Here’s Why Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Matters for Your Law Firm
The legal field is a highly competitive one. It’s also one in which many (possibly even the majority) of law firms are well behind the times and often unwilling to invest in catching up to other industries, let alone other law firms. Case in point: on average, law firms spend between 2.4% and 2.8% of gross revenue on marketing (including marketing staff salaries), while the average across industries is 9.1% for businesses making less than $250 million.
We’ve spoken at length about the disconnect between how lawyers think potential clients find them and how people actually find them. Here’s a quick summary of how your clients make decisions in the Internet Age:
- From 2005 to 2014, the number of people who asked a friend or relative to recommend an attorney dropped from 65% to 29%
- Over 90% of your potential clients will check the internet before they try to contact your firm – even if they got your name from a friend or relative first
- Every age group except those who are 65 and older favored using the internet over asking a friend or family member for an attorney referral
- 88% of people trust online reviews just as much as personal recommendations
These stats come as a shock to many attorneys who have developed a confirmation bias toward assuming that word of mouth is their primary way of getting new clients. The simple truth is that while word-of-mouth advertising may have been how your firm got the majority of your clients 10 years ago, it isn’t anymore.
What Is SEO, Really?
Broadly speaking, search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of making adjustments to your website, web pages, and even your off-site marketing strategies to improve your position in search engines like Google and Bing. SEO is a preoccupation of many businesses because improving your position in search can have drastic effects on your web traffic and conversions that turn potential clients visiting your website into signed clients for your law firm.
It’s not hard to understand why: the coveted first page of Google search results is responsible for over 71% of clicks, and the first five results on page one account for over 67% of clicks. So, it makes sense that being on the first page of Google (and especially in the top few results of the first page) is a major priority for websites.
But there’s more to the SEO story than just making it on to the first page of a search engine results page (SERP). One example involves Google getting better and better at recognizing user intent. When I search for “personal injury attorney” here in our home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan for example, my Google results include a map with local listings and reviews that appear before any organic results. Below that, 8 out of 10 organic results are locally-focused.
If I instead search for “personal injury,” Google provides me with a quick answer box defining personal injury first, and while I still get a map with local results and reviews (some of which are different from my search above), only 4 of the 10 organic results on the first page are locally focused.
The reason for this is that Google is trying its best to understand my intent – and serve up results that will help me. In the first query, Google assumes I’m looking for an attorney in my area and primarily provides me with transactional results focused on getting me the information I need to vet and contact attorneys in my area. In the second, Google is giving me a mix of informational material (assuming I’m poking around for general information based on my more general query) and locally-focused transactional results (in case I might be looking for an attorney).
Unfortunately, having a dynamite website that is optimized for Google isn’t going to get you on that map. That requires a verified local listing with Google, a certain threshold of reviews, consistent citations across platforms online, and more. Having an outstanding site also won’t get you in those top results that are labeled as ads. That requires paid search ads, and if you’re an attorney trying to compete in this arena, you will need to bring your A-game and a big-league budget: 78 of the 100 most expensive paid advertising terms in 2016 were related to the legal industry.
In the interest of full disclosure, having a truly great site that is well optimized might not even get you on the first page of Google (let alone the first few results) for the terms you really want to rank for because every other law firm in your area and the United States is trying to rank for those same terms. And if you have an agency promising you page 1 results, you need to find a new agency because that’s not a guarantee anyone can make.
Keywords Matter — But Not the Ones You Care About
But all hope is not lost, and here’s why: long-tail keywords. If you look at the most popular searches online (which consist of simple one-, two-, or three-word phrases), the top 10,000 most popular terms on the internet only account for 18.5% of internet traffic. To put this in perspective, the search engine optimization aficionados at Moz explained that “if search were represented by a tiny lizard with a one-inch head [representing the top 10,000 keywords], the tail of that lizard would stretch for 221 miles.”
Another interesting fact may also help you understand just how unpredictable and voluminous long-tail keywords can be: every day, approximately 500 million queries by users have never been seen by Google. That 15% of daily unknowns has reportedly been a factor for the entire history of Google. This bears restatement to really settle in: every day, Google performs 500 million brand new searches based on user input that it has never performed before in all of its history.
So although you may desperately want to land on page 1 for a highly competitive, relevant term for your law firm’s practice areas (and that may bring you some traffic that will convert), approximately 70% or more of your website traffic is coming from the first page or two of highly unpredictable long-tail searches. Just take a look at some of the terms that recently brought people to our site — #17 is a real doozy:
One of the best things about long-tail keywords is that many of them have fewer, if any, ads included in the results. So while your competitors are throwing their budget down the paid search ad drain and crossing their fingers for highly qualified clicks, you can use this opportunity to build a solid foundation for your website and optimize it for converting potential clients into real clients — and then supercharge it with paid advertising when you know it will be effective.
The Single Best Practice for Search Optimization: Consider Your Audience
So, how do you optimize for these unpredictable, long-tail searches people are conducting? It starts with having a robust approach to content marketing that puts your target audience first.
