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Computer Counselor
September 2001

Audits Can Improve a Firm's Web Site Findability

For a firm looking for more hits, a site audit can do more than some jazzy graphics

By Carole Levitt and March Rosch

Carole Levitt (clevitt@netforlawyers.com) is president and Mark Rosch vice president of Internet For Lawyers, an Internet legal marketing and legal research consulting company.

For many attorneys, the excitement of creating a Web site sooner or later fades into a feeling that no one ever visits the site and that it is ineffective at generating business. This feeling can lead to an urge to redo the site, but before completely revamping it, a lawyer should conduct an audit to learn why the site is not producing the desired results. Just as a car needs to be checked and tuned up periodically, so does a Web site. Attorneys can conduct an audit themselves or hire an auditor to check a site's effectiveness, identify specific elements to be improved, and then perform a tuneup that addresses the site's needs. If a firm opts not to hire an auditor, it still will be better off when it obtains some facts to work with rather than making changes that are based on sheer conjecture.

The first step in an audit is to review the site's traffic statistics. The review often indicates not only the number of visits but also how visitors found the site (e.g., via a search or a link). Some Internet service providers (such as Earthlink) include traffic statistics as part of their hosting services. Other companies (Hitbox is one) can also deliver similar information for free. Those who need more detailed information can contract with these companies to obtain more complete tracking data. Rates start at about $20 per month, with more detailed information available at higher rates. After quantifying and interpreting traffic statistics, the next step is to assess what Web site designers call "findability," which is the ease with which potential and existing clients find a site when they do not already know its address. Findability is one of the most important elements of a successful Web page, and a simple test reveals why: Search on Yahoo, Google, or any other search engine for "tax attorneys in Pasadena" and see which pages are listed at the top of the screen. Those that are have good findability. If a promising result is at or near the top, why would a user continue to examine all the resultsùespecially when they number in the thousands? Good findability is the Internet equivalent of putting the office on a busy intersection rather than a side street.

Firms should emphasize findability in any audit. Too often, firms make the mistake of thinking that their Web sites are not effective because they look plain. Some designers also pay undue attention to a site's appearance. The purpose of a Web site, however, is to attract clients, so whether they can find it is more important than the visuals. An audit should therefore examine the site from a marketing perspective rather than an aesthetic perspective. An audit should include whether a site uses metatags, whether it has been registered with search engines, whether other sites link to it, and how high it ranks in search engine result lists. These are key factors in a site's findability.

Enhancing Findability
Among the most important elements determining findability are metatags, which are ordinary words included in a page's HTML code that search engines use to catalog the page. Metatags are invisible to a site's visitors, but they are a highly important component of the criteria that search engines use to find sites. A site audit should show whether the original designer included relevant metatags.

For example, a family law attorney might use the metatags "family law lawyer," "family law," and "divorce." These attorneys should not forget to include, however, the firm name, the name of the city in which they practice, any slogans or terms used in their advertising, appropriate plurals, and words such as "adoption," "custody," "alimony," and "child support" in order to facilitate searches. If the designer failed to use metatags, they should be among the first elements to be added to the revamped site.

Metatags are ordinarily invisible, but it is a simple matter to see them. While viewing the site in a browser, click on View and then Page Source in Netscape or View and then Source in Explorer. The metatags, which are labeled as such, should appear near the top of the page. Alternatively, a number of Web sites (such as WebTastics.com, which is found at http://gottcha2.tripod.com/linkmeta.html ) can automatically check a site's metatags. WebTastics also returns an analysis of the tags used and offers suggestions on how to make the tags more effective at improving findability. Even if the original designer included metatags, additional tags may be in order. When deciding what tags to add, attorneys should consider how people use the Internet to locate information in general and legal services in particular. Would a typical consumer type "lawyer" or "attorney" into a search engine? It is not difficult to imagine that some people would search for "lawyer" and others for "attorney," so a metatag for each word is preferable to a metatag for only one or the other.

In addition to a site's general metatags, each of its specific pages should contain tags that match that page's topics. For example, on a page that discusses child custody, the phrase and its synonyms should appear on the list of metatags. On the other hand, there is no need to include "child custody" as a metatag on the specific page that discusses division of property.

