Features - Web Logs for Lawyers: Lessons from Ernie the Attorney

Jerry Lawson is a practicing lawyer, a regular panelist for the LLRX feature on Internet marketing for law firms, The Internet Roundtable, and the author of the American Bar Association's book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (1999). He’s still trying to figure out why his first blog gave him exposure in two months that he had not achieved in eight years with his conventional web site.

Revised and expanded May 26, 2003

How would you like to have a web site that is more popular than those from the best law firms in the country? It would be a pretty neat trick, right? One lawyer has learned a way to manage it:

 

 

The best quick test of web site popularity is measuring how many other sites have built links to yours.1  For purposes of analysis, we'll focus on Google, since according to StatMarket, Google is now responsible for about three-quarters of all search engine traffic to web sites, partly through Google's licensing deals with other web sites, including Yahoo and America Online. At Google, you test the popularity of a web site by typing link: in front of its URL, like this: “link:http://www.llrx.com”. While there are other measures of popularity, the number of inbound links is a particularly significant measurement, for reasons explained in detail below.

Have I stacked the deck by picking on five large law firms with poor web sites? No, just the opposite. The losers in the chart above are among the very best conventional law firm web sites. I selected the contenders to match up against "Ernie the Attorney" from the 2003 edition of the Nifty Fifty list of the country’s best law firm web sites maintained by Micah Buchdahl. These rankings are a well-respected measure of law firm web site quality, as demonstrated by the fact that Greg Siskind, Rick Klau and Deborah McMurray included the 2002 version as an appendix in their new book The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 2nd Edition (ABA 2002). I selected the five most familiar law firm names that I saw on Buchdahl’s list.

At this point, most lawyers will be asking:

1.       Who the heck is "Ernie the Attorney?"

2.       Why is his web site so much more popular than prizewinning web sites from some of the very best law firms in the country?

Good questions! The first is easy to answer: “Ernie the Attorney” is the nom de plume of Ernest E. Svenson, a litigator with a forty-lawyer New Orleans firm.

Answering the second question fully requires a fair amount of explanation, including some technical points. A quick answer, just to get us started, is that Mr. Svenson’s web site is more popular because he uses a special format known as a web log, or “blog.” Blogs are web sites that use the form of a chronologically ordered online journal. They are usually produced with special software that makes it easy even for those who are not technical wizards to start and maintain them. 

As best I can judge by reading his blog, Mr. Svenson is a reasonably modest guy, and his reaction to the chart above is likely to be along the lines of:

It's an apples and oranges comparison, Jerry! I’m not really trying to use my blog to market legal services. Anyway, the blog format has inherent advantages over the web site formats used by large law firms, so these comparisons are unfair to the large firms.

All these objections from the modest Mr. Svenson would be well-founded. In fact, the last objection sums up my point concisely: When it comes to visibility on the Internet, blogs have large advantages.

Most lawyers who have started blogs so far don’t appear to be using them primarily to market their services. This raises these questions: Suppose some lawyers did decide to try to use blogs and/or blog-inspired techniques to get these “unfair” marketing advantages over their competitors? Could this work, and if so, how? Is the popularity of Mr. Svenson’s web site a fluke, or could lawyers who are interested in marketing their services successfully adopt his techniques?

Blogs: Toy or Tool?

Web logs have attracted a great deal of news media attention.  They have been featured in prominent stories in places like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They been even trendier since the phenomenon of warblogging during the Iraq invasion drew more attention to the phenomenon. However, blogs don't get much respect.

It's easy to understand why. The whole idea reeks of geekiness. Perhaps more important, the quality of most web logs is low. Lack of focus and narcissism are rampant. The author of one popular book on blogs even encourages bloggers not to worry about whether their blogs ever attract an audience, but to be an "audience of one" by concentrating only on writing what makes them feel good. The prevalence of this type of attitude is a major reason why there are so many poor blogs. A sampling of some of the worst is available at Antibloggies.com.

Reacting to all this, a poster on the ABA’s Network2d mailing list probably expressed the view of the typical lawyer when he recently opined that the best a lawyer-blogger could hope for was that someone would tell him to “Get a life.”

