This is #5 of the in-Depth versions of the 7 Key SEO Ranking Factors
Why does your law firm bother having a web presence? Because web traffic generates leads, leads can be converted into clients, and clients keep the lights on.
However, simply having a web presence is not enough.
Your potential clients are internet-savvy. They’ve seen and interacted with thousands of websites for all sorts of reasons. When it comes to the law, they use the internet to find a firm that can solve a problem they’re experiencing, quickly and easily. In fact, legal consumers are among the most motivated customers on the web. According to the National Law Review, 74% of consumers visit a law firm’s website to take action.
However, if the website they’re viewing doesn’t quickly grab and hold their attention, they head for the exits, taking their desire to act with them. In short, it’s your competition that’s likely to benefit if your website is not up to a visitor’s expectations.
This is where UX — short for “user experience” — comes into play. UX is specifically the experience a visitor has (or doesn’t have) when visiting a website. The more satisfactory the experience is for the visitor, the longer they will stay on site. The longer they stay on site, the more likely it is that they will become engaged with your brand. The higher their level of engagement, the easier it will be to prompt them to take action and convert them into a paying client.
In today’s marketplace, good UX isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. Not only is it important in generating leads, it is also increasingly important as an SEO element in and of itself.
Google wants the very best results for each search. One of the metrics that’s used to determine if a site is a “best result” for a given search is user experience.
User experience encompasses many things, including how long a site takes to load, ease of navigation on the site, and the quality and availability of information on the site. In short, a site that offers good user experience is fast, clean, easy to use, and grabs and holds the attention of the people who visit.
Google increasingly uses UX as a metric to reward sites with good UX and penalize sites with poor UX. In other words, by sacrificing UX you not only are sacrificing potential clients, you’re also torpedoing the chances that your website will be seen by anyone at all. And an unseen website is an oxymoron in terms of purpose and function.
In this section, we look at several factors that are important to good UX on your firm’s website. Your firm can easily implement these factors to not only raise your website’s search ranking, but also to convert a larger percentage of your traffic into clients.
Look to User Signals
Many times, you can get a fairly accurate audit of your site’s UX performance simply by looking at the signals being sent by the users on your site. Specifically, you can look at three factors:
- Click-through rate, or CTR;
- Time on site; and
- Bounce rate.
Collectively, the information from these signals will give you a fairly accurate snapshot of the average visitor’s experience when using your website. Let’s look at each of these user signals separately, so that you can understand what they are and how to use them to improve your site’s UX.
1) Click-Through Rate
For UX purposes, the click-through rate is the number of visitors who are coming to your site from a third party, in this case from search engine results. These results will be largely, if not totally, from Google and also will be primarily organic traffic. This means that CTR is a metric that is measuring the overall effectiveness of the information contained in the search engine results for your site.
There’s an old SEO joke that says the best place to hide a body is on the second page of Google’s search results. CTR statistics prove that this old joke is at least partially true. In 2017, the top search results in Google garnered the best CTR, with the highest rates going to spots 1 through 3. So, when it comes to CTR, the higher you are in the rankings, the better off you’re going to be. However, ranking is not the whole story.
Another thing to consider when discussing CTR is Google’s increasing use of paid advertising, carousels, and answer boxes at the top of every search result. These items have a big footprint and take up a lot of geography on the page. As a result, they push organic search results farther down the page. This means that viewers have to wade through more of Google’s territory before they get to your result. But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at the Moz Google SERP Feature History over the past 30 days.
“Data is updated nightly across 10,000 Google SERPs. All percentages reflect unique queries across the 10K (not query volume). Searches link to live queries, and some results may have changed since the last data was captured.”
There’s a whole lot going on here, but the important statistic to focus on is site links. Site links, the actual links in Google’s search result that lead to businesses like yours, only represent 20.5% of matched queries. Even HTTPS results, which include results other than site links, such as external blogs, only account for three-quarters of the search page. The rest of the territory is taken up by Google-related items.
As you can imagine, this means that even if you’re in the top 10 search results, more of your potential organic traffic is being picked off by Google ads, etc. before someone reaches the organic listing link to your site. Research bears this out.
One industry study showed that the organic CTR has dropped a whopping 37% between 2015 and 2017. Coincidentally, this drop in organic traffic coincides with the rise of Google’s increased use of the top of the search results page.
All of this means that if you want clicks, you’ll have to pull out all of the stops. With that in mind, here are some things that you can do to improve your organic CTR in the search results.
To begin with, the search results for your site consist of three elements:
- Title tag
- Meta description
The graphic below shows all three elements and how they are displayed in a search result.
