The last few years have seen a number of changes for search engine optimization (SEO) where Google is concerned. Google has already made some changes in 2016, including a redesign of the ads on its search pages, and the introduction of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) into the mobile search results. As more people use mobile devices, the focuses of SEO in 2016 will be very similar to last year: (1) The Mobile User Experience, (2) Structured Data and, the always important, (3) High Quality Original Focused Content. Of course, an effective SEO strategy has many other components, but these are the ones that you should prioritize in 2016.
What is SEO?
Search engines help people locate information on the Internet by returning a list of webpages that are relevant to a search query. Some of these search results are advertisements, and require a monetary payment from the website owner to the search engine for each click, user action or impression that the search engine delivers. The remaining results, called organic listings, do not require a payment to the search engine, and are based on how each search engine weighs different quality factors in its algorithm.
SEO focuses on the organic results, and seeks to improve the placement of websites in the organic listings. The ultimate goal is to appear on the first page of the search results, because websites on those pages receive the most clicks. Law firms that implement an effective SEO strategy to promote their content-rich websites can attract substantial increases in visitor traffic and inquiries from potential clients.
This article focuses on Google, the dominant search engine in the U.S. market, because much of what is true for Google also applies to Bing and the other search engines. Depending on the particular search terms entered, Google may display the organic results at the top of the page, underneath the ads, or below the local results.
1. The Mobile User Experience
The biggest change in the last few years has been the great increase in Internet usage by mobile devices. It started with Apple’s iPhone in 2007, and has continued as Google developed Android and other companies developed their own devices. Currently, 30-60 percent of visitors to law firm websites are using a mobile device, such as a phone or tablet, and that number is increasing. To take advantage of this significant audience, your website should be readable on and optimized for mobile devices. Google has started penalizing websites that are not “mobile friendly” in search results displayed on mobile devices. Because this can cost websites a huge amount of traffic, it is essential to optimize your site for mobile devices. The two main ways you can do that are:
Responsive Web Design
Websites that have adopted a responsive design deliver the same HTML webpage to every visitor regardless of whether they are using a desktop computer, tablet or phone. Responsive designs use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) as a simple mechanism for adding visual style (e.g., fonts, colors, spacing) to Web pages. The CSS optimizes how the content is displayed to match the attributes of the device the visitor is using. When executed well, a responsive design will provide an excellent user experience regardless of the type of device on the viewer is using, from a phone to a desktop computer.
Another way to make your website mobile friendly is to serve different HTML depending on the user’s device, either dynamically or by having a different URL for mobile devices (for example, http://m.your-domain.com instead of http://www.your-domain.com).
In general, the responsive design option is a better fit for most law firm websites. Responsive design focuses on the user’s screen size, which is paramount to the user experience. The only instances where a mobile version might be preferable are (1) if the mobile version takes advantage of some extra functionality that is only available on one type of device, or (2) if you do not want the same content going to users on different devices. For example, you might have use different contact forms for mobile devices than for desktop computers
Google has provided a tool and some helpful information about mobile-friendly websites. You can test your Website’s mobile friendliness here.
You should take Google’s mobile-friendly tool very seriously. If your site is failing this test, then you face a serious risk of losing out on much of your mobile traffic potential. Speak with your developer about designing a mobile website as soon as possible. Google has information about designing and developing mobile websites and about responsive designs here.
Google is also now supporting Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which have more limitations in functionality, but which load very fast and can be cached on Google’s own servers. More information about AMPs is included later in this article.
Another factor that Google uses to determine rankings is website performance. Websites that load faster provide a better experience for users, so all else being equal, Google tends to favor faster websites over slower ones. Many factors affect how quickly a webpage loads, including whether the content is static, cached, or being delivered from a database; the number of files and DNS calls that are needed to render a page; and the responsiveness of the server. While you may not have direct control over some of these factors, you may want to consider switching providers or hosts if any one is significantly burdening your website’s performance.
Google provides a tool that assesses your website’s performance and will provide you with some suggestions on how and where to optimize it for speed.
Many suggestions, such as optimizing graphic files or server response time, can be very helpful and should be followed. But be aware that some of the suggestions you get from the tool may contradict current trends in effective website design, such as having style definitions in a separate CSS file from main HTML text. Even the use of Google’s own tools, such as Google Analytics, will give you a lower score.
Note that the score given by the Google page speed tool is not the same as the ranking in Google search results. Google changes its scoring system periodically. But that said, the tool is still useful to help improve the speed of your website for users.
Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP)
Accelerated Mobile Pages are pages with static content that render fast. AMP has three parts: (1) AMP HTML, (2) the AMP JS library and (3) the Google AMP Cache.
AMP HTML is a stripped-down version of HTML that loads fast, but is missing some elements, such as markup for forms. The AMP JS library is made for a fast-loading mobile experience. Google then will actually cache and serve the Webpages from Google’s distributed network, leading to even faster loading times.
As part of Google’s focus on speed and a better user experience, Google has stated its support of the AMP framework, and that it will be rewarding websites that utilize AMP in mobile search results in the near future. Currently, Google is showing websites using AMP in the mobile search results, although no search rankings boost is available yet by using the AMP platform.
AMPs are completely separate files from the pages that are used to render the desktop version of a website
2. Structured Data
You can add structured data markup on your webpage to help search engines better understand the content. We will just focus on the address markup here and point to some online resources for further reading. Structured markup is still in a state of flux, so checking the online resources is important to stay up to date on the latest standards, and what is working for SEO.
The markup language terms that the search engines use are available at schema.org. You can tag content such as your address, business hours, reviews, individual attorneys and more.
Using markup should make it easier for Google to understand what each of the elements of your page is. And although Google is pretty good about doing this without markup, Google has indicated it will start giving more importance to markup in the future.
One instance where we have seen a definite benefit to using markup is with the address markup helping with Google local/map results, particularly in cases where Google was having difficulty determining the address on the website due to a formatting issue.
You could tag your address as follows.
<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/Attorney”>
<span itemprop=”name”>Law Offices of Stanley & Stern</span>
<div itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<span itemprop=”streetAddress”>1380 Pear Ave</span>
<span itemprop=”addressLocality”>Mountain View</span>,
If you are using structured data, do not spam it. Google has taken action against some websites that have abused structured data markup in ways that were not relevant to the content actually on the website.
3. High-Quality Original Focused Content
The necessary component of SEO success for law firms continues to be high-quality, original, focused content. If there is one thing that Google is constantly looking to rank high in its organic results, it is high-quality original content focused on the term the user searched.
Writing content requires an upfront commitment of time and resources. That said, you derive real long-term benefits from writing the content, as once it is written, most material does not need to be updated very often. Investing your time and energy in writing high-quality original, focused content for your website is the most cost-effective strategy for online marketing.
We can divide our discussion of high-quality, original, focused content into its individual components: (A) high-quality content, (B) original content and (C) focused content.
Any content you publish on your website needs to be high quality, so that it reflects well on yourself and your reputation. Search engines also are interested in websites with high-quality content because they want to refer their users to authoritative sources.
Google has focused on identifying and providing higher-quality content with its updates to its search-ranking algorithm, called Panda, which started in 2011.
Panda seeks to prevent low-quality content from ranking highly in Google’s search results. Google filters all content in its index on a periodic basis, so if you have low-quality content that is caught in the Panda filter, even if you improve your content, it may take some time before your ranking improves. Google has stated that it plans to filter continuously in the future, so when it does, your ranking should improve more quickly when you improve your content.
How is quality measured? Search engines evaluate a number of factors to determine the quality of a webpage. Some quantifiable elements of a written page that the search engines can use as proxies for quality include page length, spelling, grammar and keyword density (which is used to detect text spam). Other factors that may be used to measure quality are harder to understand, such as the uniqueness of words used on the page (e.g., using terms not found on other webpages, such as legal terms, increases the probability that the page will not be penalized by the Panda filter).
Search engines favor webpages with substantial content. More content is seen as a signal of higher quality. If you have too few words of content on a particular webpage, that page’s ranking will tend to be low and will get little, if any, referral traffic from the organic search results.
A search-engine-optimized webpage should have at least 500 words of unique content. And while the page might not need 500 words to rank for all search terms, meeting the 500-word threshold will serve you well for all searches on Google at this time.
Some webmasters have seen gains in ranking by writing more than 500 words. Currently writing up to 650 words on a page seems to carry some benefit; however, you will likely not see an increase in a page’s ranking on Google just for writing more than that. Although even longer pages may not lead to a benefit, there is also no deterrent, and certainly you can rank for additional terms that you might add into the extended text. Note, however, that your page is not being rewarded simply because it is longer.