Consider this: why do people use Google at all? People use Google because it delivers results that are relevant for their searches. Google’s goal is to provide the most useful results to users, and this is why they are constantly refining their algorithm to weed out spammy garbage. If they served up material on page 1 that wasn’t helpful to users, those users would go elsewhere for their online browsing needs.
In the past, the primary approach for many SEOs has been to try to take advantage of blind spots in Google’s algorithm to cheat the system, an “SEO of the gaps,” philosophy where holes in Google’s method for ranking results were taken as opportunities to achieve a great search ranking with minimal investment in quality. Unfortunately, when those holes get filled (because it is in Google’s best interest to develop an algorithm that filters out low-quality results that are trying to game the system), rankings plummet and SEOs scramble to find the next gap to exploit. But those gaps are getting exponentially less numerous and providing significantly lower return on investment.
Instead, the best way to rank well in Google, Bing, and other search engines is to align your goals with the goals of search engines: to provide the best possible quality content to users based on their specific needs — and make sure Google knows how to find it. Here’s how:
1. Develop a Foundational Understanding of Your Target Audience
Looking at your past clients who were ideal (or making educated, data-supported inferences about your ideal client) can help you create in-depth personas that will inform your approach to the core content on your site as well as your blog and other marketing channels.
2. Make a Plan for Writing Relevant, Targeted Content for Your Core Site Pages and Blog
The number one factor in search engine rankings is the actual written content on your pages, so it needs to be better than outstanding.
Whether you are working with a team of writers or doing the writing work yourself, you’ll want to use the personas you develop to write or update the existing content on your site to target your ideal clients. Make sure your core site content (home page, practice area pages, etc.) discusses their specific needs and issues in depth and explains the specific service(s) you provide that can help them resolve their problem. Make sure that content is comprehensive in nature and that it includes a call to action encouraging the conversions you want: call our firm, fill out this form, email our office, etc.
Keep in mind that your content should not be self-aggrandizing. Your audience always needs to come first. This is particularly true of your blog content. When you are thinking of topics to write about, consider the following questions:
- What will be helpful to your ideal clients?
- What do they need to know to make progress toward resolving their issue?
- What insights can you provide that will help them regardless of whether or not they hire you?
- What nuances exist that people should know about before hiring an attorney?
For additional questions to align your content with Google’s goals, check out this list of suggestions directly from Google!
3. Make Sure Your Content Is Discoverable by Search Engines
As basic as it sounds, you need to make sure your website can be found by search engines. If Google doesn’t know your site exists, the work you put into content creation will not pay dividends. The best place to start is Google Search Console. Log in or create an account, add your website property to Google Search Console, and verify it by the method that you’re most comfortable with (adding an HTML tag on your home page is one of the most user-friendly ways to do this).
Once you’re all set up in Google Search Console, you can create an XML sitemap using a tool such as Screaming Frog. This may sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward as long as your website doesn’t have any major issues at the outset. Once you have an XML sitemap, you can submit it in Search Console and Google will crawl and index the pages on your site shortly thereafter. Once it does, you’ll be able to see what pages Google sees (or doesn’t), which you can then use to make updates to the navigation on your site to include all the pages you want Google to see.
For many law firm websites, these 3 steps may already be complete, but the results you would like to see from your website aren’t materializing. You can dive into a great many facets of SEO to improve your site’s performance in Google — just read Google’s beginner guide to SEO.
But what can you do right now that will help optimize your existing, indexed web pages?
Read on for a list of things you can do in the next 15 to 30 minutes to improve one of your web page’s ranking in search.
Low Investment, High Return Web Page Optimizations
Whenever I am confronted with a page that is well-written, live, and indexed but isn’t performing well, one of the first things I do is look at the following information about that page, and you should too:
- Title tag
- Meta description
- H1 tag
- H2 tag(s)
To the best of everyone’s knowledge (since Google doesn’t share every detail about what matters to their algorithms), the title tag, H1 tag, and H2 tags are read by Google to help determine what your page is about and rank it for people’s searches accordingly. The meta description is not a ranking factor; however, it does appear in search engine results.
It’s easier to see these different elements than it is to describe them, so here is what these things look like in Google and on your site:
You’ll want to make sure these things are all optimized to get the best results out of your content. Here are some tips for improving each of these fundamental SEO elements on your web pages:
Best Practices for Your Title Tag
One very important thing to keep in mind about title tags is that Google cuts them off if they are too long. Google will still read the entire title, but people searching for your content will only see the first 65 characters or so. When considering how to title something effectively, you’ll want to front-load your title with the most important information so that it will be seen by searchers. We’ve got a pile of great advice about writing solid headlines and titles in our blog post: “Heads Up! 4 Simple Strategies for Writing a Great Headline.”
People agonize over including just the right keywords in their title tags, and while it is important to clearly indicate what your page is about in its title tag, spamming keywords into a title is going to drop you right off the edge of Google’s radar because spamming keywords is not helpful to users. Remember that even in these little details, you want to put your audience first. Create a title that will describe what your content is about and that sounds natural to users.
