Law Firms and the
A legal manager's guide to website
optimization for mobile devices
BY ALEX HESHMATY
Over the last few years, a paradigm shift has been taking place in terms of how people access the Internet and engage with websites. Ten years ago, most people could only log on to the net from a fixed location, generally their home or office desktop PC. As laptops came down in price and Wi-Fi technology became more widely available, netizens had more flexibility and the emergence of coffee bar surfers gained ground. The early smartphones could access a limited form of the Internet but, due to the limited power of mobile processors, poor screens and awkward navigation, it was not a pleasant experience. The implementation of high resolution touch-screens and enhanced computing power, initially by iPhones and later by Android devices, as well as the ubiquity of high speed 3G, changed the game. More and more people discovered the flexibility of accessing the web on the go from their cell phone, without any reliance on fixed location desktops or having to carry around a laptop. As more people access websites from their cell phones and other mobile devices, law firms can reap benefits by implementing mobile websites that cater to the smaller screens of this constantly connected on-the-go demographic.
WHAT IS THE MOBILE WEB?
The mobile web essentially refers to Internet use via mobile devices. However, the plethora of computing devices of all shapes and sizes makes it tricky to define precisely just what is considered mobile. While handheld smartphones certainly fall into this category and laptops or desktops do not, tablets are more of a gray area. Following the release of Windows 8, manufacturers are beginning to produce hybrid laptop/tablet devices - one example being Microsoft's surface (read more in this month's Test Drive
In general, a smaller screen size is probably the main aspect which defines a mobile device. It's also the primary reason some websites require a degree of optimization to take account of the growing number of mobile web users.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE MOBILE WEB?
According to recent statistics from StatCounter, during 2012, mobile devices accounted for close to 15 percent of global Internet traffic worldwide, and just shy of 14 percent in the united states. This isn't a figure to be sneezed at in itself, but all the indications point to the proportion of mobile Internet traffic increasing dramatically over the next few years as desktop computers are consigned to landfills and smartphones make their way into everyone's pockets. A forecast by networking giant cisco expects the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops and Internet-capable mobiles to exceed the world's population in 2013. While this highlights a rather curious situation, perhaps one of the more interesting points of the report at least with regards to mobile websites is that smartphones currently only account for 18 percent of handsets in use globally.
HOW TO OPTIMIZE A SITE FOR THE MOBILE WEB?
If you decide to create a mobile optimized version of your regular website, this will essentially run in tandem with your non-mobile site. There are various ways of ensuring that when a user visits your website, their browser type will be recognized and they will automatically be directed to either your regular website or the mobile version. When implemented correctly, this process should be seamless and provide the optimal experience for the user. But there are various ways to create a mobile website and all sorts of considerations to take into account - particularly screen size and the use of touch screens.
While tablets provide a good deal of screen acreage, most smartphones are still fairly limited in this respect. So-called "phablets," such as the Samsung Galaxy Note provide a happy medium but space is still an issue. When considering designing for a smaller screen, a pixel limit should be set. The old iPhone 3Gs had a resolution of 480x320 pixels, whereas the recent Samsung S3 is 1280x720 to give just two examples.
The two dominant mobile platforms android and iPhone are generally designed for devices with touch-screen capability. Windows is also trying to boost ailing Nokia sales figures with its own touch-centric mobile platform, and even BlackBerry is getting in on the act.
Being able to manipulate on-screen content with your fingers is extremely intuitive and feels totally natural after a while. But websites have traditionally been designed for mice and keyboards and, as such, the transition requires a revolution in traditional design thinking.
While scrolling any website using the touch-screen is generally a pretty smooth experience, website menus and buttons are often too small or fiddly for human fingers. When designing a mobile site, attention should be paid to the placement of elements that require selection. Anything that needs to be clicked must be easily accessible and big enough for people who are not blessed with dainty fingers.
- Oxford Dictionaries Online defines an app as "a self-contained program or piece of software designed to fulfill a
particular purpose; an application, especially as downloaded by a user to a mobile device."
- The great thing about mobile phone apps is that they are generally designed for a smaller screen and take advantage
of touch-screen technology, as well as other features of smartphones, such as GPS.
- Apps need to be downloaded and installed and this is where they differ from mobile websites. A company may have an
excellent app, but if a casual visitor comes across the website on a mobile browser and has a bad experience, they are unlikely to download the app and will
probably just hit the back button!
