Chapter 1: Ranking Factors
Table of Contents
- 1 How Google Ranks Law Firms When Users Search
Organically increasing your law firm’s online presence by using SEO practices requires an understanding of the way Google ranks websites on their Search Result Pages (SERPs). This chapter provides information to help you understand how you can optimize your Website to achieve higher rankings for the keywords that are relevant to your law practice. As you learn about Google’s ranking factors, it will help you expedite the optimization process and achieve the organic results you desire.
Keep in mind that all search engines have their own proprietary ranking process. We focus on Google’s ranking factors because they are the leader. Other search engines typically follow Google’s lead and use similar elements to rank their search engine result pages (SERPs).
How Google Ranks Law Firms When Users Search
Experts estimate that Google uses around 200 ranking factors in its algorithm to rank websites within a given web search query. They assert that SEO is about making small modifications and incremental improvements to your law firm’s website that impact your site’s user experience and performance in organic search engine results. However, Google has never explicitly said what does and does not impact rankings on the search engine results pages. This is why it takes time to see results after optimizing your website and content.
It’s critical to note how Google interrelates user experience and search results. Many of Google’s most significant changes to the way it measures law firm website rankings focus on the user, or the person performing the web search. Google algorithms are the complex formulas it uses to determine website rankings. These algorithms consider a myriad of factors when ranking websites like the quality of content, user analytics, link profiles, social media signals, and many others.
Even large law firms that have offices throughout the nation benefit by targeting a local audience for a specific location. The number of local citations your law firm has heavily influenced local Google rankings. A local citation refers to any online mention of your law firms (NAP+W information):
- Phone number
Of course, you will find these mentions throughout your website, but you can also find them on local business directories, other websites, apps, and social networking platforms. Local citations help people find you when they need a lawyer. It’s crucial to create and maintain a wide range of popular internet accounts to keep a strong local footprint. This not only includes Google, but Yelp, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, even Instagram, and Tik Tok. However, the citation from your Google account is easily the most important for an attorney. You need to give it special attention because best practices regarding your Google citation change frequently.
Local citations can positively and negatively impact your ranking. Specifically, the number of citations your law firm has, the accuracy of the data, and the quality of platforms where they exist impact your ranking. Accurate information means that Google and other search engines trust the data, giving your law firm a better chance to rank well. On the other hand, having inconsistent data erodes trust, and search engines are less likely to rank a business well.
Aside from Google and other important directories, many websites have a plethora of citations. It’s common for law firms embarking on SEO best practices to find hundreds of issues with directories that need to be cleaned up. For example, you might need to update your address or phone number.
The quickest and most effective way to clean up your law firm’s citation across multiple directories is to update the aggregators that populate data on many smaller websites. The top aggregators are Localeze, Factual, Acxiom, Infogroup and Foursquare. Other websites also exist that allow you to submit updates to these aggregators to aid in cleanup.
If your citations are too inconsistent, not only could it negatively affect your rankings, but it could also frustrate customers trying to contact your firm. You will find more information on proper business listings in this helpful resource.
Local Ranking Factors
Relevance refers to how well a local listing matches what someone is searching for. Adding complete and detailed business information about your law firm can help Google better understand your business and match your listing to relevant searches.
- Geo-relevance is determined by predefined groups of zip codes and further defining the geographic area by longitude and latitude
- Keyword relevance is determining if the document has the search term in the:
Prominence refers to how well-known a business or Law firm is. Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business from across the web like links, articles, and directories.
Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking. It’s also worth noting that having more positive reviews increases your conversion rate, meaning that more leads will contact your business over competitors.
Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.
Distance (also called Proximity)
Distance refers to how far the following two factors are: the search result and the term’s location within a search. If in any case a user doesn’t specify their location within the search; then Google calculates the distance based on external factors known about the location.
For example, Google algorithms might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer and therefore rank it higher in local results.
