You Say Law Firm, I Say Lawyer

You have a dilemma: you are considering a couple of keyword phrases that are similar. How do you choose, and does it matter? It often does. In this analysis, I show that consumer search behavior can be different depending upon how they start their search. Here I contrast the phrase law firms with lawyer to show that consumers engage in either seven or nine distinct categories of search behavior depending upon which phrase they use when searching for legal services. It’s often useful to contrast two complementary search phrases to show that user intent can be significantly different, depending upon which of the two keyword phrases they use.

Both keyword phrases generate about the same amount of search traffic on a monthly basis:

  • Law firms generate 68.3 million searches each month.
  • Lawyer generates 66.3 million searches each month.

When you look at the following two datasets there are a number of interesting observations that can be made about the frequency and usage of certain terms.

Law firm dataset (200 keyword phrases)

  • There are 20 keyword phrases with the term attorney – 33.8M searches
  • There are 22 keyword phrases with the term lawyer – 24.4M searches
  • There are 150 keyword phrases with the term law firm – 3.9M searches
  • There are 11 keyword phrases with variant terms (e.g. legal, law offices) – 6.2M searches

Hands down, consumers favor the term attorney over lawyer when they are searching. Interestingly, the term law firm appears in 75% of the keyword phrases, but accounts for only 6% of the total search traffic.

Lawyer dataset (200 keyword phrases)

  • There are 40 keyword phrases with the term attorney – 38.6M searches
  • There are 150 keyword phrases with the term lawyer – 20.8M searches
  • There are 14 keyword phrases with variant legal terms – 7.2M searches

In the lawyer dataset, attorney which appears in only 40 keyword phrases, has twice the search traffic of lawyer, which appears in 150 keyword phrases.

Strictly from a volume perspective, the term attorney is more attractive because it appears in more searches (double) than the term lawyer. It is also an efficient term since it appears in 60 keyword phrases, while lawyer appears in 172 phrases. In a PPC campaign, it’s cheaper when you have the option to target fewer keyword phrases.

Search behavior for law firms

What kind of search behavior are consumers engaging when they start their search for a lawyer, or a law firm? There is some common ground between the two, and there are significant search volume differences in certain categories. We will take a look at the law firms behavior model first.

When you look at the keyword phrase law firms you find nine distinct categories of consumer search behavior:

  1. They are doing information searches using a lot of vague terms, but you do see specific request for advice, reviews and rankings – 56.6M searches.
  2. They are looking for law firms using variant phrases such as legal firms and law offices – 5.79M searches.
  3. They are looking for a type of lawyer specifying it by practice, such as family, criminal and divorce – 4.45M searches.
  4. They are looking for jobs using terms like employment and hiring – 704K searches.
  5. They are looking for a source to help with the selection process. They are using terms such as directory, list and find – 424K search.
  6. They are searching by value looking for lawyers and law firms using terms such as top, new and best – 201K searches.
  7. They are looking for business tools and services using terms like Software, Marketing and Logos – 58.8K searches.
  8. They are looking for a particular law firm by name such as West, Hill, Park and Bell – 45.5K searches.
  9. They are looking for a law firm in a large geographic location using terms like UK or American – 41.1K searches

If you have designed your website to primarily generate leads for your practice, it’s useful to understand that consumers are searching for software tools and jobs when using law firm in their search strings. This traffic is low value, and you don’t want your PPC ads showing up in these search results.

Finding a law firm behavior model

Search Behavior for lawyer

When you analyze the search behavior in the lawyer data set you see a smaller set of behavior categories. In this data there is no job or company name search traffic, and the search volume numbers (by category) differ from the law firms dataset. There is also noted variation in the terminology being used (e.g. terms are under represented, or simply disappear).

When consumers search for a lawyer there are seven categories of search behavior:

  1. They are doing information searches using a lot of vague terms, but you also see terms such as advice, ask and questions – 49.8 M searches.
  2. They are looking for a type of lawyer specifying by practice, such as family, medical and divorce – 15.7M searches.
  3. They are looking for a source to help with the selection process. They are using terms such as finder, referral and website – 300K searches.
  4. They are looking for lawyer or a law firms using terms of value, such as free, best, top and super – 252K searches.
  5. They are looking for a type of law firm using practice specific phrases such as injury, criminal and divorce – 65.3K searches.
  6. They are looking for a law firm in a smaller geographic location using terms like Orange County or LA – 49.3K searches.
  7. They are looking for business tools and services using terms like software, marketing and logos – 34.6K searches.

Finding a lawyer behavior model

Search volume by category

When your compare traffic by category for the two keyword phrases, you find wide variation in search traffic volume—especially when consumers are looking for a type of lawyer by a specific practice.

Comparing Traffic by Category

Search behavior categories Legal

Search volume by practice

When you compare the volume numbers in the following twelve legal practices, we find that consumers are overwhelmingly using the keyword lawyer, by nearly a four to one margin, to find practice specific services. Interestingly there is one anomaly in this data—when it comes to searching for a Divorce lawyer the term law firm has more search traffic (625.7K vs. 534.9K).

Comparing Traffic by Practice

type of Practice Legal

Secondary search terms

A large number of keyword phrases in these two datasets are vague, and it is hard to determine specific user intent—other than they are looking for legal information in a general sort of way. An analysis of the secondary terms in the two datasets show that consumers are using different terms about 56% of the time when modifying queries. You find that eleven words are common to both the list (highlighted in blue). The top 25 secondary terms by volume are:

Comparing Secondary Terms

secondary terms comparison Legal

While interest in personal injury and family law top both list, the rest of the in-common secondary terms can vary dramatically when you examine the search volume. For example, the term Malpractice shows up in 1.2 million queries in the lawyer dataset, but appears in only 21.3K searches in the law firm data set. The ratio also hold true for the term accident.


