Jason Hennessey is an entrepreneur, internationally-recognized SEO expert, author, speaker, podcast host, and business coach. Since 2001, Jason has been reverse-engineering the Google algorithm as a self-taught student and practitioner of SEO and search marketing.
When Jason Hennessey discovered SEO in the early 2000s, it was a largely unknown novelty. Today, SEO is the cornerstone of digital marketing, and Jason leads a successful agency, Hennessey Digital, that specializes in SEO and digital marketing for law firms. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about how he landed in the legal industry, why he’s so passionate about empowering lawyers to understand SEO, and why he wrote his new book, “Law Firm SEO.” Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to The Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Jason Hennessey, Hennessey Digital works with law firms to maximize their SEO, their search engine optimization, and rankings. Today, with ranks being impacted by all aspects of the online world, Jason’s firm works with law firms on their websites, blogs and social media in order to maximize their rankings on Google. We’ll learn more about Hennessey Digital’s work today. Jason, welcome to the podcast.
Jason: Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate you having me.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. Thank you much. To me, SEO is its own art and science. You can’t do a lot more besides that. You can’t become an expert in other things. Tell us about your background there.
Jason: It’s not like I was a kid and I said, “I want to be an SEO person when I grow up.” There was no such thing. I got into SEO back in 2001. I had just finished college. I was going to UNLV in Las Vegas after I had gotten out the Air Force. I was contemplating taking the LSAT to get into law school, and then my journey took more of an entrepreneurial route. I started a couple of businesses. As a result of starting the businesses, I had to learn how to market these businesses, and search engine optimization was one of the first things I studied. Back then in 2001, when I got into SEO, there wasn’t a lot of information on it. There were a couple of books that were reliable and a couple of blogs, so I started to read up on it and I got pretty good at it.
Then in about 2008, I was living in Atlanta, Georgia—we relocated our family there—and I got asked to speak to a group of lawyers. There were 50 DUI law firms that didn’t compete with each other, and they met for a mastermind in Atlanta. I got up there, didn’t know anything about legal marketing, but I gave a presentation about how I was able to rank on Google for the keyword “wedding themes,” because one of my businesses was an e-commerce website. As a result of me being transparent, a couple of relationships were made; a couple of business cards were handed out, and that was the genesis of how I got into legal marketing.
Sharon: Were they banging your door down saying they wanted you to do that for them? What happened there?
Jason: After I showed them exactly how they could rank their websites on Google for the terms that were important to them with practical examples, I think they realized they didn’t want to do that themselves; they wanted somebody to do it for them, or they already had people that were doing this for them that weren’t as transparent or weren’t getting results. That’s how the conversation went: “Here’s my card. Do you do this?” I’m like, “Well, not really, but give me your card. Maybe we can talk.” I thought, “Maybe there’s something here. Maybe there are law firms that really need help with their marketing. They should be getting paid to do what they’re good at, and that’s being good lawyers, being in the courtroom, depositions.” We got one or two clients as a result of that. We turned those clients into case studies, and then we used those studies to grow our business.
Sharon: Was there something that intrigued you about doing it in the legal world?
Jason: It’s probably one of the most competitive spaces from a digital marketing perspective. I was up for the challenge because here I was, ranking nationally for another competitive space, wedding favors and weddings, and this was a little bit different. I didn’t know the vernacular of law, so I started to go the conferences. I would sit in the conferences and listen, and I would listen to the phone calls they were getting as clients were working with them to truly understand their world and that vernacular. Since 2008, I’ve been immersed in that industry, so I’m one of the thought leaders in legal marketing. I just published a book called “Law Firm SEO,” which I’m proud about.
Sharon: Congratulations! We’ll have a link to the book and you can tell me more about it.
Jason: Thank you.
Sharon: In our experience, when we started out we were working with defense firms, and they were still wondering whether they needed a website, let alone SEO. How do you find the reception now? Does everybody say, “Oh, yeah, we do that. We spend millions of dollars on it”?
Jason: Yeah, we do a lot of work with personal injury law firms. There’s a lot of demand in those markets, and those are some of the most competitive keywords from a pay-per-click perspective. There are lawyers that will pay $400 or $500 a click just to send somebody to their website. Over the years, we’ve also started to work with criminal defense lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, even business attorneys as well. In fact, I actually found my business attorney—I live in Santa Clarita—by Googling. Even me, as a consumer on the other end, I use Google myself to try to find things, whether it’s a restaurant or whatever. Particularly in this case, I found my business attorney that way.
Sharon: Now, everybody finds everything today. The first thing you do is go on Google or one of the search engines. Whether you want it to or not, it puts it right there.
Sharon: What’s the reception? Today, is it more like, “Oh, tell me about it”? Is it more like, “We have guys who do that, but I’m not sure they’re doing a good job”? What do you find?
