The Internet Roundtable #36 - A Continuing Discussion of Law Firm Marketing On the Internet - What Are Blogs and Why Is Everyone So Excited About Them?

Dennis Kennedy (DK): When I notice that both Jerry Lawson and I have commented publicly that the energy and excitement around blogging remind us of 1995 and the early days of creating web pages, it's clear that blogging is a topic that deserves some attention, especially because of the ways lawyers are already beginning to use blogs for marketing their practices. Not only do we have an exciting topic, we also have two great special guests for this edition of Internet Roundtable. Our first special guest is a celebrity among lawyers who blog, one of the early pioneers among legal bloggers, Ernest Svenson is the technology partner at the New Orleans firm of Gordon, Arata, McCollam, Duplantis & Eagan. He's far better known as "Ernie the Attorney," which is the name of his blog. Because it has been so successful, it was recently in an LLRX.com article called Web Logs for Lawyers: Lessons from Ernie the Attorney that attracted a lot of attention.

Our second special guest is Tom Mighell, who practices general insurance defense litigation at Cowles & Thompson in Dallas, Texas. Tom has a blog called Inter-alia.net and I've found him to be one of the most knowledgeable and interesting thinkers about blogs.

What are blogs, anyway?

Brenda Howard (BH): The technical definition is the most boring, so we'll get that out of the way right now. It's software that a person can use to create a type of website that consists primarily of templates and text that is easily posted to the site. It's easy to use, so you don't have to take a class in FrontPage, DreamWeaver or learn any programming languages. The software does it for you. As successful creators of blogs, I'll leave it to Ernie and Tom to give you the exciting definitions.

Ernest Ernie the Attorney Svenson (ES): I think that the best description of a weblog for the uninitiated is that it's "a website you can update as easily as you can send an E-mail." Because the site is so easy to update you in fact do update it more often. Thus, the convention for weblogs is that the newest post gets put above the older posts, so the newest posts are always at the top. The emphasis is on current information. And that's what separates a weblog from a traditional website. Dave Winer, a software developer who was among the first webloggers, has a nice explanation of weblogs here.

Tom Mighell (TM): One reason the weblog format appeals to so many people is its versatility, allowing webloggers to adopt a voice of their choosing. Many weblogs are kept as personal diaries or journals, and are usually written in a more informal or familiar style. Still others are filled with lengthy editorial opinions on current issues or events. The weblog format is also perfect for those who want to post "just the facts" in the form of bullet points or headlines.

A Rose By Any Other Name Is Still A Rose. Is This True for Blogs?

Jerry Lawson (JL): Some people, including one of the more interesting lawyer-bloggers, the LitiGator, prefer the name "web log" to "blog." They think blog sounds faintly demeaning. It does sound like something out of a science fiction movie, right? "The Blog That Ate Cleveland." The term seems to me to be a deterrent to some people taking the phenomenon seriously. It reminds me of how the word "browser" sounded like something lazy and put some people off the World Wide Web eight years ago, but at this point I guess we're stuck with blog. And then again there's "blawg."

(DK): I'm a little surprised that the term "blawg" has seemed to have caught on for lawyer blogs. I'm not sure that's a good thing or not, but it has made lawyer blogs a little easier to find. I've found that blogs are a little difficult to describe to people and it helps to see a few to get the idea. If you take a look at our blogs or a "blog collection" page, such as The Daily Whirl or My Detod you can quickly get a better feel for what a blog is.

(ES): I agree that the term "blawg" is kind of quirky, but I like it. Denise Howell, who was definitely one of the first lawyer bloggers (Bag and Baggage), coined that term shortly after she started blogging and it seems to have caught on.

(TM): I also like the term "blawg" because it helps distinguish law-related weblogs from the rest. I think the weblog format (as we'll talk about more below) holds tremendous potential for the legal profession, both on the Internet (allowing lawyers to share their expertise and knowledge with others around the world) and inside a law firm (creating a powerful knowledge management tool for the lawyers who work there).

(BH): I believe that the term, blog, is a little less distasteful when one realizes that it is a shortened version of the original term, weblog.

