Lawyers know reputation can make or break a practice. In this post, we review key strategies to consider when managing your firm’s reputation in online search results.
Approximate Read Time: 11 Minutes
Running a law practice may be a bit different than operating a boutique, restaurant, or other business. However, law firms of all sizes are just like any business in that your online reputation can directly impact your future business growth and success.
Did you know that nearly 90% of consumers read others’ reviews before visiting a local business? According to a 2020 survey by Bright Local, it’s true. The average consumer reported reading 10 reviews before trusting a business. Additionally, 79% of consumers reported that they trust online reviews just as much as they trust a personal recommendation from a friend or family member.
Even before the rise of the digital consumer (or digital client), it was no surprise that reputation matters in the legal industry. Lawyers often handle high-stakes matters for clients facing some of the most challenging circumstances of their lives. Professionalism, integrity, and legal acumen have always been important to clients and the rise of our online society only has changed the information available to clients when evaluating these qualities. Thus, an active approach to managing your online reputation – both before and after a review – is key to positioning your practice for long-term success. Developing an action plan in key areas can help position you to successfully build, and protect, your reputation in the Google search results – a place where your potential clients are certainly looking.
Proactively Manage Your Namespace
Try Googling yourself or your law firm name. What are the results? Are they all you? Are they all positive? When you manage your namespace on the web, the goal is to have pages you prefer rank well in these Google search results and push anything negative away from the first page. How do you do this?
Optimize Your Website for the Law Firm and Lawyers’ Names
At a minimum, you want to have a strong website that is search engine optimized. Ideally, this website will be the first organic result when someone searches for you and your firm online. You can increase the odds that your site performs well in these searches by putting your firm name and lawyers’ names into the title tags of some of your web pages.
Law Firm Name: To optimize for your law firm name, place it into the <title> tag of your home page. It does not necessarily need to be the first term, but it should be somewhere within the <title> tag. For example: “Los Angeles Personal Injury Lawyers | California Medical Malpractice Attorneys | Sampras & Jordon”
Lawyers’ Names: For lawyers, you might not rank for your name if it is common, or the same as a celebrity. But you should be able to rank for your name in most cases where it is included with the word “lawyer.” To help manage the individual attorney’s namespace, place the attorney’s name with the word “lawyer” in the <title> tag of their bio page. For example “Matthew Jackson | Chicago Criminal Lawyer | Sampras & Jordon” should rank for a search of Matthew Jackson lawyer.
Of course, for any page to rank in Google, having high-quality content is important. Writing strong attorney biographies and a strong home page is going to be very important for search engine rankings. You want to ensure that this content is also original because search engines discount duplicate content and this can hurt your performance.
Optimize Lawyer & Law Firm Directory, Social Media and Business Directory Profiles
In addition to a strong website presence, you will want to claim your profiles on the various lawyer & law firm directories and business directories – and there are plenty.
Lawyer Profiles: For individual attorneys, you can start by getting listed for free in the Justia Lawyer Directory. Then, you will want to fully complete your profile. You can also claim your profile and update your listings on other directory sites, such as Avvo, FindLaw, LawLink, Lawyers.com, and Martindale.com. You should write unique biography descriptions for each of these sites to reduce any duplicate content issues and to increase the probability of having each of them rank in Google.
Law Firm Profiles: Law firm profiles in legal and business directories can also be completed and optimized to help manage the namespace.
First, claim and complete your Google My Business (GMB) profile. Law firm GMB profiles often show up in the large knowledge panel of a Google search result page. More information on the importance of a GMB profile can be found here, while additional guidance on completing your profile can be found in this recent blog post.
Business directory tools, like WhiteSpark and Yext, can help you quickly claim your profile across an array of business directories online. If you truly want to control your law firm’s namespace, you will want unique text on the profiles for these business directories. WhiteSpark helps you claim and get the individual logins to the profiles, where you can then add unique text to these profiles. Many law firms use Yext to get their core NAP (Name, Address, and Phone Number) consistent and then use WhiteSpark or personally claiming the profiles on higher ranking business directories, such as Yelp, to add unique text and content.
