Take it from a self-hating marketer, SEO is a scummy industry. There are a ton of agencies marketing themselves to lawyers and promising results they can’t necessarily deliver. As any savvy professional knows, past successes do not guarantee future results. Anyone who says they do is probably trying to cash your check.
Because marketing law firms is both competitive and costly, it seems to attract some of the most unscrupulous business practices outside of SEO for locksmiths, porn, or online poker. As an owner of a boutique marketing firm that prides itself on doing business the right way, we’ve regularly seen a few “scams” from agencies that don’t necessarily have their clients’ needs at heart. Avoiding these scams will go a long way toward making sure you don’t get stung by any of the shady practices that can cause major headaches for you and your business:
Not Owning Your Website Design
Shelling out money for a website can be a substantial expense. If you want it done the right way, require a custom design, and have a variety of page templates on your site, you can easily be looking at a price tag of $10,000 or more.
For that price, you own your site, right?
Not necessarily. In many cases, the agency will retain rights to the design of your site. Now, if you opt to change agencies later, you’re stuck with the additional overhead of recreating your website on a non-proprietary platform.
When it comes to websites, you should never lease. At a minimum, make sure you’re in a contract that allows you to “rent-to-own” and will leave you the full owner of your website’s design and content when the agreement has run its course.
Blogs on a Domain You Don’t Own
First of all, there’s rarely a good reason to have a blog that’s separate from your own firm’s website. BUT, even if you’re one of the rare cases where it makes sense (although you’re probably not), you should make 100% certain you register the domain and have complete control over the site.
There are countless instances of SEOs selling blogs where the domain is registered by the agency rather than the attorney or firm.
This is even worse than not owning your website design because now you’re completely beholden to the owner of your domain or you risk losing any equity you’ve built up for that website. Your content will be generating links and authority for a website that could be redirected or shuttered as soon as you stop paying the agency that sold it to you.
If someone sells you on the idea that “content is king,” you should already be skeptical. However, if they tell you it also needs to be on a website they own and manage on your behalf, run for the hills.
Not Having Access to Your Own Traffic Data
One of the fundamentals of managing your marketing is understanding your cost per inquiry and cost per client. Once you’ve got those two figures, you can make informed decisions about the ROI of each campaign. Without access to your analytics, PPC data, or conversion tracking, you’re basically operating on a best guess as to what’s working.
How can any agency pretend to care about the customer without being completely transparent with the data from their campaigns? Depending on the contract, you may be shoehorned into a proprietary backend that only provides you with limited information. Or, worse yet, you may be excluded from seeing any data at all.
Assuming a law firm wants to make informed decisions, what’s the upside in limiting the data they have at their disposal? There is none.
PPC Campaigns to External Landing Pages
A subcategory of not having access to your own traffic data is not controlling the landing pages for your PPC campaigns.
There are a variety of reasons some agencies like to run PPC campaigns to sites outside the law firm’s primary domain. Without getting into the pros and cons, let’s focus instead on what this usually means in terms of tracking your campaigns.
Assuming your PPC traffic is being sent to a site you don’t control, you’ll often find yourself without access to the Google Analytics data that would allow you to identify whether the campaign is working.
You’ll know how much you pay your agency and may or may not have an idea how many inquiries it resulted in, but you’ll be missing the ability to piece together the specifics and determine the ROI of your campaign.
(Unethical) Fee Sharing
In some instances, agencies may be willing to run “free” ads with an agreement for compensation if an attorney signs a specific type of client. Most of the time this is in PI, where a lucrative case can easily reach well into the high-six figures and competition is extremely cutthroat.
The fee share is pitched as a “what do you have to lose?” scenario where the attorney risks nothing if it doesn’t work and instead promises to pay a hefty fee if they sign a case as a result of the ads.
The actual downside? Attorneys have a lot more to lose than their (in this case non-existent) ad spend. Depending on the specifics of the arrangement, the repercussions could range from grossly overpaying for your cases to disbarment.
Excessive “Hosting” Charges
For 99% of law firms, the traffic in any given month shouldn’t require hosting charges in excess of $100. The rack rate for WP Engine, our preferred hosting company, is $29 per month.
Yet somehow, we frequently talk to clients that are being invoiced monthly for “hosting” charges of $750 or more from digital agencies that inflate hosting costs as an easy cash grab. There was even an instance where one person we talked to was paying a recurring cost for “mobile optimization” in addition to their sky-high hosting bill.
If the retainer and ad spend is high enough, it’s easy for recurring expenses like hosting to slide under the radar. Check your monthly statements and make sure you’re not overpaying for something that should be relatively inexpensive.
One-Size Fits All Solutions
Would you try to offer a solution before hearing the specifics of your client’s case? Probably not, because that would be irresponsible. Similarly, you should be wary of any agency that immediately tries to push a specific product or solution.
There are nuances to every practice, law firm, and market that will dictate which tactics will have the biggest impact. It’s nearly impossible to make recommendations without first understanding the specifics of your firm and what you’re trying to do. If you’re being sold a solution within minutes of talking to an agency, it’s rarely because that’s the best solution for marketing your business. We find that the best results come from developing an understanding of clients and their goals and then engaging the appropriate tactics to help get them where they want to go.
Taking measurements and getting the perfect fit is a lot more work than grabbing something right off the rack, but in the world of SEO the price can often be the same. It’s important to ask the right questions and make sure you’re working with an agency that has your best interest in mind.
Conrad Saam is the founder of Mockingbird Marketing—an agency delivering advanced online marketing exclusively for the legal industry. Prior to Mockingbird, Conrad architected Avvo’s ascendancy from concept to legal directory market leader through advanced search engine optimization tactics. He previously ran the marketing team for the widely popular restaurant app, Urbanspoon. Conrad writes the In-House column for Search Engine Land, has been featured in USA Today, the New York Times and the Huffington Post and is the author of The FindLaw Jailbreak Guide. You can follow him @conradsaam.