The internet is an immense, competitive marketplace for legal services. There are untold numbers of potential clients online and, at any given moment, some are actively searching for an attorney. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be the key to their landing on your law firm’s website instead of a competitor’s.
Potential clients turn to Google and other search engines to try to find answers to specific questions—what does the fine print on this contract really mean? How will recent developments in privacy law affect my business? People enter their questions directly into search engines and hit “enter.” This is the moment where SEO begins—will they find your firm’s website?
If potential clients are searching for information related to your services, then you want your firm’s website to be one of the first results they see on page one of Google. A high ranking for key terms will directly lead to more visitor traffic, more leads, and more business.
According to Advanced Web Ranking, the top result in a Google Search can expect a click-through rate of about 30%. This rate declines precipitously: the 5th result has a click-through rate of only 5%.
One marketing joke goes like this.
“Where should you bury something that you don’t want people to find?”
Answer: On the second page of Google.
Because ranking order is so essential for earning click-throughs, many law firms spend considerable amounts on pay-per-click advertising such as Google AdWords, paying Google for the opportunity to skip to the top of the search results. In fact, keywords related to the word “attorney” and “lawyer” are among the most expensive, especially when used in conjunction with personal injury-related terms like “accident”. Firms can expect to spend upwards of $50 per click on these.
SEO involves using a number of techniques to increase the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic traffic—that is, without having to pay Google for clicks. SEO can help your firm’s website improve its ranking for key terms and get your articles, attorney bio pages, practice areas, and client resources in front of the right audience.
The Benefits of SEO for Law Firms
SEO is a bit of an art, a bit of a science, and it requires a good amount of time and patience. The art involves writing well, understanding your audience, and intuiting strategy over the long-term. The science requires an understanding of code, site architecture, changing search engine ranking factors, and measurement.
It can seem cryptic and a little overwhelming, leading many law firms to contract out to a specialist. Some agencies, for their part, are all too happy to take advantage of this air of mystery—promising clients the moon, while delivering results which fall significantly short of that goal.
There is nothing wrong with calling in a specialist to help and, just to be clear, there are many reputable SEO experts who can provide you with a detailed audit and clear path forward.
That said, you should know these three things before you begin:
- The fundamentals of SEO are not nearly as complex as they seem.
- SEO without an accompanying content strategy will be a half-measure, at best.
- It will take time to see measurable ROI on your efforts.
To Succeed: Pair SEO with Great Content
If you want to attract more visitors to your firm’s website, you need both SEO and a content strategy. You need to set up your website pages correctly so that visitors can find them; you also need to have content worth finding.
SEO without compelling content is like having a spotless kitchen but no food to offer your guests. Content without SEO is like cooking a nice meal for your guests but forgetting to give them your street address. You need both to improve your ranking.
Here’s another metaphor: SEO is like making friends. It takes time to build trust and establish an enduring relationship.
Getting Started with SEO
Since there are so many components, it can be helpful to consider the ultimate goal of Google Search.
Search engines have been called “answer machines”. I prefer to think of Google as a fussy librarian. Either way, Google’s goal is to provide instant answers to searchers’ queries. To do this, Google uses its secret algorithm to dig through a catalog of billions of pages. It then selects results that it deems relevant to the searcher’s query. Secondly, it ranks these relevant results by popularity and by the authority of the websites.
Basically, SEO comes down to improving your site’s relevance, authority, and trust level.
First steps to improve relevance:
- Tweak the wording on your page to better match searcher’s queries
- Make it easy for search engines to understand what your site is about with a clear site hierarchy; submit your sitemap to Google
- Optimize your page title, URLs, and headers to include your keywords
- Use heading tags (
) to add a logical hierarchy your content
- Write a meta-description that encourages click-through
- Avoid keyword stuffing! Your text should read naturally
Many of these tips are about making it easier for search engines to understand what your site is about. If Google is our fussy librarian then these tactics are about ensuring that you have cataloged content correctly so that Google can readily find it.
That said, Google recommends that you make pages for users, not search engines. Keyword stuffing is outdated and can result in your pages being penalized and pushed down in any search results.
