One look at most lawyer websites in India and you can see there is a lot that’s left to be desired: designs from the 1990s, unstructured layouts, poor choice of stock images, a lack of simple and easy navigation system and a complete disregard to the fact that websites need to be mobile friendly. On top of that, most websites have poor choices of title tags and content – something that reflects the Indian lawyer’s compulsion of talking/drafting in paragraphs instead of sentences.
Run a Google search for “Lawyers in Delhi” and you will see a list of websites; all poorly designed, difficult to comprehend and usually grandstand. And if you are browsing any of these websites on your mobile phone, it just turns into a nightmare. It comes as no surprise that most lawyers haven’t come to appreciate the importance of a website – because the few who have, haven’t done it right and certainly haven’t benefitted from it.
Let’s take a look at some of the essential considerations that must not be ignored while setting up a website for a lawyer or a law firm. While each of these topics deserve a dedicated post on their own, I am limiting myself to introducing the concepts so it can be used as a checklist if you are looking to put up a website together.
1. The Architecture
Just like a house needs a blue-print before its constructed, a website also cannot be put up without one. Whether you are an individual practitioner, a small firm of 8-10 lawyers or one of the legal giants with hundreds of lawyers; if you do not have a clear understanding and vision of how your site will shape up before your developer/agency starts working on it, you would waste a lot of time, money and energy without accomplishing anything substantial.
A website’s architecture is the basic layout sans the design elements. While working on the architecture, one decides the different pages that the site will have, what content will go on which page and how that content will be aligned with the different images, menu bars, header, footer, logo and any other elements you want to put on a particular page. It also includes the manner in which a user will be allowed to navigate from one page to another, no matter which page the user lands on first.
You can either ask your developer to come up with the architecture and then give him your inputs or you can give it some thought and simply make a hierarchical chart in MS Word/Excel that lists each page.
Before we talk about keywords, we need to remember one very important aspect of search engines. A website does not rank for a particular keyword or phrase; a page does. Google, Bing and Yahoo will return a particular page of your website which their algorithm will determine to be the most relevant one for a query. Therefore, you do not want to pick too many keywords (corporate law, criminal lawyer, family lawyer, estate planning, business contracts etc.) for one page itself. What you should do instead is pick a list of keywords and then try to dedicate one page to each category. That would improve your ability to get more pages in search results.
Two tools that you should check out for keyword selection are “Google Adwords Keyword Tool” and the “Keyword Tool” which tell you the number of searches Google receives for a particular term. This would help you understand what terms people are using to find lawyers online and you can plan your keywords better.
A word of caution: Keyword Research is important but do not stuff your content unnaturally with the keywords. Google and other search engines have gotten much smarter as figuring out if you are unnaturally trying to stuff your page with keywords and can penalize you by removing those pages from their index.
3. The Meta Tags
Meta Tags are information about your pages that you give to search engines. These include the Title of your home page and every other page, a 1-2 line description of what the page is about and the URL of the page. Most lawyer websites either have the same title throughout or just use the page-name as titles. Meta-tags are your best opportunity to tell search engines in clear words what the page is about. So, if you have a “Practice Areas” page on your site, you do not want your Page Title to be “Practice Area” or “Practice Area – Ashish Arun”. This, in itself, is not giving any relevant information to search engines. If you are a divorce lawyer, you would rather use a Title Tag that says: “Divorce Law Practice Areas | Ashish Arun”. Another way could be to use your geographical location in the title tag: New Delhi Divorce Law Practice Areas | Ashish Arun. While there are many ways to skin a cat, you do not want to miss out on using relevant keywords in the Title Tag, Meta Descriptions and the URLs.
Make sure that no two pages have the same title tag or meta description as duplicate content is usually frowned upon, is confusing for visitors as well as search engines and leads to a low ranking on search engines.
Content is king and this cannot be stressed upon enough. No matter how snazzy or cool your website looks, if your content lacks substance, it is not going to be of any help. Authoritative descriptions, the correct usage of grammar and spelling and naturally written content are the three parameters, which should always be kept in mind while writing anything online.
With the advent of search engines, most people stopped writing content for website visitors and instead, started stuffing their pages with keywords for search engines. Initially, the search engines thought that such pages with a high keyword density must be relevant for that particular keyword and those pages ranked high on search engine result pages. However, this started to turn into abusive practices where pages were created with a lot of keyword stuffing only for ranking and the user experience was totally ignored.
With time, the search engines got smarter and started to recognize such abusive patterns. Google updated its algorithm to include content quality as an important parameter and many low-quality websites were hit badly. Now, we are back to the time when quality content and user experience take prominence over ways to fool search engines into ranking your site higher than the rest.
When it comes to lawyer websites, the content is mediocre to poor at most places. Either the lawyers are passing on the task to write content to a junior or an intern or they are just not paying enough attention to it. If you are serious about your online presence, you cannot overlook the content. The mantra is: Write. Review. Edit. Edit. Edit. Proof. Publish.
