Competitive Analysis in Legal Content Marketing and SEO

Competitive Analysis

Competitive AnalysisBefore you even begin to work on your SEO and content strategy for your law firm, it’s important you conduct a competitive analysis. To me, this is really fun because it is where your path becomes crystal clear.

You might be in a rush to start looking into keywords, optimizing your content, or even attempting link building.

However, if you do this without first conducting an SEO competitive analysis, you will hinder your law firm’s efforts.

Competitive analysis allows you to understand not only who your competitors are, but to see where they are positioned in relation to you. Doing the analysis will give you a comprehensive understanding of what goals you should be working toward and will present you with opportunities to rank for specific keywords.

Think about it. If you don’t know which law firms are dominating organic search, which keywords are most valuable, or what the best backlink strategy is, how do you expect to grow your own organic traffic through SEO?

In this section, you’ll learn the components that go into a competitive analysis and which tools you can use to make it as effective as possible.

Find your competitors

The first step of an SEO competitive analysis is to identify your competitors. When you do this, you’ll be able to:

  1. Discover what they’re doing well
  2. Find your strategic advantages
  3. Help you find link opportunities

If you don’t know who your competitors are, use a tool like SEMrush or SearchMetrics to identify them.

You should be looking out for a combination of your search competitors and business competitors (law firms offering services similar to yours).. Search competitors are firms that are ranking for the terms you hope to rank for.

Once you’ve identified these competitors and analyzed them, you’ll have a clearer idea of which tactics do and do not work within your industry. You’ll have a number of different tactics to improve your own keyword rankings, and you can prioritize which tactics should take precedence.

Once you have the competitor data overview, it’s time to start looking in more detail at certain aspects of what makes your competitors’ sites great. These are in the list below.

It’s okay to skip to the next section on SEO ranking factors if you don’t want to get into the weeds. Just be aware that underestimating your competitors can be a main reason for having weak results.

Competitor Analysis Considerations

  1. Number of monthly brand searches via SEMrush
  2. Average visit duration, pages per visit, bounce rate via Similarweb.com
  3. Channels driving traffic via Similarweb.com
  4. Competitor search metrics overview
  5. Google top 10 SERPs (search engine results pages) and what is in them that matters to you
  6. Keywords and keyword gap
  7. Competitor top website pages (that drive SEO rankings)
  8. On-page optimization levels
  9. Backlinks and commonly occurring links
  10. Social media followers, engagement, and frequency
  11. Swipe files of competitors’ top-performing headlines
  12. Topical authority – Screaming Frog SEO Spider or MarketMuse, etc.
  13. Calls to action, navigation, and trustworthiness via user tests
  14. “Spy” (legally) on how competitors get leads with Nacho Analytics

Here’s a brief explanation of each of these list items.

1) Number of monthly brand searches via SEMrush

Sometimes we have a client who imagines they are the number one firm or company in their niche, but it is a good idea to get a reality check on your brand power. This is something Google can see and that can be used as a signal of trust.

Below are examples of specific ways people search each month, with brand names included, for large legal sites. Sometimes you need to add up the variations of your brand name that get searched on to get the total monthly branded search volume.

Name Monthly Searches in Google
Above The Law 40,500
FindLaw 12,100
Bloomberg Law 9,900
Mass Lawyers Weekly 2,900
FindLaw.com 1,900
Lexology 1,600
JD Supra 1,000
National Law Review 720
Mondaq 320
Lexblog 260

 

2) Average visit duration, pages per visit, bounce rate via Similarweb.com

Google has patents on judging if a site is able to retain visitors and get them to take an action. They use the term “dwell time” and the idea of a “long click” in some of these patents that they have filed over the years.

Does that mean that what they call “dwell time” is a ranking factor?

The head of Google Brain, Nick Frost, at a conference in 2017, said this:

“Google is now integrating machine learning into [the process of figuring out what the relationship between a search and the best page for that search is]. So then training models on when someone clicks on a page and stays on that page, when they go back or when they and trying to figure out exactly on that relationship.” 

