Stepping into the world of search engine optimization for the first time can be bewildering. At times it can seem like all of the “experts” on the subject have a different idea of what constitutes “best practices.” Also, the fact that the specific functions of search engine algorithms are kept secret from the public does not make the learning process any easier.
Worst of all, SEO professionals (SEOs) and marketing salespeople often sell services to attorneys under the guise of SEO, even when those services have nothing to do with SEO whatsoever (as in the case of reselling pay-per-click ads, for instance), and might actually damage the visibility of your website on search engine results pages (SERPs) in the long run.
As you begin your personal foray into SEO for your law firm website, you will want to familiarize yourself with the webmaster guidelines for each search engine (Google, Bing, and Yahoo are still the largest search engines in the US). Adhering to the webmaster guidelines of search engines will help your website to avoid the de-ranking associated with algorithmic updates meant to target webspam. Straying outside of those guidelines, however, can land your website a search engine penalty, or could even cause your site to be de-indexed from a search engine altogether.
The information contained in this post will help you stay in the good graces of search engines while avoiding penalties associated with so-called “black hat” SEO activities. For a more complete introduction to law firm SEO, download the free eBook, “SEO Basics for Lawyers,” published this year by LawLytics.
Some attorneys operate under the assumption that their law firm website will function much in the same way as a sign hanging outside of their office. These attorneys believe that once their site is live, their work on the website is done, and the site can be left alone to begin gathering leads for them independently. Unfortunately, this is not true.
Websites are more like living organisms than static pieces of marketing material. They need to be updated and added to regularly in order to maximize their value to your law firm. In fact, Google appears to use the “freshness” of content as a ranking signal, meaning that sites which are left alone for long periods of time may experience “decay” with regard to their visibility on SERPs.
Further, because attorney websites affect the “future happiness, health or financial stability” of search engine users, according to Google, it refers to them as “Your Money or Your Life Pages.” The search engine holds these sites to a higher standard than those belonging to local restaurants or entertainment sites, for example, and therefore requires that attorney sites are updated with regularity.
The process of gaining visibility on SERPs through “white hat” SEO tactics (those which are within the boundaries of search engine webmaster guidelines) is not one that lends itself to overnight success. Rather, the best and most trusted sites need to be nurtured, improved, and updated to ensure that the information provided therein is always accurate, informative, up-to-date, and valuable to search engine users.
There are a number of ways in which hiring the wrong SEO professional can wind up hurting your law firm. Most importantly, attorneys will always be held responsible for any advertising—including online advertising—done on behalf of their firms. Therefore, if your SEO provider is not well-versed in legal ethics they could accidentally violate an ethics rule on your behalf. Simple mistakes—like labeling your firm as “the best” in its area of practice, or changing the wording of a phrase in a way that alters its legal meaning—can attract negative attention from your peers and disciplinary authorities.
Often, SEOs bill themselves as “experts” or “specialists” in the field of legal marketing, though there is no standard for how much experience qualifies one as an SEO expert. Nor is there an equivalent of the MPRE that SEOs must take to prove that they understand how to act ethically in their business practices. It’s not uncommon for law firm SEO “specialists” to also claim specialties in any number of unrelated fields—from plumbing to eCommerce—in addition to “specializing” in law firm SEO.
Some SEOs work outside of webmaster guidelines and will perform “black hat” practices as part of their “services.” Should you allow a “black hat” SEO to work for your law firm, their tactics could land your website with a search engine penalty that may be difficult, or even impossible, to recover from. For these reasons, it’s a good idea for attorneys to either handle their SEO efforts themselves, or to at least fully vet any SEO they intend to hire to work on their behalf. (LawLytics, for example, makes it easy to do-it-yourself, or to safely delegate tasks to qualified, knowledgeable professionals.)
