Overview of SEO Ranking Factors in Legal Marketing

SEO Ranking Factors

SEO Ranking FactorsOverview of SEO Ranking Factors

In this section, we share an overview of law firm search engine optimization (SEO) ranking factors and how they go together. What used to work in SEO just a few years ago won’t work today. In this guide, we outline the action steps you need to follow to develop an effective SEO action plan for your law firm.

What’s more, other methods of marketing (such as paying for PPC ads) is becoming increasingly competitive, meaning increasingly expensive. So although PPC and social media are great marketing approaches to add to your arsenal, they don’t drive as much traffic as SEO and should be used as a supplementary strategy, rather than the entire thing.

Studies from leading enterprise-level SEO software companies Conductor and Bright Edge showed that only 2% to 5% of traffic comes from social media, but as much as 64% comes from organic search. This means it’s never been more important to have an active presence in search results for the keywords you’re hoping to rank your law firm for.

There are an estimated 3.5 billion searches per day on Google and 1.2 trillion worldwide. Although this might sound overwhelming, we’re going to use this opportunity to look at the SEO landscape, what sort of websites or pages rank for specific keywords, and how you can implement these strategies to help your own law firm gain extra visibility on search engines like Google. Throughout this section, we’ll delve deeper into each strategy to provide you with a framework for success.

Before we begin to learn about SEO, here’s a quick glimpse of how ranking factors have changed and will continue to change. I won’t try to document everything, but rather am offering a casual, not perfectly historical, sketch.

A super-brief history of ranking factors

1996 – 1999: On-page keyword usage, meta data

1999 – 2002: PageRank, On-page

2002 – 2005: Anchor text, Domain name, PageRank, On-page

2005 – 2009: Domain authority, Diversity of links, Topic modeling, Anchor text, Domain name, PageRank, On-page

2010 – 2011: Entry of social signals from Facebook and Twitter

2011 – 2011: Google Panda makes sure sites have high-quality original content

2012 – 2012: Google Penguin penalizes sites with bad links

2014 – 2014: HTTPS becomes a ranking signal

2015 – 2015: Mobile usability becomes a ranking signal

2016 – 2016: Content development shifts as RankBrain looks beyond keywords

2017 – 2017: HTTPS becomes a near-requirement

2018 – 2018: Mobile page speed becomes emphasized

2019 – 2019: Relevance and user intent are critical

2020 – 2020: Customer engagement with your brand getting easier for Google to analyze

Search engines have evolved dramatically, and in order to do the work of a quality SEO person, you need the stamina of an Olympian and the plan below to keep you on track.

Now let’s look at the steps we’re going to cover.

When considering all the facets of SEO for your law firm, you should focus on the following ranking factors. It’s as if you are building a house — you will see how the pieces all fit together. If you skip a step, the house crumbles.

Ranking factors and important tactics

1. Building Your Brand for SEO: Designing your house
2. Technical SEO: Laying the foundation
3. On-Page SEO Optimization: Framing the rooms
4. Content: Designing the rooms
5. User Signals and User Experience: The flow of your floor plan
6. Link Building – Off-Page Optimization: Having the equivalent of an ocean view
7. Social Signals: Engaging with guests

Now let’s get started mapping out your new action plan and look more closely at each of these seven ranking factors and tactics.

Summaries of the 7 Key SEO Tactics.

1) Branding for SEO: Design your house

In order to judge websites, Google uses three factors that go by the acronym “EAT,” which stands for expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. If your firm is a thought leader and people search frequently for your brand name, you are more likely to rank well in Google.

Having social mentions, PR placements, and high branded-search volume sends a signal to Google of trust and authority.

While social media isn’t necessarily a direct ranking factor, we know that Google looks at your level of expertise and good standing in your niche.

In 2008, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “Brands are the solution, not the problem” and “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

If you have checked all the SEO boxes like having good backlinks, keyword placement, and blogging, etc., but people don’t search for your brand, Google will place you in the search rankings below someone with the same or less “optimization” if they are seen as the go-to company for that topic in other detectable ways.

So you should make sure that you tie your SEO into your broader marketing plan and build your brand with “Mad Men style,” as opposed to winging it.

Your house can be made of the best materials, but if no one wants to come over or live there, it’s all for nothing.

2) Technical SEO: Lay the foundation

For many, the technical side of SEO is confusing and a world away from what they’re used to.

Fear not; in this guide we’ll provide you with a checklist you (and/or your SEO team) can use each time you need to perform a technical SEO audit.

Focus on things like having a secure site by using HTTPS:// rather than HTTP://. Make sure you’ve included H1 and H2 title tags to give your content some clarity as well. Also be sure the file sizes of your images and videos are compressed as small as they can be without losing quality, to ensure your site loads as fast as it can. You can use Google Search Console to help you improve the technical aspects of your site. 

3) On-page SEO: Frame the rooms

Adding keywords into text and code is one of the most misunderstood things in SEO. Maybe because I have been doing it since the 1990s, I think of it as fairly simple. Yet our agency has hired, from the best agencies in Boston and beyond, top writers who failed to “get it.” Bloggers and writers working for our clients claim to know it, yet fail to pick logical keywords for each page and then don’t optimize the title and meta tags or the text on the existing pages.

While it is less important than it once was, when you could slap in some keywords and make clients millions, proper keyword use is still a prerequisite for most sites to rank well.

Back in the day, your old-school “SEO guy” or “SEO girl” could do it. Now you want a writer to do it with finesse, because Google is not so forgiving as they used to be.

