A question that I sometimes hear from lawyers, and more often hear being asked by companies that are trying to sell websites to lawyers, is whether a law firm should maintain more than one website for its practice. The short answer is "no".
The reasons against having multiple websites are compelling:
Cost - When you operate more than one website, you need to design, host and update each website, resulting in expenditures that will usually substantially exceed what it would cost to maintain a single website;
Local Search - With the rise of local search, major search engines want to associate your business with a single website, which will be the only site to show up in local and map-based search results for your business. To get more than one site listed in local search, you may have to create a second business entity.
Time - Maintaining a website is no longer a matter of putting a website online and forgetting about it. If you want to gain traffic through a means other than by purchasing ads, you need to ensure that your website is up-to-date, and regularly add quality relevant content.
Dilution of Organic Traffic - Every time somebody posts a link to your website, the link is effectively treated as a vote in favor of your website. The more votes you get, the more traffic that a search engine is likely to deliver. When you divide those votes across more than one website, you dilute the authority that could be directed at a single law firm site.
If your web design company is primarily promoting your website through advertising, and you don't care very much about building a brand or developing your site as a meaningful resource or authority, what can I say? It's your money, and you can spend it as you choose. But if you want a website that develops links and organic traffic, it makes sense to focus on developing a single, quality website.
A leading reason offered by website developers for multiple websites is that a law firm may have practice areas that are very different, such as a firm that handles corporate transactions and medical malpractice cases. Let's be real: if a company is pitching itself as having expertise in law firm marketing, but is coming up with examples like that, I have to question the firm's understanding of legal practice.
But let's work with the example:
Let's say that you're a law firm that has two very different practice areas. If your website developer is marketing your firm through advertisements, then when somebody searches for your firm the site associated with the keywords ad phrases associated with your ads will see the relevant website, and click through to that site. The same can be accomplished by having landing pages on your single website for each practice area.
But if your web designer is truly trying to serve your needs, your web design and content will include a strong effort to develop organic traffic -- that is, free traffic based upon people searching for information that appears on your website. Your prospective clients are also likely to search for you by name.
Organic Traffic - As previously mentioned, organic traffic is likely to be reduced by your development of multiple websites. But more than that, if you have practice-specific content on your website, an organic search should only produce the pages from your site that are relevant to the inquiry. Somebody searching for a business lawyer is going to find your business content, not your medical malpractice content.
Local Search - With local search focusing on a single website, if a prospective client searches for your law firm they are likely to see local results that include only one of your websites, and perhaps never become aware of your other practice areas or become confused about whether you in fact offer services not described on the listed website.
Searches for Your Name - When somebody searches for the name of a lawyer with your law firm, or searches for your firm by its name, in addition to any local results the organic results are likely to be drawn from all of your websites. If the point is to avoid having prospective clients know about the other side of your business, the use of multiple websites is not likely to be an effective strategy.
In short, the use of multiple websites makes no difference for your paid traffic, as you can direct prospective clients gained through your online marketing to the landing page of your choice, and it makes no difference to your organic traffic, because when a search would pull results from more than one practice area it will also pull results from more than one website.
Organic Marketing by Practice Area
I read the suggestion by a web design company that if a law firm is attempting to develop most of its organic traffic for a specific content area, it will benefit from having a dedicated site for that practice area rather than suggesting to prospective clients that it is somehow "unbalanced" by the fact that most of the website's content focuses on the primary practice area.
At least from the perspective of somebody who would end up paying for more than one website, the problem with that argument is that prospective clients will not be auditing your site to tally articles or blog posts on one practice area versus another. They are going to view the portions of the website relevant to their legal needs. If the client is confused by the presentation of the content on your website, the problem is not that you need a second website -- the problem is that you need a better website.
Another suggestion that I have heard is that a law firm might develop a marketing campaign for a specific legal issue that is likely to generate clients over the short-term, but not be a significant part of their practice in the longer term. The idea is that a law firm could build and promote a niche site for that specific practice area, with a URL that is going to be easy for clients to remember.
That is not a new concept. Back in the 1990's it was common for class action law firms to develop niche sites for every new prospective class action case that came along. But we no longer live in the 1990's, and the new reality is that unless you are very lucky your niche site is not likely to generate much, if any, organic traffic. If you're not planning on maintaining the niche site over the long term, it makes little sense to expend resources on the development and hosting of a site that you will ultimately throw away, while doing little to attract the clients that you most desire to your primary law firm website.
If you truly must have a special URL for your marketing campaign, why not simply have the URL that you're promoting redirect to a landing page on your existing website, directing your prospective clients to the appropriate page of your full website?
The question of whether an individual lawyer should have a website that is separate from their law firm's main website is one that should first be addressed within the law firm. Some individual lawyers have developed significant authority websites that attract clients to them, based upon the specialized, high-quality, expert content they create for their website or weblog. If a lawyer is going to maintain a website apart from the firm, what will happen if the lawyer leaves the firm? Does the website and its content stay with the firm, or will it belong to the lawyer and be carried forward into the lawyer's next venture?
If the lawyer is in an of counsel relationship, the nature of the relationship weighs in favor of the lawyer's having some independence in marketing and in owning and maintaining a separate website. But issues of ownership and control become considerably more complicated when a website is being developed by an associate or partner of a law firm, perhaps using law firm time or resources to support the site.
If an attorney who is joining the firm already owns a website, the terms under which the site may be maintained and developed should be addressed when the attorney is hired. If an attorney who already works within a law firm wants to develop a niche website, but under the law firm's policy the content of that site will be owned by the firm, the question returns to why the niche content cannot be made part of the main website.
When a law firm has offices in more than one location, local search supports including the firm's website in each physical office location. So what would be the advantage to a law firm for operating separate websites for each location? The theory appears to be that a law firm with a state law practice that crosses state lines might develop entirely separate and unique websites for each state.
The amount of work involved in creating that sort of unique web presence, and maintaining and updating the websites, likely has your web promoter salivating. If you make cookie cutter sites, sites that reproduce each other's content for each location, you won't get a search engine benefit -- you'll be sending a signal that your sites are poor in quality, and throwing your money away.
There is no reason why your firm cannot maintain information that is specific to more than one state's laws, while maintaining a single website that is clear and useful to consumers in every state of your practice. Meanwhile, you can build the authority for that single website and, over time, almost certainly generate and maintain more organic traffic than you could generate with multiple sites.
Although I come down quite strongly on the side of a law firm's maintaining a single website, that does not mean that I believe a law firm should limit its web presence to a single website. That is, I am strongly in favor of lawyers and law firms developing an Internet presence that gives them effective ownership of the top five to ten (or more) search results for their individual or law firm name.
I thus favor law firms and lawyers registering with directories (including the one on this website) to promote their practice areas and to generate leads and traffic for their primary website. I favor the development of basic social media pages, which may be updated to promote news or content that is posted on the law firm's main webpage. Why? As a basic matter of reputation management.
Some consumer review and complaint websites produce pages that fly to the top of the search results, and a single disgruntled client may be able to generate two or three prominent links that appear when somebody searches for a lawyer or firm. The more ownership that a lawyer or firm has of the top results, the less likely it is that embarrassing content is going to reach the top of the search results and be seen by prospective clients.