That still doesn’t guarantee it is a direct ranking factor, but I would argue it’s a great reason to improve your website, even if it is a supportive ranking signal.

And SEO authority Neil Patel says “an optimal bounce rate, a healthy session duration, and a strong SERP CTR are all factors that improve dwell time.”

So it’s important to make sure you are in the ballpark of what your competitors are doing in terms of the metrics below. This way your website is as good as theirs is for users and potentially will address newer ranking signals.

My big takeaway from this small list below is that Above The Law has a stronger hold on people’s imaginations than the other sites. People visit longer, click more pages, and bounce less.

Name Avg. Visit Duration (minutes) Pages Per Visit Bounce Rate
AbovetheLaw.com 4:15 2.42 68.51%
Bloomberg Law – BNA.com 1:54 2.15 69.13%
FindLaw.com 1:35 2.18 76.53%

 
(Note: The lower a site’s bounce rate is, the better, because it means visitors are staying on a site longer before they leave.)

Here is a breakdown of what is a good or bad bounce rate.

0-40% bounce rate:  Good

41-60% bounce rate:  Fair

61-100% bounce rate:  Poor

Just be aware sometimes people bounce because they found what they wanted, like a mortgage rate.

Your job is to find sites that appear to be doing something better than your firm, based on easily scannable metrics. Then try to figure out what they are doing specifically, so you can improve your own site’s engagement.

3) Channels driving traffic

Google respects you more if you have traffic from various channels, because they have seen spammy SEO-driven sites kill it with SEO in the past, only to discover they are not actually great companies.

Similarweb.com has a useful traffic sources graph that gives you a rough idea of what other ways a site is getting love.

In the examples below, Above The Law has a greater variety of channels driving significant traffic to them than Lexology.com has.

Lexology

Lexology Traffic Sources Graph

Above The Law

Above The Law Traffic Sources Graph

 

4) Competitor search metrics overview

The competitor data overview provides you with a holistic view of what your competitors are currently doing in a broader sense.

It goes without saying that you’ll need the name and URL of the sites in question. How many sites you choose to analyze is up to you, but we recommend five to 10 in order to get a real understanding of what your competitors are doing. SEMrush lets you add four in the keyword gap tool in addition to your own, so that is a good number to start with.

Using tools like SEMrush, or Ahrefs, you want to look at how many of your competitors’ pages are indexed in Google, how many referring domains they have, the number of organic keywords they rank for, how much their traffic costs, whether they’re mobile friendly, and how fast their page loads.

Set up an Excel spreadsheet using these columns to make comparison easy.

Name | URL | pages indexed | referring domains | organic keywords | traffic cost | speed

It will look something like this.

Excel Spreadsheet Comparison

Pages indexed

For pages indexed you can start by using the “site:” advanced operator in Google search. Type site:yourdomain.com and hit enter like you would when doing any other search. Then you will see how many pages Google has in its index for your site. Do the same with your competitors.

To really get the pages indexed that matter, use a web crawler like Screaming Frog. You can put a site’s URLs into Excel and delete unimportant things like tag and category pages.

Number of referring domains

I prefer to use Ahrefs for this because it has the best link database, but you can use SEMrush if you do not have Ahrefs access. Just add the URL into the tool and go to referring domains on the left navigation panel.

Number of organic keywords

SEMrush gives you this under the “organic search positions” link in the left navigation panel. It is how many keywords SEMrush sees as appearing in the top 100 search results in Google. It is not everything because very local variation would be astronomical, but it’s extremely robust.

Traffic cost

SEMrush calls this traffic cost, but I call it traffic value. This is the value of the organic keywords if you had to buy them as Google ads.

Page speed

You can get this from GTmetrix or Think With Google / Google mobile page speed tools. A search in Google should bring these up easily.

