WHITE PAPER

You traffic report is lying to you

Lawyer marketing for the modern web

Originally published 2015

Which would you prefer?

Your firm receives 10,000 website visits

or

Your firm ranks on the first page of Google

Either situation would cause an enticing spike in your website analytics. But what if, despite your newfound success, no additional calls came through to your firm, or your caseload actually decreased? Would those 10,000 visitors and that outstanding Google rank actually be benefitting your firm?

Unfortunately, many attorneys are infatuated with the wrong metrics when it comes to their online marketing performance. They fixate on rank or traffic and lose sight of their true goal — more and better cases.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. Businesses today rely on the Internet to entice new clients and retain existing customers. That reliance will only increase in the future, considering that the 3 billion-plus worldwide users in 2014 still did not represent the full potential of the Internet’s reach. Meanwhile, here in the United States alone, more than 85 percent of the country’s population is connected to the web.¹ Specific to law firms, it is estimated that approximately 26 million people will have a legal need in the next year; and of those who search for legal information, 79 percent will use the Internet.²

U.S. population with internet.

But this progress comes at a cost. Businesses in all industries have struggled to reliably evaluate and forecast the return on their investments in online marketing.

Because so many people use the Internet to find legal services, it’s important for law firms to understand that it differs from traditional marketing channels like TV and radio ads, direct mail and billboard advertising. These types of marketing allow only for one-way conversations from the advertiser to the potential client. The Internet has enabled a two-way dialogue and boosted the influence that customers have on other customers’ purchase decisions. It has created a whole new platform for robust, dynamic conversations to occur between friends and strangers alike.

Because of the interactive nature of the Internet, businesses big and small labor to gauge the success of their online marketing, particularly over the past few years. Businesses that are slow to adopt emerging tactics wind up measuring their performance in outdated and uncompetitive arenas.

Meanwhile, forward-thinking businesses jump at the chance to adapt new tactics without having a clear sense of how to measure their effectiveness. As a result, these companies often evaluate the performance of their website and other digital marketing channels incorrectly, leading to wrong conclusions and misbegotten strategies.

For example, one of the most common ways companies determine the success of their websites is by simply counting the number of people who visit them. The problem with using site traffic alone to evaluate the efficacy of a website is that it doesn’t tell you the complete story. In fact, the more you rely solely on traffic as a measure of your online marketing success, the more likely you are to take the wrong actions in response.

Put more simply: Your website traffic report is lying to you

Outdated ideas on the modern web

When websites first became a prevalent marketing tactic a decade ago, you may have been able to evaluate marketing success solely by using web traffic as a key performance indicator (KPI). That’s because the ways that people found those websites were fewer and less advanced. In addition, the ways by which they made their purchasing decisions were more limited than today.

Digital marketing is in a constant state of evolution. Arguably, this is true of all marketing channels, but what makes digital marketing stand out is not its state of change, but its pace. Two factors have greatly influenced this:

  • The way information is presented to consumers on the Internet has changed.
  • The way consumers interact with the web has also evolved.

Search engines have changed

Throughout 2013 and 2014, search engines have made numerous changes, some visible and many invisible, which have shifted the way people gather information online.

On the inside, multiple algorithm developments have altered the way search engines select which sites and information to display. For Google, these algorithm changes have been labeled with high-profile names like Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird.

Search results have changed

Just as important, if not more so, are the changes to how search engines retrieve and display information to a user. Increasingly, companies like Google don’t see themselves as just a means to get to another website but as a primary source of information in and of itself. Take Google’s Knowledge Graph, for example. In this image, we see the results provided by Google on a search for a particular attorney.

The Knowledge Graph allows Google to organize information and create semantic connections to know which John Merryweather is an attorney in Minneapolis and which one is a doctor in Atlanta. As a result, when you look for a particular person or thing, the search result provides the one you’re actually looking for.

Because of the way Google has designed its search algorithms, it can directly provide information as part of its search results rather than referring users to the source of that information. In this case, you can find the firm’s location, hours and contact information without ever going to the website.

Example of Google search result for someone looking for an attorney.

This is also how mobile systems like Siri or Ok Google work, and this evolution in search result display has fundamentally changed the relationship of searcher, search engine and website advertiser.

The effect is that a lot of people get what they need directly from the search engine results page (SERP) without ever navigating to a website. Of course, this can reduce your web traffic numbers; but it also can provide a much more direct route for a prospective client to your law firm.

Is that a bad thing? For the business that understands this change and responds accordingly, it’s most likely not.

Consumer behavior has evolved

As we discussed in a previous white paper, “Are You Ignoring a Third of Your Firm’s Business Potential?”, more and more searchers are using mobile devices. Accordingly and increasingly, people are making decisions about which business (including law firms) to contact without ever visiting the primary website. That’s because, as previously mentioned, they now find the needed information directly in the search results page or the law firm’s Google business listing.

