Internet Roundtable #23: Should I Have More Than One Domain Name for My Law Firm?By Brenda Howard, Dennis Kennedy and Jerry Lawson, Published on September 16, 2001
Dennis Kennedy (DK): An interesting trend in law firm web sites is the use of multiple domain names for a law firm’s site. The idea is that you can use different domain names to market practice areas, draw traffic and “brand” your site for different audiences. I think the idea is a good one and I know Jerry agrees because he first wrote about it back in the pioneer days of the Web – 1996, as I recall.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Make that 1995! I’m not sure why it seems to have taken so long for this to become a hot topic, but I’m glad that it has. The benefits — if you do it right — can be large. Before we get into too much detail, note that we covered many aspects of domain names for law firms in Internet Roundtable # 6, Does My Choice of A Domain Name Really Matter?
Brenda Howard (BH): The first time I heard about purchasing multiple domains was in 1996 when the Washington Post purchased several typo/misspellings of their name. It’s a wonderful marketing tool for helping potential clients find your web site.
DK: There are at least four ways that you will want to consider using multiple domain names. First, a little information on prices: registering a new domain name and having your web site host point the new domain name to your existing site should not cost much. I recently added a new domain name at a cost of $55 a year.
JL: Does that sound about right, Brenda? I haven’t done any serious domain name shopping for a while.
BH: That’s a little on the low side, but pretty close. Most Web hosting companies charge an additional $10 per month per domain name. Like all Web hosting charges, they are competitive and you’ll want to check with your company and confirm the actual cost.
JL: Thanks. Of course, the price you are quoting is for monthly maintenance of the domain name. What about registration?
BH: Network Solutions charges $70 for the first 2 years and $35 each year thereafter. You can get a small discount for renewing the domain name for 3, 5 and 10 years at a time.
JL: Do you have any tips on the best places or ways to register a domain name, for convenience or cost savings? Also, are there any pitfalls to look out for?
BH: I prefer to work directly with Network Solutions. They had the original contract for managing all domain names. While they aren’t perfect, I still stick with them because the charges are very clear and there are no “hidden” charges that some other companies charge.
JL: Thanks for the tip. I have one consumer tip to pass along myself. Some businesses have registered large numbers of law-related domain names, and sell or lease them, sometimes at a significant markup. See, for example, www.lawyerdomains.com. In my view, there is probably no need for most law firms to patronize domain name brokers. With a little imagination, you should nearly always be able to come up with a name as good, and in many cases better.
While I agree that using Network Solutions is a good way to go, I really like the user interface for Register.com and had a good experience using Register.com recently to register a new domain name. The question then becomes: What domain names should you consider registering?
The four approaches to multiple domain names are: (1) registering obvious variations of your firm’s name; (2) registering the same name with multiple top level domains (“TLDs,” to the cognoscenti), such as .com, .net, .org, and the new TLDs, such as .biz and .pro; (3) registering descriptive or generic domain names, such as “realestatelaw.com”; and (4) registering names for various departments or practice areas that might fit into brand strategy. An example of the fourth approach would be how my firm, Thompson Coburn, is developing practice area sites using domains like “tctechlaw.com”.
Let’s discuss the simplest two categories first and get those out of the way and then move on to the more interesting uses.
JL: I don’t think most law firms need to register variations on their firm’s name. Internet users will occasionally try to find a business by guessing at a domain name. When you are talking about ibm.com or sears.com, that approach works. My sense is that few Internet users with much experience at all would use that approach to find a law firm. On the other hand, if you are a very large firm with a large marketing budget, you might want to register multiple variations on your firm name.
BH: I have to agree with Jerry on this one. For example, I wouldn’t go overboard on registering all the extensions. Most people try the name with a .com extension first. After that, they will try the law firm name and use the .net. Most users don’t know to try all the various extensions out there. What has your experience been?
DK: I’ll disagree a bit with Jerry because I do have a tendency to try URLs for law firms based on an educated guess about the domain name they might be using. Brenda’s right that most people will not try to guess anything other than a dot-com name. So, the jury is still out on the value of the new TLDs. The dot-com name is still, in my book, the name you want to get.
JL: Absolutely. No other extension is as valuable for law firms as the dot-com extension. It will be years, if ever, before the new dot-pro (.pro) domain approaches the dot-com domain in consumer recognition or awareness.
BH: Bingo. It’s still a dot-com world and that’s the way most users view it.
DK: But things might get interesting if the dot-law TLD gets approved.
JL: Maybe in the long run. By the way, this is a good place to warn about a common scam. If you’ve already got a domain name, you’ve probably seen advertisements offering to register your domain name in a different country. Tuvalu, a tiny island nation with about 10,000 people, has the top level domain name dot TV (“.tv”). There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there who are ready, willing and eager to sell anyone with a dot com domain name the same name with the .tv extension instead. There might be a few niche situations where this would make sense, but it is nearly always a waste of money for law firms to register .tv or other foreign extensions.
DK: Another point to consider on the likely variations of your firm’s name is whether you want to register common misspellings on your firm’s name, as Brenda mentioned earlier. If you do that, people who make common spelling mistakes will still end up at your page. If you notice that your firm’s name is often misspelled on the correspondence you get, this can be a good idea to capture traffic that you might otherwise miss.
