Even the most well built websites won’t deliver results if they can’t be found online by target audiences. This is where search engine optimisation (SEO) can help.
SEO is the process of improving the visibility of your firms’s website in organic or natural search engine results (SERPs) using ‘on-page’ and ‘off-page’ techniques.
SEO is a tried and tested method for you to improve your organisation’s SERPs, leading to increased visitor traffic to your website, and ultimately more enquiries from prospective clients that could lead to instructions.
Generally, the higher your organisation’s site is ranked by search engines, and the more frequently it appears in search results lists, the more search engine users will visit your site. It’s essentially a numbers game, and SEO helps to boost your odds of beating the competition for site visitors.
Why is search engine optimisation relevant to law firms?
Law firms need to recognise how important search engines are in reaching existing, target and prospective clients. More and more people conduct information searches online via search engines, and as such, competing for search engine visibility is a crucial marketing goal.
Often those with marketing responsibilities within legal organisations are tasked with ensuring their organisation’s site appears on the first page of a search result for a particular search term, e.g. ‘solicitor in Leeds’.
The likelihood of achieving page 1 rankings depends a lot on the level of competition for the search terms you are looking to rank for, i.e. how many other websites are also trying to rank for these search terms. It also depends on how well your site has been optimised in terms of both on-page and off-page factors.
How can you make search engine optimisation work for your organisation?
On-page SEO involves working to a set of guidelines to ensure every page on your website is well attuned to the search engines.
Keywords are the foundation of SEO. When people go online to find something, most will begin at a search engine such as Google, Yahoo! or Bing. They enter a search term or phrase that describes what they are looking for, hit ‘search’ and seconds later scan the results –paid for and organic results – to find a page or site they consider relevant.
You need to identify your organisation’s target search terms, and use them to create a list of keywords. There are a number of factors dictating how many keywords to aim for; but essentially there is no right or wrong, If your organisation has multiple office locations and provides a broad range of service lines, you are likely to have more keywords than a smaller organisation focused on a handful of service lines. It also comes down to what is realistically achievable for your organisation and its resources. In theory, the more keywords you have, the more resource you will need to commit for effective SEO.
1.1.1 Keyword research
Keyword research involves mapping the legal services your target audiences are searching for with the services you can offer them.
Here, technology can help you by providing data relating to actual search terms and traffic levels, consequently removing the need to second guess. This data tells you which search terms are used more frequently than others, and provides a measure of the level of competition to rank well for them.
For example, ‘short tail’ search terms tend to be highly competitive because more websites are trying to rank for them. ‘Long tail’ search terms can also be highly sought after, but generally they tend to be less competitive as fewer organisations are competing to rank for them. For example:
|Short tail search term = higher search competition||Long tail search term =relatively less search competition|
|Solicitor in Leeds||Employment law solicitor in Leeds|
|Law firm Guilford||Medical negligence law firm Guilford|
Tools like Google’s Adwords Keyword Tool, WordTracker, SEOGears’s Keyword Finder and other keyword discovery tools are great ways to find new keywords and help to establish the relative relevance and value of keywords, giving an indication of searches used over time and regionally, enabling your organisation to effectively refine its keyword selection.
1.1.2 Assess the competition. What are your competitors doing with keywords? Check their websites and see what keywords they are targeting and ranking for. You will not only find keywords to compete for, but you can get ideas for keywords you haven’t thought of yet.
You can do this by looking at the title tags of relevant pages. The title tag is found at the very top of the window of your internet browser.
You can also look at the main content of relevant site pages, and see if you can notice any phrases that are repeated on the same page; these are likely to be keywords, particularly if they also feature in the page title.
1.2 Using keywords in practice
Once you have compiled your list of keywords, this will form the basis of your on-page SEO efforts.
1.2.1 Using relevant title tags
A title tag is the main text that describes an online document and is one of the most important aspects of content to both search engines and users. Search engines consider the title element of a webpage to be an accurate and concise description of a page’s content. It appears in two main places: in web browsers and in search engine results pages.
