Is SEO or Pay-Per-Click Marketing Better For Lawyers?

Cats are always great for marketing!

One of the most common questions we get from law firms looking for our help with their online marketing is: which approach is most effective, advertising or organic? This topic is brought up in various ways including:

  • Is pay-per-click or search engine optimization better?
  • Doesn't everyone just skip the advertisements to get to the real results?
  • What are the pros and cons of pay-per-click vs. search engine optimization?
  • Why would I pay for advertising when organic is free?

Since we work exclusively with small law firms, wise use of their budgets is especially important — so this is a topic well worth exploring. Attorneys have a lot of online marketing choices available, but broadly speaking, the options boil down to four general strategies. All of them can be highly successful when used properly:

  1. Pay-Per-Click Search Advertising (PPC, Adwords) - Running a paid advertising campaign with the search engine (i.e. Google) to show targeted advertisements to searches that meet the specified criteria.
  2. Local Marketing - Managing online reviews and doing things to increase the law firm's visibility in the local/map-based search results and local business review websites.
  3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - Building your website's authority by editing its content, building links and creating business directory citations for your office.
  4. Barnacle Marketing - Purchasing advertising and increased visibility that is attached (like a barnacle) to websites and legal portals that already have high rankings or visibility such as AVVO, FindLaw, Super Lawyers, Martindale-Hubbell, etc.).

SERP Results for Estate Planning

It All Works!

The neat thing is that every law firm, especially those in consumer based practices, can greatly benefit from from online marketing in one form or another. Returns to the tune of a tenfold to thirtyfold return on investment are common, with some performing even better. But the answer as to which individual or combination of strategies is most appropriate for a law firm depends strongly on a number of factors. Here are things we consider when guiding clients.


A benefit of advertising, whether directly on search engines or on another high-traffic website, is that results happen quickly. When the ad campaign launches, the ads appear instantly and clicks and calls quickly follow. For non-contingency based practices it's not uncommon for our clients using Google Adwords to experience positive net cash flow within the first month of an ad launch.

Paid traffic is providing almost all visitors for this newly launched website

Improving a website's rankings organically takes a longer-term outlook. A search engine's own reputation hinges on showing reliably good results, so it can take a while for them to recognize that a law firm's website is a useful authority on a subject or practice area. Success with an organic campaign is measured over months. Depending on local market conditions, measurable improvement often appears after 3-6 months and then steadily improves from there.

Rural Small Law Firm SEO Results

Organic traffic grows steadily and can gain momentum over time.

If a law firm wants clients right away, we would tend to steer them more towards advertising. If they can be patient and want to take a more educational approach to marketing, then SEO is a good choice.


If a law firm wants to be at or very near the top of search results, advertising is the only way. Any search that has clear commercial intent (i.e. looking to hire a lawyer) will trigger advertisements and those ads will display in the first four spots before any organic results. In the real world this means that on desktop computers half or more of the search results page is advertising. On mobile, the first one to two full screens of information are advertisements.

Even though ads dominate the top of search results, all is not lost for firms looking to improve things organically. Ads are often geared specifically towards searchers with a very clear intention of looking for an attorney, i.e. "Michigan estate tax attorney." But organic search results will frequently be the first results shown when someone is doing a more detailed search like "Michigan cottage transfer tax avoidance."


A common concern with PPC search advertising is that users will skip the ads and go straight to the organic listings because they are more trustworthy. While this is and has historically been true, studies show that paid traffic is making gains. Never before have search advertisements and organic results looked so similar. And with a rapid increase in people searching on mobile devices, ads are often the only thing a searcher sees until they scroll one to two screens down.

Paid Search Result

Paid Search Result

Organic Search Result

Organic Search Result

That said, for now, it's still true that organic results hold a higher trust value than ads on the search results pages. Still, remember that advertisers only pay if their ad is clicked. So, even though some users will skip over the ads, it does not cost the law firm money if that happens.


