A Law Firm Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Guide to Understanding Your Website’s Rankings
How Long Will it Take My Site to Rank?
The world of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a lot like the Wild West. You have the barkeeps and the bandits. The barkeeps work hard and earn an honest living for a long time (unless they are gunned down by a bandit). The bandits steal and earn money quickly but are more than likely to be gunned down themselves during their next heist. If you haven’t gathered already, the barkeeps are white hat SEOs and the bandits are black hat SEOs. Their earnings are derived from your rankings.
Many search marketers work very hard to stay on top of the latest trends and work tirelessly to create a place that people want to go and hang out (the bar). They will tell you the truth about where you are and how long it will take you to get where you need to be. There are others who really have no real talent or resources other than the ability to sell you on quick wins and a fiverr.com account where they can buy a truckload of easy links that may make your site rank in the short term before it gets penalized for spammy practices.
In order to create value for your visitors and for you as a law firm, you have to know where you are and form a plan to get you where you need to be. So let’s start with the basics.
What Are the Basics That I Need to Know as a Lawyer About SEO?
Pay Attention to Your Design
First, you need a well organized site that is visually appealing and applies current design trends so that your visitors do not feel like you stopped caring about them years ago. It is normal to redesign a site every 2-3 years, especially if your ROI or conversions have dropped. (Pro Tip: WordPress makes it easy to redesign a site by just building a new theme instead of rebuilding each page.)
A skilled law firm Web designer thinks about how the visitor goes through the site, what they are most interested in and what will compel a visitor to contact the law firm. Designing for your visitors is critical and is the foundation of good search optimization.
Make Your Content Easy to Understand
Google has to crawl (basically download and parse) and understand the pages on your site. Your visitors need to understand your site as well as how it is organized. Relevant content is a must for your law firm website.
Many times companies build sites around their business structure instead of their visitor’s needs. This is so common it is alarming. If your firm’s focus is car accident cases, you need to have an obvious link on the homepage that encourage visitors to click for more information on car accident cases. Build that page to be better and more useful than the page of any of your competitors.
Don’t make visitors hunt for information. Use a content outline to help plan and organize your site so that it is logical (for search engines) and easy to find (for visitors).
Don’t Sell, Be Useful
This is a pet peeve of mine. I have never been to a law firm’s website and not known that it is a law firm’s website. It is obvious. There is no need to tell people in the content that you can handle their case. Instead, provide what they seek. Add value to their visit. Use social proof (testimonials, reviews) judiciously, show some cases you have won, but above all tell them what they need to know and answer their questions.
Be Interesting and Authoritative
If you do not have the time or resources to write high quality content, pay a top notch writer to do it for you. Google analyzes content for relevance and readability. Google has the world’s largest testing platform for Web pages. Their goal is to return a result that answers the question entered and that the searcher finds interesting enough to stay and read. This is commonly called time-to-long-click. If a searcher finds your content and immediately returns to Google to pick another Web page, they have told Google that your content was either not relevant, informative or unhelpful. Next time someone searches for that query, Google is less likely to show your content in the results.
What Are the Factors that Drive Rankings?
How Google ranks websites is a closely held secret. If anyone tells you they have the magic formula, they are not being truthful. However, there are several things that we do know. A list of the top factors that Google has announced as well as from our experience include:
- Authoritative links are huge. Links from trustworthy sites that are on pages which are relevant to the content on your site they are linking to is one of the biggest ranking factors. For example, a scholarly website discussing car accident causation factors that links to your car accident infographic is a successful and powerful link.
- The number of different high quality domains that link to you is highly correlated with good rankings.
- Have a physical location in the city where you want business. All of the searches that have keywords indicating a business (lawyer, law firm, attorney, etc.) will return local listings at the top of the results 90% of the time.
- Reviews on Google (as well as other trusted rating sites) increases your visibility and chance of a prospect contacting you with their case. If you put yourself in your potential client’s shoes and do a search for “Palm Beach Car Accident Lawyer,” would you pick the attorney with no reviews or the firm with ten five-star reviews? This is also highly correlated with rankings.
- Brand and business mentions help search engines know who you are. Google used to return EMDs (exact match domains) for certain keywords because it had difficulty distinguishing the difference between a keyword and a brand name. If you search for Rackroom Shoes, you probably want rackroomshoes.com. Google uses brand (co-citations/co-occurrence) along with instances of your business name and address found on quality sites to understand the strength and trustworthiness of your brand.