Recent developments have caused more perceptive observers to wonder whether there could be something more to blogs than meets the eye:

Have Macromedia, Google and the new crew of respected legal professional bloggers caught on to something most people don't yet understand?

Why Blogs Are Attractive

While blogs have many uses aside from marketing, and many advantages, for the time being I'll focus on their uses as marketing tools, and will restrict discussion to the following four advantages:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Low cost
  3. Greater audience reach through the use of RSS and news aggregators
  4. Better search engine visibility

Advantage 1:  Ease of Use  

Some of the better blogging software, including Blogger and Radio, makes it possible to have a blog up and running in five minutes. This factor alone is enough to make blogs tempting as a way to level the playing field between larger firms and small firms. This blog advantage is widely understood, so extensive discussion is not necessary.

Advantage 2: Low Cost

Blogs tend to be much cheaper than alternatives. Many of those who develop blog software belief, as a matter of principle, high quality software should be free, or nearly free.

Even though I was aware of this philosophy, I was still amused by an article in the March issue of Linux Journal. It seems that the $150 license fee requested for commercial use of the popular Movable Type blogging software is considered controversial. I would expect to pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to buy software of comparable power if it were available from companies like Lotus, IBM or Microsoft. However, in this community, many consider a $150 fee outrageously high, even for a top-of-the line product. In any event, the program is free for non-commercial use. If you want to splurge, you can pay to have an expert from Movable Type install their software on your web server. The price? All of $40.

Here’s another example: A friend of mine paid $2m000 for a template for his law firm's e-mail newsletter. Didn’t work very well. He decided to switch to a blog. Because blogs are such a hot item with the tech set, a programmer came up with a service called “Bloglet” that will automatically echo blog postings. The lawyer uses this to distribute an e-mail newsletter that works through his blog. The blog is easier for him to use than the original planned e-mail newsletter would have been, assuming he could have gotten it to work. What’s he paying for the blog and e-mail newsletter? The newsletter is free. The blog is fifteen dollars a year. That’s not a typo. It’s $15 per year.

Here’s the kicker: The blog version is probably more effective than the conventional e-mail newsletter would have been (again, assuming he could have gotten it to work). The blog version is more visible to potential new clients on the Internet, and it automatically archives past issues on the web, with no additional effort or cost on the lawyer’s part.

Before we leave the subject of cost, this is a good place for one more observation: Don’t expect most commercial web site designers and consultants to have much good to say about blogs. Why? They can’t make much money on blogs. They’d rather sell you something like an expensive Flash animation.

OK, so blogs are easy and cheap. But that's just for starters. The other advantages of blogs are so significant that many sophisticated people would want to have blogs even if they were difficult and expensive.

Most people can readily appreciate the concepts of easy and cheap. Understanding the more significant advantages of blogs is more difficult, because it requires some knowledge of the technical underpinnings of search engines and the Internet. Even if you’re not a techie type person, it’s worth persevering, so you can understand why Ernie the Attorney’s site is so popular - and evaluate your chances of duplicating his success.

I’ll try to keep the necessary explanation as painless as possible. First, some definitions of unavoidable jargon:

  • XML (eXtensible Markup Language). Simply put, XML is a way of putting special codes into web pages that make it easier for computers to process their information.
  • News aggregators are a relatively new and still-evolving type of software that reads and organizes into a readily digestible form the key content from web pages selected by the user.
  • RSS is a specific flavor of XML that produces pages news aggregators can handle. The acronym is variously said to stand for "Rich Site Summary" or "Really Simple Syndication."

Advantage 3: Greater Audience Reach Through The Use Of RSS And News Aggregators

Complaints about information overload are everywhere, right? People are overwhelmed. This means news aggregators are a technology to watch. Because news aggregators make it easier for users to handle large amounts of information from their favorite web sites, they have the potential to make major changes in the way most people use the Internet.

Sounds good. What’s the catch? News aggregators only work with web pages that have been specially formatted using RSS. Making web site information available in this format is called "syndication." Syndication is a tremendous way to increase the reach of a web site, hitting a whole new audience.

