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Pick an area of law — trademark, employment, appellate, whatever — tack “lawyer” onto it, and search the phrase on Google. Odds are, a legal blog will be among the top-ranking results — often at the top of the list. At a time when talk of online marketing invariably turns to the pseudo-science of search-engine optimization, many law firms are missing an often more sure-fire route to the top of the search-engine heap — blogging. And higher search ranking is just one of the marketing advantages blogging offers lawyers — all for little or no cost and with virtually no technical knowledge required. WHAT IS A BLOG? To understand blogs as a marketing tool, it helps first to understand blogs. So what are they?Simply put, a blog (a contraction of Web log) is a Web page with frequently updated content arranged in reverse chronological order, much like a print log or diary. Each entry is stamped with the author’s name and the date and time it was made. Entries are usually no more than a paragraph or two, although some can be much longer. They usually bear a headline or title. Blogs started on the Web as personal journals, read mostly by friends and families. Long a little-noticed medium, they made headlines in 2002 when Trent Lott resigned his post as Senate Republican leader, and political observers attributed the move to criticism leveled at him by a handful of political bloggers. They made news again when Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean started a blog and made it a central component of his campaign organization. The final stamp of credibility came last summer, when political bloggers earned press credentials to the Democratic and Republican national conventions. VIRTUAL POCKET PARTS While big-name journalists and political pundits who blog attract the spotlight, blogging has taken on prevalence within the legal community perhaps greater than for any other profession. Blogs written by lawyers number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Many provide general commentary on law and law practice, while others focus on specific areas of law. These more-targeted blogs are like legal news services, providing reports and comments on new developments almost as quickly as they occur. Blog writers range from nationally prominent lawyers and law professors to fledgling associates and law students. Blogs cover virtually every major practice area, while others focus on particular courts, agencies or jurisdictions. For lawyers who practice in these areas, blogs serve as valuable means of keeping current — pocket parts for the digital age. Lawyers who write blogs often become recognized as authorities in their fields, building up regular readerships that can number in the thousands. Potential clients read blogs too. Businesses and individuals follow legal blogs that cover topics of relevance or interest to them. They also use blogs to gauge a lawyer’s knowledge of a topic. DESKTOP DELIVERY To understand why blogs are such powerful marketing tools, begin with the technology that powers them. Blogs are just Web pages. The problem with Web pages is that you need to go to them in order to read them. Revisiting a number of Web pages on a routine basis is impractical. A few years back, Internet news providers began to encourage the use of “push” technology — software that would push Web content to your desktop computer. It never caught on, but it helped spawn a variation known as RSS, for really simple syndication. Using RSS, news providers on the Web can format stories in a manner that allows them to be “syndicated” — that is, distributed to readers automatically. As with the old push technology, the reader installs a software program — called a “news reader” or “news aggregator” — on his or her computer. Using that program, the reader can select news feeds to receive. This is called “subscribing,” although most feeds are free. Fire up your news reader every day, and it downloads headlines from the New York Times, CNN and whatever other news sources you have selected from the multitude that have RSS feeds. Throughout the day, it continues to download new stories. Although developed for news, RSS has come to be the fuel that powers blogs. Just about every blog has an RSS feed (or an RSS alternative called Atom). As you find blogs that interest you, you can subscribe to them by adding them to your news reader. Just as with news stories, as new entries are added to the blog, they are sent immediately via RSS to your computer. WORDS SPREAD Think about all these lawyers writing blogs and all these other lawyers subscribing to them and reading them right on their own computers every day. Now think about a concept called viral marketing — word that spreads like a virus, from person to person. This is what underlies blogging’s power as a marketing tool. Consider this illustration: Fred is a trademark lawyer who decides to write a blog tracking developments in the field. He tells a few colleagues about it and some of them subscribe to Fred’s RSS feed and start regularly reading his postings. One of those colleagues has a blog of his own, and comments on it about something Fred writes, with a link to Fred’s original posting. The mention brings new readers to Fred’s blog, some of whom also decide to subscribe to Fred’s RSS feed. Meanwhile, others find their way to Fred’s blog through search engines or links on other sites. Some of them subscribe to Fred’s RSS feed. Some are also bloggers themselves and sometimes mention Fred on their blogs, driving even more readers to Fred. In short order, Fred’s handful of readers grows exponentially to hundreds or even thousands who regularly read his blog. These readers are lawyers and businesspeople from throughout the United States and even the world. Not so long ago, a lawyer might become known as an expert in a field by writing a treatise or by publishing frequently in legal periodicals. In a similar vein, Fred becomes recognized as a leading commentator in trademark law. He is invited to speak at seminars. Out-of-state lawyers refer cases to him. Thanks to his blog, Fred has established his name and reputation as a knowledgeable trademark lawyer. SEARCH ENGINE STARS On top of all that, Fred’s blog has most likely propelled him to the top of the search engine rankings. Here is why. Google, the most popular search engine, pioneered a technology it calls Page Rank. Simply put, Google interprets a link to a Web page as a kind of vote for its quality cast from among the Internet’s democratic masses. The more sites that link to a page, the more valuable it must be, Google reasons. Applying this technological premise, Google ranks search results based on what it believes will be the most valuable pages that match a query. Other search engines have similar methods of ranking pages.So here we have Fred the trademark lawyer. Among his thousands of readers are other bloggers who frequently mention and link to Fred on their own blogs. Many provide lists of links on their site to other bloggers they find valuable, including Fred. Likewise, non-bloggers add Fred to their own pages of links, under headings such as “Trademark Law Resources.” With all these links to Fred’s blog, Google presumes, it must be a valuable site for anyone searching for information about trademark law or for a trademark lawyer. While other law firms are paying consultants to optimize their Web sites for search engines, Fred catapulted over them without spending a dime. GETTING STARTED Here is the best part: You can start blogging in a matter of minutes, with no technical know-how and no investment of money. The simplest route is through a Web-based service named Blogger, owned, as it happens, by Google. Totally free, Blogger provides all the tools you need to start a blog. It even provides free Web hosting, although you may use your own server if you prefer. No software is required; everything is done through your Web browser. Once you complete Blogger’s free registration, it walks you through the process of creating a blog. Choose a name, select a design template, tweak a few minor settings, and you are ready. To post, you type your message in the Blogger template, add a headline in the space provided, and click “publish.” In seconds, your first posting appears on the Web at your blog’s URL. More sophisticated blogging programs provide more features and controls. Among the most popular is a program called Movable Type, which you can download from their Web site. It must be installed on your Web server and requires at least an elementary level of programming, although the company will install it for you for a fee. The same company offers a Web-based variation of its blogging program called TypePad. While not free like Blogger, it offers more sophisticated options. While blogging requires no out-of-pocket investment, you must be willing to invest some sweat. You need to post frequently; the most popular bloggers post at least daily and some post frequently throughout the day. And if your goal is to establish your credentials, you had better have some idea of what you are blogging about. Once you hit that “publish” button, your words are out there for all the world to read. Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., and vice president of the legal consulting firm Jaffe Associates, blogs about new and intriguing Web sites for lawyers at LawSites. He is author of the newly released second edition of the book, “The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web,” available from LawCatalog. Bob can be reached at [email protected]. Related story: Real Lawyers Have Blogs

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