When you have access to all this information, you’ll quickly be able to see why the websites on the first page of Google rank for the keywords they do. You also might find some anomalies, namely websites that seemingly have poor SEO efforts, but still manage to rank for the keywords you’re trying to target. This presents you with a really good opportunity to outrank your competitors with better content and better SEO optimization.

5) Google top 10 SERP

One of the best ways to find your top competitors is to look at which websites show up within the top 10 search results on Google. These top results show you the websites that rank for the keywords you’re trying to target.

I use the following items in my overview. (I’ve broken this into two segments for easier viewing in book format.)

Here are the top pages that come up in a search for “high interest cds”:

  • com/blog/banking/nerdwallets-best-cd-rates
  • com/rates/cds/best-cd-rates
  • com/blog/earning-interest/best-cd-rates967994263
  • com/cd.aspx
  • com/bank/cd-rates
  • com/21693/best-bank-cd-rates
  • com/story/money/2018/06/05/how-find-best-rates-cds-cash/663924002
  • com/cd
  • com

Here are the primary factors for each of the above pages:

Primary Factors

Next, let’s look at the secondary factors. Keep in mind that page speed is quickly becoming a dominant ranking factor. Google won’t highly rank a content-rich long page with lots of links to it if the page itself doesn’t load in a reasonable time.

Secondary Factors

Below are some tools to help you get these metrics.

  • Word Count – wordcounter.net
  • Related Pages on a Website / Insite Pages – Type (site:yourfirmsdomain.com) in Google and add a space and then a key phrase. Example: (site:mintz.com patents) and hit search. Google shows you pages indexed with that term on them, but it’s only a quick way to get a very rough idea. We crawl sites with Screaming Frog and then go through the URLs in MS Excel and add a column for the topic of each page. Or use the expensive tool MarketMuse for time-saving topical authority research.
  • InBound Links for a Page – Ahrefs
  • InBound Links for a Site – Ahrefs
  • Keyword in Title – SEMrush
  • Keyword in Heading – SEMrush
  • Page Type – Manual Review
  • Page Speed – GTmetrix or Google Page Insights
  • Mobile Friendly – Google Mobile Friendly Tool
  • Secure Protocol – Manual Review
  • MultiMedia – Manual Review
  • Have Comments – Manual Review

6) Keywords and keyword gap

You can get new ideas for your own digital marketing campaigns by looking at the keywords your competitors use.

I like to make a spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Tab one has the search rankings overview from SEMrush from all the main competitors we are looking at.

You can use the number only for the number of organic keywords in the top 100 and what the traffic would have cost if you had to buy it as Google ads. (See that chart below.)

Findlaw Organic Research

Note that I usually ignore the traffic number because most research sites do not have great accuracy in getting that information, which is normally only accessible if you are logged into a website’s Google Analytics account. That said, I am evaluating a new tool called Nacho Analytics that claims to have deep competitor analytics.

Or you can use this information with the multiyear tracking chart to see where a competitor is going up or down.

The full chart is below. You can see that FindLaw.com had a dip in total keyword volume starting around January 2018 but then came back even stronger. Their traffic is now worth $29 million a month if you bought the keyword search terms as Google ads. 

Findlaw Full Chart

Next, you want to export the total keywords for your site and those of your competitors and have all of those keywords in separate tabs in Excel. I like to add filters so I can re-sort by the largest amount of monthly search volume, then by highest cost per click (CPC) and the percentage of traffic driven by each term.

You’ll end up with a nice graphical overview tab of who is getting the most from organic search, then tabs with all of the search terms, so you can pick and choose what might also work well for you.

In order to make finding golden nuggets easier, you can select the “domain vs. domain” or “keyword gap” feature in SEMrush. It gives you five slots to add your site and four competitors. It lets you sort by keywords unique to the first domain, unique keywords, and common keywords.

Below is a Venn diagram that SEMrush displays when I sort by unique keywords. It looks like FindLaw.com is crushing it.

