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The legal sector in 2017 - The Future is Now

Guest contribution from Alasdair Thomson, former Partner at The Glasgow Law Practice, Co-Founder of Peloton Communications Group, Director at Curated Media and Phase 2 Legal.

Google Search

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment”.

- Charles Darwin

Introduction – Then and Now

The Internet is revolutionising every aspect of our lives – and the pace of change will continue to increase. All of society is feeling the impact, and the legal landscape isn’t immune. The Internet is changing how lawyers work, communicate, win business and retain business. In 2017, how can lawyers and law firms remain relevant to their audience, an audience almost permanently connected to the Internet?

The pace of change is so rapid that it can be easy to think that things have always been as they are now – we are used to relentless technological change but it wasn’t always this way. To understand how to succeed online today, it is important to understand the way the online landscape has evolved, and what is now valued and rewarded.

Dateline: The Year 2000

As another busy day looking after clients draws to a close, the opportunity might arise for you to take a further look at “this Internet thing” people are talking about. You unplug your phone line, take a cable from the back of your bulky desktop computer and plug it into the wall socket. Anyone calling your office will just hear a constantly engaged tone – broadband is years away. You try to log on, and for the next few minutes you hear strange whirling noises as the computer attempts to connect with the online world.

To pass the time, you look around your desk. A new edition of quarterly case reports has arrived which, factoring in the editorial process, reports on cases that have occurred in the last 6 months – decisions that directly relate to your key area of work, yet only now are you hearing about them. Or you could read the brochure for the hotel you are considering going to – it has just arrived in the mail after you called the hotel last week seeking out some promotional literature.

With the connection still not established, you could consider smoking a cigarette as you wait (the ban on smoking in public places lies 6 or 7 years ahead) or you could pop over to the local record shop to buy that CD you didn’t manage to get at lunch time (the iTunes store won’t open for business until 2003).

Eventually, you are connected to the Internet. You are likely to start your search via one of the early search engines such as Alta Vista, Netscape or Lycos (Google hasn’t yet established its dominant position in search). Once you find a website that is along the lines of what you are looking for, it’s likely that the site has very few pages of content, and the content that is there is in plain text.

Ability to interact with the site is minimal – there’s nothing to download, you can’t comment and you can’t share any of the content (social media as we know it today doesn’t exist). And crucially, while the site may be along the right lines with regards to what you searched for, the likelihood is that the content on the site isn’t exactly what you’re after. So, after losing half an hour of your day on an ultimately fruitless endeavour, you close down your computer, reconnect your phone line and get on with your life.

In the year 2000, the Internet is in its infancy – the whole experience, both in terms of getting online and being online, is clunky, difficult and often exasperating. Clearly though, once refined and improved, revolution lies ahead. Think of where we are today and the ways the Internet has changed daily life – from your desk you can now wirelessly access information on unprecedented levels through multiple devices including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. These devices allow you to research and purchase things immediately, communicate instantaneously and even find out about legal cases literally as they happen. Changed days indeed.

The Internet in 2000 clearly presented an immense opportunity. Great prizes lay in store for those individuals or businesses who managed to refine and improve the online user experience.

The Development of the Internet

Two developments in particular revolutionised the Internet and made the experience have today possible – faster connection speeds and better organisation of the information held online. The spread of broadband led to a much smoother online experience and made going online an easy thing to do.

In tandem with this, the dramatic improvement in the organisation of the information online via improved search engines made going online a far more rewarding experience – we could find the information we wanted through improved search, or achieve the task we set out to do as websites became far easier to use. And much of this improvement in organising information online was achieved by the company which would come to dominate search – Google.

Google lays claims to engaging in a philanthropic exercise – its central mission being to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”. A quick look at their balance sheet suggests a third, less altruistic aim – to make money.

Google makes money through advertising. To sell advertising, it must ensure that the world's population considers it to be the 'go to' website to commence an Internet search. This brings tremendous levels of visitors to Google, and in turn provides an audience that advertisers are willing to pay to get in front of. When people search online they want to see the most relevant search results. This means an index of the best quality websites rather than an endless list of sites which have nothing of value on them. Google has therefore had to ensure that their search engine serves up results that are as near as possible to the exact information being sought by the person searching.

So, how did they achieve this? Over time Google has refined its approach - it is constantly looking for indicators of authority so that only the best websites show visibly in search.

