how an SEO agency was able to meet other firm’s goals.
#4 Do Your Homework
When we go to a doctor, or a mechanic, or a dentist, we seldom know that the services we are getting are the “best” or in line with how they should be performed according to industry standards. And why should we? No one has the time to learn about medical procedures or how to do a root canal. We place our trust in service providers that they know what they are doing and are acting in our best interest. Some SEO companies chose to specialise in a specific area, for example, The SEO Dentist is a dental web design company. This is why it important for SEO companies to do their SEO homework! If you are thinking about doing some SEO homework though, then there are loads of guides online that you can use to help you figure out what you actually need to do. For example, you could easily check out something like this Stellar SEO’s website audit guide.
Ask specific questions of an agencies program. For example an agency might say something like “We will enhance your position in search by developing a comprehensive content strategy along with a link building campaign”. Sounds great but what they heck does that mean?
- What is the “content strategy”? Is it blogging? Is it press release distribution? Is it social media? Is it some combination of all those? Who will produce the content?
- What is “link building”? Where and how will these links be built? Are they from reputable sources? Will you provide routine reporting on how this campaign is moving the needle for my pages in search?
The goal here is not to become an expert in SEO. That is why you are hiring an agency. The idea is to build a relationship of transparency and trust. Take the answers you get and compare them against answers from other companies or from personal experiences of your network (get second opinions). If an agency does not want to disclose information (i.e. where they are obtaining links from), that is a red flag. If they give vague or evasive answers once pressed for more detail, maybe they are not the right agency for your firm.
#5 Look for Social Proof
This one is less reliable than in other industries. For example it is easy to understand how good an attorney might be if their law degree is from an Ivy League school. For SEO, there are some accreditations that can suggest a company or individual knows what they are doing.
#6 Appearances can Be Deceiving
A bad strategy is to go with the company that shows up first in your search for “local SEO companies” or “law firm SEO companies”. Just because an agency ranks first for one of those phrases or something similar does not mean they will be right for you.
It is also important to not base your decision on the size of an agency either. For example just because one agency has 20 employees and tons of resources to work on your account does not mean they will be better at generating success than an agency with a smaller staff.
#7 Interview Multiple Companies
Choosing an agency is really no different than hiring a new associate or employee. Lawyers are essentially choosing a company to partner with for a long period of time. Start by selecting 4-5 companies that look like they would be a good fit based on your criteria and then whittle that down to 2 or 3 before choosing one.
It helps to have them bring in case studies of other firms they have been able to help. Try and keep questions the same for all agencies so you can get an accurate picture of how your firm’s goals can be met.
#8 Choose a Company who Works with Clients Like You
This is not a universal truth but companies that have larger clients tend to have larger price tags. This is true for most businesses. Models are shaped by the clients that we work with so when you look at SEO firms, make sure they work with firms that are in your same league.
#9 Figure Out What You Want
You are an attorney looking for an SEO agency so it is obvious you want your site to rank well in search. The other important component here is that you find someone who has the values, work ethic, professionalism or other traits important to you.
After all, there are a lot of good companies out there but at the end of the day, you want someone you can trust and work well with. Before you start your search for an agency, decide what traits are most important to you or that would fit in best with your firm’s culture. That could be as simple as just wanting someone who communicates promptly and clearly.
#10 Local or Remote
The proximity of the agency to your firm is another serious thing to consider. Do you want someone local or someone based far away (perhaps in another city or state)? There is not a wrong answer here. I have worked with law firms that are not in my geographic location and had just as much success as with those that are local.
It is really up to the law firm and how they want to interact with their agency. Are routine face to face meetings important? Do you want someone who understands your local area in a way that a remote agency may not?
The situation between Rainmaker and Seikaly & Stewart is unfortunate. It underscores the need for us as SEO agencies to set clear expectations for our clients. It also highlights the fact that SEO and online marketing cannot guarantee results. With enough research, strategy and hard work, marketers can usually hit their mark but sometimes no matter what you do, you cannot make everyone happy.