Search engine optimization (SEO) is the effort to modify a website or web page so that it will appear on the first page of results from search engines such as Google and Bing. Why would a law firm want to perform SEO on its website? For the same reason that a car mechanic in the days of the Yellow Pages might have named his shop “AAA Auto Repair”: to be listed first.
SEO is not complicated. It relies on common sense and simplicity. You do not need to know programming, search algorithms, or taxonomy—you only need a basic understanding of how a search engine works.
For search engines to be useful, they must provide good results. The basic premise is to reveal links that have provided quality content with past clicks and that are considered relevant. So, if you click on a link, consider it a vote for that content as being relevant.
But what makes a site relevant? It can be broken down into two factors: expertise and location.
Expertise. Search engines determine expertise through a number of factors. The most prevalent is the “inbound link.” An inbound link is a link from another website/page to your website/page. The inbound link is like a recommendation from a past client.
As an example, say you are searching for an auto repair shop. You open the Yellow Pages and find that the first listing is AAA Auto Repair. But then you recall that a friend had recommended John’s Service Station. Which has more weight, or “clout,” with you at this moment? More than likely you will choose John’s Service Station because the recommendation has more clout than the basic listing in the Yellow Pages. For search engines, each incoming link to your website provides similar clout, raising your level of expertise.
Location. Most search engines are focusing increasingly on providing relevant local results. It is no wonder, with 30 percent of all Internet traffic coming from mobile devices. These devices provide search engines with a location to help guide their searches. Your Internet service provider (ISP) indirectly supplies search engines with your location as well, but it is more of a regional determination.
How would this play out in our search for an auto repair shop? If I entered the search from my desktop computer at home, the results would be local shops in my area and also more general results. On my smartphone, I would get results listed out on a map centered on my current location.
Now that we brushed off a little of the dust on expertise and location, let’s dive into SEO itself. I believe SEO consists of the following steps:
Market. Take the time to review the results on the major search engines for words relevant to your law practice. What are the results? Are they competitors? Are they colleges or government agencies? If you find the results are dominated by average websites without strong brands, you will have a head start on your keyword research.
Keywords. Determining the keywords relevant to your law practice can be a bit more difficult. The difficulty lies in the difference between your knowledge and the knowledge of your potential clients. You want to focus on the keywords your potential clients are using, rather than those you would use as a trained professional. The difference can be as simple as using the word “lawyer” vs. “attorney.” Google provides a great researching aid called the Google Keyword Tool, which I highly recommend.
Page title. The title of any web page should be unique, accurate, descriptive, and brief. Page titles appear in search engine results, so a good description is a key to getting a click from potential clients.
Description metatags. If possible, you want to create a unique description metatag to complement the page titles. The description metatag is typically a sentence or two. Relevant meta-descriptions may appear in a search result as a part of the page description, giving even more reason for someone to click through to your website.
Search-engine-friendly URLs. Have you even been sent a link to a website that looks like a bunch of gibberish? Many websites now employ the use of content management systems built on a database. These long links of gibberish are actually the code for the database to return the correct page. Most of these systems provide for a setting that enables the URLs to go from gibberish to easy-to-read descriptions.
Navigation. As with any document, you want to provide users with easy navigation. The menu of your website should be very similar to written outlines of documents or presentations. It should provide readers with an easy way to find the information they are looking for and allow for them to easily move through the content. I have a navigation rule: No more than three clicks to find what you are looking for.
To enhance ease of navigation, activate the “search-engine-friendly” settings in a content management system and also cross-linking within content (see below).
Sitemap. A sitemap is a simple navigation tree for your entire website. You will want to create an HTML-based sitemap for users to easily find relevant content. The other option is created using XML, which is specifically for website crawlers. Search engines employ “spiders” or “crawlers” to navigate and record the information on your website, which is used to generate the search engine results.
For nearly 20 years I have believed that “quality content is king,” but for a long time this theory was debated among website developers. Now it has become the mainstream belief among most developers. So, what defines quality content?
Quality. Your textual content must be compelling, useful, and unique. Focus on your reader. Write for humans. Proper grammar, punctuation, and use of headings make for easier reading. Heading tags carry some SEO weight, so use them well, but sparingly.
Your content must also contain the keywords identified in your research. Each page should be organized around the goal of ranking for the keyword or keyword phrase, with related content mixed into the copy. This related content should be used to cross-link to other pages within your website.
Images. They say a picture is worth a thousand words—but not to search engines. You must complement images by using proper alt tags, description tags, and file names. These should be focused on the keywords for the specific page on which they appear.
Fresh. The more often you add new content, the more often your site will be crawled by spiders. With this being said, follow the guidelines above and create quality content.
As mentioned previously, inbound links are very important to the optimization of your website. The quality of the inbound link will provide you with more clout. You can ask friends and colleges to swap links between your websites, but be cautious on trading links too much. Inbound links are a very strong indicator of the level of expertise of your web presence, but they are also highly abused. Your inbound links are scrutinized because of their weight and can harm your website if you utilize negative link-building techniques.
Getting indexed. No search engine will ever find your website if there is never an inbound link to lead them to you. Most search engines have a submission form on which you tell them about your website. These work, but the results are typically slow. If you can get an inbound link from a very busy, respected website, your site will get indexed faster.
Blogs. A heavily abused way for people to build inbound links has been to post them within a response or comment on another blog. Although posting on a blog and including an inbound link to your website is still a positive way to build inbound links, utilizing automated processes through programming to do this en masse is a big no-no. The last thing you want to do is to give search engines the impression you are a spammer; the SEO penalty can be severe. (The same thing can be said for e-mail marketing.)
Forums. Very similar to blogs, forums can be great to promote your website and create inbound links, just be careful of how you use them.
So, your website is live, the content is published, and your site is showing up in search engine results. Now it is time to make it better. There are a number of tools that can help you analyze the incoming website traffic. Google Analytics is a great place to start. Most web hosts also provide traffic reporting. Focus on where your traffic is coming from and what keywords and keyword phrases are working. And don’t forget to ask new clients how they found you.
There are tons of websites for self-promotion: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yelp, Angie’s List, Craigslist, foursquare, StumbleUpon, Myspace, etc. Your decision of which ones and how many to use should be based on their relevance to your practice and how often you create content. (Social media users like new, fresh, relevant content.) Your domain name should be on everything you have: pens, stationery, invoices . . . everywhere.
Sign up for paid listings such as Google or Bing accounts and spend $20 for a few pay-per-click (PPC) ads based on your keywords. I have found pages get indexed a little faster this way, and both Google and Bing have great reporting systems to give you even better insight into your keyword structure.
So Get Optimized, and Get Found
SEO is based on a simple principle: Give people what they are searching for. If you create unique, quality content and provide some basic structure and promotion to your keywords, you may find that’s all it takes to increase your clicks—and your caseload.