The purpose of this post is to give attorneys a clear guide to understand the vocabulary of law firm SEO.

There are many factors that can contribute to the success or failure of a law firm SEO campaign. Let’s create an easy to understand framework

In general, SEO efforts can be broken down into two broad categories. They are on-page factors, and off-page factors.

On-page factors are things that happen right on your law firm’s website or blog. They are things that you can control and for which you, the owner of your website, are always responsible. Off-page factors are things that happen on the web everywhere else other than on your firm’s website or blog. These things can and do impact the efficacy of your law firm’s SEO efforts.

This post looks at the on-page SEO factors first, and then at the off-page factors.

We will briefly define each factor here, and then, when warranted, will go more in depth in future posts here, at the
LawLytics University, or in one of our future law firm marketing webinars.

On-page SEO Factors That Affect Attorneys

There are three subcategories of on-page factors. We will look at each in turn:

Content Factors That Affect Your Law Firm’s SEO

The following are content factors, meaning that they have to do with the substance of what your page communicates.

  • Content Quality – Do your pages have relevant, useful information. Is that content well-written and easy to understand? Is it grammatically correct? Is it written as if by somebody with a command of the modern english language?
  • Information Quality – Did you provide content that real people are actually searching for using the search engines? And when I say real people I mean actual viable potential clients for your law firm, not marketing cold-callers, and not your competitors.
  • Keyword Consistency – Are you using words and phrases that are consistent with how your viable potential clients actually search the internet? If not, and if you rely on keyword suggestion tools, you (or your SEO guy) may be missing the mark.
  • Engaging – Do people actually read the content on your page? Time on each matters. If visitors don’t spend enough time to actually consume the content, their exiting your website quickly sends a message to the search engines that even though your page was found based on a certain search, that search was not relevant or interesting to the human visitor (translate “customer of the search engine”).
  • Recency – How old is your content? The more often you add quality content to your site, about topics that are either in the news, or that are areas of debate or frequent research, the better off you typically will be with the search engines. If your site hasn’t been updated, and you haven’t created a new blog post in 4 months or longer, it should come as no surprise that the search engines see your site as one of waning relevance.
  • Substance – Are your pages and blog posts substantive, or are they just fluff pieces? If your content lacks substance, if it doesn’t add anything relevant to the online conversation about the topic, then the search engines look at it as a negative factor. For example, if you are a personal injury attorney and your blogging efforts consist mostly of regurgitating news articles about accidents and then telling people to call you, then your site will likely fail miserably at SEO. To successfully market a law firm online you need substantive pieces that engage and establish you and your law firm as authorities in your area of practice. Your authority must be demonstrated, and never proclaimed.
  • Ads and Sales Materials – Has your webmaster placed too much sales materials above the “fold” of your website (the fold is the place below which you have to scroll to see)? Ads aren’t just the flashing banners any more. Some web designers, in a misguided attempt to give attorneys a “custom” web design that will stroke their egos, dress the entire above the fold area with badges, awards and other bling that can be mistaken for advertising (and in the case of website badges for lawyers really is advertising, just not for the law firm). Despite the arguably hypocritical fact that search engines make money by selling advertising, they do not take kindly to sites that are more ad than substance. This is because they are protecting their customers, who also happen to be your law firm’s potential new clients.

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HTML Factors That Affect Your Law Firm’s SEO

The following are HTML factors, meaning they spring from the computer language in which your website is written. HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language is what all websites are written in. Your computer or mobile device’s web browser reads the HTML (along with various supplemental types of code) and interprets the intention of that code when it displays it for your consumption. HTML provides various conventions that are used by the search engines to decipher the content on the page and decide how to classify the content and rank it for various search queries. The main HTML factors that affect law firm SEO are:

  • HTML Title Tags – This is the content that tells Google and the other search engines what you would like them to call your page in the search engine results. An HTML title tag is suggestive, but does not obligate the search engine to display the page that way. A well written HTML title page that contains keywords that are highly relevant to the search query AND also to the content on your firm’s web page is a strong driver of placement in the results. Not only can a well-crafted HTML title be helpful in getting your law firm website ranked for searches you target, it can also drastically impact the rate at which viable potential new clients click through to actually visit your firm’s website or blog. For more information see SEO title tags for lawyers.
  • Meta Descriptions – The meta description is an opportunity for you to tell the search engines how to describe your page in the results. While search engines like Google often times ignore the meta description on a page and instead insert an excerpt from the text in the page that is more relevant to the search query, it is still worth taking the time to craft a compelling meta description. Your potential clients who do see it will be more likely to click through to your law firm’s website. For more information see meta descriptions for law firms.
  • Headers – HTML provides a set of text identifiers collectively referred to as “headers.” Think of them as indicators of hierarchy or importance of your content. Headers are important in ascending order, so a Primary Header (“H1”) is more important than a Secondary Header (“H2”) and so forth. It is not unusual for a web page or blog post to have 4 to 6 levels of headers. The search engines see your H1 content as the main idea. You can have several H2 topics under your H1, and then nest H3 topics under your H2s. The headers usually serve a dual purpose. They act as indicators of emphasis to the search engines, and they provide structure and style to most web pages. For more information on the concept of headers, see What Lawyers Need To Know About SEO.
  • Structured Data – Does your law firm’s website use structured data? It is often times referred to as “schema” data or “semantic markup.” And it’s really great. We think it’s so great in fact, that we built it into the LawLytics system so that all LawLytics-powered websites automatically infuse structured data in strategic places.
  • Keyword Stuffing – This is a big no-no, but a lot of law firm SEO providers still do it. It’s easily detected by the search engines. Basically, stuff your keywords here, and don’t end up in attorney website hell. In short, write for your law firm’s potential clients, not the search engines, and don’t commit this deadly SEO sin.
  • Hidden Text = Hidden Website – As a variation of keyword stuffing, some law firm SEO providers (mostly in the past because nobody is this out of touch any more) used to add a bunch of keywords or phrases that they wanted a web page to be found for using the same color for the background and the text. This effectively rendered the text invisible to the human eye, but not to the search engine. If you do this the search engines will rip you a new one in 2015 and beyond. It’s blatantly deceptive. And Google doesn’t care for deceptive.

Website Architecture Factors That Affect Your Law Firm’s SEO

How your law firm’s website is constructed matters. Not in the sense that fancy moving pictures and other gimmicks will move the ball forward. When it comes to SEO (and real life potential clients of law firms) solid and sensible website architecture trumps flashy “creativity” any day of the week and twice on Monday (the day the law firms who don’t fall for what we at LawLytics refer to as the ”
law firm website design fallacy” get a boatload of calls from viable potential new clients who sadly aren’t calling you). Here are some of the site architecture factors that the search engines use to determine which potential clients find your law practice.

  • Crawl-ability – If the search engines can’t easily make their way through your firm’s website (ie, “crawl” it), they might not find and index your pages. There should be an easy to follow site structure that leads search engines where they need to go. This is often times hampered when a “custom” website designer gets into the mix, and makes something subjectively beautiful. That beautiful website can be an objective business repelling law firm marketing turd if this vital component of architecture is missing.
  • Duplicate Content – Sometimes you have to say the same or similar things in the same or similar ways in multiple places on your website or blog. While some duplicate content is unavoidable, a website that uses a find and replace methodology for creating a massive number of pages is going to get decimated eventually. There are effective ways to manage duplicate content issues which are beyond the scope of this glossary, and some duplicate content is okay and will not draw a penalty. It’s really a matter of deciding what content should go where to provide the optimal experience for both human visitors and the search engines. Again, a matter of site architecture.
  • Site Speed – Google and the other search engines are concerned about their users’ experiences. Part of that experience is whether the information on the page loads quickly enough that the visitor can digest it without getting frustrated. The search engines also have a need to be able to crawl and digest the information on websites and blogs rapidly. Slow sites slow down this ongoing process. From an SEO perspective, site speed is only one of about 200 “signals” that Google uses to determine rank, and site speed is estimated to only negatively impact the rankings of a very insignificant number of websites. However, the larger issue with slow loading sites is that if you site is slow to load your otherwise perfectly enthusiastic potential new clients will abandon your site and your law firm, visit a competitor’s site, and hire them instead of you.
  • URL Structure and Content – A URL, or “uniform resource locator” is a reference to a resource that specifies the location of that resource on the internet. It consists of a protocol (typically “http”) followed by a domain (“yourdomain.com”) followed by a path (“/yourpage”). So http://yourdomain.com/yourpage for example. URLs should be short and contain meaningful contextual keywords that relate directly to the page’s topic(s).
  • Cloaking and Doorway Pages – Cloaking is a showing your human visitors one thing and the search engines something else. This can be problematic when it is done with the intention of fooling the search engines, or fooling human visitors. The later occurs when the search engines index the page for content about something harmless, and the page actually goes to pornography, gambling or sites that install malicious software. The search engines have gotten very good at sniffing out deceptive intent, and punish it swiftly and mercilessly. The same technology used to deceive the search engines is used by legitimate businesses to personalize the content that their returning customers or visitors see. For example, Amazon.com looks different to each human visitor on a return visit based on that visitor’s pervious interactions with the site (and perhaps with resources off site as well). This is not penalized by the search engines because there is no intent to deceive. There are some law firm SEO companies that still use cloaking or doorway pages deceptively to gain an advantage. Lawyers who care about the future of their marketing should avoid these tactics like the plague.
  • Mobile Compatibility – As of April 21, 2015, Google officially incorporates a site’s mobile compatibility (or lack thereof) into their ranking algorithm. It is only one of about 200 factors, but it is, presumably, significant.