Each of these elements presents an opportunity to boost your CTR, so let’s take a closer look at each one.
The Title Tag
The title tag gives the viewer the title of a web page, displayed in search results as clickable links. Titles have a maximum size of 600 pixels. Anything larger than that will be cut off by Google and be unviewable by a potential user.
As such, every title tag should describe a page’s content as precisely and concisely as possible. In general, titles of 60 characters or less will generally be fully viewable in the results. Title tags are not only used in search results, they also are displayed in web browsers at the top of tabs, as well as in shared posts in social media.
Therefore, it’s important that every title tag you use is as compelling as possible. A good title consists of a number of different factors:
- Always be aware of character length. When composing a title, less is more. Aim for brevity. Remember that capital letters will take up more space than lowercase letters. The last thing that you want to do is exceed the 600-pixel limit and have your carefully crafted title tag become useless because it’s been cut off. Moz offers a neat Title Tag Preview Tool that can tell you if you’re in the ballpark.
- Lead with a title that attracts viewers. For example, people love numbers in titles. Studies have shown that titles with numbers are 36% more likely to result in a click. But, not all numbers are created equal. As the graph below shows, it turns out that people prefer round numbers, ending in zero, in titles far more than any other.
- Don’t be afraid of using emotion. Human beings are emotional. This means that viewers are more likely to click on a title that contains an emotional appeal. This use of emotion doesn’t have to be in-your-face. Simple words like “important,” “best” or “effective” speak strongly to a viewer’s pain points.
- A good title foreshadows the content to come, so that a viewer doesn’t have to guess what’s coming next. So make sure that you tell the viewer the format of your content. For example, “tips,” “strategies” or “steps” all clearly communicate the format to a viewer.
- Use brackets [ ] and parenthesis ( ) as HubSpot has shown them to be effective for increasing CTR. Example: Internet Ad Spend Is About to Surpass TV Ad Spend [New Report]
- Finally, use your topic in the title. This can be keyword-driven, an evergreen subject, or a newsworthy event. Again, the point is to let the viewer know up front what’s going on.
The URL (or Uniform Resource Locator) is the web address of the page being viewed in the search results. A URL can have up to 2083 characters. However, because a URL is more than an address in terms of CTR, you never want to get anywhere close to having one that long. Like your title tag, the shorter and more descriptive your URL is, the better.
The idea is that a potential visitor to the page will know what the page is about just by looking at the URL. This means that the URL should be clear and concise enough so that even if the title tag were hidden or missing, someone looking at the URL would still know what the site is about. If your URL is readable by human beings, you’re on the right track. Rand Fishkin formerly of Moz has summed this issue up nicely with the graphic below.
Also, make sure that you’re using a top-level domain, or TLD. Both .com and .net are TLDs.
The Meta Description
The meta description is found under the title tag and the URL in a search result. In general, meta descriptions have a size limit of about 150 characters.
When it comes to meta descriptions, you want to reinforce the information that’s already contained in the title tag and URL in regard to the nature of the page in question. Because you have a little more wiggle room in terms of length, this is a perfect opportunity to create a good value proposition for your user.
If your firm offers free consultations, this is the place to let the user know that. This is also the perfect place for your phone number, giving a user the opportunity to call you directly without having to click through to your site. That may decrease CTR but calls are worth the small risk.
Full-length, well-thought-out descriptions can give you more real estate in search engine results pages (SERPS) and finally, any starred reviews should be added to them.
2) Time on Site
Time on site, as the name implies, is how much time the average visitor spends on your site after they click through. The average time on site for the top 10 URLs in a given search is 3 minutes and 10 seconds. Given that the average attention span on the internet is now 8 seconds, that 3-minute and 10-second time on site is enormous. It means that the person using the site is having a quality experience and finding relevant and interesting information that solves a problem or meets a need they are experiencing.
It’s important that you have a clear idea of how much time visitors are spending on your site. There are three main ways to get this information — analytics, user experience testing, and heat mapping.
In Google Analytics you can look at the average number of pages visited and average visit duration.
User experience testing allows you to watch a video of a typical user interacting with your site and giving feedback about likes, dislikes, and problems. Usertesting.com is a platform that allows you to easily set up UX testing at a very affordable rate.
Heat maps are graphic tools that use color-coded values to help you understand how visitors use your site. Areas where users click more frequently, scroll or, in some cases, even look become more brightly colored, while less-frequented areas are duller or not colored at all. Because of this, heat maps can give you a more in-depth understanding of how visitors behave on your site and what pages and content engage them. CrazyEgg, HotJar and Clicktale are all platforms that provide heat mapping services for your website.
