Originally Published in TLOMA Today's December 2011 Issue.
A little while back I wrote an article on what not to do when search engine optimizing and promised a follow up on best practices. That article got me thinking more about what it means to be Optimized (Capital O) and the consequences thereof. By its very definition, SEO is the art of building a website in such a way that search engines enjoy the reading material and reward you for it. And it is here where there is a bit of a disconnect between the means and the ends. This is not saying that appeasing the search engine gods isn’t important – for certain areas of law (Personal Injury, Family Law, etc.), it’s essential to rank well, but it is more essential that you connect with your target audience. And for that I think it’s time we stop talking so much about SEO and start implementing a CEO strategy, or what we at Cubicle Fugitive affectionately refer to as Client Experience Optimization.
We’ve all heard the stories about the wonders of SEO and how if you stuff your website with every keyword you can think of and get every external link available and make your titles long and onerous and ensure that there are 20 hyphenated keywords in your URL, Google will probably call you directly to say thanks. The truth is, some of this works, meaning, unfortunately, that Google’s index is literally littered with obtuse and challenging websites that rank well for a chosen keyword but fail in every other category.
Client Experience Optimization, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on beating the system and tricking search engines into giving out high rankings; it focuses, instead, on accurately demonstrating your thought leadership and level of authoritative expertise through meaningful content and strategic design. By focusing your website on information that is relevant to your clients and presenting it in an easily consumable fashion you are actually performing SEO by osmosis and subsequently improve your chances of making the all-important client connection.
No matter where your clients are coming from—whether it is referrals, search engines, direct advertising, whatever—it’s not really about SEO. It’s about building a website that enhances the client experience and invites them to make contact. SEO experts will say, “Give me 6 months to optimize your website and Google will love you”. In some cases this is true and a website will rocket up the rankings. The problem is that these optimizations favour machine reading over cognitive understanding. The whole point of having a website is to make a connection with your visitor and engage them in a relevant conversation that demonstrates that you have the expertise and knowledge to address the need for which they have visited your site. It is obviously important that we first get a visitor to your site, but it is more important that that same visitor enjoys the experience—that is, they are greeted with a professional and eye-pleasing design, can quickly and easily find the information they need and are properly funnelled to any calls to action.
To truly optimize the client experience you need to think as the client would (or think as you do when you’re the client). Try to understand what the client is looking for and provide it to them in a simple and intuitive manner. If your clients are the type that are wowed by bells and whistles then you may have to cater to that circus, but for the most part, people come to a website looking for an answer to a question: Can the people behind this website solve my problem? Odds are you can, so prove it to them. Give them the information that uniquely identifies your firm as the right solution to their issues and present that information where they can see it. It’s ok to put a few keywords in the context of your answer (and to be honest, if you’ve answered the question correctly the keywords are already there). To get keywords into your title ensure that your title properly reflects the answer you’re giving and the keywords will take care of themselves. Use a content management system for your website architecture and the URL will already be SEO friendly. Ensure everything your website stands for—every piece of content, every bell, most whistles—are all used for the purpose of improving the client experience.
CEO is true for both the hyper competitive search engine-reliant site and sites that are mostly referral and word-of-mouth dependent. After all, the visitor to both of these sites is similar in one important aspect: they’re human. Make the site easy to use and your visitor will thank you for it. Make the site a jumbled mess of keywords and 2000 character URLs and that same visitor/human will more than likely hit the back button and choose the competitor that is two slots down on the Google ranking chart, but has readily available, relevant and grammatically correct content.
Please don’t take this post the wrong way (and don’t take me for a fence sitter either!): SEO is important, sites need exposure to succeed. If a beautifully designed website falls in a forest, and no one ever visits it…well, you get the idea. So SEO is an important tool for the marketing tool belt. What’s more important though, and what is the true measure of success, is not the amount of traffic but the amount of conversions and for that you need to focus not on what a search engine likes to see but what the client experience should be. After all, how many search engine spiders do you currently count as clients? Kalvin MacLeod is a principle in the marketing firm Cubicle Fugitive (www.cubiclefugitive.com) and has many years of experience dealing with the unique time constraints of law firm marketing. He also runs the online legal directory TorontoLawyers.ca (www.torontolawyers.ca). Oddly enough, in another life, he was the IT manager for a few downtown firms and still wakes up on occasion from nightmares about the possibility of blackberry servers crashing and other sordid tales. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.