Besides applying their search results, people have more tools than ever to make buying decisions, and they’re using them. Social sites like Twitter and Facebook continue to grow in importance, and online listings in directories are visited more and more often.Customer and client reviews on sites such as Google My Business, Yelp and Bing Places for Business are also playing a significant role in consumers’ decision-making processes.

In fact, a recent FindLaw survey of more than 2,000 consumers found that a large number of online resources were used when searching for legal information.

These changes suggest it’s time to take a broader view of your marketing program. Although your primary website remains a key component of a successful online marketing campaign, it will succeed best as a part of a whole rather than a standalone tactic.

How legal consumers find attorneys online.

Three common situations

To further explore how traffic metrics can sometimes present a deceiving picture of performance, we’ll review three common situations:

  1. Decreasing traffic but steady or increasing leads
  2. Seasonal or market changes
  3. Poor website performance

We’ll also explore how taking a deeper look at the numbers can lead to a more accurate, actionable picture of your marketing program’s effectiveness.

Traffic trend #1: Decreasing traffic but steady or increasing leads

Anytime you see a decrease in overall traffic, it’s important to look at that metric in the context of another important metric: leads. As search engines get more refined at directing the right traffic to your site, this can mean you’ll see fewer visits but a higher quality of customer.

For example, if you’re a personal injury lawyer but you serve only medical malpractice clients, all of the website visits you receive related to car accident injury cases help drive up the number of overall site visits — but they also result in fewer high-quality leads.

If your website traffic has decreased, it’s important to look at the number of leads you’re receiving to get a more complete picture of your website’s effectiveness.

In this graph, we see a real-world scenario that illustrates this. The orange bars show a FindLaw customer’s total website visits between January 2013 and July 2014. Over that period, the number of monthly visits dropped from roughly 1,600 per month to around 1,000 per month. It was a sizeable decrease, and one that warranted further investigation.

Graph showing website visits compared to client contacts.

Note that the blue line — the number of contacts coming into this business from the website — shows the opposite trend: a growth from 30 contacts to closer to 50 each month. This highlights a critical point that can’t be overstated: You don’t make money from your web marketing based on how many people see your site. You build your business by making sure the right people see it.

When viewing the entire graph, we see a web presence that’s very healthy because it’s driving qualified leads. Pretend that the graph represents your firm’s high-performing website. What forces are at play?

Less of the wrong traffic is reaching your site
The refinement and improved targeting of search algorithms can lead to a decrease in your overall traffic, particularly if your previous traffic was coming from users who matched poorly with your services. This often leads not only to a higher ratio of contacts to traffic but more overall contacts.

Your marketing strategy is not entirely dependent on one tactic
While a strong website plays a central role, the best marketing programs employ a mix of tactics to generate activity. In a well-rounded strategy, your website may directly generate traffic and contacts, but it may also indirectly support the generation of a contact by informing or supporting a different lead platform. For example, in our white paper on local-mobile search, we discussed the ways that providing high-quality firm information on various sites across the web (including your website) can impact your ability to be found online.

Your potential clients are looking for you in different online spaces
As we mentioned earlier in this paper, people use many different online resources in searching for information and attorneys. When people are looking for the information or service you provide, you want them to find that information wherever they already are on the Internet.

If a person finds you after reading a recommendation on Twitter for an article you wrote and then decided to call after visiting your Google reviews, then your online marketing plan is working whether a website visit was part of the transaction or not. Your website often serves as an indirect support system to these other marketing channels.

Measure success not by how many people have visited your website but by how many potential clients are contacting your firm.

A potential client who calls your firm after seeing only a social profile, a review of your firm or even just the description of your website in a search engine is just as valuable as the prospect who actually looks at your primary website before making that call.

The important thing to remember if you find yourself in this situation — with decreasing overall website traffic but steady or increasing contacts — is that you can measure success not by how many people have visited your website but by how many potential clients are contacting your firm.

Traffic trend #2: Seasonal or market changes

Numerous potential forces can drive down both traffic and the contacts your online marketing attracts. Seeing these metrics drop in tandem can be troubling, but without understanding the causes, you may again draw the wrong conclusions.

Consider this pattern we saw among several San Diego clients in 2012 and 2013. Attorneys practicing primarily in bankruptcy were seeing a decline in both the traffic to their websites and the leads taken in. Viewed strictly through the lens of website performance, it would have seemed reasonable to suggest that the marketing strategy wasn’t working and that a wholesale change was in order to improve performance.

In this case, though, that would have been a mistake. Something much larger was going on, which became evident when comparing the trend of performance for websites in the area with the number of bankruptcies being filed in the same area.

In this graph, the orange trend line shows the decline in visits to bankruptcy websites throughout the San Diego market from January 2012 through January 2014. The blue trend line is the number of bankruptcy filings for the same market over the same period. What we found as we began investigating the decreases in the traffic to the various websites was that the problem was not one of marketing but of demand.

