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Are Solos Priced Out of SEO?

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Last week, I shared some of the internet marketing lessons learned by online marketing companies. The bottom line: internet advertising can be pricey especially for small companies. This week, I’m publishing an article by Conrad Saam, founder of Mockingbird Marketing who asks whether solo attorneys are priced out of SEO.  What do you think?

Last week I wrote a post on Lawyerist outlining the changing economics of the legal search marketing game, expressing my concern (and frustration) that BigLaw is increasingly choking the solo practitioner out of the SEO game.

The posts genesis originated in my experience running an agency over the past year. I’m fortunate to belong to tight knit group (counted on one hand) of legal SEO professionals who run smaller agencies and deliver solid results for their clients. At geek conferences, we drink microbrews and share thoughts about the direction of search, rail against FindLaw contracts and trade tips about online project management systems.

And we share a deep dark secret:  our target market – those clients who make up the perfect client profile – does NOT include solos.

Its not that we dislike solos, not that we wouldn’t take a solo, or that being a solo would immediately disqualify a prospect . . . but . . . by and large, solos can’t afford us.  And its not because we are greedy and overpriced – its because the investment required to be successful in search exceeds the solos’ budget.  Which really means, solos can’t afford to play in the Search Engine Optimization game. Through trial and error, we’ve learned that delivering strong results in a competitive market (think PI or any moderately large city), lawyers need to make a monthly investment of $3,000 to $6,000.  This is simply beyond the marketing budget reality of your typical solo practitioner.

I’m very concerned that we’ve reached a point in time where solos can’t compete in the SEO game simply because they can’t afford the investment required to deliver success.

Back in 2006, when I first started in legal marketing at Avvo, one of our common refrains was that the web was the great equalizer.  We cited solo firms who were aggressively and successfully competing with BigLaw on the strength of an effective online presence.

Big Firm vs. Solo Practitioner

Let me profile a solo practitioner, Damian Turco, who, if anyone can make it, he can. Damian has recently sold a practice in Florida and is opening up a different practice in Boston.  He’s an attorney, very experienced in SEO theory and tactics, starting entirely from scratch. Damian is technical, analytical, inquisitive and ready to take a risk – ideal qualities for a search marketer. He’s so good that we wouldn’t take him on as a retainer search client because frankly he knows almost as much as we do.


Boston is a large, technically city with a saturated personal injury market If the playing field isn’t level for Damian vs the Boston big firms, it sure on earth isn’t level for your standard lawyer with only a rudimentary understanding of search concepts.

The Big Question

Can a solo practitioner, in a competitive market like Personal Injury compete? Can Damian – who puts an inordinate amount of his own time doing SEO for his site compete with huge Boston firms like Lubin and Meyer (13 attorneys), Parker Scheer (11 attorneys) or Sugarman (10 attorneys)?  Large firms spending large dollars are increasingly saturating the search results in big city markets. Firms like this are increasingly employing in house content and technical teams; I’m increasingly bumping into them at geeky SEO conferences.

My Boston results for “boston personal injury attorney” returned eight different law firms with an average lawyer count of 7.  There was only one solo in the results – supported by a Justia site (in fact Justia-powered sites accounted for 75% of the law firm results – the only FindLaw result was their directory.

 SugarmanHere’s my primary concern:  No matter how smart Damian is or how hard he works – in the face of such sophisticated, aggressive and savvy competition – how is he to build more links, generate more (quality) content, garner more positive reviews than the Sugarmans of the world? The scale of what these firms can deliver simply dwarfs the solos in their marketplace – oh and those solos should be spending most of their time actually working with clients, instead of chasing the latest algo changes.

Ultimately, the return on investment for SEO isn’t there until law firms hit a minimum spend threshold.  That threshold is increasingly is and out of reach of more and more solo practitioners.

