Practice Law Firm SEO: What Every Attorney Should Know

  1. Every attorney should be familiar with the legal principle “ignorance of the law is no excuse” or ignorantia juris non excusat. For the most part, the same can be said for the rules surrounding search engine optimization (“SEO”). Given the excessive amount of SEO snake oil peddled online, it is incumbent upon every law firm, attorney and business professional to be at least generally familiar with basic SEO best practices. The following is a law firm SEO checklist that should educate and help website owners understand how they should set up their own websites. It also provides an understanding of what you should hear from a competent SEO professional (or commonly called an "SEO").

    Use a custom domain name for your law firm.


    Every law firm or bona fide business should own and use a custom domain name for their website. It’s what most people respect and expect from a professional business, especially given the negligible annual cost. But there is an additional SEO benefit of using your own domain name – the ability to use special tools to monitor your website's performance and to communicate with major search engine providers.

    If your website appears as subdomain (such as “yourname.yourhostingcompany.com”) or a subdirectory (such as "www.yourhostingcompany.com/yourname/"), then your “website” is actually under the control of someone else. This is similar to being a subtenant in a building where only the primary tenant appears in the building directory in the lobby. If the primary tenant has a bad reputation, it can significantly affect your firm's image and website performance. Your home page should appear at "yourlawfirm.com" or "www.yourlawfirm.com".

    Provide contact information for your law firm.


    Contact information for your law firm should appear on your website. At a minimum, it should include the official name of your law firm (or company) as well as a physical mailing address and an email address (recommended as a graphic, not as text) or a contact form. A telephone number is also advisable, especially for law firms. Not only is this information highly useful for human visitors and will increase conversion (the chances that a potential client visiting your site will contact you), but it may also be used by search engines to identify the presence of a bona fide business establishment.

    Submission of your website to search engines is simple.


    The overwhelming majority of your search engine traffic will come from a very limited number of search engines. The largest and most well known are Google, Bing and Yahoo. There is no need to have your website submitted to hundreds of additional search engines. Many of them will eventually find your website automatically. Mass submission tools are usually are of no benefit to you and exist to collect your contact information to sell you additional services. When you install the webmaster tools we'll discuss below, your site is automatically submitted to each respective search engine. And once you are submitted, the search engine should "crawl" your website periodically using an automated program called a "spider." You should not need any other service to resubmit your website or to submit new pages. However, you can take advantage of other content programs that are available to you at each search engine.

    Install three webmaster tools with superadmin control.


    While there are many useful tools available, you’ll want to install at least three free tools immediately on your website. They are Google Webmaster Tools, Bing Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. The first two products help track your website’s health and performance. They also act as your conduit for communications with these major search engines when something goes wrong. In the event your website is hacked, you may receive a message there. If you receive a “manual action” by Google (frequently referred to as a “penalty”), Webmaster Google Webmaster Tools will identify the penalty and give you the opportunity to contact Google for reconsideration after remedy of the infraction.

    Google Analytics is a robust, professional web analytics tool. It helps you understand your website’s traffic, analyze your visitors, identify trends and compile meaningful statistics. You’ll be able to see how much traffic you receive from major search engines, from backlinks on other websites, the geographic location from where your visitors originate, and many other useful statistics.

    Many tools, such as Google Webmaster Tools, are generally only made available to websites that use their own domain name and not to those using subdomains or subdirectories. It is extremely important to ensure that when these tools are set up, they are verified using a secure email account under your control and an email account of an employee or a third party consultant SEO. You should become familiar with Google Webmaster Tools permissions. Should you fire an unscrupulous SEO, you might find yourself locked out of your Webmaster Tools or Analytics account. Restoring access is much more difficult to accomplish than prudence.

    Become familiar with basic Google Guidelines.


    Unlike state and federal legal statutes, a single set of SEO guidelines does not exist which constitute the official law of the Internet. Since Google presently dominates online search, most adhere to Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Most search engines generally follow the same principles as they share similar goals of providing high quality results to relevant search queries. I recommend attorneys and business professionals read the following articles to become generally familiar with the approach Google takes on what is desired and prohibited.

    Know the truth concerning popular SEO myths.


    PageRank is one of over 200 factors used by Google's algorithm.


    The term “PageRank” or “PR” refers to a link relationship factor Google uses in assessing the reputation or authority of a particular web page. Google’s perspective is that great content you publish on your website will eventually be discovered and discussed by others on their websites. In the course of those people discussing your article or the topic on their own websites, they will credit your article as the source of information by including a hyperlink back to your article. This constitutes the creation of a “natural” backlink. If your article on medical malpractice is cited in respected publication (such as within an article appearing on the Wall Street Journal or Mayo Clinic website), then chances are greater that your article is probably of reasonably reliable and of good quality.

    Often SEOs will speak on the great importance of PageRank. But the reality is that in addition to this “backlink analysis”, Google uses over 200 additional factors to determine where a page should appear in search results. Google recommends looking beyond PR, such as "actionable metrics." SEOs may also cite a PR level for a website or a page, such as PR 6. But these numbers generated using publicly available tools may provide a PageRank that is quite outdated and inaccurate. Google updates public facing PageRank values periodically, sometimes after many months. Current PageRank values are stored confidentially inside of Google’s big machine.

