Law firm SEO, law firm websites and legal marketing have changed a lot since the beginning of the internet.

But in order to understand where we’re going, we have to understand where we’ve been. In a recent article, author Winston Burton discusses the evolution of optimization and examines both the past and present of SEO.

Advances in web design, machine learning and opportunities for thought leadership have changed things for attorneys. Here, we look at three ways that SEO — and the modern internet — present more opportunities than ever before for lawyers who take control of their online marketing.

The Past: Law Firm SEO Relied Heavily On Keywords

For lawyers who discovered the power of the internet early on, trying to rank in search engine results probably felt more like a math problem. And they weren’t the only ones. Burton points out that on-page optimization was highly technical rather than content-focused:

When performing on-page optimization in the old days, SEOs would map two to five keywords per URL and optimize the page elements (title, meta description, headings, body content and so on) for these keywords. But things have changed. Now, with advances in semantic search and machine learning, a page can rank for a lot of related keywords, not just the keywords for which you optimize the page. This is a better way of doing things, as having content that fulfills the needs of what users are looking for (rather than just being the best match for a given keyword string) is a better experience.

Burton is right. Google has come a long way since the mid-nineties and is probably a lot more like what the company’s founders envisioned rather than what they started out with. What they started out with had a lot of loopholes that blackhat SEO providers were willing and able to exploit. One loophole was keywords.

Blackhat SEOs engaged in practices like keyword stuffing, in which a website’s meta tags and content were jam-packed with keywords. Sometimes they’d even stuff a website with keywords in the same color as the website background. It was undetectable to human eyes, but obvious to search engine bots crawling the site for content to index. These sites were useless to those searching for information and featured completely unnatural sounding verbiage. Yet, this practice allowed websites with thin content to rank highly.

The Present: Google Algorithms Make Better Law Firm Websites

Those practices worked, but only for a little while. Google has a vested interest in giving search engine users what they’re looking for. Google created algorithms designed to spot tactics like keyword stuffing and bad linking and relegate websites whose owners engage in these activities.

That gives lawyers a lot of opportunities. By sticking to Google’s quality guidelines — and especially by writing quality content on a regular basis — attorneys put their law firm websites front and center to be crawled, indexed and returned in Google search results. In the meanwhile, those who engage in risky practices are likely to be spotted by Google’s Panda & Penguin, two algorithms designed to hunt down spammy links and thin content.

Suggested Reading: For a deeper understanding of the topic, read our guide to law firm SEO.

Google understands more than just keywords now. The power of semantic search and machine learning (like Google’s RankBrain) have given way to technology that thinks about related keywords, not just basic ones. These technologies are learning from their interactions with humans and are beginning to understand complex and obscure queries. This is a benefit for lawyers. The language you might use to describe a case and the language your potential client might use to describe their problem may vary. The more these technologies understand about user intent (and the more information you provide search engines to offer in search results) the better chance you have to connect with your next client.

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The Past: Potential Clients Found Law Firm Websites From Their Desktop

When attorneys started to realize the internet was a vital part of their marketing, there was only one device that potential clients used to find law firms: desktop computers. (Okay, and maybe the laptop a little later.)

Burton writes that “Back in the day, it was all about optimizing for desktops,” and that made sense. After all, there were no mobile devices to think about yet.

The Present: Clients Expect A Mobile-Friendly Law Firm Website

As evidenced by the former Google Search Chief’s mobile-only year, a majority of people now use mobile devices to browse the web, and Google is listening. This year, Google published its search quality guidelines, and it was no surprise to see that they were highly mobile-focused. It makes sense: the data informs the decision.

Mobile now takes up 65 percent of time people spend using digital media. According to comScore, total digital media use has almost tripled in the last five years. “Since 2013, it’s up 35%, with smartphone [sic] having grown 78% and contributing to 92% of the total increase in time spent [consuming digital media].”

Does that sound significant? It is. (Check out the graphic below from comScore) . Your law firm needs a website that’s ready for today’s digital age — not just for the desktop.

growth in digital media

Even Google is cracking down on sites that aren’t mobile-friendly.

Why Attorneys Need Responsive Law Firm Websites

One of the best things that attorneys can do for their online presence is to choose not just a mobile-friendly site design, but a responsive website design.

All responsive websites are mobile-friendly, but not all mobile-friendly sites are responsive. That distinction is important.

A responsive website is the gold standard for today’s web design. This design strategy creates sites that adjust to any screen size or resolution. These sites reform themselves based on the screen size being used. The result is a streamlined website that anyone can engage with from any device — from desktop to tablet to smartphone. Responsive websites are mobile-friendly, and friendly everywhere else, too.

A mobile-friendly site, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily responsive. Mobile-friendly sites, at this point, are the bare minimum to satisfy Google’s mobile-friendly requirements and mobile web users. Mobile-friendly sites can often be your desktop site, “lite.” Mobile-friendly sites are often designed for desktops, stripped of bells and whistles and can work for mobile users. But they’re not necessarily a user-friendly experience, as responsive sites are. User experience is an important part of the first impression you give you potential clients online.

(See our thoughts on going mobile-first with your law firm website.)

The Past: No Social Media For Law Firms (Or Anyone Else)

It’s hard to imagine a time before social media, but it wasn’t all that long ago.

“Before the days of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, online social sharing largely took place via email and instant messaging,” Burton writes. “Places that fell largely outside the scope of SEO campaigns.”

Even if you were an attorney that found your way to the internet, your reach was likely limited to primitive search engines and people who knew your precise web address.

The Present: Social Media Gives New Opportunities To Connect To Law Firm Websites

Social media provides attorneys with opportunities to connect with potential clients and share links to their website and blog posts. (For more on how to make the most out of Facebook, check out this article on why your law firm may not want a Facebook Business page.)

Neglecting social media as an attorney is dangerous for several reasons. Social media presence is highly normalized now. Facebook and Twitter are everywhere and we use them all the time. Being absent from social media can raise suspicion in your potential client as they expect to find you there. Your potential clients are looking for a streamlined experience both on your website (regardless of where they’re browsing from) and also in your brand. That means you’ll want to give them a consistent experience wherever they find your law firm.

Social media gives you opportunities to promote the blog posts you’re writing, to encourage discourse and to reach out to potential clients and referral sources.

The internet gives law firms more cost-effective and easy opportunities to thrive and to stand out than at any other time in history. For those attorneys willing to take a little time to understand how the internet has evolved, and what it can offer you, the possibilities are endless.