ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SEO FOR LAW FIRMS

This guide is written by Dan Holt. Dan has been involved in SEO since 2009, since which time he and his agency, Boss Digital:

  • Have managed over 300 SEO campaigns, including many in the legal market
  • Been featured in many of the world’s largest SEO blogs and magazines, including Moz, HubSpot and Search Engine Journal
  • Dan also runs a weekly podcast on BossToBoss.org, where he interviews the world’s leading sales and marketing experts, including many from the legal industry, on a variety of topics from content marketing to social media. And of course, SEO.
Dan Holt
Dan Holt – Managing Director

Why is SEO important in the legal sector?

The legal market is a mix of B2B and consumer products and services. Some cost a few hundred pounds, others starting in the millions. If there is one theme that ties these variables together it’s that buyers need to feel like they have thoroughly researched.

And more often than not, that research process will involve (and often start with) a search into Google.

To be clear, that is not to suggest that the enquiry will directly follow such a search query. In fact, this is one of the most important things to understand about SEO in the legal industry – it’s as much about the research phase as it is about the conversion phase. We refer to this as “top of funnel” content marketing.

The reason this is so important is that when an enquiry is made, there have usually been 5-10 touch points already established between the brand and the buyer. So while it may not appear to have originated from a search query (Google analytics may instead track it as a direct visit or from some other source, such as social), SEO may nevertheless have played a critical role in the journey. On the other hand, if they only find you in their final “bottom of funnel” search query, they’re unlikely to have the trust required in your brand and will enquire instead with one of the 3 other brands they have open on separate tabs.

Step 1 - The Site Architecture 

As with anything in life, the potential of any SEO campaign is largely dictated by the foundations you first establish. For example:

  • The domain – for the vast majority of law firms, the domain will have been in existence for decades and will simply reflect the brand. However, for newer law firms, this can be an important consideration, so here are a few key pointers:
    • Prioritise brand – whilst the inclusion of keywords within a domain do help significantly (so personalinjury.co.uk will have a huge advantage for related keywords), there are three big limitations of such domains. For a start, they are not inherently very brandable as by definition the words they contain are highly generic. Secondly, they restrict your brand to a narrow service line, which may be absolutely fine for some firms but be a real barrier for others. And thirdly, most of the keyword rich domains that are of suitable length (more on that in a moment) have long since been snapped up, so you’re more likely to end up with something like personal-injury-london-lawyers-online.info, which sounds absolutely awful and Google is unlikely to trust it any more than the average customer!
    • Keep it short – like the brands they are representing, the domain should be easy to remember and a doddle to type into the address bar. If your firm is Smith, Johnson & Peacock, SJP.co.uk is almost certainly preferable to smithjohnsonandpeacock.co.uk. However, keep in mind that your domain is a very strong manifestation of your brand, and therefore in time you may find the parent brand itself becomes SJP (probably not a bad thing if you ask me, but certainly something to be mindful of!).
    • If at all possible, use a .uk, co.uk or .com – there are markets where .orgs or .nets are fine, but law probably isn’t one of them.
    • Hyphens are fine – if you have the choice between a hyphenated and non-hyphenated domain, you should probably choose the non-hyphenated version, but if the hyphenated one is all that’s available, I certainly wouldn’t consider that a problem. In fact often the hyphen can aid legibility!

 

  • The main navigation – much in the same way that the domain should prioritise brand, the SEO considerations of the navigation need to be secondary to those of the user experience. It can help to think of the main navigation as akin to the experience of a driver’s seat in a car. It doesn’t matter whether you’re sitting in a brand new Phantom or a 25 year old Fiat Uno, you know where to find the steering wheel, pedals and indicators, and any departure from this predictability would quite literally turn the UX into an absolute car crash. Well the ramifications on a website may not be quite so profound for the user, but they can still be fatal for the business. In other words, it’s absolutely critical that whenever any user lands on your firm’s website, they can immediately locate the service pages, sector pages, case studies and contact form. These should be the absolute backbone of the main navigation and completely shielded from any redesign. Furthermore, we should be careful about adding too many alternative links or sub links under these categories, as with each that we add the prominence of those already present is diluted. With some nice styling you may be able to introduce a large drop down menu of 10-15 sub categories, but you are in dangerous territory from a UX perspective.
  • Secondary landing pages – the problem with limiting the number of links on the main navigation of course, is that from an SEO point of view this may reduce your keyword targeting to a fraction of what it could be. This is why so often we introduce secondary landing pages. These are pages that, while not accessible via the main navigation, are still present on the site and linked up from a number of relevant other pages. Whether or not the links are prominent or discrete is again a question of UX. For example, on your “Corporate law” page you may well see merit in highlighting the half dozen sectors in which you specialise, but you may not see much value in highlighting the geographical regions in which you work. However, the latter could be extremely important for SEO purposes (very often people will search for services within their locality) so you will have them on the site, but the links pointing to them will just be kept intentionally discrete, usually from long form body copy.

