*This is #1 of the in-Depth versions of the 7 Key SEO Ranking Factors
The first thing that comes to mind for most of us when we think of branding is the visual identity of a firm. However, your logo, website, fonts, and colors are just a few elements of branding.
Your advertising and communications, your products or services, pricing, reviews, thought leadership, content, and the experience you give your customers are all also a part of branding. Even your sponsorship agreements, support of charitable causes, and partnerships impact the perception of your brand.
However, as Intuit co-founder Scott Cook says, “A brand is no longer what we tell the customer it is — it is what customers tell each other it is.”
The traditional idea of branding has shifted because of the internet, but at the same time, your off-line brand, and the perception of your company in general, affects your digital branding capabilities.
Google is starting to give higher importance to businesses that receive the maximum engagement, and if people don’t engage with you, it may be because you don’t have a strong brand.
Your content is one of the primary ways that you can build a strong relationship with your customers in an age where customers don’t want to talk to you until after they’ve done their research online.
Reviews are essential because customers like to know that they can kick your tires, so to speak, without you noticing them sizing you up.
Customers may be turned off by your brand if you cold-call them and advertise too much, so you need your digital experience to be much more personal and engaging than you did in the days when you could dominate the search engine rankings by hiring someone to manipulate results.
Google is very sophisticated. Here are some insights about the ways that they can determine if a brand is strong.
Let’s start with local rankings, since that is so important for law firms. According to tidings.com: “Google’s goal in local search has always been to mirror the real world as closely as possible with its digital results. The engagement signals they now have access to as a result of the firehose of data coming from Chrome, Gmail / G Suite, Google Maps, Waze, Android, and soon Google Home, has finally given them the ability—at least in Local—to make the algorithmic shift so many of us have long yearned for: to stop using backlinks as their primary ranking factor.”
This graphic from Tidings.com makes it much clearer in terms of where they expect Google to put the emphasis moving forward.
The bottom line? The absolute top experts in local search are strongly buzzing about the engagement factor.
We have been talking about the idea of “pogo sticking” (when users hit the back button after clicking from search results to your site) at least since 2014, when SEO expert Rand Fishkin wrote about how Google may be using it as an important ranking signal.
The click-through rate from search results to your site as a ranking factor has also been discussed since 2014 or before.
Larry Kim of WordStream posits that “dwell time” is already having an impact on rankings. He shares how Google has filed patents on “dwell time,” which essentially looks at how long a customer stays on your website.
These are merely speculative topics for SEO-obsessed people like me if Google can’t incorporate them in a practical way into their search algorithms. However, you have to take them seriously, now that Google is gaining traction on putting them into practice.
Here is a list of brand signals:
- Branded searches – People search frequently on your firm name
- Brand + keyword searches – People look for your brand and specific topics
- Brand name anchor text – People link to your site using your brand name
- Known authorship by authors listed on your about us and bio pages
- Brick and mortar location as seen on contact page
- Site has Facebook page with lots of likes
- Site has Twitter profile with followers
- Site has LinkedIn company page
- Legitimacy of social media accounts
- Brand mentions on top stories
- Brand mentions without getting linked to
Check out this post by Brian Dean of Backlinko, where some of these list items came from.
People discussing you and your firm on forums, in communities or articles, and mentioning you online, builds you into an entity that can be put into a database by Google. Once again, Google has filed patents on the idea of tracking entities and authors.
Here’s an example of such a patent.
These are important Google ranking factors today, and a strong brand entity will help with most if not all of them:
- Organic click-through rate
- Mobile usability
- Dwell time
- Content quality
- On-page SEO
We have already discussed how Google admits that brands help them to sort through the cesspool of the web.
In 2013, Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that verified people get better ranks.
“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top [verified] results.”
We know Google’s algorithms look at expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness to judge who the true thought leaders are. So if you want your brand to be strong, you should work on building authority — for your company, your locations, and your individual attorneys.
In addition to the other elements in this guide, as well as your traditional branding activities, here are some ways that you can improve your thought leadership and further build your brand.
7 Ways to Become a Thought Leader in Your Practice Area
Thought leadership is one of those concepts that can raise hackles when used in certain circles. Yes, it’s business jargon. Yes, the term has been thrown around indiscriminately by people who don’t have a clear grasp of what it means.
However, none of those negatives have any effect on its core value. Thought leadership still remains one of the best ways to build a law firm’s brand and effectively differentiate that brand from the competition. Not to mention that Google explicitly says it ranks websites better that have clear expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (EAT).
What is thought leadership? A thought leader is someone who has the knowledge and experience to be seen as an authority in their industry. It follows then that thought leadership involves using that knowledge and experience to answer the questions that your target audience is asking and doing so in ways that differentiate you from your competition.
Typically, thought leadership is demonstrated through content. However, this is not content designed to sell. Rather, it is content designed to convince and to educate. Oftentimes, a thought leadership article will explore a subject in depth, laying out background, diverse approaches, choices, and potential outcomes from a client’s point of view. Think of it as one-stop shopping for information on a subject.
