The best law firm websites are not fancy, writes Emma Maule. They are quick to load and easy to navigate.
A firm’s website is its shop window and it quickly needs to convince visitors to stay – 50% of website visitors leave within the first eight seconds of landing on a site.
There is an argument that since law firms win a significant amount of business via word-of-mouth referrals, their websites need not be a priority. Emma Ahmed, professional support lawyer at Hill Dickinson, disputes this, noting that it is notoriously difficult to ascertain the source of new clients and work.
‘Without accurately recording how new clients heard about your services, you do not know if they were in any way influenced by your web presence,’ she explains. ‘For example, unless probed, they may not mention the fact that they found you via a Google search, or have been following you on Twitter for months.’
What clients want
Your website needs to be built around the needs of clients. Ben Le Foe, digital production manager at the Law Society, says that a website ‘should give clients a reason to hire you above any other firm’. It should explain your unique selling point and list the areas where you work and focus on. It should also clearly show how to contact you, because ‘it’s amazing how often that’s buried deep within a website’s lower levels’. Other useful inclusions are examples of similar work you have done or clients you have represented.
For Ahmed, providing ‘clear information about the kinds of services the firm offers and the sectors it has specialist expertise in’ is vital. Thinking about how you can provide useful information for clients is key. She highlights the importance of articles, updates and blogs, saying that it is essential to have ‘engaging content which explains the law in simple terms and which demonstrates an understanding of how clients can apply complex legal principles to their own business’. It has been shown that blogging is the single most effective way for lawyers to build their individual brands and demonstrate they have expertise in their chosen field. Firms would do well to encourage this and make sure content is displayed and shared as widely as possible across social media channels.
Martyn Morrish, senior digital marketing specialist at Forsters, says ‘a clear and easy-to-understand navigation and site structure is imperative’. Make sure navigation and headings use clear language and make sense from the perspective of prospective clients, which is not necessarily the same as how a firm might label things from within the business. Think about what people are trying to do when they come to your site rather than just reflecting business structure. ‘Make sure the website feels like a true reflection of the firm,’ he adds.
Many of the issues for legal websites apply to all websites. Design over content is the most pressing concern – websites that look beautiful but do not allow users to find what they are looking for simply and easily are a common complaint.
This issue can also have a negative impact on load times – if sites include a large number of images or videos that load in the background, this can stop people getting to the basic information they need. Le Foe reflects that ‘poor user experience (UX) is also common – a site that makes it unclear where people should go next’. Firms should bear in mind that, for most business sites, people are predominately looking to fulfil a function – they are not browsing or having fun. Sites need to structure themselves around users coming in to do one thing and then leaving. If they do this successfully – carry out one action and leave – then the site has fulfilled its goal.
Craig Passmore, director at web design agency Xanda, says the thing that annoys him most about legal websites is not being able to tell what the firm does. ‘You can have the most beautiful website in the world, but if I can’t tell what your firm is for, it’s pointless,’ he says. Sites also need to capture a user’s attention straight away, without having to scroll; so clutter and overly confusing layouts are a turn-off.
Morrish notes: ‘A quarter of our traffic comes from mobile or small-screen devices, so it is incredibly important for us to provide a mobile-friendly experience and to ensure that functionality and user experience are not compromised in any way.’
Responsive design (web design that allows the website to display optimally on all devices) is very important. It has been around for a while and is more or less standard, so for Morrish it is ‘frustrating to still regularly encounter sites that do it poorly, such as disabling key elements of navigation or functionality at certain break points in order to maintain branding or a certain aesthetic’. Fitting all elements into a responsive design can be challenging, but users should not be penalised for viewing a site on a small-screen device, and ‘form should never come before function’.
Site speed is also cited frequently – slow load speeds are frustrating and an issue for any site. ‘With site speed being a ranking factor [in Google] it’s not just frustrating, it can also negatively impact your SEO [search engine optimisation], not to mention increase your bounce rate, as impatient visitors potentially abort their visit and go elsewhere – probably to a competitor’s site,’ says Morrish.
A few years ago it was thought that apps were going to be the death of websites, but responsive design turned the tables. For Craig Passmore, director at web design agency Xanda, the future lies in apps that provide a purpose and enhance part of a product or service. If a firm carried out a lot of debt collection, it could create an app that allows for quick and easy debt recovery.