- Having well-written, properly organized, and properly optimized site content is also critical to rankings. No one wants to click on a search result that just says “Home – mylawfirm.com”. Google will probably display a better (more relevant) title for you anyway but you get the point. The title and description of your page are important elements that tell Google and the visitor what your page is about.
- There is also some early evidence that having active Google+ profiles can be very helpful in gaining rankings for your site.
What Is the Amount of Time That it Will Take My Law Firm’s Website to Start Ranking?
This is a very difficult question with several variables, but I will do my best to lay this out. Your search vendor is not a black box that drives traffic and conversions. The vendor is a partner that magnifies what you already do to put you in the best position to get the cases for which you are looking.
In my experience, law firms that are active in the community (online and off), have good relationships and actively promote their brand are the ones who experience the most success with their websites. This is because Google uses many factors to determine rankings, not just links.
For now, high quality, relevant links are still a primary factor in determining rankings and should be sought. If you have a new site with no links and your top competitors have established sites with hundreds of sites linking to them, you should obtain a similar amount in order to be competitive. Remember to follow the tips above on the type of links to target.
If you take the number of linking sites that your competitors have; let’s say 200, then you will need to get close to that mark in order to be in the ballpark to start ranking with them. But one thing to keep in mind: not all links are created equal. One link from a university website can be equal to a hundred blog articles or directory links. So, it really has to do with the quality and number of links that you acquire that will enable you to compete with other firms’ rankings.
It is possible to buy thousands of links in a month to rank for what you want, but with the advent of manual penalties and Penguin filters from Google, we highly recommend against this. Instead, go the slower route of convincing people to link to you. This can be done in the following ways:
- Create content that people want to link to.
- Do promotions that people will share and link to.
- Ask people you know for links.
- List your company in authoritative directories.
- Share quality blog posts with non-competing blog owners.
- Write a glowing article about another business or organization.
- Ask a business if you can put a testimonial on their site in exchange for a link.
There are many, many other ways to build links in a quality way. Finding a strategy that works for your firm can be a process of trial and error when first starting out.
Your overall Web strategy also needs to be considered when planning your firm’s link building plan. One of your practice areas may be extremely competitive and have very established competitor sites. Instead of starting with that area, it may be a better approach to shoot for a slightly less lucrative practice area or location with less competition in order to rank more quickly for terms that can drive results.
The reality is that, depending on the amount of competition in a particular location and practice area, it can take a year, or years, to get to where your competition is. Your competition may have spent tens of thousands of dollars on their Web presence. Keep in mind that your competition did not stop what they were doing just because you entered the game. You will have to catch up to where they were, plus how much they did while you were catching up.
What Can Law Firms Do to Help Speed Up the Process?
The really cool thing about Google is that they want to reward brands, trustworthiness, and authority. There are some easy shortcuts that law firms can take to help their vendors help them while still sticking to white hat tactics. Here are the top five:
- Share relationships that you have that can lead to great link opportunities. Several of our clients who were on the boards of organizations and have bio pages on those websites. There is nothing wrong with asking for a link to your website or to your bio on your website. Another example – if you have a good relationship with a local newspaper, see if you can get a great story written and posted on the paper’s website about something you did or an opinion you have.
- Get reviews! Reviews influence rankings as well as conversions. People love social proof and use it to make decisions. If your law firm has none or only one or two reviews on Google, Yelp or Avvo, you are missing the boat. Your Web vendor cannot do this for you.
- Read your content. If you do not feel comfortable sharing a new blog post on your personal Facebook account, then it is probably not interesting enough for anyone else to want to share or link to.
- Participate in your community. Hold an event. Sponsor a charity. Create a charity or scholarship. Give away free legal counseling for students at your alma mater. These things get natural links and brand mentions because people like to share great things that others are doing. Keep your vendor in the loop and they can do outreach to leverage these offline activities online.
- Share what is important to you. Share your knowledge: videos, resources, papers and important changes to laws. Visitors to your website are determining whether to choose you or not. Help them know what makes you different.
Well, if you have made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. To close, I think it is important to say that some sites take months and some take a year to start producing results. It really depends on competition and how new you are to the Web. Being new to the Web is not such a bad thing these days, contact us to ask why.
The most important advice that I can give is to make sure that your Web vendor actually reviews your site before suggesting a strategy. There should be clear expectations and goals established for your site. Your vendor should have regular meetings with you and partner with you to create a plan for success (even if takes longer than you would like). Remember that a high-quality vendor will tell a potential client the truth even if it is not what they want to hear.