But you also need the keyword strategy done in a way the average writer may not understand. You may even need more related keywords and other factors only an SEO geek could muster, such as tying your keyword strategy into a topic cluster strategy. More on that later.

Like technical SEO, it’s one of those things that gets mocked for being “fluff” until your search rankings drop off the map. So get your hammer and be prepared to frame up the walls of your digital mansion.

4) Relevant Content: Design an “interior experience”

You know that if you want your law firm to show up in search results, you need to create relevant content that engages people’s emotions and minds.

But what you might not know is that search engines, especially Google, are becoming exponentially smarter about determining relevance rather than simply just recognizing keywords. Gone are the days where you could write content and stuff your keyword in every sentence.

Now, Google understands content in much greater detail and can understand the relevance of a piece of content regardless of whether you’ve used keywords in the body of the content or H2 tags. This is not to say that these things aren’t important. They are, and we’ll look further at on-page SEO later in this guide.

Create deep content

You’ll notice many of the chapters within this guide have a heavy focus on content. That’s because if you want your law firm’s SEO strategy to be successful, you need to get better at creating content. That includes what’s known as “deep content.”

Deep content is often defined by its length —- the pages in the top 10 results on Google have on average 1633 words — but it’s so much more than that. Writing deep content involves more than just writing length; it’s also about focusing on depth. The idea is to cover a topic in detail so the reader no longer needs to seek out further information elsewhere.

However, you might not consider this a viable strategy. You may feel there are few readers who would appreciate a law firm practice page of this length, but it’s still worth considering making those pages — not just your blogs and resource pages — at least 1000 words.

Remember though, if you are thinking about changing your current law firm practice pages into deep content, use the opportunity to focus on your user’s needs, as opposed to your own sales pitch.

Create content for specific user intent 

We’ve already mentioned that Google is getting smarter at understanding what type of content will resonate with what type of person. Because of this, you need to make sure you’re creating content with specific user intent in mind.

Although the importance of keywords has declined over the years due to improvements in Google’s machine learning algorithms, you should still look at the text on a topic level and ensure you’ve included enough context for Google to understand what content you’re producing and who it’s for. That’s not to say you should ignore keywords completely. In the on-page SEO section of this guide, we’ll look at some of the best-use cases for keywords within your law firm’s content.

Think like a publisher 

Although you’re running a law firm, you should still think about your business like a publisher. Why? A recent study found that bloggers are spending more time creating content, and an increasing number are publishing once a week, or even monthly, compared to recent years where the common practice was to publish sometimes as often as daily.

This might be due to bloggers focusing on writing deeper pieces of content that take more time to produce.

On the other hand, bloggers who publish content frequently reported higher search rankings. What this means is that you should publish as much in-depth content as you can, making sure you don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

Thinking like a publisher involves thinking about promotion, too. Many bloggers use a combination of social media, SEO, email marketing, and influencer outreach to market their content, and your firm can, too.

5.) User Signals and User Experience Optimization: Create the flow of your digital floor plan

User signals and user experience optimization work together to make it easier and smoother for visitors to move around your site and find what they’re looking for.

User signals

User signals show you how a reader interacts with your site. These include click-through rate, time on site, and bounce rate. Your bounce rate refers to users who enter your site and leave without clicking through any further.

If you want users to click through to your website from search results, you need to make yourself stand out with more interesting titles and meta descriptions, along with short and easy-to-read URLs. We call this click-through rate optimization.

It’s good to know that the web pages in positions 1 through 3 on Google (in the search results) have an average click-through rate of 36 percent. However, converse to that, the average bounce rate for URLs on the first page is 46 percent.

This means there is plenty of opportunity to take the winning spot on the first page of the search results simply by producing better, more relevant content on your site and creating more engaging titles that show up in the search results.

Improve your user experience

User experience is as much about SEO as keywords are. You should make a conscious effort to improve the user experience of your website by setting text in a readable font size, including a number of images, and providing users with internal links to your other content to help them navigate around your site. Using internal links helps improve the user experience by connecting one comprehensive article to another, so readers spend more time on your site.

6) Backlinks: Like having an ocean view

Backlinks should never be ignored in your SEO strategy. Such links have been an important part of SEO since their first few years in existence.

Although questionable “black-hat” SEO tactics have meant that Google has slightly reduced the power of backlinks over time, it’s still a good idea to improve the number and the quality of the inbound links your site generates. You can use various tools to sort your backlinks from best to worst.

You should also use the Google “disavow” tool to disassociate with any bad backlinks that might be hindering your efforts.

7) Social Signals: Engage with guests

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube should be a part of your overall SEO strategy.

You can use tools like LinkedIn and Twitter to share and improve your own thought leadership. Keep in mind that longer content is more likely to be shared across social media.

You can use a tool like Ahrefs to understand what pages on your law firm website generate the most shares.

Set up ROI and campaign tracking first

If you don’t tie your success to overarching company goals, it’s unlikely you’ll feel inspired to set the budget needed to do SEO at the advanced level required to see serious results.

This involves making sure you look at specific metrics, such as where your law firm currently ranks in the search engines results; the search volume for the keywords you want to target; the traffic you’re targeting from search engines; and the conversions you’re hoping to get from search engines, as well your website’s ability to retain customers by bringing them back to your website again and again.

Later, in the tools section, we’ll look at some of the tools you can use to help you do this. If you haven’t already, make a note of SEMrush, Advanced Web Ranking, and Google Analytics.

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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