Hill Dickinson’s Emma Ahmed (pictured) says that we may see more polls, reader comments and (controversially) user reviews.
High-quality imagery will become more important as ‘firms move away from the generic and cliche images so often found on law firm websites (handshakes, briefcases, abstract concepts that attempt to convey brand values but may leave many scratching their heads),’ says Forsters’ Martyn Morrish. Video can be very shareable and is much easier to digest than a 1,000-word article, so expect to see firms embracing and investing in video as another potential method of differentiation, for use both on site and across social media channels.
Voice search, as delivered by Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, or Siri on an iPhone, has boomed in recent years, so firms will want to consider how this will affect their internet search rankings and how they can incorporate this function into their sites.
Of course, there are issues that apply specifically to legal websites. For Ahmed, an inconsistent message is a bugbear. She warns against ‘too many competing voices writing material in an inconsistent manner leaving the website disjointed’. Another point to note is that although blogging and updates are great for SEO and for the client, law firms should avoid ‘long legal updates which are too technical, use legal jargon and/or assume a minimum level of legal knowledge from the user’. Use of legal jargon is an exercise which she says may be ‘no doubt amusing for the lawyer but all a bit pointless for the reader’. Engaging content done well on niche topics is going to lead to better traffic and, therefore, [sales] leads. If you can pinpoint a niche subject that your audience want to read about, this will also score highly with SEO.
SEO – the basics
Search engine optimisation is the process of making sure a website comes up as high as possible in a search engine’s organic (unpaid) results. The higher your website ranks in Google’s search results (for it is nearly always Google), the better. In the early days, an industry was created around trying to improve search results by ‘dodgy’ methods, such as placing hundreds of keywords in white text on a white background, known as ‘white wrapping’ – the theory being that although the user will not be able to see them, the search engine looking for relevant keywords will, and would place you higher up the rankings. These days, Google ‘spiders’ crawling through the web check every line of code in every website, are alert to these methods and will assign you a negative ranking if you try them.
You cannot trick the search engines, as they now all follow Google’s credo of ‘focus on the user and all else will follow’. Sites are penalised for duplicated content and ‘spammy’ backlinks (links from dubious websites to your site) and rewarded for new, original content, good design and UX, and helpful links. Nearly all users look for a website by typing its name (or a few keywords) into Google, rather than by entering its exact URL. So it is important for firms to ensure their site comes up if a client searches for ‘help with custody battle’ or ‘making a will’.
One tried-and-tested way to improve SEO is to try and define a simple elevator pitch for the firm and make sure it appears on the site. If it is well-crafted it can also be used for social media profiles such as Twitter and Facebook, making that phrase synonymous with the firm.
Make sure your site is HTTPS – Google is going to start negatively ranking sites which are not from this summer. This will also have a subconscious effect on clients – reassuring them that your firm is security-conscious and values their safety.
‘You don’t need an agency to get started,’ says Le Foe. His advice: if a firm specialises in a certain sector, it needs to make sure all relevant pages mention that type of law. Test as much as possible – ask clients, your staff, even friends to carry out an action (for example, search for a partner’s phone number or find a map to the office). If they can do it simply and unprompted, then it is working; if they are hesitating and poking around, that process needs to be made clearer.
In terms of content management systems (CMSs) – the tool used to publish, edit and store web pages – it is best not to go bespoke unless the firm has very deep pockets or has a specific e-commerce requirement. Established platforms such as WordPress or Umbraco are fine for most firms and can be extended with apps and plug-ins to help with SEO, social media integration, e-commerce and other functionality.
The most important thing a firm can do to ensure its website is secure is to use the HTTPS protocol, rather than HTTP, at the start of its URL. The ‘S’ stands for ‘secure’ and the protocol ensures that all data transferred is encrypted and that the website is authenticated, both of which help to protect against hackers and fraud.
Morrish urges firms to ‘pay attention to security – at a minimum your site should host an SSL security certificate and be running on the HTTPS protocol. This has a slight ranking impact but, more importantly, will ensure some browsers are not raising alerts or even blocking your site from loading’.
