by Erin Hogg
JacksonWhite, a full-service law firm located in Mesa, Ariz., serves individuals seeking legal services in any of the firm's practicing areas.
Offering services, including elder law, social security disability benefits, criminal defense, labor and employment law, intellectual property, condemnation and commercial litigation, the firm's marketing team is constantly striving to draw in clients for the attorneys at JacksonWhite.
The firm hired an external vendor to aid in reaching potential clients online via search marketing as well as social media contests.
However, the results JacksonWhite saw were disappointing and unstable.
"[The vendor was] saying that they were spending so much time on our account … our results really would fluctuate a lot more than we were comfortable with. We'd be on page one at the very top of a search engine results page, and we'd be on page two or three a couple days later," said Lauren Witte, Associate Director of Marketing, JacksonWhite.
The firm began re-evaluating how much it was spending on vendor services. A high price tag alongside lackluster results persuaded the team to hire someone to fill the role within JacksonWhite.
"We really wanted someone that we could communicate directly with and, really, someone who understood the goals of our organization," Witte said.
The time came for JacksonWhite to part ways with an external vendor in the summer of 2013 and focus on finding someone who not only had the skills to manage all digital marketing for the firm, but could also be a good cultural fit with the team.
Step #1. Hire an in-house marketer
"We really evaluated how much we were spending, and it was pretty expensive. And we realized that we could afford a really good in-house person, and we would still save tens of thousands a year. So it was really based on expenses," Witte said.
JacksonWhite sought candidates that had experience running long-term campaigns and had the ability to evaluate the results. The ideal hire would also be familiar with PPC and have content writing skills.
The firm brought on Dustin Christensen to fill the role of Digital Marketing Manager at JacksonWhite and achieve the results that the firm couldn’t with an outside vendor.
Christensen had no experience working in the legal arena, but his past experience in payday loans helped him stay in-line with industry regulations.
Step #2. Acclimate with the business
Before Christensen could jump in and fix all of the issues with JacksonWhite's search marketing strategy, he researched as much as he could about the law industry.
"In the first three months, I just tried to do as much learning from the marketing team here and reading books, reading industry websites and blogs and newsletters and a lot of competitive research to see what other firms were putting up," he said.
Even now, Christensen said he is still learning more and more about the industry and applying those insights into how he positions the firm online.
After he got his feet wet, he wanted to begin his effort by isolating the individual practice areas of the firm that would produce the greatest difference for the attorneys.
"Within criminal defense, there are maybe 20 different areas of criminal offenses that we work on. So I wanted to know what would be the most profitable for them and what their focus was, but at the same time, what areas we also had momentum in at the time, and to balance those two out to see what we would be focusing on first," he said.
Step #3. Take audit of what is already in place
When Christensen first started, he noted that the site had a lot of information on it and had traction with different areas and keywords.
"One of the biggest things was optimizing what was already there and taking care of the low-hanging fruit that would create quick results," he said.
On JacksonWhite's pages, Christensen noted there was an abundance of long-tail content through blog posts on the site. He found that these were generating high amounts of traffic, not necessarily based on keywords the vendor had targeted.
"They were just posts that naturally started ranking for specific phrases," he explained.
Right away, one of the biggest things Christensen and the team did to increase traffic was to take the most popular blog posts and optimize the content in them to be more searchable. This included elements such as:
- Body content
- Keyword phrases
Christensen added titles and headings to pages that included specific phrases potential clients in the target market in each practice area would be searching for.
"Everything on the page, we kind of focused those on the phrases that were likely to bring in more traffic. And so instead of creating new content from scratch, we kind of updated what we had, and that alone resulted in a pretty big improvement right away," he said.
Step #4. Revamp keyword strategy
As a provider of legal services to the public, the team found that people were searching specific geographic areas and specific types of lawyers and attorneys for their unique situation.
"So for criminal defense, there are variations of defense lawyers and criminal attorneys, and then we’re based in Mesa, but we're also a part of the Phoenix metro area. So we have to balance how much we're targeting Mesa and Phoenix, and then the state in general," he explained.
For a more granular focus, Christensen targets keywords based on what specific searches people are doing when looking for a lawyer.
"But then, when we get into specific areas and long-tail phrases, we try to look at what people are searching, if they are searching for specific statutes or specific situations that they're in," he explained.
The wording and phrasing of legal terms can get complicated, and unless a customer has a law degree, the average client likely has very little to no working legal knowledge.
To address this concern, the team "tried to figure out what the lay terms are for those areas and write content to meet the needs of these people and meet them at the level they're looking for."
While tackling these fixes to help improve search results for the firm, the team also worked on changes that would possibly take months to implement.
Part of that effort was meeting with the attorneys at JacksonWhite one-on-one and determining what their goals were for better serving their clients.