While relatively few people have started using news aggregators so far, this audience is already important to marketers. Marketers put a premium on getting to those who are early adopters and opinion shapers, those who tend to influence others. Today’s aggregator users disproportionately tend to be in this category. Skeptical about this? Ask Trent Lott what he thinks. He probably agrees with the one thing the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and well connected political insiders of both the conservative and liberal persuasions all agreed on: After the "liberal media" dropped the ball by initially failing to report on Lott’s admission of nostalgia for the days of segregation, it was blogs (many or most of whose readers access them through news aggregators) that kept the issue alive and turned it into something the mainstream media could no longer ignore. That’s influence.

Furthermore, the news aggregator user audience is only going to expand as the rough edges of the software are smoothed and more people learn about their advantages. News aggregation features will probably be included in web browsers and/or sophisticated e-mail programs in the future, which will further stimulate the growth of the news aggregator audience.

While conventional web sites can add RSS feeds and syndicate themselves, only a few of them have yet started doing so. The conventional sites that have adopted RSS tend to be only the larger ones like the New York Times, or the more technically sophisticated, like the Christian Science Monitor and Genie Tyburski’s The Virtual Chase.

OK, so what does all this have to do with blogs? Most decent blogging software has simple, built-in RSS creation/syndication features.

The result? Bloggers get the advantage of the broader audience that syndication brings to a quality site, without the hassle of trying to retrofit RSS onto older software.

Advantage 4: Better Search Engine Visibility

The final blog advantage to be discussed in this article is that major Internet search engines tend to rank well-run blogs higher than conventional web sites. We already saw how Ernie the Attorney turned this to his advantage. Here’s another example:

On the surface, Lexis vs. Jerry doesn't look like a fair match-up. LexisNexis has been around for decades. I estimate their corporate web presence expenses, not counting the underlying databases, to be at least in the six figure range, probably higher. My blog has only been around since January 1. It costs me $40 a year.

The Google search engine is renowned for its ability to sort group the most relevant web sites near the beginning of its list of results. In view of this,  what would you expect to be the top result for the search request “Lexis search engine”? Surely it would have to be the Lexis corporate site, right? Actually, as of May 23, 2003, the highest rated result was my modest starter blog.2

Is the David-beats-Goliath experience of Lexis vs. Jerry a fluke? Not at all. In fact, as explained in Wired, such experiences have become common. Operators of large, expensive commercial web sites have begun complaining that they cannot compete against blogs:

Commercial websites believe scoring high placements in search-engine results is so crucial for generating traffic that many are willing to pay top dollar to sponsor keywords or hire "positioning" consultants to secure a good ranking.

Then there are bloggers. With no deliberate effort, many dedicated weblog publishers are finding their blogs rank high on search results for topics that, oftentimes, they claim to know practically nothing about.

Why Search Engines Like Blogs -  And Will Continue To Do So

While competitors like Teoma are catching up, Google is the most popular search engine, and for good reason. It consistently gives high ranking to quality sites that are relevant to the user’s search request.

Google’s secret? The programmers found a clever way to incorporate human intelligence into Google's search results. Google gets such good results because it uses the assumption that if a site is good, the human beings who run other web sites will link to it. Further, a site must be really good if other good sites link to it. As explained at the Google web site:

In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But, Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."

In summary, a page will tend to rank higher in Google's search engine results listing if many other sites have built links to it. Links from popular sites will provide even more of a boost.

Why does this matter? As a New York Times article explained, a high search engine ranking is critical in promoting a business on the Internet. In fact, experienced web site operators often find that they get better results from free search engine rankings than they get from paid ads.

Some conventional web site operators who understand how this ranking system works have gone to great lengths to boost their popularity. One method is to establish “link farms.” These are phony web pages that do nothing but provide links intended to artificially boost search engine rankings. Search engine operators look on this practice with disfavor, and have blacklisted web sites using them. Blacklisting can lead to significant financial reversals. One blacklisted site reported a subsequent 75 per cent drop in visitors. However, the benefits of having many links to your web site are so high that some web site operators are willing to gamble on link farms and other shady practices.