Findlaw Semrush Venn Diagram

When I sort by cost per click, it shows how dominant FindLaw is for expensive terms. If other competitors had ranking positions in the top 100, their search position number would show up in their column. This type of analysis is critical when you want to choose the right keywords.

Cost Per Click

7) Competitor top pages

A “top pages” report shows the pages that drive the most organic keyword traffic to you or your competitors’ sites. Look at this for new page and keyword ideas. It is easily accessible from SEMrush. It will simply be a list of the pages on the site sorted by the ones that have the highest number of organic keyword positions in Google.

It looks like this below.

URL Traffic (%) Number of Keywords
https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendments.html 2.68 2755
https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1.html 0.92 1260
https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/racketeering-rico.html 0.74 192
https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/what-is-an-indictment.html 0.73 259
https://litigation.findlaw.com/going-to-court/what-is-a-subpoena.html 0.67 521
https://family.findlaw.com/emancipation-of-minors/how-do-you-get-emancipated.html 0.63 735
https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment5.html 0.57 327
https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/extortion.html 0.55 186
https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/homicide-definition.html 0.53 358
https://blogs.findlaw.com/blotter/2011/08/difference-between-first-second-degree-murder.html 0.52 147

 
Clearly the amendments pages are doing a lot for FindLaw, as well as a page on exempt versus non-exempt employees. The first example — https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendments.html — is ranking for 2,755 keywords in Google. It also drives 2.68% of the organic search site traffic to their site.

It is well worth using this tool to dig up great ideas for content. All it takes is a few heavily detailed new pages on your site to show solid SEO progress. Just writing lots of super-basic blog posts doesn’t do much anymore for your site’s Google rankings.

8) On-page optimization

Now let’s look at an example of a top-ranking page and how the site is optimized, and then take this data and apply the keywords and content to your own site. Please note, you can’t do this in a vacuum, because each industry has its own ranking factors and optimization levels.

If you did a Google search for “Law Firm New York,” you’d see results like these.

Law Firm New York Search

It’s useful to analyze each of these pages to see what the total word count is and which other sites link to them. This will give you a clear idea of what sort of content you need to include on your own website in order to compete for the same keywords.

If you’re looking for an easy way to measure word count without copying and pasting the entire text on the page, you can use WordCounter.net. All you need to do is enter the URL in question and the tool will tell you how many words appear on that page.

So if we take the number one search result, we see the following:

Web Page Word Counter

Not only does it tell how you many words in total are on the page, but it tells you exactly what keywords are used throughout the page, too.

Do this analysis for at least your top five to 10 key phrases; otherwise, you might use the right keywords but have the less-than–optimal word count. 

Analyze competitors’ site optimization

When you first begin to analyze your competitors’ SEO, what you might find is that many don’t have a strategy at all. You’ll wonder how they were able to rank on the first page, despite not having everything in complete order. If this is the case, you’ll easily know what you can do to improve your own marketing efforts.

Keyword density

Take some time to look at their keyword density. You want to know how many times your top competitors are using keywords throughout their best-ranking pages in order to know how aggressive you’ll need to be.

Note: Google is very intelligent, and keyword stuffing will be penalized. If you notice that one site uses the keywords 50 times on the page and still ranks, don’t take heed of this site as it’s an anomaly and eventually Google will penalize them for it.

If we take one of the law firms from the top 10 SERP results and put their URL into the Internet Marketing Ninjas keywords density analyzer, we’ll find a wealth of data.

Keyword Density Analysis Tool

Mandellawfirm Keyword Results

And by looking at the home page,, the keyword phrase “Family Law Firm New York” doesn’t even show up, despite the company ranking on the first page for this term. However, despite this, there are instances of “New York” dotted around the site, although these are not “match terms.” This means that you don’t need to overfill your website with “Family Law Firm New York” in order to rank well for this specific phrase.

Further research on this website will be able to provide reasons for why this company is able to rank on the first page, despite there being so many search results for the keyword phrase.