So, how exactly does this analysis of human search behavior help your practice?

  • Depending up the keyword phrase you are targeting—user intent, term usage and topics differ. These differences can be exploited in your website ad copy and PPC campaigns.
  • If you are actively recruiting new legal talent, than law firm is the keyword phrase to target.
  • Consumers favor the term attorney over lawyer. You should use both, but attorney should be the dominant term in your web page copy.
  • If you are looking to have people find your company by name, you should favor the phrase law firm in page copy and PPC campaigns.
  • If you or your firm is best known by the type of law you practice, than the lawyer dataset is more valuable to you.
  • Understanding the legal search behavior by category allows you to develop custom landing pages to target specific user intent. Users are more apt to stay at your website if their first impression is an exact match for their intent /search phrase.


One last piece of advice. This analysis reflects behavior associated with two high-level search phrases with no implied context. If you are an immigration or tax attorney, it would be worth your time and effort to understand how consumers search for your specialized services, and the preferred terminology that they use to modify search strings.

Keep in mind that understanding this behavior is only one of ten variables that impact website performance. Improving website performance is hard work, and SEO alone will not get the job done. Top performing websites have these ten traits in common:

  1. They understand in detail human search behavior.
  2. They have strategically invested in information architecture.
  3. They have a commitment to develop and deploy high-quality content on a scheduled basis.
  4. They understand the role quality visual design (UI) plays in successful user experiences.
  5. They believe in human factors, and conduct usability test.
  6. They don’t let technology impact products and services in a negative way (gratuitous use of web 2.0 tools).
  7. They have high engineering standards, and validate their code before shipping.
  8. They understand that SEO page markup has to be based upon quality content, not gimmicks.
  9. They understand technically how crawlers and search technologies impact content find-ability.
  10. They understand that a first page search engine ranking has more to do with high-quality content, and a superior user experience.

The data used in this analysis was extracted from AdWords.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search & Usability | Search Marketing: Search Term Research


About The Author: was a founder of the Northern Light search engine, advises clients about how to improve website performance by understanding the practical impact of search behavior, SEO and search technologies on content at Lexington eBusiness Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter @CMarkSprague.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | LinkedIn


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  • Max Thomas

    Great post. Thanks for sharing all of this analysis and recommendations. You mention “They are doing information searches using a lot of vague terms”. Is it possible to provide some of the terms that indicate the searcher is looking for information that is distinct from type of practice, lawyer name, law firm name, geographic, etc. We work with several law firms and this approach to determining the searcher’s behavior via keyword usage is very intriguing. Thanks again.

  • allydent

    Hi Mark,

    A great in-depth piece of analysis thanks. It’s interesting to segment searchers in this way by the words included in their search queries.

    You say early on: “In a PPC campaign, it’s cheaper when you have the option to target fewer keyword phrases.”

    I disagree on this point. If you have more keywords (assuming they’re still relevant) then you can reach the same traffic off a lower average CPC. If you conversion rate holds up, then you’re looking at cheaper conversions by having more keywords, surely?

  • workbox

    Thanks for the post. This is a great, real-world example of how 2 keyphrases, although extremely similar, can have such different implications and results for search engine marketing.

    I’m going to use this as an example to help people understand how this stuff works!

  • Stupidscript

    Mark, excellent article of an amazing amount of use to me, personally. Fantastic!

    @Max Thomas

    As the SE guy for a large law firm, perhaps I can answer your question about “vague terms” … ? Here are some examples:

    (1) “murder trial”, (2) “how many people are convicted of dui”, (3) “wire fraud”

    (1) Seems like a generic query to find info about murder trials, but could be looking for lawyers who handle murder trials, or reviews of lawyers who have handled them

    (2) This is either a question from someone accused of DUI, who will probably need a lawyer, or someone doing research for a school paper or something

    (3) We see that someone who just searches on a type of crime will about half the time be looking for a lawyer that defends people accused of that type of crime.

    Hope that helps … and, Mark, I hope that’s correct in the context of the article … ;)


    It depends entirely on where your keywords are in the scale of things. For example, keywords in the long tail (longer terms) are less expensive than keywords in the short tail, pretty much across the board. If you can make your nut by only using a few select long tail terms, (a) you will definitely pay less and (b) the traffic you get will be more targeted and more likely to convert, resulting in a higher ROI, which is the whole point.

    If you can target your keywords more to exactly what you offer, and what your landing pages can support, then you are much more likely to break even faster than if you tried the same thing with a higher number of lower-performing generalized keywords.

    So it definitely IS cheaper “when you have the option to target fewer keyword phrases,” because you spend less to get an equal amount of income … better ROI.

  • Max Thomas


    Thanks for following up with some examples of search phrases and behaviors. It sounds like you can recognize these quickly from experience. In asking my question, I wasn’t sure if there’s a group of searches that tend to indicate the searcher is looking for general information, versus case-by-case search phrases. This is helpful. Thanks again.

  • Mike

    Hi Mark,

    Real nice post here. Google Adwords keyword tool numbers don’t always seem to be that accurate when compared to analytics data though. In my experience working with law firms over the last 10 years and analyzing Google analytics data, web traffic has always been higher for the term ‘lawyer’ more than the word ‘attorney’. I always wonder how much of the Adwords data is skewed by SEO companies or the law firms themselves checking the rankings which would show more impressions in
    Adwords but not actual clicks to the websites. Most of the clients we work with are personal injury law firms so maybe it’s just consumers searching for personal injury law firms that use lawyer vs attorney more often.



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