Most law firms today realize the importance of search engines to their online marketing. They know that consumers are increasingly using Google and other search engines to find and research law firms before hiring them. No one really disputes this.

At the same time, paying for search engine optimization (SEO) services to rank highly in search results can be very expensive. Thus, it’s important for firms to understand the search behavior of legal consumers if they want to improve their chances of being found.

To help, FindLaw undertook a massive study of search behavior to better understand how consumers were finding law firms. You can download the full white paper to see the results or listen to some key points in this podcast.

In summary, here are the four key takeaways for law firm SEO programs:

Takeaway #1: Ignore the allure of vanity searches
Many law firms equate search engine success with ranking highly for so-called “head-term” phrases, such as “Dallas personal injury attorney.” Our findings clearly indicate that this view is misguided. Head-term queries generate only 1.3% of the traffic to a typical firm website and only 3% of the contacts. When you consider the high cost and intense competition to rank for this search type, focusing on head terms is simply a poor investment for most firms.

Takeaway #2: Concentrate on “long-tail” searches
By comparison, focusing on long-tail queries that contain phrases indicating an active intent to hire an attorney, like “drunk driving lawyer in Santa Barbara that handles cases with motorcycles” is most often the better approach. While these search queries may be more complex, they represent a consumer’s best attempt to describe their legal problem. Thus, websites that rank for these queries will be highly relevant to them. It’s not surprising that these searches are responsible for about 32% of the traffic to the typical law firm website and an amazing 71% of the contacts.

But how do you put that in action? The quick answer is to regularly create great content that addresses the common concerns and questions of clients. Write it in the language your clients typically use. Blogs are a superb vehicle for writing consistent content in a digestible format, which Google increasingly favors.

Takeaway #3: Build your brand
Another critical finding of the study was that 38% of search traffic to law firm websites is associated with the firm’s brand, such as searches that include the firm name. Not only is branded traffic a sizeable category, it also converts into law firm contacts at a 60% higher rate than any other traffic type. Firms that do not actively define, manage and promote their brands can miss out on the impact of this highly valuable traffic category.

Takeaway #4: Think big
The overarching lesson from our research is that there is no single tactic – whether it be online ads, ranking for head terms or even advertising on bus benches – that will fully meet all the marketing needs of your firm. The road to success ends with a smart program that combines the right messages and media types to hit your target audience.

Want more legal marketing insights? Follow us on Twitter, @FindLawLab

Mark Jacobsen is senior director of Strategic Development and Thought Leadership at FindLaw.