While not a necessity, it is helpful to link to these lawyer and business profiles on your website, blog, or other profiles to help Google find, index, and rank them higher.
Social Media Profiles: Social Media profiles, in particular Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, often rank high in Google search results for law firms and lawyer names. At a minimum, lawyers should have LinkedIn profiles, and law firms should have both LinkedIn and Facebook profiles as these are considered authoritative by Google. These profiles can also result in direct business and referrals from your social media networks. Any social media profile you want to be associated with your law firm should be filled out and link to the law firm’s home page URL. Also, make sure that these profiles are set to be discoverable and public so that Google and other search engines can find and index them.
Due to the transient nature of social media, it often requires a different approach than other digital platforms. We will offer detailed guidance on social media reputation management in a future blog post. In the meantime, the key basics to remember are to avoid posting about controversial topics (unless unavoidable for reasons relating to your practice), do not argue or fight on social media (this will not work in your favor), and do not post anything you would not want to go viral.
Other Web Content
In addition to optimizing your website and proactively claiming legal and business profiles, you can seek out content that will positively impact your namespace online, and you can seek to remove negative content about you or your firm.
Positive Content: Other positive content often includes non-directory profiles, such as articles about the firm or lawyers written in local newspapers, profiles about your practice with law schools, speaker profiles at conferences, or other positive online mentions. As with legal and business directories, it is helpful to link to these mentions from your website or other profiles.
Negative Content: While much of what is posted online is shared anonymously, if you know who is posting negative comments about you or your firm, you can simply ask that person to remove their statements. This may not always work and, depending on the poster, could have unintended consequences. Especially in tense or emotionally charged situations, this person may choose to double down on their prior statements, post more negative commentary, or even attempt to tell everyone online that you have asked them to remove the content. As such, you should carefully evaluate whether you wish to directly contact an individual who has shared negative commentary about you online.
You might also ask a website owner or webmaster to remove the content. This courteous course of action may have some mixed results. Many sites and local organizations do not want to harm your business and may take action accordingly. However, they are not necessarily obligated to remove information solely because you do not want it out there. Some might also inform the original content poster of the request, which could lead to the situation in the previous paragraph of potential unintended consequences. But it is certainly an option to ask the website provider directly to remove the content or at least remove it from being indexed by Google and other search engines.
Alternatively, you can explore other options for removing content. Do what you do best and research laws that may help you in this situation. For example, copyright may not be the first thing that comes to mind when addressing unflattering negative commentary about your or your practice online. While you certainly do not want to frivolously claim a copyright issue, under certain circumstances, a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) claim may be a viable route to removing some content if it is yours and posted without your consent. DMCAs can be filed both with the website owner and with Google to remove content from the Google index. You may also consider other legal recourse, such as a defamation suit, if the law and circumstances suggest that is an appropriate action for the situation.
Managing Online Reviews
Regardless of whether you control your namespace online, you will also need to be aware of the online reviews that will display in the search results. As the statistics show, reviews play a big role in consumer behavior. While positive reviews are great, negative reviews are dreaded among all businesses, including lawyers.
If you have spent any time searching the web for another lawyer or firm, you have likely seen a negative review about a law firm – whether it was from a disgruntled former client, a pro se litigant who felt they got the short end of the stick, or even a random person who appears to have some sort of grudge. However, it is likely that you have also seen a former client gushing about the wonderful representation they received. A plan for managing reviews is crucial to effectively managing your online reputation.
The first step to managing your online reviews is knowing the places to monitor for reviews. For attorneys, reviews can be placed on various sites. You will certainly want to monitor your reviews on GMB, as these will undoubtedly appear in the Google results. You should also keep an eye out for reviews that may display in other search engines, such as reviews left with Bing Places. Depending on where you are located in the country, you may also want to monitor your Yelp reviews. You will also want to keep track of reviews on legal websites, such as the Avvo, Justia Lawyer Directory, and other legal directories. Users may also submit reviews on some social media sites, such as Facebook.
