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Lawyers.Online, July 1995
Column No. 5
Content Is Key To Web Page Design
By Robert J. Ambrogi
What makes a Web page a success?
Content, content, content, lawyers report.
Although Web technology offers page designers a palette of possibilities, from sophisticated graphics to sound and video, lawyers prefer to focus their pages on the practical.
"There are no rules for success on the World Wide Web," contends Lewis Rose, who maintains the Advertising Law Internet Site, http://www.webcom.com/~lewrose/home.html, and moderates the Internet discussion group, net-lawyers.
"My own approach has been to keep the graphics down; make the page readable regardless of browser used by the visitor; and provide a ton of substantive information for free," Rose says. "I have kept the overt marketing information available but in the background, so to speak."
Visitors to Rose's page are greeted by a simple graphic of his firm's name, Arent Fox, then three self-explanatory links titled "What's New!," "Sign Our Guest Book," and "Number of Visitors to the Advertising Law Internet Site." Then comes the substance: a bold headline, "United States Advertising Law," followed by text and hypertext links under a series of subheadings such as "Fundamental Advertising Principles," "Articles About Advertising Law," FTC Advertising Guidelines," and "FTC Trade Regulation Rules."
Near the end of the page, under the heading, "Administrivia," is the marketing information, offering links by which visitors can learn more about Rose and his firm or put their names on Rose's mailing list.
"Your page will be much more beneficial to you," says lawyer and Internet consultant Jerry Lawson, "if you can use it to provide something of value to the community. Give people a free reason to visit your site, and while they are there, they will learn about the paid services available through your firm."
Content Makes The Difference
Joe Lester, a lawyer in Bloomington, Minn., studied a number of law-firm home pages before designing his own, http://www.winternet.com/~jlester/. He was particularly impressed with Rose's page, he recalls, because it offered "such a treasure trove of interesting and useful information. I found that a Web site must be interesting if it is to be effective."
Lester followed Rose's approach in his own page. "Content makes all the difference, as does regular refreshing of the content. It doesn't work simply to replicate traditional print media. ... Any kind of marketing or sales message has to be subtle and blended in with helpful, value-added information that serves potential web-site visitors."
Lester's page is simple in its design. A graphic of the firm name tops the page, followed by a one-sentence description of the firm, and then a directory with links to four substantive sections: "About Lester & Associates," "Visitor Information," "Hot Links: Law Library," and "Hot Links: Lawyers on the Web." The page ends with information on how to contact Lester.
Make Use Of Forms
Lester hopes at some point to redesign his page to make use of "forms," a feature of Web browsers such as Netscape and Mosaic that permits visitors to a Web site to provide information by filling in predefined blanks. "I believe forms on a firm's home page can provide an excellent way to identify potential clients and colleagues," he explains. "The forms feature allows someone with an interest to initiate the communications -- perhaps by asking to be added to the firm's mailing list for an environmental law newsletter -- by pressing a few buttons on a keyboard."
One of the newest law-firm pages offers one of the best examples of how to use forms to achieve simplicity and interactivity while maintaining substance. Visitors to the Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison home page, http://www.brobeck.com, are greeted by a brief list of "Client Services." The first entry on that list is a one-line form by which visitors who are clients of the firm can directly contact their attorney simply by typing his/her last name. The second entry is titled, "Business & Legal Research," and it provides a link to a form by which current clients can submit research questions to the firm's law library. Another form on the home page permits visitors to navigate and search the firm's online resources by keyword or service. Visitors wanting information or help are directed to a "receptionist."
This focus on current clients is becoming more common in home-page design. "The site can benefit you just as much, and probably more, by generating more business from your existing clients as by bringing in new ones," explains Internet consultant Jerry Lawson.
This was the approach taken by the firm Hale & Dorr, http://www.haledorr.com. The Boston-based firm designed its page with an eye towards meeting the information needs of existing clients, explains Mara Aspinall, director of client services. "We looked at a home page primarily as a way to get basic information to current clients."
No matter how effective your design, your home page will reap few results unless it gets visitors. Content can hold a visitor's attention and bring him or her back a second time, but how do you attract the visitor in the first place?
"Having a WWW page is a lot like having a multimedia yellow pages ad," says Lewis Rose. "You still have to get the world to come and visit your page."
Rose does it by participating in several Internet mailing lists and news groups that have subscribers from the audience he is trying to target. "Those people read my posts, notice my sig, and visit my page."
Another way to attract first-time visitors is to announce the page through one of the "what's new" listings. Among the most popular of these are Yahoo, http://www.yahoo.com, which compiles a daily list of new or changed Web sites organized by subject, and the "What's New" page of NCSA Mosaic, which posts a list of new Web sites three times a week.
Finally, you should attempt to have your firm's page included in as many "hot lists" as possible. There are now a number of sites that compile lists of links to law-related Internet resources -- including law firms. Many of these will include a link to your firm at no cost. Here are some examples:
Lexis Counsel Connect's Web page, called LawLinks, has a searchable directory of lawyers on the Internet that includes links to the lawyers' home pages, if any. The page is accessible by anyone on the Internet, but the listing is free only to LCC members. Non-members pay $180 a year for a detailed listing or $10 a year for name and address only. LawLinks is at http://www.counsel.com.
Whatever your approach to designing a Web page, the key may be to "just do it," according to Kevin Lee Thomason, a lawyer who operates the commercial "Seamless Website," http://seamless.com. "The earlier you get online, the more effect you will have. Soon the playing field will become crowded, and the early adaptors will have the marketing advantage known as `primacy.'"
Robert J. Ambrogi is a lawyer and arbitrator and the former editor of Lawyers Weekly USA and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (978) 546-7898.