This is a guest post by Janet Ellen Raasch.
Search engines will determine the success of a law-firm website by deciding how many clients and potential clients are referred to the site. The latest update from Google punished content aggregators, and rewarded sites that publish original content.
Law-firm marketers have focused on keyword and link strategies to enhance search engine results and increase traffic to their websites. While these are still valuable tools, recent developments in the search universe have shifted the emphasis to content strategy.
Quality content includes well-written articles, blog posts, videos, webcasts, presentation slide decks, infographics, eBooks and white papers. Quality content addresses client needs.
Online searchers use Google 67% of the time to find what they are looking for. To provide the best results, Google is constantly tweaking its search algorithm. (An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be used by a computer in calculations or other problem-solving operations.) These algorithms are designed to maintain search engine integrity and punish violators.
Sara Downey Robinson and Chris Davis discussed the changing landscape of digital marketing and search engine optimization at the monthly meeting of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, held recently in Denver.
Davis is business development director at Burns Marketing, a full-service B2B marketing agency that combines traditional and digital marketing to help clients drive demand. Robinson is marketing coordinator at Inflow, a top inbound-marketing firm specializing in search.
Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird
Panda and Penguin are two major changes to the existing Google algorithm made in 2011 and 2012, respectively. In 2013, Google released a totally new algorithm called Hummingbird (which incorporates and enhances the updates made by Panda and Penguin). These three developments have completely changed the way law firms must look at search.
“Law-firm sites that regularly showed up on page One now find themselves on page 20,” said Robinson. “Because searchers rarely go beyond the second page of results in an online search, this is a real problem.”
FindLaw websites were crushed by Panda 4, according to Mockingbird Marketing. "Traffic levels plummeted to levels lower than they've seen in many years," according to author Conrad Saam. "Findlaw was 'good' at creating a lotof content, most of it junk, that it could repackage and sell across websites and markets." Meanwhile competing directory Avvo jumped buy 210% in search results.
Google Panda focuses on keywords. Sites with keyword “stuffing” are demoted or flagged as spam. Panda also penalizes low-quality content, thin content, duplicate content and the amount of advertising compared with the amount of useful content on a site.
On May 20 many websites found themselves wiped off page One of search results when Google began rolling out its Panda 4.0 update designed to downgrade sites that aggregate content from other websites. Sites that publish unique, relevant content were mostly unscathed.
Interestingly, the update clobbered press release sites, eBay, coupon sites and sleazy celebrity new sites.
Google Penguin focuses on links. It downgrades sites using “black hat” tactics like links that come from poor-quality sites, from sites that aren't topically relevant to a target market, paid links, and links where the anchor text is overly optimized (exact-match anchor text). Use natural language in your links, and vary it.
“Quality inbound links are not found at garage sales, “said Robinson. “Steer clear of link farms. A few high-quality, carefully developed links perform much better than a large number of weak, irrelevant links. It takes time and perhaps a dedicated staff person to develop and nurture quality links.”
Google Hummingbird looks for a steady stream of high-quality, relevant content and natural language on webpages – and rewards those who provide it. Hummingbird attempts to decipher a search engine query by using the context of a question rather than the specific keywords within the question. Thin content, keyword stuffing and lack of relevant content will cause significant demotions.
“Content marketing is a technique that creates and distributes valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience,” said Davis, “with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Identify client personas and clarify their needs
Before a law firm can create relevant content, it needs to know with whom it is communicating. In marketing talk, this is called the “user persona” – or target market.
“In user-centered design and marketing, personas are user types that might use a legal service in a similar way,” said Davis. “A small law firm might target one user persona. A large law firm will target numerous user personas.”
One user persona might be high-income individuals going through divorce. Another might be small businesses in need of venture capital. Another might be large medical equipment manufacturers facing product liability lawsuits. The more specific the persona, the more specific a law firm's content can be. Relevant content will answer the questions these users are asking, using natural language.
A user personal is a representation of the goals and behavior of a hypothesized group of users. In most cases, personas are synthesized from data collected from user interviews.
“An effective law firm website will focus not on the firm's capabilities, but on the identified needs of a persona or personas,” said Davis. “It will use industry- or interest-specific terminology within a context familiar to the targeted persona.”
Create relevant content
Law firms that want to prevent or correct loss of search engine result page rankings and traffic should publish meaningful, original content on a regular basis. The goal is content that will establish a firm, practice group or lawyer as a though leader in an area relevant to a user persona.
“Take the time to discover the common questions your clients have, and provide the answers to these questions,” said Davis. “Relevant content can be written, but it also can and should be visual. Video content posted on YouTube (which is owned by Google) is particularly powerful as ‘Google juice.'”
Instead of using keywords like “car accident,” use more specific terms like “car accident lawsuit” or “car accident insurance”, or better yet natural language terms like “What should I do if I am sued for a DUI car accident?” or “What should I look for when buying car insurance for an older vehicle?” Think in terms of full-fledged questions that a person might ask Siri on a smartphone.
Once search brings users to a law firm's site, there must be a way to create and nurture a relationship and convert the potential client into a real client over time. Each item of posted content should contain a call to action – some way for the user to interact with the site so that the firm can capture data. This could be a way to comment on a white paper or download information about an upcoming event.
Use analytics to measure success
“Take advantage of Google Analytics to collect data that can be used to improve the quality of your webpages – adding more of what works and eliminating what does not,” said Robinson. “In Google Analytics, which is currently free, law firms can set up specific goals to study how users are entering and interacting with your website.”
Google Analytics lets a law firm know which content is most-viewed and acted upon, so that similar content can be added. It lets the firm know which content is ignored, so that it can be eliminated or improves. It lets a firm know the exact path users take through its site, so that adjustments can be made to create a better user experience.
If observation and analytics show that a law firm website is not getting the results it wants, an audit can help determine the source of the problem, take steps to fix the problem, measure the results of these steps, and look for any others areas that could be improved.
“Increasing inbound traffic to your website is not magic – it is a combination of art and science,” said Robinson. “You should select any agency that makes you feel comfortable and uses language that is easy to understand. You should never feel intimidated.
“At the same time, do not expect miracles,” said Robinson. “Go into the process with reasonable expectations. It takes time to make changes, add quality content and wait for the search engines to find and reward this content. Each day, more than one million pieces of new content are posted to the Internet. It takes time to rise above the fray.”
A law firm that has experienced worsening search engine results in the wake of Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird can take positive steps to restore performance. Google will continue to reward webpages with strong content marketing efforts, including answer-driven content. It also rewards sites that generate social media buzz – especially an active presence on its proprietary YouTube and Google+ platforms.
Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer, ghostwriter, copyeditor and blogger at Constant Content Blog who works closely with professional services providers – especially lawyers, law firms, legal consultants and legal organizations – to help them achieve name recognition and new business through publication of newsworthy and keyword-rich content for the web and social media sites as well as articles and books for print. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or firstname.lastname@example.org.