If your website has a client area, then a secure log-in, with a session time-out after a certain amount of time, is vital. This is usually between five and 15 minutes – it is best to test certain actions within the client area and check that they can be completed within this time. The site should also have password requirements that follow the common guidelines of at least eight characters, including lower- and upper-case alphabetic characters, numbers and possibly symbols.
Firms using common CMSs such as WordPress need to keep them updated because these platforms are constantly releasing patches and new plug-ins – if the latest version is not in use on a site, this can leave it open to malicious attacks. It is also important to ensure that any old or unused plug-ins are cleared out regularly, as these are appealing to hackers.
Websites can provide a vast array of data and firms should use this intelligence to know where they can make improvements. This data, if interrogated in the right way, will illustrate what makes a typical user and what they want – an invaluable source of information for designing a site. Online advertising already does this – Google and Facebook will examine people’s interests based on their Facebook profile or the contents of their Gmail – so they can serve ads that align with those interests.
In order to gather this data, the one non-negotiable tool that should be hooked up to a website is Google Analytics. This is free and can be installed by adding a few lines of code to each web page. Examining the data to discover any spikes or drop-off points in order to explain any anomalies allows you to focus on areas for improvement. ‘Drill down into the stats to improve your site,’ advises Passmore. It is important to understand the reasoning behind the data. For example, a short time on page and lots of people leaving the site is not a bad thing if that page is fulfilling its function. Some webpages are designed for a visit of around 10 seconds since they answer a simple query, such as ‘What is the VAT rate?’ or ‘When is the next bank holiday?’. As Le Foe puts it, ‘seemingly bad metrics aren’t always bad – try and look at them in the context of the function of the individual pages’.
Now that social media is so prevalent, firms need to make the most of this by using social media platforms. These should be integrated with their websites to help drive traffic. Google Analytics social analytics reports will provide insight into which social platforms the audience has arrived from and how engaged they are.
Le Foe suggests iterative improvements: try things, see if they work, benchmark and measure how a page is doing and try to work individually on that page. Then see what you can improve and change, and then benchmark and measure again. If that has a noticeable effect it will give you a sense of how to change other pages. This could include using different language, different terms, trying to appeal to a more specific or a wider audience. ‘Play around with something small, measure it, then re-evaluate it,’ he says. A data-driven approach will allow you to design the site around user preferences, behaviours and goals, which will make it far more engaging. This approach can include A/B testing, surveys, analytics and consumer research.
A raft of other analytical tools exists, including Zoho, Clicky, Bitly, Moz, Hotjar and SEMrush, which do things like measure traffic, analyse a site’s audience, record a sample of people’s actions on a page, help with SEO and link up your site with online productivity tools. Most are paid-for products, although a few have trial periods or free basic packages.
- Basic information – services offered, contact details, team profiles – should be easy to find.
- Check the time it takes a page to ‘load’ on different devices – too many graphics or elaborate functions may slow it down.
- Look at other websites and copy what you think works well.
- Add new material regularly – this counts towards a better ranking in searches.
- Clever tricks to push a website up the internet search rankings no longer work – the search engines detect these and give a negative score.
- Design a website that fits well with social media accounts.
- Articles and blogs should be short, engaging and not out of date.
- Include ‘code’ on each webpage that allows Google Analytics to provide information on use of your website.
- Use information from Google Analytics to guide changes to your website.
- Monitor any parts of the website that allow client or public feedback.
Do not just build a website and leave it sitting there. It will need updating regularly in both the front- and back-ends, whether that is a plug-in update within the CMS or fresh content in the blog or news area. Ensure it is integrated with social media platforms so that they will drive traffic to the site and aid with the firm’s marketing efforts. ‘Choose the right channel and feed that with the right information,’ advises Passmore.
Get the basics right – a phone number and address should be simple to find. Try to load your website on the worst possible data connection you can find to test the speed. Look at your competitors and steal ideas from the best. ‘Visit sites you like and consider which aspects are appealing and whether they would translate to a legal website, such as visual cues and signposting to help users through their journey. Steal good ideas,’ urges Le Foe.
As Ahmed says: ‘If your services have been recommended to a prospective client, the first place they are probably going to look is your website. They’ll look to see if your firm is a good “fit” for their needs, has specialist expertise which is relevant to their business and has engaging content. First impressions count.’
Emma Maule is a freelance writer and social media consultant. Twitter @emmaraty