- Apps need to be designed according to the operating system on which they will run, so there need to be several versions
of an app to work on iPhones, Android mobiles and Windows phones. This obviously means more development work and cost.
- Native apps (those downloaded and installed on your phone) should not be confused with web apps (applications of the
HTML 5 is the latest incarnation of the code that is used to build the basic structure of websites. This new version of the code conceived by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 is particularly mobile-friendly and more flexible than previous versions, particularly for websites that require user-engagement. The use of HTML 5 in conjunction with the browser software on smartphones and tablets is so effective that it's increasingly
replacing the need to develop native apps (see sidebar). Furthermore, a well-designed mobile website ensures cross-compatibility, which is a major advantage when compared with mobile apps that can only be used on their particular platform. So, in theory, it's far more cost-effective to design a mobile website using the latest HTML standard than creating a separate app.
SUCCESSFUL MOBILE WEBSITES IMPLEMENTED BY LAW FIRMS
Faegre Baker Daniels (www.faegrebd.com) has a particularly elegant mobile-optimized version of its website, which makes navigation a breeze. All the different sections are clearly displayed and clicking on one of them opens up a submenu, while a link back to the main menu remains at the top at all times. "The ability to see mobile visits versus desktop visits to our pages is crucial to success measurement," said Melanie S. green, Chief Client Development officer at the firm. "This, with our ability to create mobile-accessible custom pages, allows us to run some campaigns with a mobile-first strategy. generally speaking, the simplicity of the design and information architecture are ideal for mobile users, who don't have much time to digest the amount of information that would appear on a full site page this makes the site very easy to use on handheld devices."
Harold Benjamin (www.haroldbenjamin.com), a law firm based in the U.K., decided to implement a mobile website when it discovered a growing stream of visitors who were accessing its online presence from a mobile device. "In mid-2012, more than 5 percent of all traffic to our website was coming from small screen devices not including iPads/tablets, and we realized we needed to provide a better website experience for those visitors. Now our haroldbenjamin.mobi site does just that," said Jamie Abrahams, head of IT at the firm. "We also realized that a lot of our traffic was related to looking up people, so it is useful for our clients to be able to access profiles on staff on their mobiles."
David Gilroy, Sales and Marketing Director at Conscious Solutions (www.conscious.co.uk), which built the mobile site for Harold Benjamin, has been conducting research in the upwards trend of mobile traffic specifically for law firms: "Running over 300 law firm websites, we were able to spot the growth in mobile traffic," Gilroy said. He found the following data for just one client:
|Jan 2010 ||7|
|Jan 2012 ||114|
|Jan 2013 ||308|
His research shows "that currently there are three primary reasons why someone would check out a law firm via their mobile device: (a) they want to find the firm, (b) they want to call the firm or (c) they want to read up on the person they are meeting/calling." He concluded that "a simplified, mobile-optimized site is the most cost-effective way of meeting these needs."
THE MOBILE WEB AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media and networking tools including Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn have been developing in popularity for many years. But the growth of the mobile web has helped to propel their appeal and reach.
Research by Pew Internet found that, as of August 2012, more than two-thirds of online adults in the United States were using social media. Meanwhile, a recent report by
BtoB magazine estimates that more than half of marketers are planning to increase their social media spend in 2013. Law firms are increasingly using social networking to take advantage of these trends in online marketing. By adopting a social media presence, law firms can gain important web credentials. Aside from allowing them to better engage with their client base, a well-planned social media campaign can also improve the ranking of a law firm within Google, meaning more prospective clients. Obviously time needs to be dedicated to maintaining social media, and there are various legal issues that need to be taken into consideration, such as the monitoring of posts and comments to avoid any potential libelous statements made by third parties. But if deployed correctly, a more informal way of keeping in touch with clients particularly a blog can be very helpful in providing added engagement.
FUTURE OF THE MOBILE WEB
There is little doubt that the number of people accessing the Internet from mobile devices is on an upwards trend that is set to continue for the foreseeable future. this phenomenon poses various issues which need to be taken into account by law firms wishing to grab a slice of these mobile users who are, after all, potential (or existing) clients. The popularity of social media, used in conjunction with smartphones, gives technologically forward-thinking firms the upper hand when it comes to web marketing.
About the Author
Alex Heshmaty is a legal technology specialist, web marketing consultant and freelance writer. He runs Legal techie, a niche company based in the UK,
providing web design, copywriting, social media networking and search engine optimization (SEO) services for lawyers. For more details, see
www.legaltechie.co.uk or email him at