The above information was a brief overview of on-page law firm SEO factors. For more in-depth information about them, explore the LawLytics University. We provide all of our law firm clients with coaching and advice, and are happy to review your website with you to help you determine what you can improve and determine whether we can help you (we don’t have salespeople, and you’ll be speaking with one of our senior managers).

Off-page SEO Factors That Affect Attorneys

Off-page SEO factors are things that happen other than on your law firm’s blog or website. In their purest, and most effective form, they are things that are out of the immediate control of the law firm. They are things that are influenced by readers, visitors and publishers of other web properties.

Tip: Off page factors can not be easily faked, and those who try are met with increasing danger that they will be caught and their sites will be penalized. Off-page factors that are the most effective are ones that show that you and your law firm are thought-leaders and contributors in the public forum about the practice of your area of law.

How Linking Affects Your Law Firm’s SEO

We have seen many sites penalized for bad linking practices. Bad linking practices basically boil down to anything that is not earned. A link is only earned if it is shared, without compensation, because the information is useful in some way. In other words, if you pay somebody to create links for your law firm’s website, you are, by the nature of your purchase, endangering your website.

  • Link Quality – High quality and trustworthy links are likely to affect your firm in highly positive ways. And the inverse is true as well. A link on a site that is spammy, or off-topic, is probably not helpful, and may even be extremely harmful. Ask yourself the following question about any site that links to you: “Do I trust this site?” If you don’t, then there is a good chance that the site is not trustworthy.
  • Link Text – Links are typically anchored by text. This is the word (or words) that, when you click or tap it trigger the web browser to open the referenced URL. Is the word relevant? Ask yourself whether the link text makes sense in the context of the linking page. If it doesn’t, then it’s not a good sign. So for example, if the paragraph is about getting an oil change, and the last sentence has a link anchored by “tax attorney,” this is a red flag. The relevancy analysis doesn’t stop there. Click on the link and make sure that the page it returns on your site adds to the information on the linking page. For example, if the link says “Iowa probate process” and the article it links to on your site is about employment discrimination, the link is also problematic. Think of this like Shepardizing a cite. The trail needs to be clean and relevant all the way from start to finish.
  • Link Quantity – How many links are pointing to a particular page? Does the quantity seem natural? If not, watch out.

How Social Signals Affect Your Law Firm’s SEO

Social sharing can be a very powerful booster for your law firm’s website. I have seen first hand that social sharing helps the speed with which search engines crawl and index new pages. Positive social attention also appears to have a correlation with ranking in search engines.

Just like linking from websites and blogs, sharing on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google + need to be “earned” rather than “bought.” Is your work (your thought-leadership) being shared with other influencers? By people in your industry? By your target clients? By influential people in parallel or related industries or areas of practice? Or by dummy Twitter accounts, hijacked accounts, and accounts of people with no apparent clout?

Avoid any offers to get your pages X number of Likes, Retweets, Plus 1s or other social currency. Quality is much more important than quantity. And relevancy is key.

Summing Up Law Firm SEO

Good law firm SEO boils down to doing one simple thing well and often. Creating great content. If you ignore everything in this glossary other than “Quality Content,” and put all of your efforts into that basket, in my experience, your chances of succeeding vastly outweigh your chances of success if you dabble in all of the other aspects.