Should I Create A Website Or A Blog?

(DK): Some of us old-timers really do see blogs as simpler way to create and manage content on the Web. It has limitations as compared to a web page, but the ease and simplicity of content creation far outweigh those limitations. I spent many hours a few weeks ago working on my web site and grew to appreciate the benefits of the ease and simplicity of the blog approach.

(ES): The ease of posting is what makes weblogs so powerful. I was always interested with the idea of having a website, but I would never have taken the time to set one up. But some easy-to-use weblog software with a free 30-day trial is all it took to draw me into the Internet fray. That, and an obsession to have my voice broadcast to the widest possible audience.

(TM): I was in the same boat as Ernie. I had long planned to start a legal research website, but never got around to learning how to use the tools to develop a first-class site. I then got hooked on reading weblogs, and immediately saw the advantages inherent in the format.

(JL): Blogs strike many people as being sort of dumb and dorky. They may be a little dorky, but they are definitely not dumb-at least not if done well. There are a number of behind the scenes factors, probably not apparent to the casual observer, that make blogs very attractive tools.

(DK): Here's a question that I get asked fairly frequently that I'd like to toss around to this group: "If I don't have a web page yet, should I just do a blog or should I do a web site?" Usually, the person asking me has had a domain name and good intentions for several years, but no web site to show for it. The first time I was asked this question, I leaned toward going with the blog first and then building out a web site. The more I got asked, the farther I leaned and now I've tipped over to where I definitely believe that you will want to go with a blog first, especially when you have a demonstrated history of not getting a web page done for a long period of time. My opinion might be a little controversial, but I think it reflects my sense of the change that blogs are bringing to the Internet. What do the rest of you think?

(ES): Well, as I said before, I would never have taken the time to set up a traditional website. If there are people out there who want a forum from which to speak on the Internet then a weblog is the way to go.

(TM): It really depends on the content you want to provide. As much as I love weblogs, some types of information are better presented on a website. I think what Sabrina Pacifici has done at LLRX is a perfect example; the site contains valuable "permanent" content that is easy to locate. This information would be cumbersome to maintain or find on a traditional weblog. The one part of her site that was made for the weblog format, the Newsstand, is now flourishing nicely at beSpacific.

(BH): Tom, you make an excellent point. If a law firm wants to post information about their practice areas and leave that information up for long periods of time, then they need to have a traditional website. On a blog, the new information gets posted above the old information and it continues to "roll" down until it's hard to find.

Search Engine Rankings - A Big Blog Advantage

(DK): A blog can really put you on the map and Ernie can probably best attest to that. I was shocked by the impact a blog has on search engine placement. Not only does your ranking improve, but the speed your pages get added to a search engine like Google is astonishing. It used to be that I'd expect a three-month wait for a new page to show up in Google, no matter what technique I used. If I mention the page in my blog, it shows up in just a few days.

(ES): I was shocked by how fast my weblog acquired "Google stature." But then Google relies heavily on incoming links as a basis for ranking, and links are the bread and butter of weblogs. The fact that search engines like Google seem to prefer weblogs over websites is one reason why I don't think that domain names matter as much for weblogs as they do for websites. When people ask me the URL of my site I tell them (quite honestly) that I don't know. I tell them to just Google "Ernie Attorney" and my site will be the first hit. Some people have referred to this sort of description as a "Google URL," which simply means a combination of words that when typed into the Google search field returns the desired page as the first hit. The nice thing about a Google URL is that if you mistype a known word Google will ask you if really intended that spelling. A mistyped URL just takes you to the wrong place without any notice. This is the sort of stuff that I have learned from having a weblog. It's kind of sad, isn't it?

(TM): If you go to Google and type in "inter alia," my site will also be the number one hit. However, I have to say this may be because a lot (and I mean a lot) of people regularly search for a definition of the Latin term. I finally had to post a link on my site that said "What Does Inter Alia Mean?" I did this after I received a nasty comment from a non-lawyer hoping to find the definition on my site (if you really want the definition, you don't have to look any further than my tagline). That said, I too am amazed at the speed Google indexes my pages.