Some search engines (Google is one) rely heavily on the words contained on a Web page when calculating its ranking. The more often words used in a consumer's search appear on a Web page (such as "divorce," "child custody," or "lawyer"), the more relevant Google considers that page to the consumer's search. Old tricksùrepeating tags, hiding keywords in small white type in the white background of a Web site, or including tags like "sex" or "Pam Anderson"ùno longer work. Over the past four or five years, search engines have gotten significantly smarter about detecting tricks. As a result, these outdated tactics should be avoided. Not only are they uselessùthey can get a site rejected from some search engines. Another key element of findability is registration of the site with search engines. The majority of Internet users (85 percent) find Web sites by using a search engine. A site audit can show which search engines have indexed a site and can inform the auditor of how high the site ranks in result lists. Registration of a Web site is a must for improving findability.

For example, if a prospective client types "lawyer" into a search engine, he or she may receive a result list of over 3 million pages. Narrowing the search to "bankruptcy lawyer" can result in more than 250,000 pages, and finally, narrowing the search again with "Los Angeles" can result in more than 15,000 pages. This last narrowing, however, is not as daunting for the searcher as it is for all the firms listed in the results, because one or two promising results are likely to appear on the first page of the list. Most searchers do not look past the first two or three pages of results, so attorneys whose sites are ranked near the top are more likely to attract potential clients and generate business. When a site is registered with a search engine, its chances of appearing at the beginning of a results list increase.

The most effective way to get a site registered with search engines takes time and effort. Rather than use an automated service, the designer or auditor needs to visit the most popular search engines and submit the site to each one. Alta Vista, for example, recently changed its submission process so that now it only considers sites that are submitted manually. Alta Vista did so in order to reduce its backlog of sites waiting for registration.

Most search engines have a link by which Web pages may be registered. The auditor or designer need only click on the link and follow the prompts. Registration does not require significant computer skills but can take considerable time. Additionally, lawyers conducting their own audits should keep in mind that the sheer number of new sites added to the Internet every day virtually guarantees a considerable time lag between registration and a site's appearance in a search engine's index. On the positive side, some search engines are much more widely used than others, so registration with only a few can provide notable results.

Statistics show that Yahoo, which is powered by the Google search engine, is by far the most popular search engine on the Internet. Therefore, Yahoo and Google should be the first search engines with which a firm attempts to register. Other popular search engines include Alta Vista, Excite, and Lycos.

Yahoo offers to expedite its review process for those who are willing to pay a submission fee of $199. Payment of this "business express" fee does not guarantee inclusion in the Yahoo index, however. Rather, the fee ensures that the submission will be considered within 48 hours and if the site is not included one of Yahoo's human editors will send an explanation. The $199 payment is not absolutely necessary, however, because sites submitted without it still may be added to the index.

Once a submission is accepted and a site is indexed by various search engines, firms may notice that their sites' result rankings vary from engine to engine. Unfortunately, no sure way exists to guarantee a high ranking on every search engine, because each one catalogs Web pages differently. In an effort to keep site designers from manipulating registrations, search engine companies do not list their indexing or ranking criteria. However, sites dedicated to Web page designùsuch as Search Engine Watchùhave conducted extensive research to determine which elements each search engine examines when indexing the pages of a Web site and assigning rankings.

Another element auditors use to gauge the findability of a site is by ascertaining the number of other sites that have links to it. When one site links to another it not only brings traffic but also may increase the second site's search engine ranking. For example, when calculating a site's rank, Google weighs the number of other sites that have links to itùthe rationale being that if numerous sites link to a site, it must have good content. To discover which sites link to a site, go to Alta Vista or Google and enter "link:" and the site's URL after that (minus "http://"), without a letter space (for example, "link:www.lacba.org"). WebTastics.com can also be used to show which sites already have links to another. The way to increase the number of sites that link to your site is to ask. Choose sites that are complementary to your business (not ones with whom you directly compete). For example, if you are a family law attorney, consider asking family therapists and other professionals to add your link to their sites. In return, you may be asked to provide links to their sites.

Once your Web site has its findability raised, it should get more visits, but that is just the beginning of what an audit can do to improve your site. What will users think once they see it? Will they be confused or impressed? Visitors to your site are no different from prospective clients who walk into your office for an initial consultation. They need help and are looking for answers. Therefore, offer almost as much information on your site as you would during a typical first consultation with someone who walks in. Your site should be informative enough that users gain enough confidence in your knowledge of the law that they are enticed to make an initial contact, but the site should not cross the line into legal advice. A Web audit should help you revamp your site to appeal to first-time (and repeat) visitors. With a careful Web site audit, smaller firms and solos can close the online marketing gap between themselves and large firms. Whether a firm hires an auditor or conducts its audit in-house, it is important to separate speculation (and sometimes ego) from fact. For this reason, the more methodical and informed an audit is, the more likely it is to generate more hits and more contacts.

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