3) Bounce Rate
Bounce rate is the percentage of total visitors who visit only one page on a site and then leave. Bounce rate is not only indicative of bad UX, it also has a direct correlation to time on site. The higher the bounce rate, the lower the overall time on site will be.
User Signals and Google
It’s impossible to talk about user signals without talking about RankBrain, Google’s artificial intelligence/machine learning system that helps sort and rank search results. RankBrain has been in place, in one form or another, since 2015. However, since then, Google has revealed that RankBrain is the third most important search ranking factor, after content and linking. Google continues to refine its search algorithm, which means that RankBrain will continue to grow in importance.
Basically, what RankBrain does is look at the number of people who click on your site in the search results and how much time people spend on your site once they click through. In other words, Google is measuring your CTR and time on site (dwell time). The higher both are, the higher your site may rank in the search results.
Google is using these metrics as a way of measuring what user experience is like for the average visitor. This means that sites that get great time on site and click-through rates will continue to outperform sites that don’t, irrespective of content and backlinks. Google will often use these metrics as the deciding factor between two competing sites that are tied when it comes to content and backlinks. So, if you fail to optimize your site for user experience, specifically looking to user signals, you do so at your own peril.
Important UX Factors
If you’ve looked at your site’s user signals and discovered that your UX needs work, it’s not the end of the world. In this section, we offer some proactive steps you can take to improve your UX and, as a result, your ranking and traffic conversion.
Internal linking is one of the easiest ways to give your website a fairly significant UX boost. Despite this fact, many websites often fail to optimize their opportunities to link internally.
An internal link is a link that connects one part of your website with another part of your website. To put it another way, with an internal link, the source and the target domains are the same. Compare this with an external link where the source and target domains are different.
In terms of UX, the primary purpose of internal linking is to help a user navigate around a site more easily. However, smart internal linking also has an important side effect — in terms of SEO, it distributes authority throughout the website. By spreading authority throughout different pages and areas, the ranking power of the site is increased.
Here are several tips to help you increase the effectiveness of your internal links:
- Use descriptive anchor text, the highlighted area of the source that contains the link to the target. When creating anchor text, make sure that you use language that describes the nature of the link target accurately. Descriptive anchor text should establish the relevance of the link target to the content that contains the anchor. This relevance is important to the user because it lets them know why clicking the link will be helpful. It is also important to Google because it establishes the authority of the link.
- Don’t use phrases like “Read More” or “Click Here.” They’re simply not descriptive enough. The same goes for creating an exact match between the anchor text and the title of the link target. Insufficient description equals insufficient relevance, which equals no clicks and no authority.
Don’t use more than one sentence as anchor text. Too much information is as bad as too little information when it comes to link relevance.
Link to pages on your site that have high conversion numbers. If one part of your site is converting well, you want to make sure that you are funneling users to that area.
- Remember to link deep. This means that you want to link to parts of your site that are deep within the structure, for example blog content that might otherwise be harder for the average user to find. Conversely, you want to avoid shallow links to the top-level pages on the site, places that are already linked by the navigation bar.
- Use links that provide value to a user. The primary purpose of internal linking is to give every visitor a positive UX. Showcase top-notch content and watch your user signals improve.
External links are the opposite of internal links. Instead of linking from anchor to target within the same domain, the target of an external link is on a different domain. External links are generally a positive thing for the same reasons that apply to internal linking, as long as you follow a few simple rules:
- As with internal links, you want to keep your external links relevant to both the source and the target.
- You also want to use the same kind of descriptive anchor text that you use when doing internal linking. Not too short and not too long.
- It’s important that the external link provides real value to the user. So you want to make sure that your external link target is enhancing whatever source content contains the anchor text. External links to authoritative resources are excellent examples of this.
- There’s also plenty of evidence that shows external linking makes your site more relevant in the eyes of other sites, increases your site’s authority, and can even boost your ranking.
In ever-increasing numbers, visitors to your site are expecting video content. Take a look at some of these statistics:
- By 2021, video will account for 82% of all global consumer internet traffic.
- Over 500 million people watch over 100 million hours of video on Facebook every day.
- YouTube has over one billion users. (That’s almost one third of the internet.)
Clearly, video is the medium of choice for a large percentage of all internet users. That means that it’s likely that a large percentage of your site’s users will also prefer video over any other medium. In terms of UX, failing to give them what they want could be a serious mistake, one that affects your reach, your brand, and your bottom line.