"Our meetings with the attorneys helped us better understand our clientele. This allowed us to optimize our content to make it relative for our target market," Witte said. "For example, our criminal attorneys are abreast of which offenses are being charged the most at a certain time of year and which days of the week people are most likely to receive their criminal citation in the mail."
Step #5. Fix Google penalties
After taking an audit of what was already in place from the external vendor and reworking the keyword strategy as well as the content, Christensen was alerted of another problem the vendor had left behind.
"When I first started talking to [Witte] about the site, she had mentioned that the site had been penalized in the past, maybe in 2012. And so when I was doing an SEO audit, and looking at the back links, and looking at the kind of linking strategies that the previous vendors had taken, I noticed quite a few that you would call red flags," he said.
The backlinks that were called into question were located on vendor websites, and the penalty was manual, meaning a Google team member personally reviewed the site and determined that it breached one or more of Google's guidelines.
The firm was hit with another penalty in March 2014, and Christensen sought to fix the problem.
He conducted research to see where JacksonWhite was being linked from and identified the sites where the links must be removed to avoid another penalty.
"Some of that was contacting these vendors to get links taken down. A lot of it was trying to send emails out to the website owners to have them take down the links. We had quite a bit of success in taking down the bad links that we had thought were causing the penalty," he explained.
For the remainder of the low-quality sites where JacksonWhite was backlinked on or unnaturally linked, the team sifted carefully through them to find those links and remove them.
After one month, they gathered all of the information they had on their process of removing links and submitted a request to Google to lift the penalty.
After five weeks, the penalty was removed and the team was happily surprised and ready to move forward.
"Since then, we're still kind of recovering from that, and our traffic in some areas still needs to get to the place where we were before as far as the penalty. But in other areas, we've surpassed that traffic," he said.
Step #6. Test website and PPC elements
To find what really works for the firm online, Christensen implemented testing to discover more insights about potential customers.
Christensen personally keeps a spreadsheet of all the different experiments he runs and shares results with the marketing team to show them what is and isn't working. He focuses on content on the homepages for the different practice areas of JacksonWhite, particularly looking at what different geographic emphasis has on conversion.
"I mess around with if it's better to focus on Mesa and rank a little higher in Mesa or if it's better to focus on Phoenix," he said.
Also, the team tests creating new pages and having redirects from old pages to new ones in an effort to update content effectively without deleting valuable information.
"We also messed around with internal linking to see what strategy would put the most focus on the most important areas. A lot of those would take 30 to 60 days to see any kind of improvement," Christensen explained.
If the team saw improvement, they would keep those changes and work to further optimize their efforts. On the other hand, if a test did not show improvement, the team would go back to the drawing board and see if they could determine why the decrease happened and how to move forward.
The team also turned to testing their PPC ads to find the best performing options that would yield traffic to the site.
"We would just test the ads themselves to see what copy resulted in higher clickthrough rates. With that, it was a lot of seeing what other terms people are talking about and what kind of selling points we could fit into our ads," he said.
Compared to the PPC campaigns that the vendor was running when he joined the team, JacksonWhite's clickthrough rates and lead generation rates are significantly better than they used to be:
December 2013 (first full month of new PPC campaigns):
Leads from PPC: 36
Leads from PPC: 81
"That was one area of improvement that I think, and with vendors, they kind of give you a one-size-fits-all PPC campaign. It doesn't always have the ads and the unique kind of testing that you need to keep improving your campaigns week after week," Christensen said.
"We would never, ever go back to using vendors. We had four or five people that we were in contact with. And now, we have one person that we can talk to every day and that goes face-to-face in front of the attorneys and speak to them. I could not promote having an in-house digital marketer enough. It's probably the best decision we've ever made," Witte said.
After taking its digital marketing in-house, JacksonWhite saw significant improvements in traffic:
- 70% lift in traffic in 15 months
- 65% lift in organic traffic
- No Google penalties
- Approximately $40,000 saved in marketing spend
Having the ability to constantly update and optimize efforts at JacksonWhite has also been a key benefit.
"I think that you're seeing SEO, in general, changing from this quick fix to this long-term process and having someone in-house that can constantly nurture that and understand the long-term goals — where the campaign is going — is the only way to really be successful with that," Witte said.
Looking to the future, the firm is hoping to expand its SEO program through internships and applying lessons learned from the team to all practice areas of JacksonWhite. Overall, the effort has led to more collaboration and communication with the marketing department to help put JacksonWhite on the radar of clients seeking legal services.
"With a business that's as complex as ours is, we really needed someone to come and understand the intricate things that go on that might be difficult to communicate to a vendor. So, I think the biggest thing that changed was how much communication went on between the marketing team and myself," Christensen concluded.
Related ResourcesMarketing Research Chart: 64% of marketers run all SEO campaigns in-houseMarketing Research Chart: In-house expertise challenges to landing page optimizationPPC Marketing: Two accidents reduce cost per lead 20%PPC Marketing: Testing value proposition messaging increases clickthrough 88%