Now that we understand how search engines work, and why links to a site are so important, let’s examine why well-run blogs tend to get much better visibility than conventional web sites. One of the reasons is a side effect of something we’ve talked about already: RSS. A recent Wired article, Why Google Wanted Blogger quoted Chris Cleveland, CEO of Dieselpoint, a Chicago search software company:

[M]any weblogs are readable in RSS, or rich site summary, a standard syndication format that is easily parsed and indexed by search engine spiders, the bots that search engines use to crawl and index the Web. "Web pages are hard to index without a standard structure," said Cleveland. "But Google can easily index RSS feeds."

In brief, it is easier for search engines to understand blog content than conventional web site content. Therefore, they tend to rank blogs higher than they would a conventional web site that has identical substantive content.

In a few years, sophisticated conventional web site operators are going to realize why they are getting the short end of the stick. They will demand that standard web site design software like Dreamweaver and Microsoft FrontPage 2002 include RSS output features. When that day finally arrives, will the blog visibility advantage evaporate?

The blog popularity edge will be diminished when this happens, but it will definitely not disappear. The RSS advantage is not the only thing blogs have going for them. Search engines also favor:

1.       Newer content over older, and

2.       Sites that have more links to them, especially if the links are from other popular sites

Even when conventional web site operators wise-up, and the advantage blogs presently have because of RSS is neutralized, these two factors will still tend to give blogs the edge over conventional web sites:

  • Because it is so much easier to update blogs, it’s difficult for conventional web sites to compete with them on freshness of content. Further, this is a rich-get-richer situation: As the result of a policy change a few months ago, Google’s spiders now re-index sites that are frequently updated, including most blogs, every day, whereas they may only re-index the typical static web site once a month or less.

 

  • It’s also hard for conventional sites to compete on link popularity. There is an active community of bloggers, and the culture tends to encourage them to link to each other. There is even a category of blogs called “referrers.” They do nothing but link to other blogs that are considered interesting, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

The blog culture means it is easy for a decent blog to attract links from other popular blogs, thus boosting its search engine standing. Good blogs don’t need “link farms” or other shady practices. They don’t have to manipulate the system, because they attract popularity-boosting links naturally.

The Final Blog Trump Card: The Human Factors

In the end, the biggest advantage of blogs is probably not the technical issues, but the human factors. Blogs tend to have more of a human face. As noted by Genie Tyburski, "[B]lawgs tend to discuss hot topics and current news, which interest the general public more than the dry legal articles you find on more traditional sites."  She thinks that conventional web sites can duplicate the appeal of blogs by imitating the more interesting content that tends to appear on blogs. From a technical point of view, this is right, but the institutional factors may turn out to be a major obstacle. Conventional web sites can compete with the human face of blogs with great difficulty, if at all. As astutely noted in The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, "Markets are conversations."

Corporations are corporations. Large law firms are large law firms. Only people are people, and only people can have conversations with other people. You can't have a real conversation with institutions like "IBM" or with "Cravath, Swaine and Moore." It would be very difficult, probably impossible, for an institutional blog from IBM or Cravath to be as effective as a blog run by one person or a small team. Cravath can't have a blog like Ernie the Attorney because Cravath is Cravath.

Large organizations can have blogs. In fact, as Ernest Svenson noted, blogs don't have to look like blogs, and incorporating blog technology into institutional web sites could provide technical benefits. However, whether large organizations can have effective blogs is a different question. To gain more than marginal benefits, institutions that want blogs are going to have to follow the Macromedia model. Macromedia ordered individual key staffers to start their own publicly-accessible blogs, to let them speak in their own voices.

Very few large organizations have the vision and organizational culture that would allow them to follow Macromedia model. Most organizations are more likely to react like the newspaper that fired a columnist for starting a blog, because the paper "had no oversight or editorial approval over what he was opining."

Law firms are probably even more conservative than newspapers - no "cults of personality" for law firm marketing. For institutional reasons law firms tend to prefer promoting the collective entity instead of individual lawyers. And collectives don't do blogs all that well. Individuals or small teams are best suited to maximize the advantages of blogs.

Conclusion

Are blogs the Nirvana of lawyer marketing? Not quite. While blogs have some significant advantages, they are not right for every lawyer. My assessment has not changed from two years ago, when I noted in an Internet Roundtable column: "For most lawyers, blogs would be a fiasco, possibly even dangerous. On the other hand, for a few lawyers, they could be perfect." Lawyers who don’t have the right mix of judgment, personality, writing skill, and available time are likely to be disappointed by blogs. However, for the right lawyers, blogs have enormous potential.

