Law firms and SEO: tips for getting started

If your law firm has never invested in SEO, or if you’re starting over after a penalty, implementing an SEO strategy can seem daunting. There are numerous on and off site issues to consider, software choices, design options etc. In my experience, the best course is to build a strong foundation with fundamentals, and go from there. Walk before you run. Good SEO is data driven. Don’t hire an agency without some basic understanding of how they will report ROI. Understanding ROI begins with analytics, and that’s where we’ll begin as well.

See also: SEO strategies that will still work in 2014

Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools

If you’re using WordPress as a content management system, adding analytics tracking code to your site is relatively easy. Using a plugin like Google Analytics for WordPress by Yoast, will push tracking code to all pages of your site. If you’re not using WordPress, a developer can add the tracking code for you. The point is to make sure you have access to data about how your site is performing. Be sure to set up clear goals and monitor success based on how often they’re met. For most law firms we work with, there are three goals we target: phone calls, contact form submissions, and live chat leads.

For information on how to set up goal tracking in Google analytics, see: how can I tell if my SEO campaign is working?

See also: getting started with Google Analytics

In addition to setting up analytics, you’ll also want to verify your Webmaster Tools account. Through Webmaster Tools, Google gives site owners data about how they see a site. For example, manual link spam warnings are sent to site owners through Webmaster Tools. If your account hasn’t been verified, you may have been penalized and not know it. Other information contained in Webmaster Tools includes:

  • Crawl stats (information about which pages on your site are crawled by Google)
  • Malware notices (has your site been hacked)
  • Click through rates, and average rank, for different keywords

With the ability to track data in place, we move on to software decisions that will be “SEO friendly.”

WordPress Makes HTML Field Driven

The foundation of good SEO is rooted in HTML. Google bot parses HTML looking for contextual clues about the topic of a page such as: which content on the page is most important, subject matter, where the business associated with the page is located, etc. Regardless of the programming language the back end of a site is written in, the front end pages we see online are structured by HTML and CSS. Building a site that requires lots of manual coding changes can slow down your SEO campaign. For this reason, one of the most important steps law firms can take at the outset of a new SEO campaign is to make smart decisions with software. We recommend most of our clients build their websites on WordPress. Twenty percent of the web uses WordPress, and the popular CMS is considered “SEO friendly” because it makes HTML changes field driven.

For example, like many agencies, we use Yoast’s WordPress for SEO plugin. This plugin, as well as many out of the box themes, allow users to type an “SEO title” into a field in their post dashboard. This automatically updates the HTML <title> element without the user touching a single line of code. The HTML title element is the blue title you see in Google search results. Writing accurate titles is one of the most basic things you can do to give your SEO a boost. It’s amazing how often you’ll see law firm sites that fail to address page titles.

For a more advanced example, let’s consider meta tags, such as noindex, and rel=prev, rel=next. There are certain types of “low quality” pages that site owners should discourage search engines from indexing. I recently reviewed an ecommerce site that used Shopify as a CMS. Each blog post had been heavily tagged. The site owner didn’t realize that each tag created an archive page that listed each article that shared the tag. The result was hundreds of tag pages making their way into Google’s index. The tag pages contained duplicate content that also appeared on main article, and other tag pages.

Where multiple articles appeared under a tag, Google also indexed tag archive pages. Under Google’s Panda update, sites can be comprehensively downgraded for housing too many duplicate and low quality pages. According to Googlers, the algorithm is looking for examples of duplicate content that are intended to trick search engines into crediting the wrong page for housing content. However, even if this isn’t your intention (as in the case of archive pages) it’s better to play it safe and get these pages out of the index. Most SEO’s recommend tag pages and paginated series’ be noindexed. With WordPress, scaling this process is as easy as checking a box. Once Yoast SEO is installed, site owners can visit the “General” tab underneath the “Titles and Metas” section, to noindex all pages in a paginated series. Yoast’s plugin will also add rel=prev, and rel=next tags that tell Google they’re dealing with pages in a series.

noindex paginated series

To noindex tag pages, and other breeds of low quality pages, scroll to the “Taxonomies” tab under “Titles and Metas.” From here, you can once again check a box to add HTML code to your tag pages that will prevent search engines from including them in the index.

noindex tags wordpress

 To illustrate my point about WordPress making HTML field driven, the effect of checking the “noindex, follow” box is to add code like this to all of your tag pages:

<META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX, FOLLOW”>

This is an easy example of why WordPress is considered SEO friendly. It allows law firms to implement SEO best practices without direct knowledge of coding.

Site Architecture and User Experience

To this point, we’ve covered why we recommend most clients use WordPress as a CMS, and how that decision helps to build a strong SEO foundation. Next, we’ll transition from the “back stage” issue of HTML, and move on to one of the most important front end issues of planning a good SEO campaign: site architecture. I’ve written extensively on the subject here, but the lessons of that post are worth repeating. SEO is a comprehensive discipline that transcends links, and keywords. The design, layout, and formatting of a site impact its performance in search.

Ideally, an SEO is involved with the design of your site. The goal is to create a clear hierarchy of pages which makes your best content easily accessible to both search engines and users. Search engines crawl between sites via links, but there is no guarantee they will access every last corner of your site. Don’t assume search engines will automatically index your content. Google just published a fairly technical blog post detailing best practices for infinite scroll and faceted navigation web pages. The piece gives advice for site owners to make sure that Google can access their content. If you don’t have infinite scroll or faceted navigation on your site, the macro takeaway is still the same: pay attention to how your site is laid out so it’s easy for Google to access your content.

With the help of an SEO, each page of the core site should be laid out in a sitemap before the site is coded. Important pages should be linked to from the homepage. Time should be spent anticipating the needs of users, and how best to provide them with the information they’re looking for. In many industries, simply writing down good answers to client’s most frequently asked questions can be the beginning of a content strategy. Plan your core pages, plan a hierarchy of pages, and plan the design around making those pages easily accessible for users and search engines.

 If You Follow These Steps…

If you follow the suggestions I’ve made here, you’ll have a good foundation to begin the hard work of actually marketing your law firm online. You will have access to good data to understand how your site is performing, and how Google views your site. Your on-site HTML will be sound which will send the right contextual signals to search engines. You will have a clean site layout that delights your visitors. From there, it’s up to you to build on that foundation with great content, and outreach.

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