Jason: I think that’s it. It’s a very nebulous space, and most of the attorneys are not really educated on digital marketing. They should be, and it’s a little intimidating. If you were to go to a bookstore and pick up a book on SEO, it’s in the computer engineering section. Lawyers are not really—their brains, for the most part, generally aren’t wired to be coders. That was one of the main reasons why I ended up writing this book. It was to educate and empower lawyers, whether you’re just out of law school or if you run a very successful, hundred-person firm. It educates and empowers you to understand it without the complexity of understanding how to write code. I break it down in a very easy-to-understand format. As a result, lawyers will now be armed with the right information to make good decisions with their business, to know how to keep score when they’re paying an SEO company, and overall how to not get taken advantage of. In our world, there are charlatans that, in some cases, will leverage the nebulous and confusing world of digital marketing. That was my biggest thing, to make sure lawyers are never getting taken advantage of in this world, too.
Sharon: You’re probably in a similar situation to us. Being a marketing and PR firm, we always find that if we’re talking to a prospective client, they say, “We’ve done that. We’ve worked with people. It didn’t work.” You find yourself being two steps behind before you even start. How do you handle that?
Jason: This is one of the ways, to be honest with you. When they say, “Hey, I don’t know. I’ve been burned so many times. It just doesn’t work. I’m not sure if I should even do this,” we never really sell anything. When we work with a client, we’re never selling; we lead with education, and the education is based on our experiences with the clients we work with today. In some cases, we’ll be able to show them why it wasn’t working, and we’ll be able to educate them in a way so they understand it. If they really want more information, then we’ll basically mail them a book. If they’re curious about why it’s truly not working, we’ll say, “Here, read the book. This will give you a much bigger understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.”
Sharon: Do you find today, because search engine rankings are so critical no matter what you do, that practice areas that weren’t interested before are starting to come to you? Let’s say the corporate practice area might have said, “What do I need it for?” Do you find they’re showing more interest?
Jason: Oh, yeah, 100%, corporate. We even work with Ben Crump, who’s a national civil rights attorney. That wouldn’t have been the practice area we would have started to go after as far as marketing ourselves 15 years ago; “Let’s go after a civil rights attorney.” But now, it’s important. There are different aspects of coming up with a strategy. Sometimes it’s just educating. Even then, it’s educating with answers, FAQs, and creating video content to be more of the trusted source when a consumer is in the market for an attorney for whatever it is they need the attorney for. So, there’s definitely branding, there’s direct response, and then sometimes there’s educational content that they should be putting out on the web.
Sharon: Are you called in by lawyers, by managing partners, by law firm marketers? Who calls you in?
Jason: It really depends. We like working with marketing directors because they speak our language, but most of the attorneys we work with, a lot of them don’t even spend a lot of time in the courtroom anymore. These are businesspeople that are very aggressive marketers. Sometimes the most successful lawyers are not the best in trial; it’s the guys or the ladies that are actually the best marketers. In most cases, we either work with a marketing director or we’ll work with the owner of the firm who is the partner that does the marketing, that one that’s buying all the billboard ads and on TV and radio. That’s typically who we work with.
Sharon: Do you find that all works together? My question is, do you ever have to come in and say, “O.K., we’ve got to tear the website up and start over,” or “Let’s take another look at your social media”? What happens?
Jason: Yeah, in some cases, we’ll take over a campaign and one of the first things we’ll do is look at the website. We’ll try to audit, like what are the blockers here, what’s going to have the highest impact, what changes can we make right away that will have the highest impact? We’ll get in and do that, but we also educate. We bring our clients along so they truly understand what we’re doing and it’s not confusing to them, because if it’s not confusing to them, they’ll appreciate us a little bit more. From there, once the site is fixed, sometimes we’ll go for a redesign if that’s needed.
Sometimes the sites are nice as-is and we can take that and fix the technical, SEO side of it. From there, it comes down to a couple of things, like maintaining the integrity of the technical code. We do that on a regular basis. We develop content strategies where we write and publish content on our client’s behalf, and then there’s the stuff you guys do with PR in bringing the eyeballs to the website. That’s so important. We work with PR companies for some of our clients. We also do something called link building, and link building is how you boost the popularity of your website. When somebody links to another website with a blue underlined link, that’s like currency on the web, and that’s how websites become popular. Once a website becomes popular, that’s how it ranks well in Google, and that’s how you start to get traffic.
Sharon: You talked about charlatans. Are there companies that promise to give you a thousand links by tomorrow or something?
Jason: Yeah, avoid those. Sometimes it’s better just getting one link by becoming a member of the National Trial Lawyers or becoming a member of the Better Business Bureau. Sometimes that one link is better than a thousand of those spammy links that you referenced there.
Sharon: Yeah, there’s a lot you find if you’re clicking around. What would you rank as the biggest barrier to success in this area for law firms, or what mistakes do you see? I guess those are two questions. What mistakes do you see in law firms?
