Why Law Firm Websites Need Structured Search Engines

Have you ever typed a phrase into Google only to end up with wildly unrelated results?

For example, searching for “plot of 1984” yields a line graph showing that y =1,984. That probably doesn’t help students who are looking for a synopsis of their summer reading.

If you’ve experienced something like this, you know how frustrating it can be. But if it happens when clients use the search bar on your firm’s website, it’s more than an inconvenience—it could actually hurt your business.

Why Your Search Bar Matters

Law firms must demonstrate expertise to win clients, and that means being able to provide answers to their questions. Thanks to shrinking attention spans, you’ve got to do it faster now than ever before. Experts estimate a website has about three seconds to grab the attention of visitors. Otherwise, they’ll find the information elsewhere and take their business with them.

Of course, returning accurate search results for legal questions can be quite challenging. Law firm websites mix a wide variety of content: attorney bios, practice descriptions, details on legal matters, and legislation—and often use complicated legal jargon. It’s no wonder the 2014 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey found that users felt a sense of information overload when it came to online legal content.

Most firms use basic search engines to help visitors sift through content on their sites, but these engines don’t work well for sites with lots of legal information. To deliver the content visitors want when they want it, your firm’s website needs a more structured search engine.

Two Types of Search Engines

Basic search engines treat all content equally. They crawl through the full text of webpages and return results without sorting by content type.

If you search for “Plessy v. Ferguson” using a basic search engine, you’re just as likely to come across a fifth-grader’s web project on the case as you are to find an attorney’s interpretation of this case. A basic search engine simply doesn’t recognize the difference.

In contrast, a structured search engine differentiates between content types. It can distinguish between content written by the firm’s partner and a blog post from a summer associate. When it sorts results, a structured search engine gives weight to the most credible and relevant sources.

A structured search engine will help users wade through an ocean of legal information and can provide category-specific searches (e.g., a filtered list of attorneys) or general content searches (e.g., all articles related to tort law). It can also give special treatment to legal terms, phrases, and acronyms to ensure relevant search results.

Coupled with a user-friendly site design, a structured search engine provides a harmonious experience. Visitors should be able to navigate intuitively with the fewest number of clicks possible.

But a structured search engine doesn’t just keep site visitors happy; it can also empower your firm’s marketing strategy. For example, you can weight results to play to your firm’s strengths by prioritizing content from a particular subject matter expert to highlight his specialty.

Use these six steps to successfully implement a structured search bar and reap the benefits:

  1. Categorize your content. Start by identifying and sorting the different types of content on your website. What are the key searchable attributes for attorneys? Press about recent legal matters? Blog posts? Each of these should be treated differently in search engine results.
  2. Describe the best user experience. Consider what your users are looking for. Do they want to see simple search results such as a list of all articles on a particular topic? Or would most want to perform a category search that could provide detailed listings of your firm’s services?
  3. Define search query criteria. You can create fields to help users search for an attorney by her first and last name, practice specialty, bar admissions, law school, clerkships, office, or language (to name just a few). Or you could simply provide a keyword search by content type.
  4. Consider alternative search terms. As you plan your search query criteria, remember that users may search for things using different terms. To illustrate, if one of your attorneys is named Bob Smith, make sure users can also find him by searching for “Robert Smith” or “Bobby Smith.” Maiden names and nicknames are also important to consider.
  5. Accommodate multiple languages. If your site employs more than one language, determine how to display multilingual search results. One easy option is to have the browser detect users’ default language settings and translate accordingly, but this rarely works for law firm websites. Instead, ensure your search engine fully supports multiple languages and handles accented characters appropriately.
  6. Identify key content ranking rules. Rank does matter, so you could create a rule that content written by partners always appears before associates’ content in search results. Or you might emphasize your firm’s specialty area by giving certain content more weight within the search parameters.

Two exceptional examples of search technology on modern websites are Winston & Strawn and Bryan Cave. I encourage you to explore search on these sites to see how all of the above can fit together for an optimal search user experience.

Users expect law firms to provide fast, clear answers to their questions, and a structured search bar will help your firm do just that. By helping visitors find the information they need quickly, you’ll set your firm apart and win over clients.

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