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Steve Matthews of Stem Legal [LexBlog Q & A]

February 1, 2008

Capping off this week’s run of the LexBlog Q & A is an interview with Steve Matthews of Stem Legal. Steve is a Canadian search engine optimization specialist with an expertise in helping lawyers establish a strong presence on the web. The focus of our e-mail exchange? You guessed it…SEO.

Steve has the experience to back up his claims: he served for almost 10 years as Knowledge Services Director for Clark Wilson LLP, and has been winning awards for his web development strategies since 2001.

1. Rob La Gatta: In layman’s terms, what is the purpose of search engine optimization?

Steve Matthews: Keeping this as jargon free as possible, I would say ‘SEO’ or search engine optimization is about using search engines like Google to expose ‘something’ to the right audience. When it comes to marketing professional services, that ‘something’ can refer to the firm brand, a service line, a lawyer’s individual profile, articles & content, or some combination thereof.

Firms that employ an SEO strategy build a portfolio of search terms targeted around their subject or service expertise. Those firms know exactly which phrases are being searched for because they utilize keyword research tools. Pages are selected as ‘landing pages’ for particular keyword combinations, and then optimized to rank well. And to rank well, pages must be properly coded to reflect the subject of choice, and more importantly, be cited – via links – from other web pages on that same topic.

2. Rob La Gatta: As the Internet expands and the value of high search rankings becomes more apparent, it seems like there are a lot of so-called “SEO specialists” coming out of the woodwork. How can someone tell whether an SEO consultant is legitimate?

Steve Matthews: I would start with a cursory review of their work. Ask to see a comparable client in a different market, and see how their site ranks. While requests for client confidentiality do occur, most professionals should be able to give samples of their work.

I would also listen to their proposed strategies, and specifically how they intend to acquire links to your website. Remember, your site will be evaluated by the company you keep. I would also make sure they understand marketing professional services, and have experience beyond product-based search marketing.

The difficult part of the evaluation will be telling if the practitioner has the skill to rank for highly competitive search phrases. I would ask to see some of their top results for two word search phrases. Rankings gets increasingly difficult as the number of words in the search decreases. If he or she can hit a top-10 rankings for two word searches (and preferably two words that combine for a recognizable phrase), that would be a good sign they are capable to building your firm a ‘portfolio’ of three word searches.

One last hint: if you’re not sure which searches are competitive, have a look at the number of accompanying advertisements or ‘sponsored links’ on the right hand side of the page. Paid results almost always correspond with desirable, and usually competitive, search terms.

3. Rob La Gatta: What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about SEO and its purpose?

Steve Matthews: One of the biggest misconceptions I come across is the belief that SEO is somehow based upon programming tricks. I routinely run into people who believe that SEO is no more than stuffing keywords into the meta tags or title tags, or that if you *gasp* stuff keywords into your marketing copy you’ll get to the top of search results.

My take is that a successful search strategy can be broken down into: 30% on-page factors, and 70% off-page factors. It’s much more important to have a quality network of links coming into your website than to let someone alter your message. And when you do hit those top rankings, it’s the pages with quality copy that will convert to leads.

Here are the facts: Marketing copy should be drafted for its intended audience, and always be natural. A good SEO should be able to work with clean copy and make it rank. That doesn’t mean that on-page factors aren’t important – as an example, well designed title tags are very important – but a good rule of thumb in my books is that SEO should never trump exposing your firm brand or alter your marketing copy.

4. Rob La Gatta: I’ve read that blogs naturally perform better in search engines than static websites. Do you believe this is true? If so, why?

Steve Matthews: Not to be picky, but we must compare apples to apples here.

Blog software is classed as a Content Management System, or “CMS”, and most modern CMS products already have the on-page SEO factors baked into their product. If we’re talking about hand-coding static web pages, then yes, a developer could overlook some of the basics – which would make it seem like blogging software has an advantage. But otherwise, most web designers will employ a CMS, and these products can compete with blog software.

The practice of blogging, however, does bring a number of attributes to the table that are unique.

First of all, blogs are content based marketing, and the breadth of content that a blog can deliver is very powerful. What many people are calling the long tail, blogs allow an author to cast a very wide net around their subject of expertise. And it’s this ever-growing body of work that gets indexed within the search engines.

Situated properly, a professional blog can build individual lawyer’s profile, and work as a more casual lead-in tool for the firm’s website, which is geared more toward services, expertise and experience. In other words, get to know the lawyer in question, and then decide if that person is qualified. Even with SEO, you must consider the entire online decision making process.

The second SEO factor I’ll note is the number of trusted citations that blogs produce. Lawyers need to understand that links are the currency of the web, and that blogs are not just a publication opportunity. If they were, why wouldn’t you just convert all your newsletters into blog software? It doesn’t work. It’s only when blog authors engage the social side of blogging, and begin to link out to other bloggers (who eventually reciprocate) that blogs begin to have a dominant effect on the search results.

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