(JL): The speed is nice, but what's amazing is the way blogs tend to be rated higher than conventional web sites. For example, when looking at my referrer logs, I noticed that my blog was the number one result returned by Google and Yahoo Search (which licenses the Google database and search engine) for the phrase "lawyers for instant." Now, I don't practice "instant" law, or sell "instant" legal services, but my blog was listed at the top of the "non-sponsored" results, because I had one posting on instant messaging for lawyers. In other words, they were paying money to have their conventional web sites returned as sponsored results, but I received a more credible placement without paying a dime. A lawyer blog that talks about "ephedra" or "baycol" or some other highly coveted search phrase is likely to get a similar advantage.

(ES): I've never had a website so I have no point of reference. But I know that I would never have had as much traffic as I have now if I had put up a regular website. More importantly, I wouldn't have met all of the wonderful people that I've met. I've made at least thirty close friends in my year and a half of blogging, and that's more important to me than raw traffic.

(TM): I admit it - I'm an obsessive traffic watcher, mostly because I enjoy keeping statistics. My traffic has increased every month since I started Inter Alia, but a good portion of my audience apparently prefers to wait and read the newsletter I post each Sunday, which contains a recap of the major posts of the past week.

(JL): I set my blog up as a separate site. I'm not as organized on statistics as Dennis or Tom, but I would roughly estimate off the top of my head that the blog gets easily two to three times as much traffic as the conventional web site. Of course, I'm investing a lot more time in the blog.

(BH): Jerry, you have hit the nail on the head. If a person's web site were updated and cross-linked, as much as a blog, then the website statistics would be higher. Since a blog is usually updated daily, there's always fresh content, more visitors, and higher rankings in the search engines. The cost of the increase is the time involved. Even though a blog is easier to create than a website, we can't overlook the amount of time that is involved in maintaining fresh content.

Community and Personalization

(DK): And you meet the coolest people in the blog world. I joked with Ernie the other day that I still say "Oh, my G-d, an email from Ernie the Attorney!" when I get an email from him.

(ES): I have a corollary to Dennis' statement. I used to wonder who this amazing Dennis Kennedy guy was, who tirelessly posted so many amazing things to the Technolawyer e-mail discussion group. I was excited when he got a blog, but I was even more excited when he sent me an e-mail for the first time telling me that he liked my site. I thought "wow, Dennis Kennedy knows who I am?" But, putting aside the "mutual admiration society" stories, the reaction that Dennis and I both had illustrates the fact that weblogs facilitate interaction in ways that e-mail and e-mail discussion groups do not.

(JL): This is definitely true, and it is a major strength of blogs. You do meet interesting people. I did a posting about a news aggregator program, and received a response--from the guy who programmed it. Again, it goes to demonstrate that blogs tend to have better reach and audience penetration than conventional web sites.

Depending on your objectives in starting your blog, though, you might want to resist the temptation to get caught up in the interactions that you are talking about. Precisely because it is so much fun, interacting with other bloggers could turn into a time sink that prevents you from accomplishing your primary objectives.

(BH): Jerry is right with his caution. I worked with MSN from 1995-1997 and primarily developed a writing community called the Short Story Workshop. It was a sub group of the Writing Workshop. We used software similar to the current blog software that is available. I absolutely loved what I was doing, but it was extremely time "intensive." Ultimately, MSN did not see a solid return on investment and discontinued this practice sometime in 1998. When blogging, keep track of the amount of time spent on the blog creation, reading responses and responding to email, then figure out how much monetary value you have derived via new clients, exchange of information with peers and the marketing of your existing site via the blog. After all, even though it is fun, it's still a business investment of time.

(JL): Exactly. A well-done blog can be a major asset in making yourself known and attracting new business. However, I always tell lawyers who are considering blogs that the right question is not "Will this help my marketing?" but "Is this the most effective way I can spend the time I have available for marketing?" Blogs have advantages that can leverage the time invested in them, but many lawyers, maybe most, will be better off spending their time on other marketing activities.

