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Does Your Practice Have a Web Presence?
By Michael Shambaugh, CTO, ParticleWEB Services ( http://www.particleweb.com/ )

Many people talk about creating a "web site". I, instead, prefer to call it a "web presence". What's the difference? In a nutshell, a web presence is a complete, memorable, predictable presence on the Internet for your firm. A web presence is, by definition, easy to find initially, easy to get back to, and easy to interact with. The primary ways a web presence achieves these goals is by choosing a predictable web site address, using predictable and forgiving email addresses, and by providing more to its visitors than a print brochure translated to the World Wide Web.

A Predictable Site Address

To make your web presence easy to find initially, it must be accessed using a recognizable domain name. (The domain name is the part of your web site's address that usually includes the well known ".com". For instance, in the web site address http://www.particleweb.com, the domain name is "particleweb.com".) As the public becomes more and more familiar with using the Internet, they are becoming more savvy web surfers. Although search engines are still very heavily used, and will continue to be, many experienced web surfers are comfortable guessing at a web site address for a business they are already familiar with. Ideally, then, a potential customer of your firm should be able to simply type the name of your firm and add a ".com" to the end to be taken to your web site. For example, if your firm name is "Smith and Smith Partners", your ideal domain name would be something like "smithandsmithpartners.com". Although alternatives to ".com" (like ".org", ".biz", ".info", and many others) are available, I don't recommend their use. They're not widely enough known, as opposed to ".com", the use of which pervades the media and ordinary discussion in reference to the internet. More importantly, you should avoid long, difficult web site addresses that feature, at best, a severe abbreviation of your firm's name combined with the domain name of the provider, like those offered through some ISPs and web site aggregators like GeoCities and Homestead. The web site address "http://www.smithandsmithpartners.com" is much more recognizable and memorable than "http://www.smithasmithp.homestead.com".

Beyond being recognizable and predictable, a well-chosen domain name should be short in length and easy to understand when spoken aloud. Aside from online search engines and print, web domains are principally marketed audibly by radio and word of mouth. Having a web site name like "http://www.lawyers.com/klineassoc.com" creates unnecessary problems in auditory marketing because of its length and difficulty in pronunciation ("how do you say "assoc"?). Alternatively, a domain name like "klineandassociates.com" can be read and spoken comfortably, greatly increasing the likelihood that it is remembered and passed along verbally by your prospective clients.

Another way to make sure your firm's web presence is easily found is to provide multiple addresses that all lead to it. For instance, the fictional Smith and Smith Partners referred to above might also want to use the shorter "smithandsmith.com" as a domain name for their web site, since its reasonable that someone who knows of their firm might try that address when attempting to reach their web site. Returning to our example domain of "klineandassociates.com", we note another important reason to consider multiple domain names for your site: the possibility of misspellings. Its not unlikely that a prospective client who has heard the name of the firm, either from a friend or through an auditory marketing campaign, might mistakenly spell the name "Kline" as "Klein" or "Cline". Think about how your primary domain name may be misspelled and consider using those variations as well for your web presence. The fictional Kline and Associates might choose to use "clineandassociates.com" and "kleinandassociates.com" in addition to their primary domain name. Additionally, you might want to consider using a domain name that describes your primary practice area, if it is available. For instance, if you do a lot of personal injury work, you might want to look into using the domain name "georgiapersonalinjury.com" as well. Keep in mind that all these domain names take a visitor to your firm's one web site. No additional site development or hosting is necessary. Think of them as nicknames for your web presence. A capable hosting provider can easily set up these "aliases", which allow for more leeway in how visitors to your site get there. Each domain name incurs a yearly fee, but they are relatively inexpensive, especially when purchased for terms longer than a year. The standard cost for one domain name for one year is $35. Multi-year agreements can push the yearly cost as low as $15, or occasionally, even lower.

Carefully choosing the domain name, or names, used to access your site can greatly improve the chances that a web surfer will find your site initially, and be able to return to it later. Just as importantly, it makes it much easier for that person to pass your web site address on to their family and friends, encouraging the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that can significantly build a business.

Lastly, you can help make your web presence easy to find by ensuring that the major search engines list your site address. Getting listed by a search engine ensures that your site appears in its index, but not necessarily at or near the top. A discussion of search engine strategies, and appearing near the top of the list of results, is beyond the scope of this article and is something I hope to cover in a future article. Suffice it to say, being listed is important, even if your site isn't at the top of the listings for a particular search term.

A Predictable (and Forgiving) Email Address

A second important aspect of constructing a web presence is connecting your web site address and your email address. The domain name portion of your email address should match the domain name of your web site address. (The domain name portion of your email address is the part following the "@". For instance, in the email address "info@particleweb.com", "particleweb.com" is the domain name portion of the address.) Keeping the domain name in your site address and email address the same helps reinforce your online identity with your customers.