On-Page Ranking Factors
On-page SEO ranking factors refer to items on your website and a particular webpage that influence your ranking. Several on-page factors exist. The most important for your law firm’s website include:
Bill Gates’s famous essay, “Content Is King” was published in 1996. His message has aged well because digital marketing success and a fully optimized website heavily rely on the content on each page of your website.
Your content impacts your Google ranking in a few ways. First, high-quality content keeps the reader on your website and encourages them to engage with it. Specifically, Google is monitoring if visitors to your site click on more pages or have more interactions with your website.
The length of your content and the keywords on your page also play a major role in telling Google about your page and how much information it has on a particular topic. You generally want your landing pages to contain at least from 500 – 1,000 words (and often more depending on what your competitors’ websites have) that contain several variations of the keyword you are targeting. It is within best practices to only target one set of keyword family per page.
For example, if your practice in Minneapolis is primarily targeting car accidents your primary keyword would be “Car Accident Lawyer [in Location]”, you might include the following variations in your content:
- Car Accident Attorney Minneapolis
- Minneapolis Auto Accident Lawyer
- Car Accident Injury Lawyer in Minneapolis
- Car Accident Injury Attorney in Minneapolis
- Car Accident Legal Help in Minneapolis
This gives you an idea of how to vary your keywords. You will learn more about keyword research in later chapters. Keep in mind that your content should be useful for the reader. You don’t want to add fluff just to hit a certain word count.
Title tags are an HTML function that specifies your web page’s title. When users search for a keyword, the search engine results display multiple items. The most relevant target keywords for the page should be at the beginning of the titles followed by the firm’s entity to the far left of the title tag. This order is due to Google bots reading from left to right, giving more importance to the keywords at the beginning of the title.
Each clickable headline is the title (ranking factor) and the few sentences that follow are the page’s meta description (not a ranking factor, but helps CTR). Title tags and descriptions must be accurate and concise to help your law firm rank higher in Google’s results. The biggest reason that titles are so important is that if you don’t accurately convey the purpose of your content, users will not click on your link.
A major metric Google uses to determine the relevance of the website and content to the searcher, which is also related to your title tags, is your click-through rate (CTR). Your CTR is calculated by dividing how many times searchers clicked on your website by how many times Google showed them your website.
Another factor that Google uses to rank and understand pages are URLs A page’s Uniform Resource Locator (or URL) shows where it falls in the hierarchy of an entire website. Search engines use this information to determine how relevant a given page is to a user’s search. The URLs for your law firm’s page should reflect the structure of your website with words. Ideally, one or more keywords are in the URL, revealing your page as an option before a search engine even processes the content.
The technical side of your website also plays a big role in where Google will rank your law firm’s website. Technical SEO is all about website coding and server-side optimizations. These optimizations help crawlers (Google Bots) have an easier time indexing and ranking your website. We will go over this briefly in this chapter since we will dive deeper into Technical SEO, in chapter 3, Technical SEO for Law firms..
Mobile responsiveness is more important now than ever, as mobile searchers start to outnumber desktop searchers, so your website must work flawlessly on a smartphone. In fact, internet traffic from mobile devices took over traditional devices in 2017. As of 2021, more than 55 percent of all internet traffic comes from smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices.
Page load times are another part of technical SEO that is important. No one wants to wait for a slow website to load. Google strongly considers a website’s page load time when ranking pages. They even offer a tool to check your website load time, which offers suggestions on how you can speed it up.
Other important factors to optimize on your website when doing Technical optimization are the following:
- XML sitemaps and Robots.txt – Files that guide Bots through your website.
- Site and URL structure -Creating a hierarchy of all the pages on your site, with relevant similar content grouped together and URL describing the page and its location on the site.
- Schema Mark-up / Structured data – These are highly organized and formatted (tables) databases that make information searchable for Google AI to understand more about a given page, its entity, and other supporting information.