Don’t just do this for one competitor; do it for at least four good ones, and track the data in a spreadsheet. Keep a note if there are other keywords that repeatedly pop up that you perhaps haven’t considered using on your own site.

You’ll also want to look at the following:

  1. Meta descriptions. Do they use keywords within their meta descriptions to increase the click-through rate? Are they using LSI keywords, which are basically related keywords, and is there a strong call to action for what a user should do next? Ideally, you’re looking for why a user would click onto their site.
  2. Do they link internally? Here you want to see what model of internal linking they’re using to see if you could make changes to your own link architecture.

On-page optimization is likely the first thing people think of when they think SEO, and many writers will claim they can do it. However, I am shocked by how we have to burn through testing four or five writers for every one person we can find who can even be trained properly to get this job done.

It takes a writer’s finesse, but it also takes an engineer’s mindset and strategy. Much as in sales, the salespeople who make the most money are often both technically knowledgeable and also have strong relationship-building skills.

9) Backlink analysis

Backlinks are still one of the top three ranking factors. Doing backlink research is not optional if you want your SEO and content marketing to actually work.

When it comes to backlinks, look at two things. The first is what backlinks your competitors get. The second is your common backlinks, meaning the links that are common to you and your competitors. These can sometimes spur ideas about who to reach out to for links.

To analyze your competitors’ backlinks, you can use a range of tools from Ahrefs, Majestic, or Open Site Explorer. Analyzing their links tells you whether there are opportunities to generate links from sites you haven’t considered, or whether you should try to mirror their approach.

Mirroring their approach assumes that if you’re getting the same links, your site should perform in a similar way. However, if you notice some of your competitors are generating links from irrelevant sites, it’s best to ignore those. But if you see they’re getting links from industry journal websites, these would be great to target within your own backlink campaign.

When it comes to backlink opportunities, you want to see what sites are linking to your top competitors but not to your site. You may notice that there is one particular site that links to all your top competition but not to you, and if so, there’s a good chance they’ll link to you too with the right outreach message.

If you can also get links that your competitors don’t have, that is even better.

10) Social media competitive analysis

Social media has a positive impact on SEO, even though it may be more of an indirect factor. Many people debate the use of social media for SEO results, but the fact of the matter is, the more people who share links to your content on social media, the more people are likely to link to and visit your law firm’s website.

If you produce a solid social media campaign, you’ll be able to foster relationships with industry experts, interact with your current and new customers, and discover where your content fits in the market.

Look at what your competitors’ social media strategy is. What types of content do they post and share? What is their engagement like? Are people actively and consistently sharing links to their website, their content, or their other marketing assets? If the answer is yes, then it gives you an idea of what you should be doing with your own social strategy.

Amazingly, several social media “experts,” whom we have hired in-house and/or used as subcontractors, don’t have a good system for social media competitive analysis.

Do keep in mind that social sites like Facebook prefer you don’t send people via a link to your site because they are “greedy” and want people to stay on their site. They may also decrease engagement to “punish” you for sending people to your own site and off of theirs.

So, if organic social engagement is your key metric, then don’t share a link to your site. Rather, get insights about what people love to share from your best content pieces you used in your social profiles, and find a way to get those same topics on your site. And then you will have to use other means to promote your website and blog content.

Set up SEMrush to do a social media audit of your site against a good number of competitors. It will show you, in a bar graph format, numbers of social media followers, engagement, and frequency.

Here’s how it looks in action.

Bar Graph Comparison With Competitors

11) Keep swipe files of competitors’ top-performing headlines

Keeping a swipe file is a copywriting technique where you gather the best headlines from your competitors and use them to generate ideas.

Ahrefs is a great tool for this because you can assess both the top pages on your competitors’ sites by the number of links but also by the number of social shares.

Simply make a spreadsheet with a tab for each of your best competitors and add the top 25 pages on their website sorted by links, and then in another tab, add the top 25 sorted by social shares.

