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Wanting your Web site to appear on the first page of Google’s search results is a marvelous goal. The problem, of course, is that every other law firm wants the same thing. To compete, you’ll need expert help to keep your site optimized
Despite the existence of other search engines like Yahoo, Bing and Ask, Google remains the indisputable king, with over 65 percent of market share at present. That’s why most search engine optimization (SEO) is done primarily with Google in mind.
We’ve talked previously in this column about what Google likes in Web sites, but here’s a quick recap. While Google’s mysterious algorithm for ranking sites is a closely guarded company secret, it’s clear that Google loves sites that maintain depth and breadth of content, have quality inbound links and are frequently updated. Correspondingly, it clearly dislikes sites that are largely static. Other things that make a difference are the domain name, page titles, how long the site has been around and, of course, keywords (especially on the home page).
So can you manage to do SEO yourself? Maybe, but will you? Experience suggests that most lawyers have neither the time nor the inclination, although some begin with a bang … and then fizzle out over time. In the end, most lawyers simply have their sites designed to be SEO-friendly using the pointers in the last paragraph and then let it go afterward. Others will hire an SEO company to make sure their sites stay visible amid the changing competition on the Web. How, though, do you find a good company?
15 Tips for Getting the Right SEO Provider
To begin, we have a couple of cautions. The first is that SEO is a never-ending project. So if you’re serious about improving your rankings, you will need to sign contracts for SEO. Most are for a year, with monthly payments, although some are longer. Our second caution is that some companies that claim to do SEO are stretching the truth to the breaking point.
That said, here are some pointers for locating a company that will do the job right.
1. Ask your friends who they use and if they’re happy with the company. If they’re pleased with it, odds are good you will be, too. Referrals from trusted sources are the best way to find a good company.
2. See an interesting ad or read something about a company that seems promising? Go ahead and type “search engine optimization” plus your location (e.g., “ Iowa City”) in Google’s search box. If the company doesn’t come up well in the results, it suggests these folks can’t even optimize their own site. Keep looking.
3. Some Web design companies do SEO; others do not. You shouldn’t shy away from a company that does both Web design and SEO because those services naturally go together. But you might want to take a harder look at a general marketing or consulting firm that also offers SEO. It sometimes becomes the neglected stepchild of an organization that really has other core functions.
4. If something doesn’t smell right, trust your nose and walk away. Some companies look big on their Web site but turn out to be just one or two people Some actually outsource the work abroad. Also, if they’ve only been in business for a year or two, be skeptical about that. And if a company promises huge early results—“We can get you to the first page of Google in a month for these five search terms”—run! No one can make that promise stick, so it’s a good indicator of someone who intends to “cheat” the system.
5. A reputable SEO vendor will list representative clients on its site, so you can do logical Google searches on those clients’ names to see if they’re presented well in the results. It’s also useful to contact a few directly to learn about their experiences. Where were they in the rankings when they first hired the company? How long did it take to get good results? What were the costs?
6. Ask providers for details on their contract terms. While it’s desirable to be able to terminate at will, or at least month to month, most SEO companies try to get you to sign for at least a year. What happens if you terminate? Do you own all the work? Do all the links stay up? Are there any adverse consequences? In particular, we’ve seen companies that do both design and optimization and own the site content. If you terminate with them, your Web site can go “poof.”
7. What’s the monthly price? For solos and small firms, we’ve heard everything from $200 to $2,500. Usually, these monthly charges are for the provision of additional site content and provision of inbound links. But make sure you understand precisely what the price includes. Also, ask what tools the company uses to optimize sites initially.
8. Another important consideration is the kind of reporting the company offers. Will you receive real, substantive reports or merely “fluff and stuff” sheets? You should receive ranking and analytics reporting on a regular basis, showing you your ranking for various search terms and reporting on new inbound links.
