November 16, 2012
Websites are a key component of attorney advertising, especially for solo practitioners and small law firms. In addition to strong copy writing and design, search engine optimization can add tremendous value to websites. Metadata is one of the ways SEO can increase website relevance.
What Is Metadata?
Metadata is data that concerns data. It is the information that helps us organize our information: think of an old-fashioned library card catalog. Metadata is vital in the digital world.
For instance, a great concern for practicing attorneys in recent years has been the metadata found in Microsoft Word documents — no small law firm wants to send a document containing latent, but accessible, comments on settlement options to an opposing attorney.
Metadata also refers to the data that casual website visitors may take little notice of. It can be a description of the website that shows up on the search engine results page (SERP); the source of the page, including the author; or a hidden list of the key words on the site. As search engines like Google have refined their techniques, the efficacy of metadata has ebbed and flowed.
Most metadata is fairly straightforward, using pithy language to accurately describe the purpose of a web page. Good metadata can improve the reader’s experience by helping to identify the most relevant websites during a search.
As helpful as metadata is, it can also be abused.
If Solo Practitioner A includes Solo Practitioner B’s name in the meta description of A’s website, this could lead both online readers and search engines to believe that A’s website belongs to B, especially if the rest of the website is vague as to origin. This in turn could give A an unfair advantage — siphoning web traffic meant for B, and possibly securing clients who were in search of B’s services.
Why Wear a White Hat?
As search engines become more sophisticated, they become more discerning about how much weight they give to different types of metadata; at the same time, the algorithms that Google and the other search engines use are not as smart as we are.
States have varying approaches to the ethics of lawyers who advertise using doubtful metadata. Until the issue of attorney website metadata is sorted out, solo attorneys and small law firms should don “white hats” — the field of Search Engine Optimization divides SEO practices into two camps: white hat, the rigorously ethical use of strategy; and black hat, the more questionable practices.
Small law firms and solo attorneys who hire advertising professionals should take the time to ask about the use of metadata. They should ensure that the metadata accurately communicates the correct name, areas of knowledge and experience of the practice. A website that genuinely reflects the work of the solo attorney or small law firm has a much higher chance of succeeding than a site that attempts to game the system.
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