You can turn to these swipe files when you are generating ideas for blog posts and/or more powerful content like pillar pages, “link bait,” and social media contests.

The topic research tool in SEMrush gives you lists of top headlines by backlinks and the top questions people ask about the topic.

12) Topical authority: Screaming Frog SEO Spider or MarketMuse

Being a topical authority is critical if you really want to dominate the organic search results in your industry. You can’t just put keywords in a page and expect to rank highly if your competitors have dozens or hundreds (or in some cases, thousands) of pages on a single niche topic.

What you need to do is use a “crawling” tool like Screaming Frog and put all of your URLs into a tab and organize them by type. You will have the main pages like home, about, and contact, and then all of the practice area pages and blog posts organized in a logical flow.

Then add a column to the right side of your spreadsheet entitled “topic.” Look at the URL and if necessary go to the page and decide what the topic of the page is. Type that into the column.

Let’s say you want to rank well in search results for “estate planning attorney” and you find that your website only has one practice area page and a couple of blog posts about the topic, but a couple of your top-ranked competitors have dozens or hundreds of pages. The work that you have to do becomes obvious after you see what your competitors are doing.

13) Calls to action, navigation, and trustworthiness via user tests

Google understands and can potentially track when a user completes an action on a website like buying a product or filling out a free consultation form. You need to make sure that your calls to action — whether it’s your phone number, an invitation to a live chat, consultation forms, or e-book downloads — are easy for your site visitors to find and act on.

Your website must be easy to navigate and create a sense of trust in the visitor who doesn’t know you or your firm well, especially if they found you through search engines or social media. Even if people come to you through a referral, you still want to have these things under control on your site. Bonus: It will help your search engine optimization.

A great way to figure out how to correct these things is to run user tests with the tool at UserTesting.com. You can ask users to go to your website and then to one of your best competitors’ websites and compare the experience. Fixing these things will also give you more leads, so it’s well worth the effort.

14) Spy (legally) with Nacho Analytics

As I write this guide, I am testing Nacho Analytics, software that’s supposed to allow you to look at your competitors’ website analytics. The software developers claim to have figured out how to get the data similar to what your competitors have in their Google Analytics accounts so you can see how they get leads and sales. If it works, it will be very exciting — but also a little bit creepy.

With the advent of Google looking more and more at user signals and user experience factors, understanding a range of factors, from your competitors’ bounce rate and time on site, to the number of pages visited and even deeper elements, could be a game changer for law firm SEO and marketing.

Takeaways

In the introduction, we mentioned the growing competitiveness in paid advertising (for such items as pay per click — PPC — ads for popular keywords) and as a result, the increasing cost of PPC. However, if you conduct a thorough competitive analysis, you can find opportunities to rank for specific keywords at a fraction of the cost.

Keep in mind that when you buy Google ads, you mostly buy positions 1 to 3 in the search results, and so your SEO must mimic that in order to be effective.

When you conduct an SEO audit of your top competitors, you put yourself in a position whereby you have access to some really important insights. You can use these insights to help drive your own SEO strategy, knowing what you should and shouldn’t do for success.

Putting the reports together with the data from all your competitors will take time, but it’s important to actually do something with this data. The audit tells you what you need to do right away in order to get ahead. For example, if you know that all your competitors have double the number of backlinks that you have, then you should focus on a backlink campaign, creating new assets to generate more backlinks.

If you do decide to conduct an SEO competitive analysis, you’ll have a resource that will allow you to develop your law firm’s marketing in a strategic way, based on real data from your market.

Following “top 10 SEO tips” is no longer enough, and will lead you down a road where you try everything and hope something sticks. Follow the process and blueprint outlined in this guide — we tell you exactly what you need to do and why.

About John McDougall

John is the CEO of McDougall Interactive, publisher of The Legal Marketing Review and an authority on internet marketing for law firms. His team of over a dozen people helps law firms understand how to create a comprehensive internet marketing strategy and how to use of SEO, Paid Search and Social Media to generate more, and better, leads.

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