How do they assess authority? At the start, they looked more at how a site was built rather than its benefit to the user. Then, on page text and links to other sites were considered. In the early days of search, the actual name of the website was important too. However, focusing on these factors often provided results that didn’t create a positive online experience for those searching.

As search volume increased, and the opportunities the Internet provided widened, a whole new industry was created around search engine optimisation (SEO) – namely, understanding and putting in place strategies to get websites to rank well in search engine search results. This often led to sites being created just to fit in with Google's current approach – they ranked well but weren't a good experience for the end user. For example, you may recall websites that read something along the lines of "if you need a divorce solicitor who is also a divorce lawyer specialising in divorce and family law..." This unnatural language is the product of a technique known as 'keyword stuffing', where online content is written to appeal to a search engine with no consideration given to the user experience.

Google knew its future success relied upon eradicating poor websites filled with non-user-friendly content from search results. Over time, the algorithmic formula used by Google has been refined through a succession of updates to the formula (like the recipe for Coca Cola, the algorithm is never disclosed by Google and general guidance is only provided). The major updates, in keeping with Internet tradition, have fun and use unusual names that don't disclose what the update is about. Yet discovering what each update seeks to eradicate is crucial to understanding what Google wants to reward and what it wants to promote.

Algorithm Updates

Millions of words have been written on these updates, so what follows may be the shortest resume ever of such developments, but will hopefully suffice as a general overview. Up to 2011, Google announced a number of updates that specifically targeted bad quality links and general efforts to 'game' Google. In recent years some of the major changes to its search algorithm have included:

  • Panda, February 2011 – the aim of this update was to crackdown on websites with thin, low quality content.
  • Penguin, April 2012 – this targeted efforts to hoodwink Google through paid-for keyword stuffing and link building schemes.
  • Hummingbird, August 2013 – Google placed greater emphasis on full question searches to reflect how people typed in search terms, e.g. "How do I challenge a speeding offence?".
  • Pigeon, July 2014 – aimed to drastically update local results and shook up SEO in terms of location keywords.
  • Panda 4.1, September 2014 – Google changed their algorithm effectively ending "keyword stuffing" and put content at the forefront of measuring quality online.
  • Mobile Friendly update, April 2015 - Google release a significant new mobile-friendly ranking algorithm that’s designed to give a boost to mobile-friendly pages in Google’s mobile search results.
  • AdWords Shake up, February 2016 – Updated paid search criteria and changed the way that adverts are viewed, further emphasising the importance of a high-quality site, not just paid success.

These are some of the major named updates that Google has announced in recent years – however, in the quest to keep their market dominance in search they are constantly updating and refining their product. For example, we have seen developments such as Google local listings for all businesses, and Google considering your location when returning search results, along with previous search history. We have seen the development of Knowledge Graph in search results, where Google provides more comprehensive information about an individual, company or topic alongside search results. 

So, What Does This All Mean?

Thinking back to the year 2000 and contrasting it with the position today, it is clear to see that the world has changed. We all expect quality information immediately. We want this information provided to us in a structured way and from people with authority that we respect – and that is where Google has triumphed.

Their every move has been focused on making it easy for people searching to get search results that provide value. It gives authority to websites that fulfil this central function and rewards them with prominence in search results. And the key to assessing authority is through the quality of the content that features on the site.

So, What Type of Content Does Google Want To See?

Unique – the content must be well written and unique. Duplicate content is actively penalised by Google. If their assessment of a site shows that the content is published elsewhere online or is just a rehashed version of other content, the website will be penalised and not show visibly in search.

Current – sites should be kept updated with a regular flow of authoritative, interesting content, a failure to update a site regularly impacts on the authority Google attributes to it.

Relevant – the content should engage the reader and help and inform them. Google is always looking to ensure search results answer the searcher's query, and to eliminate those sites that don't.

Shareable – if the content is engaging and of value it will be shared through social media. Google picks up on items being shared and promotes sites that are producing such content.

Different formats – in the early days of the Internet, sites only featured text. Now users expect a rich, multimedia experience and find a mix of content to be highly engaging (and shareable). Video and infographics engage readers immensely whereas too much of the written word can overwhelm the reader, especially if the content is being consumed on a smartphone or tablet.