In this article, I’ve concentrated on blog marketing advantages, but that just touches the surface. Blogs are also potentially powerful tools for knowledge management, support of existing clients, legal and factual research and more, but those are topics for other articles.

Steve Covell is a Louisiana lawyer who runs the Louisiana Supreme Court Report blog. He recently explained what he calls the Three Stages of Blog-Awareness:

  1. There must be something to blogs because so many people are into it, but I don't have a clue.
  2. OK, it does seem kind of cool and there is much, much more to it then I expected. I just don't see any really practical applications.
  3. Oh my G-d, the things I can do with this are coming to me faster than I can keep up with.

Over the next year or so, I expect to see quite a few lawyers experiencing Steve’s Stage Three. I’ve been there for a while, and it looks like it’s going to take me a lot longer to get a grip on this blog thing. Not that I’m complaining.

 

Bibliography

 

Links to Legal - Oriented Blogs

 

Blawg.org

The Blawg Ring

The Daily Whirl

 

Books

Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey & Meg Hourihan, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs.  Well written, with many good ideas.

Rebecca Blood, The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog.  Has some good material, but overall, too touchy-feely for most tastes. The author sees blogs mainly as a type of personal therapy, a means of self-expression that increases self-esteem. Most legal professionals who are interested in blogging will have different objectives.

Shelly Powers (Ed.), Essential Blogging.  A typical high quality O’Reilly Press book, with good discussion of technical aspects of Blogger, Movable Type, Radio & other key contenders.

Greg Siskind, Rick Klau and Deborah McMurray, The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 2nd Edition. Chapter 13 provides a concise (7 page) but well-written introduction to the use of blogs by lawyers.

Todd Stauffer, Blog On: Building Online Communities With Web Logs.  Excellent.

Biz Stone, Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content.  A poor title, but an extremely valuable book, with many great practical tips.

Articles About Blogs in Journals for Legal Professionals

Alvarez, To Blog or Not …

Ambrogi, The Best of the Web in 2002

Curling, A Closer Look at Web Logs

Curling, Updates on Blogs, Training and Legal Portals

Carlson, Legal Weblogs Revisited

Fleischer-Black, A Discreet Bullhorn

Klau, How I Learned to Love the Blog

Knight, King of the Bloggers

Krause, Lawyers Who Blawg

Articles About Blogs in Other Publications

Microcontent News maintains an extensive bibliography of news media coverage of blogs.

Author Note: Thanks to Jim Tyre for his clear thinking about blogs and lawyers generally, and also his specific comments on a draft of this article.

Footnotes

1 Search engine results are not static. Not merely are they adding new sites to their databases all the time, but the results can be affected by the day of the workweek or the time of day you search, as the workload on the search engine's servers fluctuates. When comparing web site popularity, the absolute numbers matter less than the relative standings and the pattern. The numbers in the chart above were collected around 5:00 P.M. on Friday, May 23, 2003. The numbers collected for the first draft of this article in February 2003 (probably on a weekend) were different. The conclusion that Ernie the Attorney's site is superior was the same:

2 My site has often, but not always been in the number one position in Google's rankings since February for the "Lexis search engine" request. To avoid confusion, note also that after I realized the benefits I was getting from my blog, I decided that to facilitate its long range growth, I should get a custom domain name (http://www.netlawblog.com/) instead of the hard-to-remember default I had been assigned originally (http://radio.weblogs.com/0117533/).

3 The following background information is provided for those unfamiliar with search engine operation:  Many people are under the impression that search engine rankings of sites located are controlled by which advertisers pay the most. Some search engines do allow pay-for-placement, but the better search engines, like Google, place a high value on preserving their credibility. They restrict results paid for by advertisers to a separate, marked section. Like most search engines, Google adds new sites to its database by two methods:

  • Submissions by site owners, and

  • The use of software called "spiders" or "bots" that searches out new sites by following links from existing sites.

Author Note: Thanks to Jim Tyre for his clear thinking about blogs and lawyers generally, and also his specific comments on a draft of this article.