May 16, 2019 | Sarah Danks
The Pillars of Search Engine Optimization
In this blog post, we’ll be giving a brief — to us — overview of search engine optimization (SEO). SEO is just one of four major marketing tools we use when crafting our law firm clients’ online presence:
The legal field is a very competitive market — at some point in their life, people will need legal advice, so it all boils down to choosing the attorney with which you feel most comfortable for your specific issue.
In this day and age of Wifi-at-your-fingertips, people can use the Internet to find just about anything — and they need to be able to a) find it quickly, b) find it with ease, and c) see the information they want to see right away upon finding it.
Hence, we optimize all of our law firm websites such that people researching their legal needs can access our clients’ websites on Google (or other search engines), and once there we want them to find helpful, relevant content that will help them make a decision about choosing legal representation.
Here are the main SEO tactics we employ to do just that:
- Custom content
- On-page SEO
- Incoming links
- Tracking goals
Here’s a bit more detail on each of these…
1) Custom Content
Helpful, relevant content doesn’t come together accidentally. It requires careful strategy and planning to be effective — and it all revolves around the right keywords.
Even today in 2019 some search engine optimization marketers attempt to game the system and use keyword stuffing (along with other black hat tactics) to “rank” in the search engines. That method not only doesn’t work anymore, it can be harmful to the website’s performance in the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Obviously we don’t partake in such naughty methods, though our founder DID begin his journey on the black hat side of SEO 🙂
We don’t worry about keywords we think will “rank” well in the search engines; rather we like to focus on the ones the target audience is using to search for our clients’ services. See, you have to know that before you can write content that’s relevant for their needs (and you also need to write TO the audience; not AT them).
Writing for Your Target Market
There’s a well-used phrase in our industry: “write for humans first; search engines second.” We wholeheartedly agree — and the great thing is, when you write for the website’s target market, you’re de facto writing for search engines.
And, according to an old Native American proverb,
“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
We blend the need of website visitors to be able to easily consume relevant content with telling the clients’ stories. In regards to our lawyer clientele, this means in addition to adding relevant legal keywords, we also want to make each page easily scannable and help the audience find key information within the content.
To break up content so it’s easy to scan, we like to incorporate bullet lists, headlines (and sub-heads), short paragraphs, the use of bold font, etc. If it’s easy to tell what the entire page is about at a glance, you know you’re doing it right.
This is blending into on-page SEO techniques, but it’s also a good practice for content to make it as easy to read as possible. The less work web visitors have to do in order to consume your content, the better. So make it easy for them to scan and find what they’re looking for.
In lead generation, the goal of any web page is to get the visitor to take some type of action — search engine optimization begins with getting visitors to the website via search engines; then ideally gets them to convert — so our objective with our content is to lead visitors to that next step.
Well optimized content is doing what it should if the proverbial horse is led to water AND it takes a drink.
2) On-page SEO
On-page search engine optimization practices encompass much more than the title tag and meta description (most often referred to as the “meta data” of a site). I’m not sure whether or not I like the word “metadata,” but it’s the quickest way to describe some of the behind-the-scenes SEO stuff that every website needs. Namely:
- <title> tags
- meta descriptions
- internal links
There’s other behind-the-scenes technical coding that contributes to a website’s “metadata,” but these are the four topics we focus on for our on-page SEO efforts.
Arguably the most important aspect of on-page SEO on any page, the title tag serves multiple functions:
- tells search engines the focus of the page
- what users see right away in the SERPs listings
- the clickable link in search engines
- tells users what the topic of the page is
There’s only so much real estate on a SERP, so while there’s no character “limit” on title tags, per se, you need to keep them short enough so at least the most important information displays (Google truncates title tags after ~55 characters, give or take).
Basically the meta description should be used to expound upon the information you included in the title tag. This part of the snippet isn’t part of the search engines’ ranking algorithms, but it DOES help visitors want to click on your result…
…so even though it’s not a ranking factor, it plays a role in on-page SEO.
Meta descriptions should entice users to click through because of their relevance and messaging, and ideally they fit within the character limit (currently that’s ~155 characters) because, often Google will truncate them if they’re too long.
We don’t use the meta keywords tag — anyone that tells you the meta keywords tag is important doesn’t know their SEO.
Why not? Because search engines ignore it — unless they’re stuffed full of spammy keywords, then they might take notice in a “this might be spam” sort of way. Better to leave this outdated tag alone.
Many people — SEOs included — still aren’t on the internal link train. Which is sad, because it’s bar none the easiest way to create relevance within your own website. Nothing tells search engines the importance of pages more than linking.
And internal links aren’t just for use in website navigation. When you link to relevant pages within the content of a site, you:
- create a hierarchy of page importance
- help visitors find other useful content
- tell search engines the relationship between your pages
- pass “link juice” importance within your site
We like to say internal links are the easiest links to acquire, but make sure you do it right: we interlink related content where it makes sense; not just for the sake of linking.
Of course, incoming links from third-party websites are also important.
Third-party links pointing a website are known as backlinks, incoming links, or inbound links. Whether the rest of the online marketing world believes it or not, we know backlinks are a very crucial piece of SEO. But don’t take our word for it.
Inbound links directly correlate to performance in the search engines, according to data collected by Backlinko:
But attracting relevant, credible incoming links to boost a site’s ranking in the SERPs isn’t easy. It takes time, patience, and — most importantly — great content to which other websites want to link.
4) Great Usability
If you’ve ever run across the initialization “UX” on the web, that stands for usability. A lot of online marketers don’t think user friendliness is a core SEO element, but it most definitely is, and is becoming more and more paramount to a website’s performance.