- Duplicate content and using Canonical tags- Duplicate content and Canonical tags go hand in hand, canonical tags being the solution to duplicate content on a site. When you find content that is similar or duplicate, it is best to redirect it or use a canonical tag to tell Google Bots that the content took inspiration from its original page.
- Hreflang- Hreflang is an HTML attribute used to specify the language and geographical targeting of a webpage. If you have multiple versions of the same page in different languages, you can use the hreflang tag to tell search engines like Google about these variations. This helps them to serve the correct version to their users.
- 404 pages- These are pages that could not be found. This is due to a change in the URL
- 301 redirects- A page or website redirection is triggered when a user requests a server for specific information and the server responds by sending the user a set redirect response (by the webmaster) to a request. Redirect responses have status codes that start with 3.
Off-Page Ranking Factors
Off-page SEO, also called off-site SEO, refers to the actions that impact your rankings outside your website. We already discussed the importance of local citations, which occur off-page. However, there are several other off-page activities that can impact your law firm’s Google rankings. Ultimately, the goal of SEO with regard to off-site activities is to improve Google’s perception of the popularity, relevance, authority, and trustworthiness of your site. Other websites, pages, and people who link or promote your site vouch for you, your firm, and the content you provide. You can think of positive off-page ranking as the digital form of word-of-mouth marketing/advertising. Below we discuss backlinks, the most crucial element of off-page ranking, as well as other off-site activities your law firm can engage in.
With the introduction of Google E-A-T (Expertise, Authority and Trust) reputation became a ranking factor. This has made entity optimizations for Law firms a very important part of each SEO Strategy. Part of Reputation management is to maintain a line of communications with potential and actual clients through all available channels.
Responding to and addressing concerns in Google, Facebook reviews goes a long way with earning trust with your targeted market, therefore improving your online reputation. Being a Better Business Bureau (BBB) accredited Law Firm also increases your online trust and reputation.
In addition to backlinks from external websites, another common off-page SEO strategy is social media marketing. This includes having a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Linked In, etc., but it also includes using Youtube or Facebook Ads to target your audience and drive traffic to your firm’s site.
Backlinks have been, and remain, one of the most important factors Google considers when ranking your website. While backlinks might not carry as much weight as they did five or 10 years ago, they are still the strongest indicator for Google to determine the authority of your website. The idea is that if numerous websites link to your content, you must be a trusted authority. The best practices when it comes to SEO for lawyers require a focus on getting backlinks from credible websites, with high authority in Google’s eyes.
Three main types of links exist, categorized by how they are achieved: natural, manual, and self-created links.
- Natural links are those that you receive without taking any action. For example, a blogger or the bar association in your state adds a link to one of your blog pages discussing exceptions to statutes of limitations in personal injury cases, or some other topic.
- Manual links are a result of deliberate link-building. Depending on the type of law firm you have, manual links may or may not be the best choice for you. Manual link-building includes asking clients to link to your firm’s website. You could also ask an adjacent firm to link to your site. For example, if your firm primarily focuses on family law, you could exchange links with a personal injury firm.
- Self-created links include adding backlinks to an online directory, a discussion forum, a press release, or comments on other blogs. While some of these links are natural for legitimate businesses to create, Google frowns upon some of these tactics and prefers natural and manual links, so do not overdo self-created links.
Regardless of the type of backlink, those that transfer the most equity contribute the most to your SEO efforts. Link equity refers to the idea that links pass a certain amount of value and authority from one page to another. Factors that influence link equity include:
- The relation of the topic between the two sites
- The age of the link
- Anchor text
- Linking site’s trustworthiness
- Number of total links on the linking page
- The popularity of the linking site
Now that you know what Google looks at when ranking your content pages, we move to the base of your whole strategy—competitor and keyword research. An understanding of what keywords are working for your competitors and the difficulty of ranking for the keywords you choose will allow you to more easily build targeted content to organically increase your place in Google and other search engine rankings.