Lawyers are constantly asking what single investment they can make to help grow their practices. Well, a not-to-be forgotten principle is that monies sensibly invested in Web sites will always return the investment. The bedrock element of “sensibly” involves optimization to attract visitors.
Recently we taught a seminar on legal Web sites and part of it, of course, was about search engine optimization (SEO)—which, essentially, is the art of properly constructing your site to get the highest possible rankings from search engines. Rather to our surprise, we learned from participants’ comments that many lawyers now understand how important search engine optimization is—but they also remain fairly clueless about how to achieve it.
To help rectify the situation, let’s address the fundamental questions about SEO to greatly up the odds that you invest in a first-class, creative Web site and that you know what to watch from there. Please bear with us—if you can absorb the material that follows, you will be well on your way to developing a site that really helps your bottom line.
Which Search Engines Should You Optimize For?
Optimize for Google and let other chips fall where they may. For now and for the foreseeable future, Google is the supreme ruler of the search engine universe. The numbers speak loud and clear on this, in terms of both market share and query volume. Here, for example, are the top search engines’ market share numbers from Compete.com as of late last year:
- Google 68.9%
- Yahoo 17.4%
- MSN/Live 9.2%
- Ask 3.9%
And for the same period, here are Compete.com’s figures for monthly query volume—in millions:
- Google 5,581
- Yahoo 1,408
- MSN/Live 742
- Ask 316
For purposes of analyzing trends, Yahoo has been in a declining mode while MSN and Ask have seen slight gains. But in the end, Google’s position at the top of the heap isn’t likely to change any time soon, notwithstanding a possible acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft. Even if Microsoft could successfully combine and retain the numbers reflected above, it would be hard-pressed to make serious inroads into Google.
On top of that, it’s doubtful that you can lose anything by optimizing specifically for Google. There really doesn’t appear to be a significant difference between how the various search engines rank sites, and Google-optimized sites seem to show up just fine in other search engines. So the best advice is to go with the behemoth.
How Does Google Rank Sites?
Stellar question. Tough answer. Lots of people pretend to know, but the fact is that Google uses a complicated algorithm made up of many components—and this algorithm is changing constantly. Those who make their living doing SEO often bemoan the rapidity of the change and allege that it occurs on a daily basis. Moreover, the algorithm is fiercely protected. Nonetheless, those who study rankings have a reasonably good idea of what works—and what doesn’t. So, remembering that what follows is a best guess and nothing more, here are the elements we think are most important, pretty much in order of priority:
Page title. Make sure this includes your firm name and the likely keywords that users will employ when searching for you.
Content on the site. The deeper and broader, the better it will be. Content remains king. And yes, keywords count, but never “stuff” them. Instead, use as many as permissible within the bounds of graceful writing and the delivery of useful information to site visitors.
Content on the home page. This is the most important to Google, and many theorize that hyperlinked content and page subtitles receive additional weight.
Inbound links. Key questions here are: How many quality sites link to you? And how do they link? By firm name only, or by keyword text? Getting quality inbound links is one of the hardest things to achieve for many firm sites, especially smaller ones, because they tend to be primarily promotional in nature.
The bottom line is, you have to give someone a reason to link to your site and that’s tough if it offers little valuable information. In most cases, the inbound links are paid links from directories, which do count, but because they are paid, they are given far less weight by the Google gurus.
• Domain name. If someone is searching for baby gifts and you are babygifts.com, you have a definite edge—but it is only one factor and not the major one.
The site’s currency. Sites that are not updated vanish quickly from the top rankings. Herein lies the problem for too many law firms, which scurry about faster than mice in a cheese factory getting a new site done and then let the site wither on the vine, untended except for minor alterations.
The site’s age. This is a rather new factor, probably introduced by Google as a way of letting brand-new sites “stew” for a bit. The purpose is to sift out scammers who put up new sites with high-energy SEO initiatives, but who fold their tents and disappear when the law comes after them.
What About Companies Promising to Get You Top Results Quickly?