Why? Because Google’s telling us we need to have quick-loading websites that render on any device and are user-friendly, that’s why.
In fact, usability is creeping into Google’s algorithm so much that we can’t NOT say it’s a part of SEO!
But why do we care what Google thinks, anyway? Well, their entire goal is to give their users the best experience — so they want to show websites that also create a good experience. If people are finding websites on the first page of the SERPs and clicking through, only to be left disappointed or confused by the bad UX (and thus clicking back out), that’s a bad experience.
Mobile-Friendly Web Design
What does it mean to have a “mobile-friendly” website,” anyway? In the simplest definition, it’s a website is able to be used on a mobile device, but technically we need to think of it as a website being ACCESSIBLE. And not just on a phone, on any device, whether that’s a desktop, laptop, iPad, etc.
And it’s not just Google “telling” everyone to do it; it makes sense in today’s mobile-focused world to ensure your website is easily used regardless of device upon which it’s being viewed.
Plus, being mobile-friendly helps SEO: Google is all about users and good UX, so if your site is mobile- (i.e, user-) friendly, Google likes it, and will be more likely to show it in the SERPs.
Quick to Load
A fast-loading website is important for many reasons, but most of all if you expect mobile users to stay on your website. Why specifically mobile users? Because they’re even more concerned with load time than desktop users.
A mobile user might find your site in a SERP and click on it…
…and then wait, and wait, and wait for your site to load. Technically while they’re waiting to see something they’re already “on” your site, but they can’t see your great design, your layout, or any of your killer content.
So said visitor hits the back button and clicks on a different website — most namely, one of your competitors’ that loads more quickly.
Page load time is one of (very) many factors in Google’s algorithm, but it’s not Google you have to worry about, in this case. Turns out USERS get quite cranky when websites don’t load quickly enough — which in turn can affect your bottom line.
So, make sure your website loads quickly!
Most clients think URL structure exists on the web development side of things; not the marketing side. While they are part of the website’s overall architecture, URLs are also extremely important for search engine optimization. They show search engines — and, ipso facto, people — how a site’s pages are interrelated, how each content section is organized, etc.
URLs also play a role in a website’s usability —
- URLs show in the search snippet
- Well-written, easy-to-read URLs tell potential visitors what the page is about
- When URLs aren’t well formed, they can turn visitors away/lose the click
- Search engines value a URL with descriptive text (vs numbers, special characters, etc.)
- When 3rd-parties link to yours using your URL, the text in that URL is anchor text
We write optimized URLs that are easy to read while still explaining exactly what’s on that web page and adhering to other best practices:
URL structure is critical information for search engines and users, which is a win-win.
5) Tracking Website Goals
You can be the best SEO marketer on the planet, dot all the I’s, cross all the T’s, and use only the best of practices…
…but what if you aren’t tracking the website’s performance? You might be getting leads, and the bottom line says the site is working, but your efforts will all be based on guesswork. You’ll have no data to see what’s actually bringing legal clients in the door.
In order to be making informed decisions about changes to a website’s content, you need to install analytics code to track all its visitors’ activity. There are two tracking platforms we swear by:
- Google Analytics
- Google Search Console
It’s far better to have too much information from which to choose than not enough; between these two platforms we find that’s definitely the case.
Google Analytics, although free, is a very robust platform. One doesn’t need a degree in IT to set it up, and in most cases it provides more information than most of our clients need. If visitors are doing it on your website, you can track it with Analytics.
But setting up and logging into Analytics isn’t the be-all/end-all of data gathering; you need to ensure goals are being tracked accurately, too — before the website goes live, ideally. The point is, you can’t recover data that’s not been tracked; after a website is optimized, start tracking.
Before a legal website’s even designed we know our client’s main objectives, so we have tracking set up to monitor those goals and can immediately make adjustments as necessary to improve the site’s performance.
Google Search Console
In our estimation, Google Search Console (GSC) isn’t utilized as much as it should be. Most marketers only look at Google Analytics, but we find the information within GSC is extremely beneficial in determining efficacy of the website.
The reason why we rely on GSC to parse data together with Google Analytics is because Google Analytics no longer shows query data in the keyword reports, i.e., the dreaded “not provided”:
Bummer, especially since I mentioned keywords are at the core of content, and content pleases users, and all that.
What you can do instead is turn to Google Search Console for (some of) this information. It doesn’t include all of the data, but it’s a useful guide. Plus, you can see the majority of your website’s impressions in Google, along with which queries are generating clicks.
By looking at the data from both Google Analytics and Search Console data, we can determine keywords and queries that are working well — and most importantly, turning into leads for the law firm.
Search engine optimization should be an important facet of all websites. For all law firms — or any other professional services businesses — looking to acquire leads online, SEO is paramount to success.
In order to properly optimize legal sites to capture ideal leads, we focus on these aspects:
- Optimized content that incorporates keywords the audience understands
- Well-written <title> tags, meta descriptions and Schema markup to make the search snippets as relevant and helpful as possible
- Internal linking strategy coupled with topical backlinks to help boost a site’s credibility
- Good usability, including mobile-friendliness, quick loading and readable URLs
- Analytics data — Google Analytics and Google Search Console to monitor each website’s performance
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind with SEO is that it’s a process; not an event. We’ve been working within the legal field for years, and we put best practices into place, but we’re also continually monitoring and adjusting site elements as needed to enhance performance.
To all of our current — and future — attorney clients: rest assured we use all the tools at our disposal to ensure your website works optimally for you.