Dennis Kennedy (DK): The greatest web site in the world does you no good if no one sees it. I've found that site promotion may take as much time as site design and that there are a lot of misconceptions about what happens when you put a site on the Internet.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Amen to that. I think this is the single aspect of Internet marketing that is most consistently botched by law firms. Lawyers will spend hours arguing about what color scheme should be used in their web site, but fail to even consider how potential clients will find their site to see that glorious color scheme.
DK: Thoughtful choice of a domain name is the first step in promoting a business web site. Let’s talk about that.
JL: Let’s make sure everybody knows what a domain name is.
Brenda Howard (BH): You’re right Jerry, many people do not understand what this is. Imagine your office address. The http:// part tells people that they are going onto the World Wide Web (WWW) and this stands for hypertext transfer protocol.
Then comes the www. This part really isn’t necessary because you’ve already seen that it’s http://, which only does one thing and connects you to a www site. The reason that this is used is because people didn’t know what http:// stood for and everybody wanted to make sure that people knew that they were on the WWW. So, that’s a redundant part. You can usually go to a site whether you type this part in or not.
Next is the domain name itself. In the following case, ford.com, we see that ford is the domain name. This is the part that law firms and businesses get to choose. The shorter the name, the easier it is on clients that may not have the best typing skills or might not be able to spell a name correctly.
Last, but not least is the extension, or .com, portion of the domain name. This extension is used as an identifier to allow others to know the category of the web site. For example: .com means commercial. Any site that has a .com address is a business or commercial site. A few of the others are: .org – nonprofit organization, .mil – military, .edu – educational site, .net – a network of networks, usually and Internet Service Provider. Since a law firm is a commercial enterprise or a business, they would select a .com extension for their domain name.
JL: Why is it important for every law firm to have a domain name? After all, many web site hosts add you to use a subdirectory off their server. For example, I have an account with a California company called Webcom, and my account there is under the name http://www.webcom.com/lawson/. What is wrong with using this long format as your firm's domain name?
BH: Clients do ask this question often and here’s my standard answer. Pretend there are two businesses. One is in a strip mall, pays a lease and looks like they’ll be around for a while. The other one pulls his pickup truck off the side of the road and sells his wares from the back. He might come back each week, but there’s no sense of security that this business will be around for the long haul. It’s the same way with a domain name. If you’ve taken the time and dollars to get a domain name, people get a sense of security that you plan to be around for a while – that they will always be able to find you. If you have a “sub name” under someone else’s domain name, they know you could cancel that account and not be there tomorrow. This reason usually convinces my clients that they should get a domain name. Dennis, do you have any more thoughts on this?
DK: Here’s what I think is wrong. First, a secondary-level domain name like the Jerry mentioned appears amateurish to most web veterans and it really looks unprofessional. Second, some search engines historically will not include pages on secondary-level domains and your page may not show up on the main search engines. Third and most important, in the case of a business site, many Internet users routinely take the first step of simply typing in www.yourname.com. They have been conditioned to this by television and other advertising and it’s just good common sense to try to find a company site in that fashion. If that doesn't work, they may try a common variation or two (www.yournamelaw.com) before they ever resort to a search engine.
BH: The search engine registration is an excellent point, Dennis. As more Internet users increasingly rely on search engines, you wouldn’t want to miss that boat and not even be listed. Assuming that your domain name isn’t easy to remember, you definitely want to come up in the search engine listings when they type in your law firm name.
DK: Making sure that you have that expected domain name and the likely variations can be the key to having people find your site, especially existing clients. Even more important, think about how your clients and those in the community refer to you when choosing a domain name. Too many firms think only of how they refer to themselves internally when selecting a domain name. As a result, you see a lot of initials-only domain names.
Here's an example, at my old law firm, The Stolar Partnership, we referred to the firm internally as "TSP." Clients referred to the firm as "Stolar." After a short experiment with the unwieldy and commonly misspelled "tspstl.com" (The Stolar Partnership in St. Louis), the firm moved to the logical "stolarlaw.com." I'll leave Jerry or Brenda to comment on Morrison Foerster's unusual choice of "mofo.com."
JL: No comment on mofo.com except to point out that it's not just an Internet-inspired abbreviation. Morrison & Foerster has had that nickname 20 years or more. Memorable names are a plus, and short names are even better, but mofo.com is pushing the envelope.