It's very important to understand that, these days, if a law firm wants to show up on page one, whether organic or paid, there is expense involved. For advertising, there is the cost of paying for the clicks that the advertisements generate. On the organic side there is the expense, either in attorney/staff time or from using a vendor, for producing the quantity of content and website authority needed to earn and maintain a page one ranking for the desired search keywords.

With paid search, each click on an advertisement costs money, and over time, as more law firms engage in this form of advertising, costs per click drift up. However, because advertising can be so finely targeted to focus on the searchers that are most likely to become clients, the cost per lead and cost per new client is often quite reasonable. The trick with PPC advertising, with any marketing really, is to be consistently earning a positive return on investment (ROI).

With SEO and organic marketing the cost per visitor starts out high, but gradually works its way down. For instance, a blog post may cost a couple of hundred dollars from a vendor. The first time that blog post generates a visitor for the website the cost for that visit is high. But over months and years, that blog post, with its initial fixed cost, will continue to generate traffic and drive the long-term cost per visitor of that expense down. Cost per lead and cost per new client are often very reasonable and less costly in the long run with organic marketing, but it can be hard to measure this as precisely as for paid search due to more ambiguous data.


PPC advertising is extremely granular with its targeting options. A firm can focus an advertising campaign on words that should trigger ads, words that should not trigger ads (e.g. free, pro bono, cheap), geographic region, time of day, day of week, age and demographic of the searcher, mobile users and more. Ads can even be triggered based on external events such as the weather or stock market performance. In short, the campaign can be configured to focus on all of the variables that are most likely to target a good potential lead at a time of day and week when you are most able to receive them and convert them into a client. Campaigns also can be turned on and off at a moment's notice if, say, for instance, you're on vacation and don't want to field calls.

With organic marketing the effort is directed towards the search phrases, geographies and topics that will generate the most traffic and potential business. But further refinements and filtering are not easily possible. There is also uncertainty with the stability of organic rankings because of ever changing search engine algorithm updates.


Online marketing campaigns for law firms generally target potential clients by geography and area of legal need. When promoting the website organically there needs to be content on the website that justifies the rankings. A law firm will not show up for a search for "Divorce Mediation Attorney in Indianapolis" if the website does not have pages about mediation and references to Indianapolis. Likewise, if the firm wants the website to rank for neighboring suburbs and other family law topics, there needs to be meaningful content about all of that as well.

With pay-per-click advertising, a law firm can specify exactly what geographic areas to target and exclude. A campaign can be set to cover an entire state, region or country. Or, it can be tightly focused down to the neighborhood level. For instance, in the example below the campaign is focusing on the area northeast of Washington D.C. while excluding less desirable neighborhoods and the neighboring state of Virginia. This ability to instantly set the law firm's exposure by both geography and topic is only possible with advertising.

PPC can have very precise delivery


When a law firm is promoting their website through organic SEO, they are making a sustained and long-term investment in the improvement of their website as an asset. The website itself, through its body of content and authority on the internet, is generating visits from potential clients and the firm owns all of it. There is momentum to organic search marketing and once the website achieves a leading status, it can potentially coast for a while. Further, a well-optimized and high-performing website is a sellable asset should the attorneys at the firm retire or sell the practice.

Advertising, on the other hand, is all traffic that is paid for on an ongoing basis. There is certainly ad copy and marketing strategy that become unique assets of the firm, but it's still paid traffic. If the ads stop, the traffic stops. This may not be a problem if the ads are generating worthwhile revenue; it's just worth noting the difference in approach.


All in all, it's important to remember that both PPC and organic marketing are highly effective and very profitable ways to promote a law firm online.

Pay-per-click's distinct advantages are immediate exposure, precise data, fast results, lots of control and a shorter length of commitment.

Organic marketing's advantages are lower long term cost, building the value of the website as an asset of the firm, higher trust, staying power/momentum, and a more education-based approach to marketing.

The law firms that enjoy the most success with their overall marketing engage in both SEO and PPC and use the data from each to improve the combined effort.

If you'd like to increase your law firm's business or even just have the option of being more choosy about the clients you take on, we can help. Please contact us or email

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