Search engines use the title tag as the prominent description in search engine results, so creating a descriptive, keyword-rich title tag is important for increasing rankings in search engines.
Make sure your keyword is found in the HTML title tag of your page. If your keywords are ‘Solicitor in Leeds’, the title for the page might be something like ‘Need a solicitor in Leeds’ or ‘Experienced solicitor in Leeds’, or something which includes the keywords exactly.
In the HTML of your page the title tag should look something like this:
<title>Need a solicitor in Leeds</title>
As title tags are such an important part of search engine optimisation, implementing best practices for title tags makes for low-effort, high-impact SEO.
Here are critical recommendations for optimising title tags:
- Ensure title tag is less than 70 characters. A maximum of 70 characters are displayed in the search results. Anything after this limit isn’t visible to searchers and the search engine will show an ellipsis, “…”, to indicate that a title tag has been cut off. Staying within the 70 characters will allow you to retain control over what is displayed in the SERPs.
- Ensure title tag contains your keywords. It’s important that the title contains the keywords you wish that page to appear for. Remember you should have a unique title for each page. Ensure your keywords come first in your title, as search engines tend to put their emphasis on the first few words. Other elements like your brand name or a date should come last.
- Ensure title tag makes sense. Remember, search engine users are human. The title should be compelling and the user should be able to gain a brief understanding of the benefits of the page or service from the SERP, or they are unlikely to click-through to your site.
1.2.4 URL page addresses
Every single webpage has a unique uniform resource locator, or URL, which can be found in the address bar of the web browser.
For example http://yourwebsite.com/
A URL naming structure is important in SEO as it demonstrates clarity in design and a focus on ease of navigation.
For example, your URL might look like this for the keyword “solicitor in Leeds”:
The URL assigned to each page on a website should be presented clearly and simply and relate to the content on each given page. This helps visitors and search engine ‘bots’ [*GLOSSARY*] carry out their searches, and ensures the page is indexed correctly by search engines.
1.2.5 Header tags (including H1, H2, H3, etc.)
Using header tags to organise your website content can be helpful to both users and search engines as they attribute levels of importance.
The H1 tag is the most important and should be used high on the page to indicate the title of the article or content. By including relevant keywords within the H1 header, you are signifying their importance on the page to search engines and users.
H2, H3, and H4 offer some merit but aren’t required for SEO purposes and as such can simply be used as subtitles to separate out paragraph sections.
The HTML code of your H1 tag of the page would look like this:
<h1>Finding the Best solicitor in Leeds</h1>
On screen it would simply look like a bold heading:
Finding the Best solicitor in Leeds
For users, this makes it possible to scan a webpage quickly, and gauge if the content is relevant to their search.
For search engines, the H1 tag gives you an opportunity to emphasise your keyword for that particular webpage.
1.2.6 Body copy
The main text on the webpage – the body copy – should ideally be two or three paragraphs at a minimum, or roughly 1200 words, and the first sentence should include the keyword for that particular page.
The rest of the page should include the keyword several times, but not so much that it reads unnaturally.
The number of times a keyword is used on a webpage is referred to as Keyword Density. A good keyword density target is around 1-3% in natural prose. There are many online tools that can check keyword density.
It’s a fine balance to achieve. If in doubt, get a second opinion and ask someone to read the copy. If it sounds odd, change it. Remember that the page is intended to be read by your visitors, and you don’t want them to lose interest and click off your site due to difficult and clunky copy.
1.2.7 Meta descriptions
Meta descriptions are short summaries of what can be found on that page.
They are your opportunity to advertise each page’s content to searchers, and to let them know exactly whether the webpage contains the information they are looking for. Meta descriptions can be input and edited on your site’s content management system.
Technically speaking, meta description tags aren’t actually important to search engine rankings, although they are critical in influencing searchers to click through to your site from the search results.
When there is no meta description the search engine will display a snippet from within the page’s text. This can be hit and miss. Unless you want Google to choose how to describe your content for you, it’s good practice to include a meta description.