In the early days of search engines, it was relatively easy to trick algorithms into ranking sites higher in SERPs than those sites merited on their own. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, one of the most popular black hat SEO methods was to stuff keywords on sites at high densities, sometimes in ways that made those keywords invisible to users but still indexable by web crawlers. But Google caught on to many of those tactics quickly and started combating them with updates to its algorithm. The value of keyword stuffing has been on a rapid decline since Google’s “Florida” update in 2003, and more complicated methods of keyword stuffing (such as hidden text and keyword-stuffed meta tags) were addressed by later updates, most notably the Panda and Penguin updates of 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Web crawlers still use keywords as signals to help index content, though the presence of keywords in unnaturally high densities now serves as a spam signal to the search engine and will actually hurt a website’s SEO. Writing content for your website with users in mind rather than search engines should naturally, as a byproduct of good writing, include keywords at a favorable density, so there is no need to stuff extra keywords into your content for the sake of SEO.
Finally, an artificial intelligence element known as “machine learning” was incorporated into Google’s search algorithm with the implementation of its RankBrain feature in 2015. This feature helps the search engine to better understand synonyms and user intention based on context clues, meaning that the SEO value of specific keywords will likely continue to lose traction as a ranking signal over time.
When Google was founded in 1998, it used a scoring system called PageRank to evaluate the “importance” of a website. The idea was that external links essentially served as endorsements. Ergo, the more links pointing to a particular page, the more endorsements it had and the better its ranking should be. But spammers and black hat SEOs got wise to this game and developed ways to cheat it. Simple link exchanges formed (e.g., “Link to my site, and I’ll link to yours.”), and as Google got better at detecting them, they evolved into more complicated “web rings” and “link prisms” that traded links across multiple sites in an effort to conceal that the exchange was taking place.
Companies developed solely to conduct the “business” of buying, selling, and distributing links across the web. Spammy websites appeared that served no purpose other than to provide long lists of purchased links. For many years, trading in link schemes seemed to work.
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Today, the presence and quality of external links pointing to a site is still a factor when it comes to rankings on SERPs. But Google and other search engines have gotten much better at detecting and penalizing link schemes. Google has also begun evaluating the quality of external links more carefully and now associates websites with the sites they link to, as well as the sites linking to them (an association known as a site’s “link neighborhood”).
Some link exchanges still exist today, though their effectiveness and value has plunged dramatically (and your firm’s past participation in one can be a toxic asset which you must affirmatively disavow). Though some online visibility may be obtained in the short run through participation in a link scheme, if caught, offenders can be hit with a manual penalty (a rankings penalty that is applied manually by a search engine employee) from a search engine. Such a penalty not only affects the visibility of a site on SERPs, but it also instantly negates the value of those links (along with whatever it cost to get them in the first place). And, unless those links are removed—which can be difficult to accomplish—it can be extremely difficult to pull your site up from a penalty applied as a result of participation in a link exchange.
In short, if someone asks you to participate in a link scheme, or to pay to have links placed for you across the web, know that it’s against Google’s guidelines to do so, and the risk of participation usually outweighs its SEO value. It is better to earn links to your site the old fashioned way—by providing content on your website that is good enough to warrant a citation elsewhere on the web. People link to good content that provides valuable information without asking for or accepting compensation. And these organically placed links will be your site’s most valuable endorsements.
Google has tasked itself with the stated mission to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” And because the bulk of the company’s revenue comes from selling pay-per-click ads (PPCs) that appear on SERPs following relevant searches, the company’s business model depends on returning the best information possible for each and every query it processes. Therefore, returning low-quality results for searches is bad for a search engine’s business, and providing thin, low-quality content for the search engine to index is bad for your website’s SEO.
But what exactly is thin content? Google’s Panda update targeted sites called “content farms,” which existed for the sole purpose of inflating site rankings by providing low-quality content with high keyword densities. Often, these “articles” were auto-generated by software programs, or were composed of long lists of keywords that were incomprehensible when read by human users.