Unfortunately, many of them are snake oil salesmen. SEO is a long, hard process. It takes time and effort to cultivate a site that will get to the top of the rankings. Frequently, the folks who promise the moon try to cheat the system. For instance, they may have the site listed in link farms (essentially, phony sites that simply act as a bank of links to sites in a bogus attempt to boost a site’s apparent popularity). Another example of their tricks is to use white-on-white text on the home page to list keywords over and over, invisible to the human eye but picked up by the spider bots that search engines use to “crawl” sites. However, Google and the other search engines cottoned on to such tricks long ago and penalize (or even ban) sites that use these kinds of gambits.
Does the Quantity of Similar Sites Hurt Rankings?
Absolutely. Let’s take, for example, a small divorce law firm in Fairfax, Virginia, whose site is likely to be fairly modest in size and scope. Given that most users looking for a divorce lawyer will probably use geography and area of law to search (e.g., “divorce lawyer” and “ Fairfax Virginia)” and also given that there are a lot of divorce lawyers in Fairfax, Virginia, the competition for rankings is going to be severe. This is precisely where SEO can really help, although it would be a mistake to expect overnight success—this is definitely a case where slow and steady wins the race. However, if you practice, say, aviation law in Fairfax, Virginia, you may vault to the top quickly!
But generally, to compete with your site—as with most good marketing tools—you want to focus in on a target. This means you have to determine not just your practice niches, but also who your prospective clients might be. What’s their age, their income levels, their gender and so forth? What are their “pain points” that you can touch? Or instead of clients from the public pool, are you looking for referrals from colleagues through your site? There’s a huge difference in approach between the two. Once you establish these things, you can work on figuring out (1) graphics that will hook your visitors and (2) text that will hold their attention and ultimately convert them to clients (or to lawyers that want to refer clients). And no stock graphics, please—creativity is key.
How Do You Broaden and Deepen from There?
It’s crucial to figure out which keywords are most valuable based on your target market. So how do you do that? This is the $60,000 question, and happily there is an excellent tool to assist you with this. It’s called Wordtracker, at
www.wordtracker.com. It’s subscription based, and (currently) one year costs $329, one month $59 and one week $30. You may be just fine with using it for a week if you are diligent in devising keywords (don’t forget to look at your competitors’ sites for ideas), then studying the results and perhaps revising the keywords to see what that does to the Wordtracker results. Note that keywords are usually phrases, not just single words.
You also need to fine-tune the kind of content that will appeal to your visitors. They will certainly appreciate information on your area of law—articles, news blurbs and case digests are great. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) sections are always popular, too. And never underestimate the power of blogs, although you need to make sure that you can muster the time to provide regular and quality content for a blog. The possibilities are endless, so choose carefully, balancing what has the most allure for your visitors with what you know you can maintain. Nothing is worse than stale content: Visitors will disappear quickly and search engine rankings will drop like a rock. And this, lamentably, is the fate of far too many law firm Web sites. After producing a diamond of a site, the firm allows it to become an orphan, which is soon reduced to charcoal through benign neglect.
How Do Firms Stay on Top of SEO?
If you’re big enough to have a marketing and site design/SEO team in house, you are blessed. Some smaller firms do manage to have marketing committees, which track SEO on a regular basis—but if you’re smaller than that, you probably want to outsource this function. Because the Google algorithm changes so much, it is probably a good idea to have your site reviewed for optimization at least annually. Once it’s been done right, though, and you’ve suffered the “big bang” to the budget, the updates should be considerably more modest in cost.
You may, just may, be able to do it yourself (DIY) in this area. But seriously, get a professional to assist if you don’t have the requisite proficiency, the patience or the time. (And how many busy lawyers do?) However, if you are indeed a DIY person, we have a separate caveat for you: Resist the temptation to become an “algoholic.” Don’t laugh, it’s a real word. An algoholic is someone who is always searching, usually daily, on keywords to check his or her site’s Google ranking. Don’t make yourself crazy! Do it no more than quarterly and you won’t need a 12-step program for your addiction.