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Features - Are You Ready for Local Search?

By Frederick L. Faulkner IV, Published on December 17, 2005

I am the Treasurer for my condo association, and this makes me in charge of researching and signing contracts for all of our maintenance services during the year. Winter was quickly approaching and I needed to find a new snow removal service for our building. As I surf the Internet daily, I headed to Google Local search to scout out companies to contact for a RFP. I use local search on a regular basis for a variety of searches for my area, mainly restaurants. My success rate is usually pretty high, and I thought this search would be no different. I was wrong. Instead, my search produced only two snow removal companies, and the rest were lawn care and maintenance services. Knowing that many lawn care services double as snow removal services, I didn't feel too bad with the results, but what discouraged me more was the lack of supporting information for me to read in my quest to find a service.

Like many other consumers, I prefer to do as much research and comparison of products and services as possible prior to placing any phone calls to companies. This includes reading company websites to find out as much information as is available about the organization before I send out an RFP. I want to know how long they have been in business, where they are located, how to contact them, other clients they serve, endorsements and more. In the case of this particular search however, I found that many of the relevant companies did not have websites. The websites that were referenced were local yellow pages type pages. One company did have a website, and I was even able to do an RFP through an online form which made the process really easy. That is convenience that wins business, and it won mine.

Why is my situation important to you? Local search is growing more popular with your next generation of clients, and if your firm isn't listed in the local search engines, and not with just a phone number, you could be losing valuable business.

How Local Search is Growing

Search is big. Companies like Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and AOL are the dominant players in the traditional search arena. New search engines which are more specific to blogs and RSS are gaining popularity as well. But local search is heating up as well, and is the next logical step when you want to narrow your search parameters to geographical areas. All of the search engines listed above have introduced local search functionality in the last year, and have it listed prominently as an option on their main search portals.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project is a non-profit organization that researches the use of the Internet in America. They teamed up with comScore Media Metrix recently to conduct an update to how Internet users use search. Their November 2005 Search Engine Use report states:

"One of the trends comScore data have captured in recent months is the rise of local searches - that is, searches related to geographically distinct places. These searches involve "local qualifiers" - or search terms including specific items such as ZIP codes, telephone numbers and street addresses. Consumers are using local search tools to coincide with other online activity, such as job searches, retail shopping and travel planning."

While looking for legal services isn't exactly retail shopping, the general process is the same - looking for local information.

The Yellow Pages, while still a good resource and marketing tool to acquire new business, is moving online, and there are many Internet Yellow Pages sites that direct consumers to local companies and services. One of the most popular is Yellow Pages.com, which is a joint venture operation of SBC Yellow Pages Directory Operations and BellSouth Advertising and Publishing Corporation.

I decided to do a quick comparison test to see how results varied between the Yellow Pages and the other major search engines' local search functionality. I will be moving in the next year and will need a real estate lawyer to handle my closing and other paperwork. I did a search for "real estate lawyer" with a local location of Orland Park, IL. Results varied from each search engine. YellowPages.com returned the most results, but first asked me to select from related categories all of which contained "real estate" in them. The first category, though, was Attorneys, so I selected that one. YellowPages.com returned over 300 results for my search. Most of them were just names of attorneys with addresses and phone numbers. A few listings had associated websites you could click on. The link to the websites was off to the right and if you didn't notice them, you could easily miss that they were even available.

The other major search engines produced a variety of results, though all relevant to my search query. The biggest difference between the major search engines and YellowPages.com was the additional information they provided such as a related area map on the results page, links to directions, and other categories, as well as a clear link to the firm's website. It is the clear listing of the associated website that will help win business.

Leveraging Your Website with the Right Information

A website is a great marketing tool that allows potential clients to get to know you and your firm before they even walk in the door. It also allows you to set a tone for the type of clients you like to work with, thus providing you a better client intake flow rather than random phone calls which might occur through basic Yellow Pages advertising. Building a website that provides information about your firm and selling points for consumers creates a win-win situation. So does your website have all the basic information consumers need to make that initial phone call?

According to the ABA Law Practice Management Section's book The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet, Second Edition, practice descriptions and lawyer resumes are tops on the "must haves" of law firm websites. Other information you should have on your website include:

The location is key information for the search engines to place your website in the proper search results for local searches. Search engine bots will pay attention to zip codes and index them accordingly for future searches. If you don't have your address listed on at least one of your pages, your website might not be returned in results at all. A good idea is to have your address information in the footer of each of the pages on your website. This is a standard practice, and this location is where many Internet users search for contact information when reading content on a website.

The other information listed above informs potential clients if you match their needs as well as demonstrate that you are knowledgeable on the subject. Providing this information about you and your firm creates a one-way interview about what you can provide to a potential client without having to actually talk to them. This also makes the potential client feel more comfortable about your firm when he/she does contact you seeking advice.

One important note regarding law firms websites is that you will want to be mindful of the ABA Model Ruel 7.2 which deals with advertising, as well as any relevant state bar rules, before publishing anything on the Internet.

Don't Have a Website? Reasonable Solutions are Available

If you don't have a Website the good news is that there is help. There are solutions available that will allow you to make a reasonable investment that will produce a professional website for your firm. I say "reasonable" because you can spend as little or as much as you want, though "reasonable" will provide you the best middle of the road solution possible. Unfortunately, in the web design world, how much you pay does not necessarily determine how good your website will be.

Professional Solutions. There are a number of firms that will design, build, and host your Website for you. These firms have content management and design systems in place that will give you a user friendly Web interface and a professional design. Some of them will even help develop content for your Website through third party services. Companies like Justia, FindLaw's FirmMarketing, and ConsultWebs provide solutions that build law firm websites as well as blog integration if desired. Using services such as these will also ensure clients that their sites are search engine optimized, which will help with other organic searches if potential clients don't use a narrower local search tool.

Do-It-Yourself Solutions. Some might be intimidated by the costs to build and maintain a Website. If the costs are too high for your marketing budget, there are ways you can build your own firm Website. Many Web hosting companies have solutions that will allow you to build a Website in a template environment. Companies like Dreamhost, 1 & 1, and Hostway offer gererous hosting plans that offer a variety of technical options for your Website. Other solutions include purchasing a professional Website template from websites like Template Monster and then customizing it with your firm's information.

The downside to these solutions is that you will have to dig into HTML code to customize the content and the look and feel of the site, and you will have to learn about search engine optimization. Remember, what might seem cheaper on your checkbook doesn't always mean it is cheaper overall. If you build your own website, you are taking time away from doing other important tasks such as billing hours. Building your own website is not a task that you can accomplish effectively overnight. Utilizing professionals with well documented skills and expertise is in website development may be worth the money to avoid the headaches associated with getting the right hosting package, customizing templates, or fixing errors.

Conclusion

As the Internet is increasingly integrated into everyday use of generations X, Y, and even baby boomers, your firm could be missing out on potential clients in your local area if you are not listed in local search results. Consumers like to research information before they contact service companies with questions. Having a website that clearly explains the types of services you perform, along with information about your firm, will bring you informed and qualified clients. Local search is just one more way clients from your area will find you. The question now is do you want to be found?