Thin content is essentially content that is made with search engines, as opposed to search engine users, in mind. If the content on your website provides value to users in the form of thoughtful, original information meant to answer specific questions, Google will register that content as high-quality. If you are ranking well for a search phrase like “What should I do if I’m charged with a DUI in Michigan?”—but you direct users from that search result to a page displaying only your law firm’s contact information—that’s thin content. Duplicate content or content that is “scraped” from another online source is considered thin. This includes practice area pages on your law firm website that are cut-and-pasted from one another with only the location information (such as the city or county name) changed between them.
Keep your potential clients top-of-mind when you write content for your site, and do your best to write in a way that will appeal to those clients, and you can avoid search engine penalties associated with publishing low-quality content on your site.
Transfer Layer Security (TLS; also known as “secure sockets layer,” or SSL) is a third-party certificate that indicates that the information transmitted between your site and its users is encrypted and safe from hackers. It is this certificate that differentiates a site served over older HTTP communication protocols (the insecure version) and HTTPS (the secure version). In January of 2017, Google began showing a warning in its Chrome browser for insecure sites that request password or credit card information. In July 2018, all sites without a TLS/SSL certificate will come with a warning in Chrome.
Chrome is the market-leading browser as of this writing, with more than 57 percent of market share (Apple’s Safari is second with less than 15 percent). Though it may not affect your site’s placement on SERPs yet, user engagement metrics that suffer as a result of this warning may have a negative effect on your site’s SEO in the near future. Therefore, if your site is not served over a secure HTTPS protocol, it’s a good idea to begin migrating to a secure platform sooner rather than later.
Search engines take a user’s location into account during searches. Therefore, search engines sometimes return local information for searches that do not specifically include local terminology. Including local information on your law firm website can help you corner the market on certain local search terms. Many attorneys write content that is too general to be returned for local search results. Many marketing and SEO companies typically do not have the bandwidth or regional knowledge necessary to include such information on the websites they manage without making the local content spammy. This creates an opportunity for your law firm website to address specific local queries relevant to your practice area that are likely to be of interest to your potential clients.
Even when the relevant laws are created at the state level, many of your potential clients—especially those not well-versed in the law—will search for information on the local level. This is because search engines and your potential clients tend to think locally, not legally. There are many ways to add local information to your law firm website, and doing so can help boost your local SEO, and therefore, drive more potential clients to your law firm.
Many attorneys don’t understand how their potential clients search for legal information online. Specifically, attorneys may assume that their potential clients know up front that they need an attorney and will, therefore, perform a search like “criminal defense attorney New York” or “personal injury lawyer Seattle.” For this reason, competition for general keywords and search phrases tends to be fierce and costly. General legal search phrases tend to be among the most expensive search terms to bid on, and maintaining a high ranking on SERPs for those phrases is usually an uphill and sustained battle.
The fact of the matter is that your potential clients may not know that they need an attorney as soon as they begin facing a particular legal issue. Many will begin searching for specific information that applies to their situation first. Thus, long before searching for “Baltimore birth injury lawyer,” a potential client might search for “injury from extraction device during birth.” It is at this point that you want to put yourself in front of potential clients by capitalizing on the often-undervalued, yet highly convertible long-tail search phrases.
Long-tail search phrases are those which contain more than a few words, including complete questions. By anticipating the questions that your potential clients will ask on search engines, and then answering them one-at-a-time, attorneys can capture the attention of potential clients early, and therefore remain top-of-mind with those potential clients when they decide to seek counsel. Competition for long-tail phrases tends to be less intense than for general searches, and conversion rates for long-tail searches tend to be higher than conversion rates for shorter phrases. Further, with the rising prevalence of voice search, the average search phrase is getting longer and more conversational, meaning that targeting such phrases on your website now is likely to continue to pay off, long-term.
Craig Baker is a former journalist with several years of experience working in the marketing sector. He currently creates educational blog posts, eBooks, and infographics at LawLytics, the leading online legal marketing platform for lawyers who want to grow their marketing without wasting time or money.