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Content Under Pressure

Lawyers Need to Look Beyond SEO for True Engagement

By Susan Kostal

I remember the first time I went to SEO school (yes, there is such a thing). At the time, I thought it was so cool, like Sudoku for word nerds. I turned into a keyword king. I was at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law as senior communications writer, writing content for the web. We embarked on an aggressive campaign of search-optimized headlines for all our news content. I geeked out and got to work.

But here’s what happened. I ended up writing really boring headlines, even though I had decades of experience as a newspaper and magazine editor. SEO-driven headlines can risk becoming an emotionless keyword salad of search terms. We may have improved SEO a bit, but something was definitely off.

I reached out to UC Hastings Chief Communications Officer Alex A.G. Shapiro for his take.

“My sense,” he said, “is that we had PTAT (people talking about this) goals for articles and that engineering headlines for SEO didn’t jive with attracting attention and driving engagement from real people who matter.”

Don’t Drink the Keyword Kool-Aid

Selling a law school to prospective students and employers is somewhat different than selling legal services, but the lesson holds. A myopic focus on SEO misses the real point: You want readers to engage with your content, not just notice it on the web. You want to build a relationship, not just a body of vanity stats. If traffic isn’t converting into leads, something’s wrong.

Even if you are providing legal services to consumers, where SEO is important, the best SEO in the world won’t place you above the many Google ads on a crowded page of search results. It’s important to optimize certain pages, such as your bio and practice group pages. But it doesn’t make sense to abandon what you know about enticing headlines and readable content, especially on your news pages. Your audience needs to do more than just see your content. It has to inspire them to engage and connect.

Mark Homer, founder of marketing agency GNGF, gave some excellent advice at the recent BEDLAM legal marketing conference. Make sure you have access to and understand your own analytics. Don’t simply rely on the reports you get from your SEO vendor. Dig into the numbers. Are you really getting the leads and conversions you should?

Educate yourself enough about SEO so you know what questions to ask.

Bring Back the Personality to Pull in Readers

So how did we solve our law school content issue?

We brought back snappy headlines and ledes with real pull. We brought the personality back in. Our internal clients were much happier with their news pieces, and we were once again producing content that was a lot more fun for our readers. And, I would argue, the content was more helpful. Because people actually clicked on pieces, read them and shared them.

If you’re in San Francisco this month and want to learn more, I’ll be speaking on “Strategic and Emotionally Engaging Content” on June 13 with Adrian Lurssen of JD Supra, Lynn Foley of fSquared Marketing, and Carol James of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell at the Bar Association of San Francisco. (Register for this Legal Marketing Association program here.) Also, @LMAwest will be live tweeting the program.

For more perspective, educate yourself on SEO with this post by Walter McCorkle. Then, read this excellent post by Josh Gerben on what to look for in an SEO vendor. Josh’s own story is powerful; he built a highly successful national trademark practice during the recession, with the help of SEO. But don’t let anyone tell you that SEO is everything. You can read Gerben’s firm blog and see that they understand the power of engaging content.

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Susan Kostal Susan Kostal

Trends at Work columnist Susan Kostal is a legal affairs PR, marketing and content strategy consultant. She is a former contributing editor for Attorney at Work and previously wrote a monthly column, Content Under Pressure. Susan has covered legal affairs as a journalist for nearly three decades. You can follow her on Twitter @skostal and view more of her content at

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