DK: Let me interject a comment about pushing the envelope with domain names. The bar regulators have been lenient about domain names to this point. The result has been that we have some great domain names like trustwizard.com. I suspect, though, that someone will go too far and try something like milliondollarverdicts.com or bestlawyerinthestate.com and incur the wrath of the regulators. We may see some movement to force lawyers back to the rules applicable to law firm names. That’d be a shame.
BH: These names are easy to remember, but if you stick with using the law firm name, you can run into problems too. Some law firms have partner names that are difficult to spell. I know that the washingtonpost.com has purchased several of the common misspellings of their name and even if the person types it in wrong, they will still get to the Washington Post web site. Jerry, should law firms take the stance of corporate America and invest in several domain names?
JL: This will be a smart move for many firms. It's easy, it's technically trivial, and the price is not a barrier to most firms. Filling out the domain name registration form is a ten minute job. It is simple to set up a web server so that more than one name points to the same directory. Thus, Dennis' old firm did not need to choose: they could have tspstl.com AND stolarlaw.com both pointing to the same directory. Multiple names pointing to the same directory makes more sense for larger firms, especially ones that have names that are frequently misspelled. For example, if the domain name is foerster.com, a large firm might also register forster.com, and forester.com, which are likely mispellings.
DK: Great point, particularly for firms with many names in the firm name. Register the full name and the likely shortcuts. In the Stolar example, we obviously would have registered stolar.com if it weren’t already taken by a company in Sweden. The firm might also register thestolarpartnership.com and stolarpartnership.com and, this is the beauty of multiple domain names, each domain name will point to your actual web site, so the user will have a seamless experience. Also, this type of use of domain names will likely help you create trademarks or show that your firm name is a trademark. We won’t get into the interplay between domain names and trademarks here, but there are some interesting issues that can arise, both positive and negative.
Jerry, I know that you like the idea of using different domain names for practice areas or sections of a web site.
JL: Yes, an aggressive firm may also want to register domain names that suggest a particular area of practice. Many of the most obvious choices are already taken, like visalaw.com, patents.com, whistleblower.com and classactions.com. However, there is plenty of room for creativity. For example, you could try something like whistleblowerlaw.com, or whistleblowercounsel.com. This type of name can be a big plus if you specialize. One good example is http://www.EnvironmentalLawNet.com. Even if you don't specialize these names can be used for subsections (directories) of your main web site.
Consider this example. To highlight its litigation practice, Dennis' old firm could try stolarlitigation.com or stolar-lit.com. Their labor law practice could be called stolarlaborlaw.com. Again, set up subdirectories of your main site. These can look like independent sites. Giving them a separate domain name shows that you are serious about that area of law. It also makes it more likely that you will be treated well by directories like Yahoo or Snap, and that the URL will be given in news stories about the firm.
BH: The relationship between domain names and search engines is an important one. For example, most search engines will not let you register too many pages of a web site within a 24-hour period or your site will be banned from appearing. When you have multiple domain names, each one gets to max out the registration limit within that 24-hour period. Many corporations do this so that the odds are increased that one of their many domain names will reach the top ten listings in any given search engine.
DK: Before we get accused of spending all of a firm’s web budget on domain names, let’s tell them what the cost of having a domain name is.
JL: Right now, the cost is $70 for the first two years, and $35 a year after that. The price may drop if there is indeed more competition after the Network Solutions, Inc. monopoly over the .com top level domain name ends, as is supposed to happen soon. This is an insignificant amount to many firms.
DK: Are you seeing any other new issues involving domain names or anything people should watch out for?
JL: No matter how cheap domain name registrations get, most law firms will never need to register domain names in scores of foreign countries. One common scam that has been making the rounds involves encouraging .com domain name owners to register their domain names in foreign countries, usually obscure foreign countries. For example, if you own the name stolarlaw.com, you will receive a solicitation to register the international domain name stolarlaw.co or stolarlaw.to. If you are not going to practice law in some obscure foreign nation, you don't need to register your domain name there.
BH: Jerry, that particular scam also applies to .net extensions. It’s best to have .com, because that’s what people will remember. They won’t think to type in .net, instead of .com. Also, I would ask many people what they think before you actually register the name. Go ahead and get several opinions. Sometimes, the domain name is an innocent group of initials, but when placed together, they mean something that might be negative or taken wrong.
DK: Great point. The last thing you want to do is grab the first domain name that you or your tech person comes up with. Take some time to gather opinions and even do some testing. Be willing to change an existing domain name. Domain names can make a big difference in a site’s success and are an essential first step in a marketing plan for your web site.