FindLaw using questionable SEO practices?

My firm often finds itself in competitive selling situations with FindLaw, a company owned by the huge Thompson Reuters conglomerate (2007 revenues: 12.4 billion). After hearing us tell them how you build search engine ranking with a quality website and by adding significant content over time, potential clients will come back at us with: "FindLaw says they can get me to number one on Google in two weeks!" Now comes LexBlog’s Kevin O’Keefe to tell us at least one of the reasons why. Google greatly values links (links in to your site). Each link is a "vote" that your site is interesting and valuable. Buying or selling links, like buying or selling votes, is a big no-no. FindLaw is apparently offering to do exactly that, selling links to other law sites for $1,000 a month. Read about it here and here.  (Tip of the cap to Lisa Solomon for bringing this post to my attention.)

We size up someone’s trustworthiness in milliseconds

In thinking about the subject of my last post — on the importance of image in marketing, and how it often trumps all other factors — I was struck again by the idea that, marketing techniques are value-neutral. Like atomic power, which can be used to light cities or to blow them up, marketing techniques can (and are) used to promote fine attorneys and advisors — and to promote charlatans, as well.

One charlatan in the news recently is a German man who, passing himself off as “Clark Rockefeller” managed to marry a couple of wealthy women, be accepted by the Boston-area yacht club society, and receive all kinds of job offers with top financial firms, despite significant warning signs — including a glaring lack of knowledge about rudimentary financial matters.

What is the key factor in creating attorney-client (or advisor-client) relationships? Trust. And what does it take to create trust? Surprisingly little, the latest research suggests. This article in the Boston Globe, referencing the Clark Rockefeller saga, makes the following points:

“Research has suggested that, once people form an initial impression of someone or something, they seem to have a hard time convincing themselves that what they once believed is actually untrue – Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, calls this “unbelieving the unbelievable.”…

“Researchers have discovered that surprisingly small factors – where we meet someone, whether their posture mimics ours, even the slope of their eyebrows or the thickness of their chin – can matter as much or more than what they say about themselves. We size up someone’s trustworthiness within milliseconds of meeting them, and while we can revise our first impression, there are powerful psychological tendencies that often prevent us from doing so…”

Although the article is not about “marketing” and no reference is made to brochures or websites or offices, the implications are clear enough: people don’t have x-ray vision, they are forced to make quick judgments and generalizations, and once they have done so, it’s very difficult to change. Whether or not you think this should be the case, it is. So the question for professional advisors is: are you going to make it easy for potential clients to select you — by delivering an instantaneous shorthand message through your visual presentation — or are you going to make them work at it, and perhaps end up selecting someone who is not as good as you, but who understands the techniques that engender trust?

Your biggest challenge may be in accepting that it is not a question of either/or — style vs. substance. It’s more accurately a question of substance — presented in a style that is instantly understood and accepted by people who have no other way to judge.

Your Potential Clients Listen With Their Eyes

When I speak to lawyers about the power of image, they often get resentful and turn the discussion into a moral question: "What should matter," the lawyer says, "is what a good lawyer I am."

I’m afraid I sometimes fail to contain my sarcasm and respond, "Yeah, that’s like going into a singles bar and thinking, what should matter is what a good person I am."

There are a million holes in this argument, but let’s start with one. Almost no one, apart from another lawyer, is in a position to know and judge how good a lawyer you are. In general, people are not blessed with broad legal knowledge, nor with x-ray vision. When you take the position that you don’t need a sophisticated corporate image, or a "slick" brochure, or a "fancy" website, you are irrationally demanding that others simply know how great you are, without your having to go to the trouble to convey your greatness by any visual means.

Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly explored the phenomenon of first impressions and snap judgments in his book Blink. His conclusion: almost everyone makes up their minds about other things (people, companies, products, situations)  in the first 30 seconds, and once they have, it’s almost impossible to get them to change that impression.

Women know this better than men, because biologically speaking, men overwhelmingly judge women by their looks. Thus the multi-billion dollar fashion and make-up industries.

NBC’s popular "Today" show regularly "ambushes" women outside their studios for a free makeover, a segment that appeals greatly to its female audience.  Some of the results are staggering. Keep in mind, this person is exactly the same inside in both photos. But imagine the reactions to her in both of her incarnations — in her social life, her romantic life, and in the workplace. Imagine you were the employer and each of these "two" women (actually the same woman) presented "themselves" for a job interview. What would be your impression of each? Which would you be more likely to hire?

Want a little more fun? Check out your favorite celebrities without their make-up. These are people of huge talent and gifts and success. How good an actor he/she is should be the most important thing, right?

We think that the overwhelming evidence of our eyes should not be the most important thing in judging others. But it is. You can curse human nature and refuse to participate, or you can accept it and make it work for you.

The High Cost Of Listing

Clients often ask me if a given marketing action is "good." Is taking a billboard good? Is advertising on the radio good? Is doing seminars good? Is a listing in Martindale-Hubbell good?

And I usually respond, "If the budget is unlimited, it’s all good. Do everything!"

Of course, the budget is never unlimited. That means that the relevant question is not "Is this good?" but rather "Is this the best possible use of the marketing dollar? Is there anything else we could do with this same dollar that would have more impact?"

Which brings us specifically to Martindale-Hubbell. For many of my clients, the high cost of their M-H listing is not "good" and provides no discernable ROI. Yet many are afraid to drop it because of its status from many years as "the directory" for attorneys and their accompanying ratings. But there are many new players on the Internet in the "rate the lawyers" game, and critics say that M-H missed the Internet boat entirely.

Kevin O’Keefe of LexBlog weighs in with this post in which he asks "Martinedale-Hubbell: Should We All Just Say No?" Dan Hull explores the same question at his blog What About Clients? where he says: "Martindale-Hubbell is no joke. It has a fine, time-honored and even classy reputation, and a history of good work and real utility in the profession. Our firm, Hull McGuire, has actively and earnestly participated in the M-H ratings processes for years; we are happy with the ratings our lawyers received. But, in good times or bad times, the current cost to list firm attorneys for any size firm, with or without multiple offices, is prohibitive and should be resisted on principle given other alternatives. It just isn’t worth it. We predict that lawyers will bolt in droves in the next 2 years."