Graph comparing bankruptcy filings to bankruptcy firm website visits.

Traffic trend #3: Poor website performance

Certainly there are cases where your traffic report actually isn’t lying to you. Occasionally an initial conclusion identifying a problem is verified through additional research. When this happens, it’s critical to make sure you have reliable data and a sound plan to address the issues.

It’s also important to remember that the Internet is constantly evolving. Needing to make a change today doesn’t necessarily mean you were doing something wrong in the past.

When a change is truly warranted, be prudent about it. Rash attempts to increase site traffic rarely pan out in the long run. Instead, make smart adjustments by following these steps:

1. Identify your goals, broadly

Your website’s purpose should reflect your goals. For example, a site aimed at quickly developing new clients should place lead generation as priority one; other firms may place greater value on a website that supports their brand. It’s likely your business has multiple goals that vary in importance. Clearly articulating them will help guide you when addressing poor site performance.

2. Determine your KPIs

KPIs directly reflect your goals. As in the above example, inbound calls and qualified emails may be obvious KPIs. However, firms more concerned with measuring brand awareness, for example, should watch the volume of website visitors from branded channels such as social media.

Remember that KPIs must reflect your business goals. Raw site visits and vanity search rank do indeed indicate performance, but more often than not they will feed your ego instead of your bottom line.

3. Take stock of your online strategy

Once you’ve identified your KPIs, look at your marketing strategy as a whole and consider what outside influences may affect those indicators. For example, is your website traffic declining because a specific referral source has dried up? Or is traffic from all sources declining? The key here is to think broadly about the different online channels available to you and focus your attention on areas of greatest opportunity.

4. Diversify your marketing portfolio

Online marketing is like an investment portfolio. Just as you wouldn’t put your life savings into one stock, you shouldn’t limit your entire web presence to a single channel. Legal consumers should be able to find you wherever they look online. That includes your website but also search engine results pages, online directories, social media and basic business listings.

The primary takeaway is this: Of course you should identify ways to increase your website’s visibility. But be sure to also evaluate the effectiveness of your online marketing within the context of your business goals and your bottom line. That’s the performance that matters most.

How to catch a lie

We started this discussion by suggesting that your traffic report was lying to you. More accurately, your traffic report can lead you to the wrong conclusions, and these conclusions can lead to expensive and ineffective action. When you think that your traffic or rank or any other single metric is indicating major problems with your website, consider the following before acting in haste and potentially upending your entire marketing program:

Remember that one metric can never tell the full story
If you use a single metric as a proxy for performance, there’s an excellent chance that you will draw the wrong conclusions. Truly understanding website performance almost always requires an iterative approach as well as understanding your website performance in the context of your entire marketing portfolio.

One metric can never tell the full story.

Know what success looks like for your firm
If your business is healthy and growing its client base, then you’re being found by the right people, whether they’re finding you through your website or through search engines, social spaces, review sites or some other channel. That’s one of the strongest signals that you run a sound multichannel marketing program.

If your phone is ringing, but your website doesn’t seem to be gaining traffic, then this isn’t the moment to go chasing visits to your site. This is the moment to discover where people are successfully finding you and to investigate why. That doesn’t mean you should abandon your other efforts, because they are probably supporting that success.

Focus on your audience
The more value you deliver to your audience, the stronger the connection you’ll forge with them. Create content that speaks to the potential clients’ needs, then make that content visible in places wherever they are. Remember that prospective clients won’t always visit the sites and networks you wish them to. The best way to ensure your visibility is to have a broad presence across all relevant spaces.

Build a diverse online marketing strategy
The online world doesn’t act the way it did four years ago. The rise of mobile, tablets and social media have expanded and changed the ways people use the Internet. Search engine algorithms have evolved to present new information in new ways. And a dramatic increase in the sheer volume of websites makes a traffic-centric strategy a losing game.

Most law firms have been slow to accept this reality, providing an opportunity for quick movers to gain a leg up on their competition. As a participant in the online marketplace, you must choose between an outdated approach with metrics that don’t tell a complete story, or a modern, multifaceted marketing program that can succeed in a dynamic and unpredictable environment.

A final thought

Remember that the success of your web marketing efforts isn’t defined by how many people visit your site. It’s defined by how much business you get.

We particularly liked what Sujan Patel said in Forbes magazine on this issue: “At the end of the day, website traffic is primarily a vanity metric. … it seems that the biggest benefit of measuring traffic metrics comes from establishing bragging rights amongst your peers.”³

To grow your business, learn to ignore the lies your traffic report might tell you, and look for the truth in your overall results.

Sources

  1. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html (U.S. population 18+ years old)
  2. FindLaw Consumer Legal Needs Survey, 2014
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2014/03/24/forget-about-website-traffic-focus-on-conversions/

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