How Do I Get Started?

(BH): So, assuming someone is interested in blogs, how should they get started? We'll have some references listed with this article, including some good starter sites. I recommend getting a copy of Biz Stone's Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content (the book is far better than the title) as a solid all-in-one-place introduction. More important, though, you want to take a look at a variety of blogs to see what style fits you best.

(ES): My advice is just jump in there and give it a shot. You can download some software like Radio from Userland Software. You can try it free for 30 days (the only downside of Radio is that you can only post from one computer). The new TypePad release from Moveable Type is also worth considering, especially if you want to be able to post from any computer.

(TM): Before I started my weblog, I read Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook. It's an older book, and weblogs have changed significantly since then, but it's a terrific introduction to the concept. One thing to be sensitive of are weblogging's "rules of the road." There's a certain etiquette required when maintaining a weblog (always give attribution to your weblog sources, never flame your readers, etc.), and Rebecca has a good discussion of the topic.

(BH): Those are excellent resources. Jerry, do you have any suggestions?

(JL): The Biz Stone book Dennis mentioned is excellent. I also like the book Essential Blogging because it gives a good look at three of the more popular blogging alternatives, Blogger, Radio and Movable Type. We Blog is also pretty good. I've posted a number of other thoughts on how lawyers can get started in a thread at my blog, Law Blogs 101.

So… What Do You Write About?

(DK): It's important for people who want to do blogs to know that blogging is very much a writer's medium. There is an expectation that you'll be adding something new on a daily, or pretty close to daily basis. Think carefully about that when you decide what type of blog you will start. Has anyone come up with a taxonomy of blogs? What are the general types of blogs someone might start?

(ES): I'm not big into a "taxonomy for blogs," because they are too new to the scene and are rapidly evolving. As for figuring out what kind of blogs there are, I would say just scout around following links from one site to another and see what sites you find appealing. Bookmark those sites and see if you can figure out what you like about them. Then try to incorporate some of that style or substance into what you do.

(TM): Gee, I think I got ahead of myself and answered this question at the beginning. Like I said before, the weblog format accommodates many voices - it's up to the blogger to find the right style.

(DK): One of my biggest difficulties was deciding what I was going to do in my blog. Finally, I said the heck with it and decided to launch it and let it evolve. So, I've tried a number of different types of postings and approaches, on a mix of topics, although I stick primarily to technology law and legal technology topics. I don't recommend that approach for others - I think it's best to decide on a set of topics and a general approach. I do expect that my blog will evolve to include topics well outside those topics. My sense for the others' blogs is that there tends to be some degree of evolution and a bit more of a personal approach than there might have been at the start. Jerry is your blog moving in ways you would not have expected at the start?

(JL): I'm doing pretty much what I planned at the beginning. My approach has been to make up a clear plan of what you accomplish and stick with it.

(TM): Before I started Inter Alia, I found that most of the readers of my newsletter, the Internet Legal Research Weekly, tended to be solo/small firm lawyers, law librarians, and paralegals. In addition to legal research information, I also try to help people out with helpful computing tips, whether for their home or small office. Inter Alia is really just an extension of the newsletter, and at this point I don't see that focus changing.

(ES): I have no idea where my blog is heading. I just hope that it doesn't wind up in a place where the SWAT teams have to storm in.

It's Just Software-But Which One Is Best?

(BH): Finding a writing topic and/or style should flow easily once you get started, but what about the "nuts and bolts" of starting a blog. Dennis, do you have any recommendations?

(ES): I like Radio, but I see definite limitations. Only being able to post from one computer is the biggest. I would have chosen Moveable Type if I knew what I know now. I'm too daunted by the prospect of converting my Radio stuff into Moveable Type to attempt to move now, but I may feel more intrepid in a few months. The new TypePad offering from Moveable Type appears to offer the easy of set up that Radio has, but with the extensive feature set of Moveable Type (e.g., the commenting feature is much better on Moveable Type than it is on Radio or Blogger).