It's common today for email addresses to be hosted by an ISP, like Earthlink, AOL, or Comcast, resulting in an email address like "smithj3456@comcast.net". While this is appropriate for smaller firms that don't have the resources or inclination to install and maintain their own email server, its obviously not as memorable and obvious as something like "info@smithandsmithpartners.com". How, then, does someone with an email address like "smithj3456@comcast.net" arrange to receive email using the much more usable "info@smithandsmithpartners.com"? Once again, aliases come to our rescue. A capable web presence provider can provide a service called "email forwarding", which causes emails sent to one email address to be transparently forwarded to another email address. For example, messages sent to "info@smithandsmithpartners.com" could be automatically forwarded to "smithj3456@comcast.net", where the recipient would receive it. Such forwarding is instantaneous, and happens without the sender needing to know anything about it. As far as the sender is concerned, your actual address is "info@smithandsmithpartners.com".

Another important feature that can be enabled by a capable web presence provider is "generic email forwarding". This means that emails to any user at your domain get forwarded to your main email address. Using the example of Smith and Smith Partners, enabling this feature would allow emails to "info@smithandsmithpartners.com" and "ingo@smithandsmithpartners.com" to both be forwarded to "smithj3456@comcast.net". (Note that the second email address is addressed to the user name "ingo", a typographical error.) Generic email forwarding allows your existing and potential clients to reach you successfully no matter what user name they use in the email address (the user name part of an email address is the portion before the "@"), as long as they get the domain name part correct.

Not only does this make your email address more forgiving, it also allows you to give out different email addresses for different members of your firm, or for different functions within your firm. For instance, you could publish an address like "info@smithandsmithpartners.com" for general inquiries to your practice, an address like "billing@smithandsmithpartners.com" for billing inquiries, and an address like "steve@smithandsmithpartners.com" for a message intended for a particular member of your firm. Emails sent to these addresses would all be forwarded to your main address ("smithj3456@comcast.net" from our example).

For clarity's sake, let me repeat: generic email forwarding doesn't create new email accounts for your firm's use. It simply allows emails sent to any user at your domain name to be forwarded to one "real" email account.

More Than a Brochure on the Web

The third important aspect of transforming your web site into a full-fledged presence is to ensure that it is complete, has a professional appearance, and establishes the tone appropriate for your practice. It may be cheap and easy to provide contact information to an online lawyer locator service and consider the boilerplate page they generate to be your firm's web site, but such "sites" suffer a number of problems important enough to significantly impact your ability to attract new business through that medium. Invariably, such boilerplate pages look hastily assembled, don't serve to differentiate your practice from any other listed, and contain far too little information to retain the attention of potential clients.

To get the most from your web presence, it must be designed and implemented with your needs in mind. A site that smoothly integrates your firm name and logo into its design presents a much more professional face to the world. Although having such a site custom designed for your practice is not terribly expensive, it has the effect of making your firm appear large, established, and successful. Unfortunately, a single page boilerplate can have the opposite effect. A capable provider can work with your existing marketing materials, photography, and even web site to craft a uniquely impressive look for your new web presence. Costs are typically very reasonable, ranging from incorporating your existing logo and firm name into customizable, pre-existing site design templates up to a fully custom treatment including unique features and aspects of your practice.

A complete web presence also could include articles and documentation about subjects in which you or your firm have expertise, and in which your potential clients are interested. For instance, a firm specializing in birth injury might want to post an article discussing different birth injuries and possible relief available through the court system. Such information is very appreciated by potential clients, establishes your firm (or the specific member of your firm who wrote the article) as an expert in that arena, and is perfect for attracting the attention of search engines and links from other web sites.

Another way to ensure that your web presence is more than just a brochure on the Internet is to keep it current and changing. The World Wide Web is full of one-page web sites that were created once and then, essentially, abandoned. Your web presence can stand out from that crowd by containing news about your firm's latest achievements and commentary about changes in your specific practice area, among many other things. Most web presence providers will offer a maintenance package along with the hosting of your web presence that provides for updates and changes of this sort to be made to your web site at such times that you determine they are necessary.

Once you've established a web presence, be sure to refer to it in your other marketing materials. Brochures, business cards, and print, radio, and television ads should all prominently feature your web site address and email address.

Putting It All Together

Once your new web presence is completed, keep in mind that you may be required to submit at least the home page to your local bar association for review before making it publicly available. Even if it isn't mandatory, such a review can often generate useful comments and suggestions, in addition to ensuring that your web presence is in compliance with the appropriate ethical and regulatory guidelines.

Once your site is active, a mechanism for tracking visitor statistics is a must. A capable web presence provider can provide extensive traffic monitoring for your site, allowing you to determine what pages in your site are most popular, how people are getting to your site, and where they're coming from, among many other things.

Whether you currently have a web site or not, you can create a professional web presence for your firm by engaging a capable provider who can pull together all the important aspects: a recognizable, guessable, pronounceable, and easy to spell domain name for your web address; predictable, forgiving email addresses for receiving email; and a polished, professional, and expert design for your site that reinforces your brand, logo, and firm name. Cultivating such a web presence for your firm will pay dividends by establishing a positive, successful, and expert image for your firm in your chosen practice area.

Michael Shambaugh, the author, has six years of experience building web presences. He currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer of ParticleWEB Services, a web presence provider for the legal, business to business, and healthcare markets. He may be contacted at or by telephone at (800) 309-1645.

All material © 2003. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without express written permission of the author or ParticleWEB Services. Links are acceptable and encouraged.

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