    Artificial link building always carries risks.


    SEOs may operate in questionable gray areas in their quest to maximize your organic search engine traffic as quickly as possible. You need to make yourself keenly aware of what they are doing. Some SEOs may suggest methods of “building” backlinks to accelerate the process of improving your search results. Sometimes this means that an SEO will have backlinks placed on other websites in an effort to fool Google into thinking that unbiased third parties are endorsing your website or pages and should increase your page's PageRank. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Google frowns upon and prohibits these types of "artificial" link building efforts. As listed in the article above, common “link schemes” include link exchanges, social bookmarks, link directories, article submissions, blog comments and in many circumstances, guest blogging.

    Google does respect that many activities are the result of legitimate marketing and promotional efforts and provides webmasters. If you examine the source code of many web pages, you'll see the following code which represents a hyperlink:

    Code:
    <a href="http://www.awebsitehere.tld/article-on-nofollow-links/" rel="nofollow">
    Using the “nofollow” attribute above makes Google aware of the nature of these links placed on other websites. It tells Google not to "follow" these links, which don't get included in its PageRank calculations. Make sure that advertising and promotion on other websites that has links back to your site uses this "nofollow" attribute.

    f it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably not true.


    There is nothing wrong with being confident about one’s personal competence and skill. But the general rule regarding an attorney not guaranteeing a victory in court applies no differently with SEO. Reaching page 1, 2 or 3 in Google for competitive keywords is extremely difficult - especially in the legal niche. It usually takes a dedicated, protracted effort and there are no true shortcuts. Beware of very low cost solutions, which will frequently use inexperienced third party outsourcing. Steer clear of anyone who guarantees a “page 1 placement” on any search engine. If they do actually hit such a milestone, the results usually fall soon thereafter and can carry long lasting penalties, usually "link schemes" mentioned above. By the time you discover the truth, your SEO may be long gone and may also be in a country where the law will not provide you with a remedy.[/B][/SIZE][/B]

    Cross-examine SEO candidates like criminal defendants.


    Competition online is fierce and superior results have become increasingly difficult to achieve. The high level of desperation for good placement in SERPs ("Search Engine Results Positions" ) has attracted a multitude of silicon snake oil salesmen. Novice SEOs will often pass themselves off as experts but don’t know much more than the client - just enough to be convincing.

    Before you interview a potential candidate to provide SEO, make sure you’re familiar with the Google Guidelines and perform prudent research on the interviewee. Use a search engine to see if you can discover comments about the SEO professional you’re considering hiring. Ask questions in a forum, such as the Google Webmaster Central Help Forum. If you wish, you can hide or “cloak” your website's URL using a URL shortener such as goo.gl. Ask the SEO to explain his or her analysis to you, goals for the website, and how money paid for services will be expended. Feel free to interview more than one SEO so as to compare and contrast basic analysis, recommendations and fees. Personal recommendations from knowledgeable people you trust can be very useful in selecting an SEO.

    Periodically audit the work of your SEO.


    It can be difficult to assess the performance and value of the work performed by an SEO professional. Many variables that can affect the performance of your website in search results, such as those that are outside of the control of your SEO. Variables include changes to the search engine algorithm and the actions of competitors. Long-term and long-lasting improvements will take time to cultivate - usually at least several months - and patience is necessary. But you can quantify the value of the work performed by having a list of tasks to be performed and certain reasonable criteria. In addition to determining how your site is performing for relevant search engine queries (such as "personal injury lawyer new york city") you can also :
    • Improve the website's meta data (better page titles and descriptions provide a superior understanding to search engines and humans);
    • Improve the site navigation, user interface and user experience;
    • Make the site mobile optimized (such as using a “responsive” template) so that it displays content effectively on desktops, tablets and mobile phones;
    • Improve the speed which pages are rendered in a web browser (if necessary);
    • Clean up any coding errors such as W3C validation.
    While there are no guarantees, theoretically the tasks which improve your site’s performance and appeal to human visitors will also make a positive impact on search engines.

    Do I need law firm SEO? What about social media?


    Attorneys will typically recommend to clients that they should not try to prosecute a bona fide lawsuit "pro bono" or by themselves. Any serious matter where the amount of money or issue controversy is significant, the issues will usually be complex and require a professional to see optimal results. The same goes for search engine results, where a typical law firm will be competing with dozens if not hundreds or thousands of competitors. In the same way you wouldn't expect a client to successfully prosecute their personal injury or medical malpractice case in front of a judge, don't expect that your 2 hours per week spent reading about SEO will make a significant impact upon your law firm website. And it's possible that trying to do it yourself from the start can set a very bad precedent moving forward.

    An occasional or periodic review of your law firm's website by an experienced SEO or webmaster will probably suffice for many small practitioners. Social media SEO, which is actually marketing, is a topic beyond the coverage of this article. While it may help you to have a business page in the most prominent professional and social networks, it is external and secondary to your site. Hopefully this article has given you plenty of useful information to digest and is helpful in the selection process of a competent and reliable SEO.
    Legal Practice:
    Practice - Office Facilities, Management
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    Michael M. Wechsler

    Michael M. Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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