Removing & Flagging
If you have received a negative review, the first thing you will want to consider is whether the review violates some sort of community standard that would warrant removal. For example, GMB prohibits any review that violates Google’s content policies. This includes reviews that are not actually related to your business or that are offensive, obscene, sexually explicit, contain dangerous or derogatory content, or otherwise include prohibited content. You can flag such a review for further review and possible removal by Google. However, it is important to remember that removal is not guaranteed, even after you flag a review.
Likewise, Yelp allows you to flag and request removal of reviews that violate the Yelp content guidelines. These guidelines prohibit content that is irrelevant, inappropriate, plagiarized, promotional, or that otherwise represents a conflict of interest or invasion of privacy.
Similarly, you may be able to have reviews removed from some lawyer directory sites or even social media sites. For example, Avvo and Justia do not remove reviews simply because they are unflattering. However, we both require that all client reviews come from actual clients. If you have a review on your profile that was not submitted by your client or former client, you can notify Justia to initiate the investigation process and request removal. The same is true for Avvo on their platform. You should check the terms of service and content guidelines for each platform so that you can better understand which types of reviews may be inappropriate or subject to removal.
More Positive Reviews
Another tactic for addressing negative reviews is simply to squash the review. Most consumers understand one or two bad reviews amongst a sea of good reviews. Thus, you can lessen the impact of negative reviews by getting more positive reviews. You can never have too many positive, legitimate reviews of your practice.
You can even send requests to people asking that they review your services. Be sure that you understand the terms for the platform on which you are seeking more reviews to ensure that you do not run afoul of any content guidelines. Most services allow you to request client reviews, although Yelp prohibits review requests. When you request reviews, you should make sure you are requesting them from individuals who are qualified to review your practice, such as former clients and, if the platform allows, your attorney colleagues. These reviews should be genuine and use natural language instead of marketing terms.
Reply to Review
On most platforms, you can also reply to reviews, both negative and positive! For a positive review, you can respond thanking someone for their feedback. This can be a nice extra touch that helps build relationships and is good for your digital reputation. However, a negative review is where the response becomes highly important.
In the case of a negative review, a little customer service can go a long way. For example, if someone complains that you did not timely return their calls, you could consider leaving a response simply apologizing that the service they received fell below the standards you have set for your practice. If someone complains that you overcharged them, you could ask them to contact you to discuss the issue or perhaps even ultimately offer a refund, depending on the circumstances. You also could adopt a generic response that indicates your regret that someone is displeased and asks that they contact you to discuss the situation and find a solution.
Regardless of your approach, you must tread lightly when responding to reviews. Your response should always be polite and professional. Additionally, you must ensure that any response you may give is fully compliant with your state bar requirements and ethical obligations. Several state bar associations, and even the American Bar Association, have issued ethics opinions discussing the implications of responding to reviews online.
By some estimates, anywhere between 10% and 30% of online reviews are fake. Fake reviews, both negative and positive, can be a big deal in the online space. Fake negative reviews can seriously harm your business and fake positive reviews may get your business accounts suspended or even have legal consequences.
Spotting a Fake Review: To address fake reviews, you must be able to discern potential fake views. First, check the reviewer’s profile. Watch out for unusually limited information or strange locations where you do not generally offer your services. Also, keep an eye out for extreme or hyperbolic language (negative or positive), numerous typos, and unnatural language patterns.
Fake Negative Reviews: These reviews can be harmful to your reputation. You should immediately flag this review and ask for removal just as you would with any other review that violates a website’s content policies. In the meantime, you can offer a response to the review. As with any other review, you should be polite and professional in your response. If your state’s ethical rules permit, this is an opportune time to include in your response that you have no record of this individual as a client.
Fake Positive Reviews: Soliciting fake positive reviews may seem harmless, but can land you in serious trouble. It is almost certainly an impermissible practice under your state bar association’s ethical rules and can even get you into legal trouble. Also, your potential clients likely can tell something is off about a fake positive review. This only undermines public trust in your firm. If you have received an improper fake review, you can flag this review and ask for removal.
Reputation management may seem like an overwhelming issue to tackle. However, a little bit of planning will go a long way. Taking a proactive approach to controlling your online presence can ensure that you have a solid foundation and are prepared to react appropriately when faced with unexpected online criticism.