In order to optimize your video content to improve UX, here are a few tips:
- Don’t rely exclusively on video content. Yes, video is increasingly popular as an informational medium. However, even people who prefer video will still explore a website before watching video content. There are also people who don’t want to watch videos. Make sure that all of the information contained in the videos on your site is also available in text format as well.
- Don’t use autoplay. It’s annoying and it universally detracts from your site’s user experience. Not convinced? Google has started to block autoplay videos and will only allow their use under specific, user-controlled circumstances.
- Keep your video content short. As the chart below demonstrates, users like to watch videos that are of shorter lengths.
- Don’t leave your viewers hanging. Many videos simply end, leaving the user wondering what they should do next. In terms of UX, a confused user is one who is likely to bounce off-site. Instead of leaving them hanging, make sure that you provide the next step they should take. If appropriate, use a call to action. Alternatively, direct them to other content on the site.
Humans are visual creatures. That’s why video is such a popular format on the internet. However, when looking at the UX big picture, don’t forget the power of imagery.
Unlike video, images have the power to encapsulate a mood, describe a brand, and entice a user — all with one glance. That’s why it’s important to select the right images for your site, ones that will stand out from your competition and make your web presence memorable.
When it comes to using images on your site, here are a few things to remember:
- If possible, make image selection a part of the initial design or redesign phase of your site. There are two reasons for this:
- First, images (unlike videos) are visual cues. They grab a user’s eye and tell them where to look next. This means that all images on a page need to be designed with this flow and cohesion in mind. One misplaced image can interrupt that flow, causing lower average time on site and increasing bounce rates.
- Second, the use of too many visual elements — different videos, image formats, and font types — can bog down your site’s load time which, as we will discuss shortly, can be a deal breaker for ranking when it comes to Google.
- There’s no magic number when it comes to images. Every site is different. Every audience is different. How many images you use, what they are, and where they’ll be on the page, is dependent on your firm’s brand, message, and outlook. Just remember to vet every image you use for effectiveness, appropriateness, and overall look. Overly compressed images or images that are too bright, too dark, or too small will negatively impact your site’s UX.
Just as they do with video and images, your users want text that is clear, understandable, and easily digestible. While we’ve emphasized the importance of imagery and video, the written word still contains considerable power. Every effective website creator knows this and uses copy and content that engages, informs, and convinces the user to take action. Your website should be no different.
When considering text, here are a few things to consider:
- Google wants more in-depth content and many experts say 1,600 words or more is what works both for SEO and even for social shares.
- Avoid long, monolithic blocks of content. As we’ve discussed, the attention span of the average user is short. This means that if you don’t get to the point quickly, your user will never get to the point at all. Make sure that you use short, informative sentences and keep your paragraph lengths to no more than four to six sentences. Breaking up your text this way makes it seem shorter and allows the user to absorb it in smaller portions. This keeps them engaged, on site, and moving forward.
- Use structured text elements. In reading this content, you’ll notice that much of the information, such as the current section you’re reading, is in bullet point format. There is a reason for this. Lists and bullet points are another way to break up information for ease of use. The easier that you make it for a user to take in what you have to say, the better their UX will be.
In addition to the content- and design-related items discussed above, there are also some technical tweaks that you can make to improve your site’s UX. These include:
- Using HTTPS. HTTP stands for hypertext transfer protocol. It’s used to allow two systems to transfer information, most commonly from a server to a web browser. The problem with HTTP is that it isn’t secure. Anyone with the right knowledge or tools can intercept any of the information being transferred. HTTPS adds the word “secure” to the formula. Using an SSL certificate, a HTTPS site protects the information, making any information transfer safer. This obviously means a lot to your users. It also means a lot to Google, which gives a boost in search rankings to sites that use HTTPS. In fact, upwards of 70% of the sites on the first page of any Google search are using HTTPS. HTTPS is good for your UX and your rankings. If you’re not using it, you should be.
- Increasing site speed. Google loves good UX. That’s why site speed and load time are a part of Google’s algorithm. Faster sites may get ranking boosts, while slower sites get penalized. It makes sense. With an average 8-second attention span, no user will patiently wait for your site to load. It’s either there the instant they click or they’re gone. You can test your site’s load speed using tools like GTmetrix, Pingdom or Google Developers Page Speed Insights.
UX is one of the most important aspects of any law firm’s online marketing strategy. You have a web presence because that’s where your potential clients search for legal representation. It’s imperative that you make those potential clients’ experience on your site as positive as possible. When you do, you significantly increase the chances of converting prospects into clients.
Now it’s time to learn another critical tactic which is often talked about but rarely executed well, and that is getting quality links pointing at your site.