Unfortunately, website development firms in India know little about content and more often than not, it results in a website that fails to communicate the right message or any message for that matter. The whole focus in building a website shifts to the design, layout and technical features and content just falls through the cracks.
Today, when everyone is connected to the internet through laptops, desktops, mobile phones and tablets (24.3 crore people in India have access to internet) and there are more websites than ever for everything under the sun, it becomes really important that the message being conveyed is clear, concise and to the point.
5. Content Management System
Because most lawyers are not expected to have a good grasp of technology and many are looking to get the cheapest solution out there, they fall in the trap of settling for a static website without a Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is basically a software that runs your website and allows you to easily edit, add and delete pages on your site.
Always ask your developer to create your website using a CMS as it will not only save you a lot of money from all those minor edits you will have to run to the developer for, you will also have the flexibility to edit it in real time and add new articles, news updates and additional pages.
There are many open source and free options like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal etc. which you can use; WordPress being my favorite. All these platforms are more than capable of handling any lawyer website, no matter how many pages or features you are looking at.
Images constitute a very important part of any website. Images help you convey the right message, attract user attention as well as make your site look elegant. However, the biggest problem with images is that most websites, especially law sites, do not use the right images or do not use them in the right manner.
The first goal is to identify the right images – which in itself is not trivial as most lawyers do not have the time or energy to do a photo shoot in their office or have an agency click pictures for their website. In such a situation, most web developers turn to stock image websites like ShutterStock, iStockPhotos or Getty. However, more often than not, the images selected are not in line with either the website content or the target audience.
Each image that you use on your site should not only be closely related to your line of work, it should actually become a part of the content. If you are an Indian law firm, putting up images of white people in suits on your home page will not only be irrelevant, it will also look stupid.
With the advent of high quality mobile phone cameras, you can actually take good quality pictures of your office and your team, instead of using stock photos. The more real your website images are, the more credible you will come across. If you must use stock photos, a good idea would be to head to http://www.imagesbazaar.com/ where you can get stock photos for Indian audiences.
For a long time, websites were designed for desktop computers. Then, laptops came and the screen size didn’t change by much. Then came wifi, faster data connections, smartphones and tablets and suddenly, websites designed only for desktops and laptops were not easy to navigate or view on smaller screens. The new standard in cross-platform designs is responsive width design which basically adapts the website to the browser screen width.
With mobile penetration increasing at a faster rate than ever before, the importance of a clean, responsive design is paramount. Google recently started showing if a website is mobile friendly or not in its search results and may be using it as a ranking factor as well.
Responsive designs have now become the standard and if your designer/web developer suggests otherwise or tells you that it will add to your website budget, you need to look at other options.
8. Visitor Engagement
When your website gets a visitor, that is your first chance to engage him and make him take an action. An action can be in the form of leaving a query on the website, giving you a call, share your website or a specific page with friends/colleagues or simply signing up to receive newsletters and announcements from you. Therefore, it is important to offer a contact form, your contact details as well as a subscription form where users can specifically consent that you send them information such as legal updates, firm updates or any other announcements that you may have in the future.
Depending on the information you want to gather, you can ask them for their names and email addresses and create a mailing list which can be used to create a following of people who are either interested in the areas of law you practice or are looking for legal advice. You can also use this mechanism to send sector specific updates to different set of clients.
9. Social Media Integration
Several books have been written on Social Media for lawyers and with the amount of time everyone is spending on social media, it will be suicidal to create an online presence but not link it to your accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and most importantly, LinkedIn.
Using services like HootSuite, you can automatically post any new content to all your social media accounts. If you are creating a lawyer website, it will be advisable to create a separate page for your law chamber/firm and keep your personal and professional posts separate. You might want to share your professional posts with your personal circles, but the other way round is not advisable unless you are leading the life of a sage. Drunk and crazy pictures with friends are not things you want to share with your professional circles.
10. Sitemap and Analytics
Once you are done with the above steps and are ready to take your website live, ask your developer to set up accounts with Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. Google Webmaster Tools lets you see how often Google is indexing your site, is it finding any errors, are any of your website pages not accessible to the Google crawler and if there are any health issues with your site with respect to malware or hacking attempts. You can also see how your page is doing in search results, for what queries your site is coming up in searches and what percentage of those people are clicking on your site and not the other 9 results on Google’s result page.
Analytics is also a very useful tool provided by Google. It involves inserting a small code in each of your website pages and you can track the number of visitors, their locations, the amount of time they spend on your site, the pages they come to, the pages they exit from and how they found your website. Google also provides you this data in realtime so you can also assess the number of visitors right now on your site.
If you have covered these 10 points while planning/developing your website, you can be sure that your site is designed and structured better than 90% of the websites in the world. Beyond that, you will need to continue working on your website and generate concise, relevant and targeted content if you want to stay on top of the search result pages and actually make your website work favourably for your practice.