JL: A survey could be useful. Ask a group of people with demographics similar to those of your target market to try to find your firm, and watch how they go about it. If you see recurring misspellings, consider registering the misspelled domain names.
DK: Changing gears, let’s talk about the use of descriptive or generic names. Do you like them, and if so, why?
JL: I like them a lot. Reason number one: They are a cheap and effective way to reinforce prospective clients’ impression that your firm’s lawyers are experts in a particular area.
BH: Most definitely. I selected CreativeWriting.com because I hosted a Creative Writing Workshop in 1996. I didn’t even realize that the “generic” domain name would generate so much traffic from visitors who would simply type in that subject to see what would come up. There was a service that started up in 1997 called Real Names and they would take the generic name of a subject and direct people to your site – for a fee. However, if you purchased the generic name ahead of time, you didn’t have to pay their fee. It seems that users have learned to type in a subject matter and see what comes up.
DK: Mayer, Brown & Platt has developed an Internet strategy based on descriptive domain names. The idea is based on the observation that people rarely look for firms or individual lawyers when they have legal questions. Instead, they look for information by subject matter: securities law, employee benefits, etc. Mayer Brown has designed a set of practice area sites based on this concept with domain names like “appellate.net” that provide information and bring people to the web sites of various departments. I really like this strategy. It also has the benefit of enhancing your site’s position in the search engines in response to searches on related topics. And, in the case of a large firm, Mayer Brown’s approach arguably has advantages over an unwieldy mega-site.
JL: It’s a great strategy, a way making the “narrowcasting” that we’ve talked about before (Internet Roundtable #11) even more effective. However, I don’t think the main advantage of this approach is in helping prospective clients find you on search engines. While some search engines give weight to words in a domain name, this factor is probably less important than the advantage it gives in building your credibility. It also makes it easier for clients and prospective clients to remember you and contact you once they have found you.
BH: It does add credibility and it’s simply easier to remember than a law firm name. Anything we can do to make things easier for the end user, the more we benefit.
DK: A unique descriptive name like “buglaw.com” is also valuable because it makes a great example and you get a lot of mentions. I’ve heard several presentations on Internet marketing where Buglaw.com is mentioned. Word of mouth always helps.
DK: Point well taken. Let’s turn to the fourth approach, the one I tend to call the “branding” approach.
BH: Branding is extremely important and something that some commercial sites have mastered. I suspect that it’s more difficult for the legal profession to wrap their arms around this concept but it’s worth exploring. Once you decide what the branding should be, as in the case of buglaw, then carry this marketing over to all other methods of marketing. It should appear on letterhead, business cards, law firm brochures, etc.
DK: It’s worth mentioning that a generic or descriptive name may not be trademarkable, but the “branded” domain name probably will be. For some firms, that may be an important consideration.
JL: A very good point. Trademarks with a distinctive element (like including the law firm’s initials) are considered “strong,” i.e., easier to protect from infringement.
DK: Branded names seem to work well in print ads. If, for example, you see several ads for law firms in a special section on the health care industry in your local business journal and one ad gives the standard “www.lawfirm.com” URL and the other gives a “www.tchealthlaw.com” URL, which firm sends a stronger message about its commitment and expertise in that practice area?
BH: It only makes sense. Emphasizing the area of law does add credibility.
DK: And, it’s important to remember that people come to your site and use your site in multiple ways. Studying your traffic reports may help you see ways to take advantage of a multiple domain name strategy. Jerry was surprised earlier this year when I told him that less than 15% of visitors to my site initially come to the front page of my site. He then understood why I’ve been thinking about creating multiple domain names for different sections of my site.
JL: I wasn’t surprised exactly, more like pleased. Your site, www.denniskennedy.com, is a proof of concept for the “content builds traffic” approach. Unsophisticated web site designers or owners sometimes express a desire to funnel all visitors through a single main entry point. It may be possible to do this, through databases, or even litigation (as in the Ticketmaster case a few years ago). It is a fool’s errand. Your approach is immeasurably superior: Encourage visitors to enter your site at any point, and make it easy for them to find your home page if they want.
BH: I performed a similar experiment with my own site. I have some telecommuting articles that are not linked from any of my web design pages. Then I registered the site as a web design firm. Ironically, I get a great deal of traffic that goes directly to the telecommuting articles and from there they visit other sections of the site. It really does surprise me when I look at the numbers, but people invariably enter a site based upon a topical interest and not to come in via the home page to explore it. These people cannot even get to these pages by coming in through the home page, yet these pages generate a great deal of traffic.
DK: So, let’s see, with multiple domain names you can get a branding effect, enhance search engine placement, attract a target audience, show expertise and commitment to specific practice areas, and show that you are web savvy. Those are pretty strong selling points for me.
JL: If your law firm has several areas of practice listed on a home page, you may not be considered as focused as a law firm that has one area of or practice. You can display your commitment and expertise by developing individual Web sites that demonstrate your proficiency and commitment to an area. Designers can set these up to appear to visitors as separate web sites, even though they appear on the same web server. Smart lawyers will think seriously about registering a specialized domain name in every area of law in which they have, or would like to have, a significant legal practice.
BH: Most definitely. Commercial sites have been doing this for years and the legal profession needs to take what has been successful and put it to work for their own law firms.