9. How do the prospective providers plan to increase the number of inbound links to your site? If they cheat and use “link farms” (bogus sites that exist just to link to Web sites), your site is likely to get penalized by Google and you will actually drop in the rankings. Google has terms of service—and if you violate them, it can “ding” your rankings or block you altogether. You need to make sure you’re going to have someone who will obtain links legitimately.
10. If they don’t mention press releases as part of their inbound links strategy, skip the company. Press releases are one of the best ways to get quality inbound links. Of course, you need to have something worthy of coverage for your release to fare well and get picked up by other sites. But if you write a book, are quoted as an expert in a media venue, start a new practice group, unveil a new Web site or are the keynote speaker at a conference, those are good possibilities. Let your imagination roam freely. Think about issuing releases relating to your community and charity activities as well. Philanthropy should always be done from the heart, but it sure doesn’t hurt if it has the collateral effect of burnishing a law firm’s image.
11. SEO is complicated so if you’re shaking your head in mystification, you’ve got lots of company. But you can do a little background research on Google Webmaster Tools . It’s free and will give you a variety of information on SEO and how Google crawls and indexes sites, as well as reports on your pages’ current visibility. Bone up enough that you can ask some probing questions of a prospective SEO provider. The extent of the company’s knowledge (or ignorance) will then be more readily apparent.
12. Ask the vendor about the “long tail” strategy (and if you get a blank look, you’ve just learned something). Studies have shown that obsessing over the top 10 keywords on your site isn’t worth the aggravation, since roughly 80 percent of a site’s visitors who convert to clients get to the site using more obscure search terms—i.e., the long tail. For instance, if you’re an education lawyer who has written an article about autistic children and how they are treated by school systems, you might be found by someone searching “autistic children schools.” SEO companies will use Google Webmaster Tools and programs such as Wordtracker to identify how users are searching for the services you offer.
13. Be aware that some of what you hear may seem counterintuitive. For quite a while, a home page with a nice design that fits on a single screen was considered elegant. This can still work for larger firms because their sites are typically more content rich and constantly changing, and by nature of what they are, they have scads of other sites that link to them. However, for smaller sites, often a better SEO practice is to have a longer home page, rich with keywords—though not to the point of being silly. Google doesn’t like keyword stuffing.
14. Try to find a company that’s specific to the legal marketplace. It will have greater familiarity with the particular search terminology and also with the profession’s ethical considerations. Also, legal-specific SEO providers often have legitimate networks of other legal sites that can link to you—at least that’s a start.
15. Last but not least, can the company offer you exclusivity for your area? Clearly, if you are a family law practice that numbers among 1,000 family law firms in a metropolitan area, you don’t want your site competing against all the other family law sites that the company may represent. There’s a conflict of interest there. Some companies will offer absolute exclusivity (very expensive) for an area of law. More often, though, companies will restrict themselves to representing no more than three to five law firms (somewhat less expensive) in an area of practice. But these premiums tend to be quite high, so be prepared.
In SEO, Patience Wins the Day
Make sure you talk to at least three vendors—and do your due diligence on each by searching the Internet for reviews of their services, as well as heeding the foregoing tips.
Then, once you’ve hired a company, what do you need to do? For one thing, don’t obsess and check your statistics daily. Do, though, use Google Analytics to see how folks are getting to your Web site. Once a month is usually enough to give you a clear picture. Of course, don’t forget to ask your clients how they found you, as well as if they’ve ever been to your site. Even if it isn’t how they originally heard of you, if they’ve visited the site, it has collateral value.No matter who you hire, remember that you have to be involved, too. You may have to push for or implement Web site changes. You may need to commit the time to do a legal blog to boost your traffic. You certainly need to review the reports, ask follow-up questions and work as a partner with your SEO company to determine “next steps” for continuing improvements. Lawyers, as a breed, are not known for their patience, but SEO requires it. Slow and steady wins this race, so be a tortoise and not a hare.
Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek are President and Vice President, respectively, of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a computer forensics and legal technology firm based in Fairfax, VA. They are coauthors of The 2010 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide (ABA, 2010).