Jason: Making sure that you’re following the right playbook and you have an agency that has some success in the area of law, because there is a difference between somebody that has a great deal of experience with e-commerce versus working with law firms. That’s important, but believe it or not, the other side is that a lot of lawyers are spending a lot of money to bring in more phone calls and more leads, but sometimes that’s where they fall down; they’re not really prepared on their end with the proper intake. This was actually something we ran a study on, because one of our clients was saying, “Hey, I don’t know why, but the SEO just doesn’t seem like it’s working.” We’re looking at all the traffic and phone calls, and it’s a campaign that’s doing very well and it was really surprising to us.
What we did was plant a lead into his intake. We filled out a form submission on his website, and it was a real, qualified lead. Thinking that we would get a phone call within at least an hour, nothing happened. Nothing happened the rest of the day, and it turned out that we got a call back two weeks later. We were like, “Well, that’s the reason why.” If you’re getting leads and you’re getting back to people two weeks later, there’s something obviously broken on your end with your intake. That inspired us to go out and do a whole study. We reached out to 700 law firms and planted the lead around the same time on a Monday morning. Believe it or not, 42 percent of the law firms that we reached out to didn’t even respond back to us.
Sharon: Wow! I can’t say I’m surprised. So many times, we may not be handling the actual SEO, but we will work with the law firm and the people answering the phones to put a process together and that doesn’t happen.
Jason: That’s critical, because it’s one thing to spend a lot of money to generate the traffic and the leads, but to fall down when they actually call, that’s a constraint. A lot of law firms during their growth, they have to fix that.
Sharon: It’s more than a constraint; it’s a real waste of money if you’re doing your job and they’re not getting the phone calls.
Jason: That’s exactly right.
Sharon: Then people are saying, “Well, if you’re not going to respond, I’m going to call somewhere else.” Do you find resistance to search engine optimization? When you say that’s what you do, do you find firms saying, “Oh, we do fine”?
Jason: We’re not in the business of cold calling people, because (a) good luck getting through the gatekeeper, and (b), you’re selling what seems like snake oil in our industry because it has such a bad reputation. I think a lot of law firms don’t really understand what is involved with SEO, so in some cases, they have a designer that designs them a new website and codes it and they say, “Do you do SEO?” and they say, “Yeah” and then they build a new website. A couple of weeks later, they have a nice website, and they think they have SEO now because they can check that box, like, “Oh yeah, my developer did the SEO on it.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth. SEO is something else. It’s like your health. Seriously, I look at it like that. If you want to remain healthy, you don’t just eat an apple and say, “O.K., I’m good now.” It requires constant jogging and eating healthy and dieting, and that’s how SEO is. SEO is a core to your business. You have to continue to maintain it; you have to continue to make it better. Publishing content on a regular basis is important, making sure there are no issues within the code on a regular basis is important. It’s definitely an ongoing strategy. It’s just a matter of how aggressive you want to be.
Sharon: What haven’t we talked about that you want to let us know?
Jason: The book that I wrote again is called “Law Firm SEO.” You can find it on Amazon.
Sharon: “Law Firm SEO.” Why did you decide to write it?
Jason: I decided to write this, again, because it’s been 20 years of me learning this, and I genuinely wanted to give back. Like I said, I wanted someone in law school that is interested in the business side of law to get a general sense of what this takes; what this world that I’m going to be competing in looks like. So, for $25 on Amazon, you can tap into 20 years of experience that I’ve had to go through.
Sharon: At one point, lawyers could do this all themselves. You didn’t have social media and everything else that you need to think about today.
Jason: Yeah, and that’s point of the book. When you’re starting out, you either have time or you have money to solve a problem. For example, my sprinklers broke this weekend. I don’t know a lot about sprinklers. I can invest my time into going on YouTube and watching videos about how to fix sprinklers, or I could just call somebody and they can come and fix it. I’d prefer to use my money, in this case, to have somebody that’s more professional come and fix it, but if I didn’t have the money, guess what? I’m going to have to watch YouTube and figure this out myself. I think that’s the same with law firms, whether you’re just getting started or if you’ve been in practice for a long time. It really comes down to time versus money. Do you really want to learn this and, if that’s the case, spend some time reading about it?
The book was written in a way where those that read it could certainly spend time starting to learn and teach themselves this or, alternatively, you could be armed with information now that you’ve read the book, and then you could make a better decision in hiring somebody to help you. When people say, “Hey, is SEO still valuable? Should I be investing in this?” I don’t think SEO is going away anytime soon. The question should be “Should I do SEO versus pay-per-click? Where would I invest my money?” I don’t think it’s an either/or question. I think if you’re able to generate business from paid marketing, continue to feed that marketing channel with a budget and continue to generate business as a result of that. If you’re able to generate business with organic, with SEO, again, same thing. Continue to test it, tweak it, and then keep ramping up where things are working. I think digital marketing for law firms is very valuable, and I genuinely hope those that are listening pick up the book, “Law Firm SEO”—it’s available on Amazon—and I genuinely hope that you get some real value from it.
Sharon: Jason, thank you so much for being with us today. This has been very interesting and informative.
Jason: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Sharon.
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