Best Practices for Your Meta Description
Like title tags, Google cuts off your meta description after about 155 characters, so you’ll want to keep it succinct and punchy. Describe the gist of your content and frame it so that it is directed toward your target audience. If possible, think of a way to entice people to click through to your page. Here’s a meta description from one of our other blog posts:
“Writing a great headline doesn’t have to be a headache. These four tips can make your headlines clearer, more powerful, and more effective for marketing purposes.”
Note that words matching (or synonymous with) a searcher’s query will be bolded in your meta description, and sometimes Google will create its own meta description for your content to more closely match a search if your specified description doesn’t already. For this reason, it’s sometimes a good idea to include keyword variants in your meta description, but don’t sacrifice a natural, engaging sentence or two just to include more keywords. It’s not about keywords — it’s about reaching the people who are reading it.
Best Practices for Your H1 Tag
H1 tags are an important element in SEO. Your H1 tag should closely match your title tag, and here’s why: if people click on your title tag and land on a page that has an H1 that doesn’t match what they clicked, they’re going to be disoriented, and they may even think they’ve been tricked by a scam. When they click on something, they expect to go where they clicked. If they are brought to a page with a label they didn’t expect, it’s jarring and unpleasant, and people will abandon ship.
If you truncated the title of your piece to get it to show completely in your Google search result, you may be able to use your full title as your H1 if it’s not too different from your title tag. You can also add things like a subtitle into your H1 tag in order to describe your content in more depth if that is going to help readers better understand what your page is about.
Diverging from your title tag might be a great way to stuff more keywords into your HTML code, but guess what? It’s not about keywords! It’s about your audience.
Best Practices for Your H2 Tags
H1 and H2 are shorthand for “heading 1” and “heading 2” where the number designates a specific level in your content’s informational hierarchy. Headings at level 1 are more important than headings at level 2, and headings at level 2 are more important than headings at level 3, etc. With this in mind, your headings (and how they are designated in HTML) should reflect the natural hierarchy of information in your content.
The H1 of your piece should be a pithy, high-level overview of your entire piece, which is why it often makes sense to closely align your title tag with your H1. If your content has multiple major sections, it makes sense to label them with H2 tags. You can do this all the way down to H6. The bullet at the top of this section is labeled with an H3 tag because it is nested within a section designated with an H2 label.
H2 tags are a good place to consider including keyword variants if they read naturally. For example, I have used “web page optimizations,” “search optimization,” “SEO,” and “search engine optimization” in my headings so far — hopefully you didn’t notice. I primarily wanted you to have a smooth reading experience, not get tripped up by confusing and awkward keywords stuffed into my headings for the search robots to read.
Some SEOs are starting to put multiple H1 tags on a page because they think Google will give the text contained within those tags higher importance and thus rank the page higher for the keywords included in those headings. That might be true for right now, and it might even give them a temporary boost, but remember that Google is constantly improving their algorithm. If they notice that the H1 tag is becoming a poor signal of what a page is actually about, they’ll demote its importance as a ranking factor and send lazy SEOs scrambling for the next, even less effective exploit.
If you can put your audience first and nail these foundational SEO elements on all of your web pages, you’ll be in great shape for boosting your pages’ rankings in search. It usually doesn’t take more than 15 to 30 minutes to rewrite and reformat these elements on any given page (unless they’re in really rough shape to begin with, which we see all too often).
And if you optimize these elements on all of your pages but still don’t see the results you’re looking for, you’ll know that you need to look elsewhere to your URL structure, page load speeds, mobile-friendliness, or any number of other factors that influence your rankings in search.
LaFleur Legal Marketing: Certified SEO Specialists
Search engine optimization can feel intimidating, especially if you haven’t worked much with websites before. There’s a lot of lingo to get familiar with, it’s nerve-wracking making changes to your site (especially when it hasn’t been built well in the first place and tends to crash), and making even the simplest optimizations requires skills ranging from creative writing to coding in HTML to planning and tracking updates using unique software.
Here at LaFleur Legal Marketing, we have trained, certified SEO specialists on staff who have the knowledge, skills, and experience to make sure your law firm’s website is optimized for search. More importantly, we approach all of our services, from creating content deliverables to managing your social media profiles, with a holistic mindset geared toward attracting and converting your ideal clients.
So if your website (or current marketing agency) isn’t meeting your expectations, call us today at 888-222-1512 or fill out our convenient contact form. We’d love to get to know your business and bring you the results you’re looking for!
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Lake, C. (2016, May 31). The most expensive 100 Google Adwords keywords in the US. Search Engine Watch. Retrieved from https://searchenginewatch.com/2016/05/31/the-most-expensive-100-google-adwords-keywords-in-the-us/
McDonald, C. (2014, August 20). Get real with law firm marketing – 5 observations. Above the Law. Retrieved from http://abovethelaw.com/2014/08/get-real-with-law-firm-marketing-5-observations/
Petrescu, P. (2014, October 1). Google organic click-through rates in 2014. Moz. Retrieved from https://moz.com/blog/google-organic-click-through-rates-in-2014