(JL): I agree with Ernie's assessments. I'm in the middle of a transition from Radio to Movable Type right now. TypePad, which Ernie mentioned, is the Movable Type creators' attempt to package the power of Movable type in a more consumer-friendly package. It is worth watching. Blogger Pro is a popular choice, but it has two major weaknesses: it doesn't support "categories" for archiving old posts by topic, and the server is very unreliable. It seems like I can't I can't get through half the time I try to update a hobby blog I run there.

(TM): Before I settled on my current weblog software (pMachine), I consulted the Blog Tool Feature Comparison at http://www.urldir.com/bt/. It allows you to compare the features of the major weblog tools. I chose pMachine because it appeared to offer the most tools (the coolest being the ability to post "to the future," so people think I'm around when I'm away from a PC and not able to blog). After using the software for the past 10 months, I have to admit that my limited knowledge of PHP (similar to .html, the format used by pMachine) has prevented me from making the fullest use of the product.

(BH): Dennis, we've been saying this is easy and then we launched into a bunch of technical choices. Can you describe the process of using the software so that people won't be afraid to give it a try?

(DK): It's worth stressing the user experience with blogging software. You create the content, check some boxes and type in some descriptive material and click on the "publish button." Your material is put into the template automatically and posted to your blog. You are not coding pages and you don't need to know a lot of HTML. It's actually quite wonderful.

(ES): Yes, it's not that daunting. Once you learn how to create a hyperlink from a word or phrase you're pretty much off to the races.

(TM): Sometimes, though, it's too easy. The ease with which I can create a weblog post sometimes leads me to make typos or minor coding errors. If you don't watch out, your readers might click on links that don't go anywhere.

(JL): The ease of posting has two interesting consequences: It lowers expectations, and also raises expectations. Lowering expectations is a big advantage: In this medium, readers don't necessarily expect the same standards of length, good grammar and so on. Of course, it's better if you polish your postings to a high shine, but readers will be more accepting if you don't.

(BH): Another advantage to being less formal is that you do tend to create a "community" involvement of interested readers that are not intimated and are willing to post responses or send email. You've opened up a line of communication that would not have existed otherwise. Jerry, what do you see as the disadvantage of easy posting?

(JL): Raised expectations, in that readers expect more frequent updates. For many conventional web sites, it might be acceptable if you only update once a month. A blogger who posted at that pace would be considered a slacker. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago from someone who said, almost accusingly, "You haven't posted to your blog in five days."

(DK): There are three approaches to handling your blog that correspond to the three main tools. Let me oversimplify and then let the others expand on what I say. Under the Blogger model, your blog is hosted on a third party site and you can access and add to it any time you have access to the Internet. Under the Movable Type model, your blog is on the same server as your web site and you can access it from anywhere. Under the Radio model, your blog is accessible on the computer that has the Radio software and it is hosted either on the "Radio" site or elsewhere. For most of us, one of those approaches will suit us best. As I said, I like the Movable Type approach. I can post from anywhere and my blog resides on the same server as my web site, giving me greater control in the event of any server performance issues.

(ES): As I said, I use Radio, but I'd use Moveable Type if I were starting over for those very reasons.

(JL): You can post remotely with Radio, but it's more difficult than with the other major alternatives. Because most of the major blogging choices use the "Blogger API" it's supposed to be possible to move your data from one system to another. I'll find out how true this is if I complete my move from Radio to Movable Type.

(TM): pMachine is similar to the Movable Type model; the weblog resides on my server and it's easy to access from any computer. I am not a big fan of the Blogger model, because in relying on someone else's server, you often find your weblog is down. Many new lawyer weblogs start out on Blogger, and sometimes I am unable to get to them for this reason.

(DK): So, that takes us through what blogs are and how to create them. If that were all that's going on with blogs, I'd be saying what's the big deal? How are blogs any different from web sites? Aren't email newsletters a better vehicle for content delivery? There is much more to blogging and this brings us to my favorite aspects of blogs and why I do think that they are changing the Internet: the world of newsfeeds, RSS feeds, XML feeds and news aggregators. Join us next month for a continuing discussion on blogs.