Google is getting better and better at judging relevancy based on visitor behavior. In a comprehensive analysis of SEO ranking factors, it was determined that user behavior signals—i.e., time spent on site, pages per visit, and bounce rate—are some of the most important factors influencing website rankings.
Keyword placement in the body text, on the other hand, didn’t even crack the top ten most important ranking factors.
The takeaway? Listen to Google and focus on “creating a helpful, information-rich site” for potential clients. To improve relevance, you need users to spend time engaging with your website; often, this means providing them with interesting, in-depth articles to read.
Another takeaway from this in-depth study of ranking factors is that you can’t achieve meaningful SEO success without a content strategy. If you work with an SEO expert, they should be able to go beyond simply adding header tags. They should audit your site structure and help you develop a plan for providing users with excellent content that addresses their queries. A good consultant might even provide insight into how your law firm’s website could be better set-up on the backend to make it easier for your firm to regularly update content.
SEO consultants who can’t (or won’t) engage on this deeper level won’t be of much help.
Improving the Authority of Your Website
What about “authority”? These days, search engines calculate the trustworthiness and value of a website through a number of factors, but one of the most important continues to be backlinks from other sites.
In 1997, Stanford Ph.D. candidates Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed something they called “PageRank” in order to improve the awful performance of search engines. Page was inspired by the way in which academics gauge the importance of a paper by the number and quality of citations it has received. A link, Page reasoned, is roughly analogous to a citation. Measuring links was a revolutionary way of separating the wheat from the chaff and determining which websites were of value. The result of this idea, of course, was Google.
What does this history lesson mean for your firm’s SEO efforts? Links are still the foundation of how Google works, of how it determines what websites to promote. So to improve your law firm’s ranking, you need to obtain more high-quality backlinks.
Improving your Link Profile
Not all links are created equal. A link from a known spammer can actually drag your site down. If this is the case, you may need to disavow links and attempt to clean up your link profile.
To improve your SEO, you need to obtain backlinks from websites that are, themselves, trusted authorities. Links from other players in your space—whether this is other firms, law society websites, legal publications, or business magazines—can also boost your site’s visibility in its space.
Your firm might benefit from a link-building strategy that involves creating valuable, shareable content. If you write great articles, you’ll likely earn some links naturally. You might also consider producing guest content for respected external publications, perhaps as a guest author, and obtaining links this way.
A warning about link-building: paid or spammy strategies can result in Google dropping the hammer on your website. Google warns that “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.” If any SEO consultant offers to generate X-number of links to your website, you should show them the door.
Writing Content for the Long Tail
Ideally, of course, your firm would rank in the first position for every search query (keyword) related to your area of practice. That’s simply not possible. Search is a competitive arena. SEO, like a good athletic trainer, can improve your site’s performance, but you still won’t win every race.
To succeed, you need to prioritize the areas where you’d like to rank well. Let’s say that you’ve identified “business disputes” as one of these areas. How well are you ranking for this term? How does this compare with your competitors?
Some keywords are more competitive than others. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Instead, you should embrace a “long tail” keyword strategy. Identify facets of this larger topic and write detailed articles addressing these. It may be that the phrase “business disputes” is dauntingly competitive and you’d have more success going after related topics like “supplier contractual disputes”, “Shareholders’ Agreements for start-ups” or other topics where you can speak from a place of authority.
A good SEO consultant will help you to identify promising topics and craft a strategy for pursuing them. They will also optimize the most important existing posts and landing pages.
SEO & Content Strategy: A Winning Combination
SEO isn’t some magic potion (or code) you can inject into your website for overnight success. It’s mostly about providing interesting, well-structured content that addresses your clients’ questions and serving up this information on a fast, secure, optimized, and mobile-friendly website. By measuring your results, through tools like Google Analytics, you can continually refine your strategy.
By pairing SEO with a thoughtful strategy for writing articles, guides, legal updates, video and other types of content, you will improve your ranking, attract more of the right audience, and build your firm’s reputation as a leader in its space.