Here are a few specifics to bear in mind when assessing your site’s meta descriptions:
- Keep meta descriptions short. If your meta description is longer than 150 characters, search engines may omit some of it. Keep the summary brief and loaded with your most relevant and important keywords to give readers a sense of what they’ll find on the page.
- Develop unique meta descriptions. The meta description is essentially like advertising copy. It draws readers to a website from the SERP, so is an extremely important part of your search marketing efforts. Creating a readable, compelling description using important keywords can improve the click-through rate from the SERPS.
They may not be the most important part of SEO, but sitemaps shouldn’t be overlooked. They act as a table of contents for the search engine bots that trawl sites to present the most relevant SERPs.
The sitemap allows the bots to index the entire site from one convenient text-based resource. Search engines can still index your pages without a sitemap, but it’s a sign of a professional site to have one, and it enables search engines to trawl new content more rapidly.
XML sitemaps help search engines sift and sort webpages more efficiently and effectively. An XML sitemap is an .xml file containing a listing of all the pages within a site, and details when they were updated. They are also uploaded into Google Webmaster Tools, so you know which pages are indexed.
Sitemap generators are available online. Once created, an .xml file can upload the sitemap to the root directory of your website (e.g. www. website.com/sitemap.xml). If your website is updated regularly, it also makes sense to update the XML sitemap file at least once a month so search engines always have the freshest data.
2 ‘Off-page’ optimisation
Now your organisation’s site is geared for making the most of SEO through on-page techniques, you need to consider the off-page factors that influence the site’s ability to attract traffic and visitors.
Off-page SEO accounts for more than 50% of the weighting that search engines award to sites. This is in large part due to the psychology of influence, and how inbound links from other, high-traffic sites boost the credibility and status of your organisation’s website.
2.1 Link building
Link building has emerged as a critical part of the optimisation process because search engines place a lot of importance on ‘inbound links’ – these are links to your website from other sites.
For example, if 100 websites include links that point to pages of your organisation’s website, search engines will interpret this as meaning your site is credible and popular, and worth visiting – so it will reward your site with a higher search engine ranking.
That said, not all links are equal. Links from large, established sites (e.g. bbc.co.uk, smartinsights.com) which themselves have a lot of quality inbound links will be weighted more highly than links from sites that have fewer inbound links.
You can take steps to improve the quality and quantity of your site’s inbound links by using a link building strategy:
- Use your keywords. Links appear on webpages as hyperlinked text to another webpage (ideally within your website!). The link text is known as ‘anchor text’. Anchor text is crucial for search engines, as they use it to gauge what is covered on the page that it is linking to. This also applies to internal links which are links on a website to other pages within the same site. For maximum SEO impact, hyperlinks pointing to your site will have anchor text that includes your relevant keyword(s).
- Identify target websites relevant to your target audiences. Think creatively about which websites your target audiences visit. Do some research, log these in a spreadsheet, and keep note of any developments that result. Your aim is to gain inbound links from these sites to your organisation’s site.
- Build relationships, and links will follow. For inbound links to materialise, you need to ‘seed content’ i.e. encourage these target sites to post content from your organisation along with a link to your site. Speak to the person responsible for your target websites, and find out how you can go about getting your content posted. Be open to reciprocating support by, for example, allowing others to guest blog on your organisation’s site, where appropriate.
- Stay focused. Many SEO consultants offer writing and distribution services to help organisations seed content. A word of caution with this approach: a strategy that potentially gets your website featured on high traffic sites such as the BBC, Daily Mail Online and Yahoo! may sound attractive, but if you want to deliver the desired results with limited resources, you should really stay focused on your target audiences and the sites of relevance to them.
- Use news aggregator sites. News release aggregation services such as PR Newswire can help organisations achieve wider coverage for their content. Also consider guest blogging on other sites, especially for media sites which often see high levels of repeat daily traffic.
The importance of search engines for legal service marketing cannot be understated. SEO provides law firms with techniques – on-page and off-page – for improving visibility within search results. It is an ongoing commitment, but one that will contribute positively to competitive advantage as you look to attract more visitors to your website than your competitors do to theirs.