Step 2 -Maximising the Overlap Between Your Content and the User's Search Intent

When someone search for “immigration solicitors London” or “family law firm”, they have a certain set of expectations and hopes in their mind:

  • Perhaps they’re hoping to find detailed information about your service
  • Perhaps they want to see pricing details
  • Perhaps they want to know where you’re located and whether they can come and visit your firm in person
  • Perhaps they are on the lookout for case studies and testimonials from people just like them
  • Perhaps they want to see information about the solicitor that they will be working with

In simple terms, the more of these expectations that the page in question can satisfy, the greater the chance that it will perform well in the search engines. After all, all Google is trying to do is provide the best content for any given search query, and a big part of determining the “best” is relevance.

The challenge this can of course present is one of navigation and digestibility. A page that caters to every user intent is inevitably going to be pretty massive, so how do you structure and prioritise that information so that it still provides a reasonable UX?

There are a few measures you can take:

  • The first is to ensure the most important information, including prominent calls to action, are placed near the top of the page.
  • Secondly, you should make use of javascript, employing dropdown and other hidden content areas throughout the page, so that the content only appears when the user clicks on the link in question. This is a little like signposting the user to other pages, but with the significant SEO advantage of containing all the information to one URL, and the significant UX advantage of immediate loading.
  • Finally, it’s about creating a clear visual hierarchy, with the more important messages throughout the page nicely highlighted.

Best Practice

Hill Dickinson are an international leading law firm who maximise the overlap between their content and the users search intent. Their site ranks very well with queries related to their speciality in commercial advisory law. Hill Dickinson has a great depth of landing page availability, with multiple areas of expertise. However, within each landing page the user experience is well balanced, whilst still accommodating all the potential information a client is searching for.

Each landing page has catered sub-sections of information, all hidden by javascript, but indexed by Google for SEO purposes. It means that their page still feels easily navigable, whilst containing thousands upon thousands of words for Google to index and verify it is the most relevant page for your given search query. As an example, each landing page subsection contains catered contacts, FAQ’s, news, case studies, etc. and within each landing page there are multiple subsections. The reward for balancing their users’ search intent is a great SEO strategy with fantastic rankings.

Step 3 - On-Page Optimisation

Our next step is to perform the basic on-page optimisation. This is the stuff that hasn’t changed (much) in 20 years:

  • Title tags – these are the first thing that Google crawls and super important for directing your authority to certain priority phrases. You should contain to around 70 characters, which typically allows you to include a couple of terms plus the brand, such as “IP solicitors and Technology lawyers | Webster & Jones LLP”. If it cuts the end off that’s not a problem – it’s the keywords at the front of the title tag that we really care about.
  • URLs – URLs are important for two reasons. First of all, they help Google to understand the content of the page, but secondly they also build relevance via anchor text from internal and external links, as more often than not people use URLs for anchor text.
  • Headers – headers are perhaps one element of on-page optimisation that has changed a little over time. In the past, we would have prioritised keywords within headers, but now we almost always lead with brand messaging that aids the user experience. That said, if the user intent aligns with the keywords in question, there’s a good chance that integrating keywords within headers and sub headers (h1s, h2s, h3s, etc) will actually be a good thing for both the search engines and the user!
  • Alt tags – these are really important, and a great way to boost the keyword relevance without impacting the user experience. Every image should contain at least some target keywords or synonyms of keywords.
  • Body copy – the days of obsessing over keyword densities are thankfully long gone, but that’s not to say that we shouldn’t run some little checks to ensure the priority terms and variations of those terms aren’t nicely scattered through the copy. As with headers, this should theoretically aid the user as well, just as long as you don’t find yourself shoe-horning them into every sentence in an utterly unnatural way. For example, the sentence “we’re an experienced firm of IP solicitors based in London” is absolutely fine, whereas “if you’re looking for IP solicitors London, look no further” sounds spammy and unnatural, even though the latter is more likely to mirror a search query.

Step 4 - Technical Optimisation

There’s a lot to consider from a technical point of view, but this cannot be overlooked, particularly given that most of it directly impacts the user experience as well as search engine performance.

