Personal injury and civil litigation attorneys - known for using in-your-face advertising tactics - are seeing gold in the black crude oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion last month.
As the oil gusher poisons the gulf's ecosystem, it jeopardizes the future of the region's fishing and tourism industries. And lawyers are looking to represent aggrieved businesses and property owners, seeking damages on their behalf.
Searches on Google, Yahoo, and Bing for "oil spill" this week show that law firms dominate the sponsored listings on search engine results pages. (BP, developer of the oil field, is also using paid search for reputation management, directing people to www.bp.com/gulfofmexicoresponse to learn about the company's response to the oil spill.)
A look at the websites for law firms using search advertising reveals that most appear to be following best practices for establishing trust and ensuring consistent messaging from the search ad over to the landing page. At least one effort, however, was in need of remediation.
First, let's look at a law firm that has invested in website design and content, positioning the site as an online hub for news and information about the oil spill.
Beasley Allen, based in Montgomery, AL, maintains a simple and intuitive domain name for its oil spill practice: oil-spill.com. The law firm, comprised of 45 lawyers and 200 support staff, has at least two people contributing to the "latest news" section. The site also includes links to the Deepwater Response Site, the Environmental Protection Agency's oil spill site, and other resources.
Oil-Spill.com, as a promotional vehicle, also sends the message that Beasley Allen delivers on behalf of its clients.
"$700,000,000 settlement in pollution case," appears in bold face in a prominent left-hand spot on oil-spill.com's home page. Two shortcomings: it's not possible to click through to any more information about that pollution case, plus there's a disconnect between an unnamed pollution case and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Noting that a class-action suit has been filed in connection with the oil spill, Beasley Allen's call to action here is an offer for a free legal consultation.
A Question of Trust
With so many lawyers scouring the Gulf Coast for clients, each law firm is working to set itself apart from rivals - and that includes establishing trust and promoting their expertise.
On their websites, some law firms emphasize their ties to the Gulf Coast and experience handling maritime legal claims.
"The Mississippi Gulf Coast Trusts Gardner Law Firm. Over 30 years of reliable legal service," reads the Gardner website.
Here's how another firm, Garr, plays up its Louisiana roots:
And the Gulf Oil Spill Litigation Group points out it's a network of lawyers from the southeastern United States:
Avoiding the Carpetbagger Label
Or consider how Mark & Associates approached its entry into the Gulf Coast market even though its offices are in Uniondale, NY, and Boston.
Its primary website is YouHaveRights.com; it lists scores of practice areas such as "dangerous drugs" and "defective products."
The firm set up shop on another domain, BP-Oil-Spill-Lawsuit.com, using the title tag, "Oil Rig Explosion Attorneys." (A Whois search shows this domain was registered on April 30, 2010, 10 days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig.)
And it ran paid search ads on the keywords "oil spill" that turned up a sponsored link that read:
To be sure, Jason Mark, the firm's founding attorney, didn't want anyone to overlook his Tulane University ties. Compare Mark's website before May 17 and see what he added after May 18:
BP-Oil-Spill-Lawsuit.com before May 17, 2010:
BP-Oil-Spill-Lawsuit.com after May 18, 2010:
While BP-Oil-Spill_Lawsuit.com is a clunky domain name, the site's home page is accessible and interactive. From the website, prospects have several options to contact Mark & Associates: click to call, click to chat, a toll-free number, and a form that includes three yes/no questions such as, "Did you suffer property damage from oil spill?"
Will the Real "Frank the Strong Arm" Stand Up?
Some law firm websites feature photos and bios of attorneys. For the most part, these work to help humanize a law firm.
Two lawyers seeking to represent victims of the oil spill both share the colorful nickname: "strong arm."
There's attorney Frank Azar, who's based in Colorado. References to his nickname, however, do not appear in the search ads or on his firm's microsite, www.OilSpillCleanupLawsuit.com.
Instead, someone started a Facebook page dedicated to Frank Azar "The Strong Arm," where people discuss Azar's TV commercials and debate his law firm's performance.
Then there's attorney Frank D'Amico. His law firm's website asks visitors: "Need the Strong Arm? Call Frank."
In an audio player on his website, the New Orleans attorney reinforces his local roots. "Don't call some out-of-town law firm you've never heard of. Call an attorney you know and trust," according to the pitch.
Where's the Transparency?
While the team at GulfCoastOilDisaster.com created a simple, elegant site, it lacks key info: the name and address of at least one attorney.
The site includes a toll-free number, 877-724-1050, and a contact form, but it's still going up against other sites that share detailed information about the law firm and cases they've handled.
What's more, a Google search for the toll-free number only adds to GulfCoastOilDisaster's mystery. The toll-free number turns up on several barebones websites: BPOilSpillLawyer.net, BPLawsuit.net, GulfSpillLawyer.com, and a Facebook page, Gulf Coast Oil Disaster.
The domain names for two of those sites - BPLawsuit.net and BPOilSpillLawyer.net - were registered by Luther Sutter of Roland, AR, according to the Whois search on Network Solutions. Attempts to reach Sutter were unsuccessful.
Without more information - like the law firm's name and history - websites like these are a disservice to people in need of legal aid.
The GulfCoastOilDisaster.com "network" of sites is an SEO (define) tactic that can help a website rank quickly for keywords on a search engine results page, according to Jonathan Allen, my colleague and director of Search Engine Watch.
He describes how this tactic typically works: Rather than create one site and solicit links to it, a business will create a network of sites on different domains using free blogging software; those sites will then link to a target page. Under Google's PageRank calculation, links from sites about the same topic have more impact than random links from randomly related sites. So in this case, it looks like relevant sites are linking to GulfCoastOilDisaster.com and it will rank high on the search engine results page for "gulf coast oil disaster." Ultimately, though, Google will spot this spammy tactic.
Addendum: Where's the Video?
It's surprising that more law firms are not using online video, including YouTube, to get their message out to prospects. A search on YouTube for "oil spill" this week turned up three promoted videos: "Breaking News in the Gulf" by Greenopolis TV; "Gulf Oil Crisis," a guitar riff and political statement by IranWarToo; and "Oil Spill Cleanup," a promotional demonstration for an "all natural solution" to the Gulf oil spill.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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