Remember that word count refers to the unique content on the webpage; it does NOT include text that is on every page of the website, such as text in the header, sidebar, or footer. Sometimes you may see an initial jump in rankings for shorter written content on a new or redesigned website, but eventually Google will index all of the pages of the website and distinguish the unique content on each page from that which appears site-wide. The website’s ranking may suffer if the unique content is not long enough.
For these reasons, writing at least 500 words, and ideally 650 words, of original content on each webpage will help your webpage perform better in Google search results.
You also need to check your content for spelling and grammar. This is as easy as opening up Microsoft Word or another word-processing program and running a spelling and grammar check on the content.
Finally, ensure that your content is useful to the reader. If it is just pieced together sentences and paragraphs, it will not rank well. Google does a very good job distinguishing between content that is written to game the SEO system and content that provides real value to the reader, even if some SEO features are included in the content. Write content that you can be proud of – it will help your webpage rank better.
Originality is the second key component when search engines determine quality. Search engines do not want to rank highly two pages with the exact same or substantially similar content. In nearly all cases, the original version of the content will be the one that ranks higher.
You can check the originality of your content by using a service like Copyscape, which matches the text of a webpage against other webpages. We recommend purchasing the Copyscape paid service, which costs 5 cents per search.
Do not worry about duplicate content that is from your header, sidebar or footer of your own website. Google and other search engines will recognize them as part of your site structure and will not hold that against you. Nor should you be concerned if you have a small amount of content that appears elsewhere on the Internet. Your content might include a quote from a state statute or a blog feed; as long as you attribute the content to the original author, it shouldn’t be a problem from an SEO perspective.
However, you need to have at least 500 words of original content in addition to the duplicate content. If you do have duplicate content on your webpage (not including the header, sidebar or footer of the website itself), try to have a 2:1 ratio of original content to duplicate content. For example, if you have a 300-word quote, try to have 600 words of original content (for a total of 900 words on that page). In addition, try to put the original content before the duplicate content on the page. Content that appears higher on a page tends to be given more weight than that which appears further down.
If you have multiple pages on your website with substantially similar content—enough to be considered duplicative—you can address the issue either by rewriting one of the pages, or by using a canonical tag for one of the pages so that Google knows both pages are substantially the same and that Google should only rank one of them. A canonical meta tag is an HTML markup element that specifies the preferred version of a webpage. You can learn more about them here.
Finally, if someone has copied your content, check to see whether you are ranking higher for it. Copy a sentence or two of the content from your webpage and paste it into Google’s search field. If your webpage with that content ranks higher than the other webpage that has it, you are probably fine and the person copying it is likely being punished. If the other webpage is ranked higher, then you can either contact the person who copied it and ask them to remove it, file a DMCA request with Google and the other search engines to have them remove the page that copied yours, or rewrite your content.
If you copied someone else’s content, then write an original page and replace the copied content, for both ethical and SEO reasons.
In addition to writing high-quality, original content, you need to write about the subjects for which you want to rank. For example, if you want to rank for (and thus reach clients in) Chicago, then you should use the word “Chicago” on your webpage (and for larger cities like Chicago, the page itself should be focused on Chicago, as opposed to trying to incorporate an entire region of smaller cities).
For competitive terms, it is important to ensure that the webpage markup is also focused on the term (e.g., the <title> tags and meta descriptions should be properly used.
In general, we recommend that you try to use variations of the key terms on the webpage, but do not over-use the term. If you overuse a term, Google might punish your page for that particular term alone in the search results. We have seen instances where a lawyer has used the same term on a single page in excess of 40 times. Don’t do this; it will definitely not help, and it can potentially be disastrous. Be reasonable in how many times you use a term.
Consider using synonyms and varying the order of the words for key terms. Google associates words with their synonyms, such as “lawyer” and “attorney,” or “car” and “auto.” Going back to our previous example, you might use synonyms and vary the order of the words on your webpage, and thus could have (1) Chicago car accident lawyer, (2) auto accident attorney in Chicago and (3) Chicago lawyer handling car accidents. Google will associate these terms as being the same, and it will often make your page easier for human readers to read and understand.
To succeed in 2016, law firms should continue to focus their efforts on writing high-quality, original, focused content, and their web developers should focus on mobile users and structured data. You can get SEO updates on our blog.
About the Authors
Tim Stanley is the CEO of Justia, an online center for free legal resources and a provider of website, blogging and online marketing solutions for law firms. Dave Kem and Ken Chan are members of Justia’s content services team.