Are Legal Directories Effective Or A Waste of Advertising Money?

Reading glasses on a stack of newspapers, symbolizing intellectual pursuit and information engagement.

“Only 3% of Legal Work is Influenced by Directories,” according to some law marketing experts. Our clients indicate similar results. Mark Messing, Chief Marketing Officer of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a 1,200-lawyer firm, was asked if he ever turned to directories when selecting law firms. He replied that less than 3% of legal work is influenced by directories. He further stated that, “law firms are getting wise. Some 30% of AmLaw 100 law firms are no longer listed in Martindale-Hubbell. Some law firms have adopted policies that they will refuse to be listed in Super Lawyers or Best Lawyers.”

“When I go to client offices, I don’t see any lawyer directories on their shelves,” Peter Columbus, the Director of Business Development for Kaye Scholer and Mark Messing, said. “I don’t think any corporation chooses a law firm based on a paid directory listing. You should not waste your money on a directory profile.”

This article will address both online and print directories that are available for both corporate and consumer usage. We acknowledge that many large law firms still consult, e.g., Martindale-Hubbell and Super Lawyers for information on corporate counsel. Both are peer review publications. A value of these directories is not necessarily the listing, but the ability to advertise the designation, no small thing when a client is uncertain about which lawyer to hire.

As I mentioned, this article addresses online and print directories. Both types of directories typically list law firms by location and practice areas. They also display summaries of information about the law firms that advertise in the directories.

Today’s individual consumers, however, rarely consult online or book directories for legal assistance. And, if they do, the chances of your law firm receiving an inquiry are slim. There are several reasons for this:

  • If consumers cannot find your listing, they cannot consider you. Google is today’s primary legal directory. It is free and readily available. More than 65% of online consumers go to Google when they are seeking legal assistance. Thirty-one percent of consumers go to lesser used search engines. Few of the Google results list legal directories in the top five of their search results such as “cityname personal injury lawyer,” “cityname car accident lawyer,” etc. More than 70% of all visitors choose organic rankings rather than pay-per-click ads. When consumers review they list of pay-per-click ads, they see that most of the pay-per-click ads list individual law firms rather than directories;
  • Google is emphasizing local search in order to serve consumers better. Google’s new Google Places listings (sometimes called local or map listings) are now showing up in the top 7 or 8 listings. This has pushed most legal directories down the page or onto page two. Few visitors go to page two;
  • Consumers search for law firms, not legal directories. When consumers perform a search engine query, they review the results. Law firms almost always dominate the top 10 listings since the search engines are delivering what the searcher requested. Additionally, the law firm listings typically display a law firm and its practice areas. A directory typically states that its directory contains a list of law firm names. Even if the searcher chooses a directory, he/she must drill down to find a lawyer in their city that handles his/her practice areas. Many consumers leave the directory and go back to the search engine results to find a simpler, more descriptive single law firm listing. I recently tried an experiment to find a Raleigh Car Accident lawyer in one of the leading directories. It took me four clicks to get to a listing that displayed 20 law firms on the first page and links at the bottom that would lead me to more than 100 results. The biggest advertisers were listed at the top of each page, which is typically the case. Another leading directory required four clicks and I experienced delays after several of the clicks. When I reached my destination, I found more than 100 results from which to choose. After the large ads, most directories list their law firms alphabetically. That can be a plus for firms whose first name starts with an A or B, but works poorly for the remainder. Consumers typically scan several law firms on the directory listing. Any law firm with a credit card can typically purchase a listing. The consumer has a difficult time differentiating between the firms. The chances that your law firm will be chosen among the masses of names are slim.

Are There Referral Benefits?

There are, indeed, benefits. We are not against legal directories if they are developed properly and the proper expectations are set. We invest more than five figures per year in outside directories for our clients. We also own more than 80 legal directories. But we have genuine concerns when directories are used to market other services or are marketed as profit vehicles and are sold under the false pretenses that they will serve as a primary marketing thrust. We also have concerns when firms say that their directory will achieve top search engine rankings for websites by giving them back links purportedly provide the lawyer with a high value PageRank. Google warns against selling page rank. Also bear in mind that Google evaluates the value of links based upon the number, quality and relevancy of several individual websites. Having only one directory (as opposed to several directories and websites) linking back to your site is risky.

We review our clients’ Google Analytics and other reports very closely and analyze the location from which referrals are coming. Legal directories rarely make the list of top 5 referral sources. There is one exception. Directories such as allow us to manage our clients’ placements and the directory is frequently in the list of top 5 referrers. We endorse Avvo as an excellent source of client leads. Other directories that have worked well for us, both free and fee-based, are listed in our recent law firm web marketing suggestions list blog post.

Google is typically our top overall website referrer, followed by other search engines, press releases we generate, and other promotional efforts. Even though some unscrupulous directories click on their own links to inflate the number of referrals, directories rarely generate more than 5% of the referrals and less than 3% of the forms’ submissions and phone calls. When considering those ROI’s, other than possible rankings benefits, it does not make sense to invest more than 5% of your budget in directories.