  • Bill

    As usual, an interesting post. A few thoughts:
    1. As I noted in commenting on an earlier post, my clients (and target clients) don’t select counsel based on internet search. I wonder if anyone has even rough statistics on what percentage of solos target clients who select counsel based on internet searches? Most, few? Just curious.
    2. There seems to be a great deal of “How to Do SEO Yourself” literature out there. Again, just curious, but glancing at a couple of those articles, it doesn’t seem that hard. Am I missing a reason why a solo with spare time can’t do it themselves?
    3. I loved the post’s characterization of firms with 1o or 13 lawyers as “huge.” 🙂
    4. Again, curious, what percentage of clients who select counsel based on internet search pick based on their first hit, compared to those who actually read the website? That is, a solo might pop up in a Boston search, but perhaps the huge firm would have a perceived quality advantage?

  • Paul Spitz

    And another — what exactly does $40,000 to $75,000 a year get you? What is the ROI? Do you guys guarantee a percentage of phone calls or client meetings?

  • Larry Port

    The right way to think about budgeting IMO is to determine what your average lifetime value (LTV) per client is. That means all revenue generated for your typical clients, subtracting out your gross margin. Your LTV should be roughly 5 times what you’re spending to acquire the customer. So if a customer’s LTV is $10,000, then you should be spending about $2,000 to acquire them.

  • Paul Spitz

    That’s kind of a generic concept. What I was really asking was how spending $75,000 on SEO going to get clients to pick up the phone and call. And how many — does $50,000 get 200 client calls, while $75,000 gets 250 calls? How do I know this is better than the publicity that comes from piling $75,000 in the middle of the street and setting it on fire?

  • Larry Port

    First off, see my comment above re SEO being past its prime. And let’s be clear, as one person calls it, it’s GSO (google search optimization), not SEO.

    You would spend $75K on SEO presumably only if you knew that $75K on SEO could directly be tied to $375K in LTV. I have yet to hear of anyone being able to claim that, however.

    When you start getting rigorous with that mentality, you start quickly narrowing down where you spend and where you don’t, as you should really have a dollar for dollar understanding of your return.

    If you do set $75K on fire in the middle of the street, let me know and I will RT it.

  • Paul Spitz

    Exactly, and that’s really the problem with so much advertising and marketing — you spend a ridiculous amount of money up front and on an ongoing basis, with no assurance of any ROI. What’s the old saying? Half of all advertising works, I just don’t know which half.

    That was part of the allure of Groupon and similar services. Businesses didn’t have to pay any money upfront, and anything paid was in proportion to the response rate. The downside was that the customers were all bottom-feeders looking for the lowest price.

  • Larry Port

    Actually, digital advertising has pretty deterministic results. If you combine this with a site designed to convert potential clients, and know what KPIs to pay attention to, NOW you have a reliable source of new business.

  • Edward J Winslow

    Perhaps the solo needs to JV their efforts. There’s always a solution or they can join you at the Micro Brew and just cry in their beer.

  • Solo practitioners can compete by out-writing their competitors. Many lawyers actually enjoy writing, and this simple exercise, writing about their craft, is what Google wants, inevitably. if a solo practitioner dedicated themselves to writing one (or two, go crazy!) articles pertaining to their practice every week, eventually they would become noticed by Google to the point where organic results in many keywords expressions will result. The soloist may never achieve page one for “Litigation attorney” but they might do well in other more specific keywords. But expensive SEO consultants (like myself!) can’t do this for them.
    (great article by the way, as is Conrad Saam’s)

  • Mike F

    I use SEO extensively and paid about $7,500 for my website, blog weekly (adding new content) and hired a professional SEO firm for 2k per month to do offsite linkebuilding, create call to action forms, tweak metadata and tags etc. Result, my phone rings constantly. My job is to close the deal. I would say 80% of my clients come in from the internet. Probably 750K per year in revenue. So, what you get for the 50k is 750K in my case. I would focus on your geographic area. Use Google Keyword planner to determine how many times people are searching for something in your ares (i.e Denver injury lawyer, Denver injury attorney, Denver accident lawyer, Denver Criminal defense etc.) Corporate clients will not find you this way but car accident and criminal clients will google these terms on their smart phones and come in and sign your engagement letter.

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