We can break down the technical optimisation of a legal website into the following categories:

  • Website speed – people like their websites to load quickly, and therefore so does Google. This has become all the more important since users have shifted their habits from desktop to mobile, where slow connections twinned with poorly loading websites can result in users having to wait 10-20 seconds for a page to appear, by which point they’ve most likely given up and moved onto the next website. There are several factors that contribute to a website’s load speed:
    • The coding – one of the biggest complaints made against website templates is that they often come with all manner of unnecessary plug-ins and widgets that do little but slow down the load time. Poor coding can also add to the problem. By removing spaces, commas, comments, formatting and unused code, you can dramatically increase your page speed.
    • High-res imagery – of course you want your imagery to look crisp and beautiful, but there’s a balance here to be struck between the quality of the imagery and it’s load time. Beyond a certain point, the user will see no difference for the added resolution, so all you are doing is slowing the page down, and if your page is large (which for landing pages it mostly likely is for the reasons laid out in step 2) then you’re going to have a real problem.
    • Your server response time – poor hosting, slow database queries and lack of memory are among a number of issues that can cause delayed server response time. Clearing these issues up could have a transformative effect on your page load speed.

Step 5 -Building Authority

Just because Google understands what your pages should rank for and that your website offers a great experience for users, doesn’t mean that it should be number one in the rankings. After all, there may be another 50 law firms all doing a great job for the queries in question. We therefore need to demonstrate to Google that there is something special about this brand that means it’s more trustworthy and more likely to result in happy customers, not merely at the point of search, but throughout their journey with your firm.

This is one of the most hotly contested areas of SEO, but some of the signals that every experienced SEO expert will tell you play a big role include:

  • Inbound links – if you imagine the search engine results for the legal market as a big popularity contest, every time one website links to another it’s treated as a vote of confidence for that law firm. However, this only applies to the first link from the domain in question. So for example, if the https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/ linked to your law firm’s website 5 times, it’s only really the first that would pass the authority. However, the other 4 may help build some relevance for a broader range of keywords. This process is what we call “link solicitation” and it’s an industry in its own right. The key is to ensure the link are legitimate and from relevant websites. Some of the most scalable forms of attracting these links include PR, content marketing and blogger outreach. However, the single most effective of all is simply building a great brand that organically attracts links as a consequence of the brilliant work you are doing.
  • Direct traffic – this is a more simple one. If 20,000 people every month search for your law firm, or even better search for your law firm + keywords, it stands to reason that it’s probably a trusted result, particular for the search query relating to those keywords. Google is therefore likely to give it high priority when people make entirely generic search queries.
  • Website engagement – another strong indicator to Google about the credibility of any law firm is the way that users engage with the website. For example, if 80% of users bounce off the site within 20 seconds, that’s probably not a very good sign, and the site is therefore less likely to rank for similar terms in the future. There is some speculation over the exact signals Google uses for this engagement as not every legal website has Google Analytics installed, so it may instead be a simple calculation of “dwell time” – the amount of time a user spends on a website before reappearing back in the search engines.
  • Social media – there is no definitive evidence that a strong Facebook page or LinkedIn community improves rankings, but it is reasonable to assume that Google uses the activity on these platforms that it can scrape and process as some level of indication as to the trustworthiness of the brand in question. Of course which social channels matter is going to be largely determined by the specific areas of law in which you specialise. A firm working in a consumer market like wills or divorce law, is far more likely to be active on Facebook than once specialising in IP or corporate law. The best way to think about it is to put yourself in the shoes of a Google engineer and ask the question- “What would I think is important in this market for this audience”. Then focus on doing that thing. Improved rankings may just be a nice side effect!

Best Practice

Law firm Irwin Mitchell is a great example of a firm that has established expertise and authority in the SEO field. They regularly rank highly on search engines for any of their areas of expertise. Irwin Mitchell’s web traffic, engagement, and social media are all established, with thousands upon thousands of links to and from thought leading individuals, blogs, journals, and magazines throughout their site.

Trust is integral to Google’s SEO algorithm, and Irwin Mitchell understands this the best. Whilst only a national UK law firm, they can compete with the biggest international law firms on SEO strategy. Their thought leadership content builds inbound links, their website draws and engages users answering any and all questions, and finally, their social media is active and relevant. Irwin Mitchell is a great example of a law firm who has capitalised on building authority on Google to complement their SEO strategy.

Step 6 - Building Your Brand

SEO was once a dark and mysterious world, where fortunes were built and lost through aggressive link solicitation, often on a massive scale, and manipulative on-page techniques. Those days, for most markets at least, and certainly for one as conservative as legal, are long gone. Now there is just one question that needs to be asked for the long term success of your firm’s SEO, and that’s – what are you doing to build your brand?

Whether Google tracks this in terms of links acquired, engagement stats, direct traffic or any other “brand signal”, is a subject of debate and one that will never truly be answered. What’s more, the signals that matter greatly today may not feature on Google’s radar tomorrow, as the online space landscape, and with it Google’s algorithms, continue to evolve.

However, if you focus on doing real things that impact and improve the experience of all stakeholders, whilst simultaneously expanding the number of those stakeholders, it is only a matter of time before Google recognises these efforts with the rankings they deserve. And that’s why I often say that the last but perhaps most important rule of SEO, is to forget all about SEO.

If you would like to find out anymore about your SEO strategy, please contact us here for a free consultation!

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