Are There Rankings Benefits?

There are some rankings’ advantages to being listed in a directory that ranks well – especially if you can be listed on the first page of the directory. The first page of a website typically has the highest Google Page Rank. Search engines typically reward websites that have high-quality, relevant incoming links from pages that rank well. As Google states, “PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.” However, a link from one directory (as opposed to having links from multiple websites and directories) does not contain the value it once did. Search engines want to see that more than one website finds value in a website and provides links to it. At the above link, Google states, “PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page a greater value. “At Consultwebs, we have more than 80 legal directories, but we primarily provide them as a service to our clients and to consumers. We confine them to a limited number of law firms, and we typically list a limited number of firms on the first page of the directories. We do not promote directories as a primary way to obtain cases. A well-designed and well-promoted website will generate far more inquiries than any legal directory.

How Do You Evaluate Legal Directories?

Methods to evaluate legal directories include:

    • Does the directory provide cases? Call listed attorneys and ask them if they have received cases and ask them for their return on investment (ROI). Ask the directory for a traffic report. Although their sample data are limited, sites such as and can give you a rough indication of the traffic. Find out if there are any performance guarantees;
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – How well does the directory rank? Perform some searches on some of the subscribers’ locations and key phrases, e.g., “Raleigh personal injury lawyer”. If the directory is not visible, how can people find it or you? Does the directory have a good Google PageRank? The home page should have a PageRank of 4 or more. What is the Google PageRank for the page on which you will be listed? How many relevant incoming links does the directory have? To find out, type (e.g., into the Google search box. Are the incoming links (also called backlinks) from multiple websites or primarily one website? If the directory primarily has incoming links from only one site, you are taking a risk since Google prefers that incoming links come from multiple relevant websites. Are the meta tags well constructed? Is social media used to promote the directory?;
  • Is the directory advertised? – This is especially important if the directory ranks poorly in the search engines. Ask when and where ads appear;
  • Ease of Use – Is the legal directory easy to navigate or do you have to continuously drill down to find a lawyer? Can you contact someone with your questions?;
  • Is the directory a tool to sell other services or it is a true directory? – Some of the large legal directories refuse to allow consultants to purchase directory listing for their clients. We, for example, have more success with legal directories if we can position our clients in the most beneficial directory locations. Several large directories will not talk directly to consulting firms; they prefer to talk to law firms directly, hoping to sell additional services;
  • Avoid directories that demand reciprocal links – Directories that require that you link back to them are attempting to build their rankings. Google wants to rank high quality websites and will catch onto this link-building technique;
  • Cost – Ask for payment options. Find out if an annual listing costs less than a monthly or quarterly listing. Check the prices for standard versus premium listings. Ask for renewal options.

How Does A Legal Directory Compare To Other Advertising Options?

Directories typically provide higher ROI’s than yellow page listings. Most experts agree that yellow page listings are no longer effective unless you are targeting a rural area and can obtain good pricing and a good placement. They comment correctly that you rarely see yellow page books in use, especially in consumers’ homes. Leading yellow page publishers R.H. Donnelley and Idearc (formerly Verizon Yellow Pages) filed bankruptcy within the past three years. Other problems include the number of available books and the size of the books. If you are going to consider yellow page advertising, a consultant can help you obtain better placement and rates. Many of the yellow page companies are attempting to develop a Web presence. However, few consumers are aware of them and they do not typically show up in search engine queries. Television can be effective if your budget is large and your ads are well done. Newspapers are in decline. Radio has been affected by iPods and MP3 players and its effectiveness has been greatly diminished. Most of our clients report that their ROI is better with their individual Internet websites than other mediums.

How Does Investing In Your Website Compare To Purchasing Directory Space?

In addition to the above data, there are several benefits to investing your advertising dollars in your Web presence rather than directories. They include:

  • You are investing in the growth of “your” site and rankings and you can control your costs – rather than helping fund a directory that is likely to increase your costs on an annual basis. Your investment in your website will pay benefits for many years. Like many advertising options, once you cease advertising in a directory, your presence ceases to exist;
  • You have full control of your Web presence. You can make updates as often and quickly as you wish, including news updates, personnel changes and adding, emphasizing or deemphasizing practice areas and marketing locations. Social Media is increasingly important for law firm marketing. Facebook currently surpasses Google in time spent on the sites. You can invest in “your” social media campaign to complement your website(s);
  • Your website(s) will allow you to build relationships with your clients through the use of relevant and applicable content, videos or attorney bios — unlike a directory listing which lists your firm among hundreds of others, and with limited information. Your individual Web presence is available when people need your services. And, it is available 24 hours per day. Prospective clients simply perform a Google search for their needs and location. If properly search engine optimized, your individual website will show up in the search engine listings. See our article for tips on how to evaluate a search engine optimization consultant.