The whole point of thought leadership is to build a brand. Authority and confidence build trust with a target audience. Once that trust is established, it becomes much easier to convert prospects into paying customers.
So what does it take to effectively utilize thought leadership to build a firm’s brand? Here are seven things to consider when utilizing a thought leadership approach as a part of an overall law firm marketing strategy.
1. Have a clear intention.
The initial part of any thought leadership strategy is to have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve. Make your intentions as narrow and as focused as possible. This means that brand promotion is not an adequate intention. Determining the exact purpose behind promoting your brand is a far better definition of your intention.
2. Understand who you are talking to.
It’s important to have a message. But it’s far more important to have a message that connects with the people who are viewing your content. In order to accomplish this, you must not only know who those people are, you must also tailor your message to fit their needs. As we will see, the most well-researched and authoritative content will be ignored unless it is designed to tackle subjects that interest the target audience the most.
3. Understand your audience’s needs.
Once you know who your audience is, the next step is to zero in on what they want. Far too many firms take blind stabs at guessing what their audience’s needs are. Worse yet, they simply mimic another’s firm’s content and hope for the best. In order to have a productive conversation with your audience, you must be prepared to engage them. The only way to effectively do this is to put yourself in their shoes. What motivates them? What itch do they need you to scratch? Your audience’s needs — as they perceive and define them — are paramount, not what you think they need.
4. What’s your angle?
Face it. There are dozens of firms in any given location that practice in the same areas of law as your firm. How do you stand out in the crowd? How do you clearly communicate to potential clients the things that set your firm apart from the competition? How do you differentiate your message from the dozens of similar messages available to your audience? The answer to these questions is actually deceptively simple. Your message doesn’t have to be revolutionary. It doesn’t have to be unique. All it has to do, from a thought leadership perspective, is answer their questions more thoroughly, more effectively, and more convincingly than your competition.
In short, differentiate when necessary, but don’t make the mistake of trying to always differentiate. A simple and clear demonstration of your knowledge and experience will win the day every time.
5. The medium is an important part of the message.
You know your angle. You know your audience and you know their needs. What next? In a word, delivery. You could have the most complete and convincing answers to the questions troubling your audience. However, if you don’t deliver those answers in a way that the audience expects and, more importantly, in a way that appeals to them, the whole thought leadership process derails.
The manner in which you deliver your message matters as much as the message itself. So, when it comes to content delivery, mix it up. The written word is fine. However, don’t neglect audio, video, and graphics. Some of your biggest thought leadership gains can come from taking existing content and repurposing its message in another medium.
6. Expose your message to the masses.
Too many firms neglect the content delivery platforms that different segments of their potential client base prefer. That means that their message is muted and will not be heard by important segments of their target audience. In order to be a thought leader, you must reach out to your audience through multiple channels. This means that your leadership pieces need to be in multiple media formats, being pumped out on the popular platforms that match the specific media.
Use blogging, social media, print and online magazines, live speaking engagements, podcasts, and YouTube videos in order to effectively demonstrate your knowledge and expertise. A best-selling book on a niche subject is the ultimate way to get exposure and to be the clear leader.
7. Finally, you’ve got to stay the course.
Developing a reputation as a thought leader takes consistent effort and time. If you keep the message on point in terms of audience appeal, maintaining a steady volume through multiple channels, your efforts will yield results.
The target audience will begin to see your firm as the leader in your practice area for your location. It is at that point that the role of thought leader will begin to pay dividends in terms of increased client volume and revenue.
Platforms: Deliver your content in the channels your audience prefers. The many different platforms for content delivery include blogs, social media, newspapers, magazines, conferences, podcasts, webinars, YouTube, radio, and television.
Plan: The next step to attaining thought leadership is to come up with a strategic plan that puts all the pieces together. The plan should include your audience, their needs and objectives, your theme, your content, and how you will deliver your content. A great way to start on your plan is to create an editorial calendar. This calendar will enable you to map out your content strategy during the year and will ensure that you stay committed to the plan you develop.
Connect: As previously mentioned, you will need help in becoming a thought leader. Once you have your plan, your next step should be to identify influencers and other thought leaders who can help you attain your goal. Reach out to them and develop a strategic relationship with them. Tell them what your goals and objectives are and ask them for help.
If you are genuine about your efforts and humble in your approach, most thought leaders will be happy to lend a hand and help you to connect with their peers and their audience.
Learn: A true thought leader never stops learning. In order to become a true authority, you must continue to enhance your knowledge and learn from others. Watch and learn from other thought leaders, do research, and read voraciously within your area of interest. Keep up with the latest trends and explore new ideas and new methods. Stay on top of your game.
Execute: As I mentioned above, attaining thought leadership takes a significant amount of time, effort, and determination. Thought leadership is not something you can buy or take shortcuts with. You need to hone your knowledge and skills, execute your plan, and be relentless in your pursuit of greatness.
Sadly, many great law firms and their websites have lots of content, but never land at the top of the search results due to technical issues. The next section will help you avoid those pitfalls.