Authorship – we are all looking for authoritative voices, people who know a topic better than anyone else. Content should not be anonymous and content from experts will be given prominence.

So, the online world values content and so do potential clients. Can law firms profit from all of this? Is it worth putting the effort in to create quality content and an effective online content marketing strategy? The answer, quite simply, is yes. A better question might in fact be, is it worth taking the risk of not developing the online persona of your business?

A multitude of surveys show clients turn to the Internet to seek out legal advice in ever increasing numbers. Just think of your own way of securing services in sectors that you perhaps know little about – an online search will usually feature in your research and buying process. There are many ways that law firms can benefit from this by investing in a strong online presence, as the following routes to new business show.

Routes to Business Online

Being found online through search – people who may know nothing of your firm may find you by ‘Googling’. They will form an immediate first impression of you because you were prominent in search, the look and feel of the site they are served up, and through the content they are presented with. Making a good first impression will greatly increase the likelihood of them contacting you.

Being assessed online – businesses get referrals from multiple sources. For example, referrals from friends and family or existing clients remain a great source of new business. The likelihood is that even with the reassurance of a positive endorsement from someone you trust, people will still check you out online. A positive impression means you are likely to be contacted, while a poor impression caused by a site that doesn't look ‘alive’ is likely to jeopardise your prospects of gaining a new customer – a risk not worth taking.

Asset creation that helps to convert potential customers – once you do get a call from a prospective client you may not immediately be instructed, the person may want some time to consider their position. After the call, you can use the content on your site to assist with converting the enquiry into business. By sending links to articles, whitepapers, video and other content that you have created and is on point with the issue the enquirer has, reinforces your professionalism and expertise.

Becoming an authoritative voice online – as outlined above, Google is obsessed with authority. The opportunity exists for lawyers and law firms with particular sector expertise to become the authority voice online. This can be achieved by writing extensively on a particular topic and ensuring that this content is presented effectively to Google – this is exactly what Google wants, and you in return will receive business enquiries and enhance your professional standing simultaneously, which also helps convert enquiries.

These are just some examples of the ways in which law firms can benefit from creating strong online identities and assets. The reality is that these routes to business are all inter-related – the online world permeates virtually every aspect of the way that we conduct our lives and make many buying choices.

It is no longer the year 2000. Failure to embrace change can lead to the demise of one time incredibly successful businesses, a perfect example being Kodak. The company was once the Google of its day, pushing technological advances. In 2000, the company had just returned profits of $2.5 billion and was one of the most powerful companies and brands in the world. Yet it filed for bankruptcy in 2012, an incredible reversal in fortune and largely brought about through not responding to a changing environment – customers wanted digital cameras, yet their focus for too long remained on selling expensive film.

Conclusion: The Future is Now

We all face a battle to remain relevant and change must be embraced. Law firms and lawyers who are agile of thought and action will continue to prosper. The days of a discrete brass plaque as the only calling card for business are gone. The Internet is your new shop front, and it’s open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day as customers look for and assess you. Even normal routes to business, such as referrals from friends, will be impacted by the Internet. No matter the recommendation, it will become the norm to assess a business online before engaging them. If you aren’t talking to them in a way that they value online, you may one day be pulling down the shutters for the final time – dramatic indeed, but Kodak would have thought the same not so many years ago.

Update to 2030…

Your driverless car waits outside as you make an appearance from your office at a virtual court hearing, all court documents are stored in the cloud, the court is considering a visual re-enactment of the crucial events, the Judge’s smartphone tells him his blood pressure is rising… It may seem like a comical fantasy now, but look how far we have come since the year 2000. If you want to avoid being “a Kodak”, then you need to embrace the future as now.

Moore Legal Technology – Dedicated to Your Law Firm’s Success

We specialise in helping our law firm clients use the Internet more effectively to grow their business. Through the delivery of a comprehensive range of digital, marketing, sales, branding and strategic services, we can help you:

  • Increase your turnover
  • Enhance your brand
  • Improve your efficiency
  • Future proof your firm

What makes Moore Legal Technology unique is that most of our team members have a legal sector

background - qualified lawyers, legal marketers and law graduates. Our primary focus is always on delivering a significant return on investment for our clients, with an approach built around this ethos, and informed by our experience of what works to generate new business online.

We want to help you grow your law firm too.

For further information please contact Chris on 01413548862 or email

 

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