Why Publish a Legal Blog?
Should law firms publish blogs? I believe they should, however, not for the reasons you might expect. Law firms who sign up for Findlaw, or Lexis, ghost writing services are subscribing to an outdated SEO practice predicated on freshness signals, a ranking factor that has become much more nuanced over the last few years. A few years ago, when the online publishing space was a lot less crowded, the idea was to regularly publish content (any content) to create positive freshness signals. Google would then crawl your site more actively and reward frequent updates with better rankings. In those days, many legal blogs weren’t client focused as much as they were search engine focused. Publishing online content was widely viewed as a box you had to check, and still is for many firms, which is why most lawyers don’t see positive ROI from content marketing. The content you see on Findlaw blogs provides a good example of what not to do. The internet has no need for 400 word summaries of stories that appeared in the local newspaper earlier in the week. Nevertheless, you still see firms paying for this type of content.
Lawyers “don’t have time to blog.” That very well may be true, however, it doesn’t mean good money should be thrown away on low quality content that undermines the firm brand. If attorneys at a law firm don’y have time to create content, but would still like to invest in content marketing, it’s important they pay close attention to the quality of what’s being written on their behalf.
Thin, ghost written content that used to rank, or at least send positive signals, has been removed from the top of the SERPs and the trend will only continue. In fact, numerous poor quality or syndicated pages can actually hurt the overall performance of your entire site.
Most Legal Topics Aren’t QDF Searches
While freshness signals are still a ranking factor, they’re one of over 200 Google uses to evaluate a page. Robotically posting low quality news stories and poorly written ghost blogs is a waste of time and won’t help your site from an SEO standpoint. According to Search Engine Watch, Google is taking a more “nuanced” approach to freshness signals:
Heading forward, Google will take a more “nuanced” approach to ranking changes based on “freshness factors.” To accomplish this, Google has launched a change to one of the signals it uses to identify fresh documents. Additionally, Google has modified a classifier to identity and exclude content it decides is “particularly low-quality.
Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, has publicly stated that freshness is primarily a factor for sites, such as newspapers, that cover current events. Some queries require freshness, while others don’t.
While legal blogs do occasionally cover the latest developments in case law, most successful publishers relay black letter law in a format clients can easily digest. Essentially, they assist with research. Much of what is written on a bankruptcy or criminal law blog will maintain validity for a long time. In other words, legal topics typically are not query deserve freshness (“QDF”) searches.
The Reason to Publish a Blog
We’ve established that writing a blog, just for the sake of writing, won’t accomplish much. Having said that, publishing to a law firm blog can be an important source of traffic and new business for a firm as long as it’s done the right way.
What is the “right way”?
Legal blogs that are done right demonstrate expertise. Whether you’re a bankruptcy, whistleblower, class action or divorce attorney, your clients are facing a problem. They usually can’t, or don’t want to, broadcast it to the world. They haven’t heard of you, but they have heard of Google, so that’s where they turn first.
They trust Google.
They search Google for answers, i.e. how will this problem affect me legally? If you’re there with answers to their questions, if you can demonstrate command of the issues, they’re more likely to get in touch to ask for help. Reading your analysis builds trust that can translate into new business.
Freshness signals are nice, but the goal is to demonstrate expertise. That’s what both Google and potential clients are looking for.
How Long Should Blog Posts Be?
How long should an “A” law school exam be? How long should a successful motion be? There is no hard and fast rule to determine the length of a blog post, however, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, the online publishing space is crowded. Whatever topic you address, there are many other articles on the subject. Will your piece stand out? Most law firms make the mistake of “checking the box” with content, and publishing just about anything. Don’t be one of those firms. Content you publish online is visible to colleagues, and potential clients. Make it a representation of your brand. Put the same level of attention behind a piece of content as you would a pleading filed with the court. Next, consider the audience you’re writing for. What questions would they have about the issue you’re discussing? Does your piece effectively address those questions? Is it useful? Could it appear in a credible publication? If you can answer yes to those questions, you’ve created content worthy of publishing. Guess what? You’ve also addressed many of the quality factors that drive Google’s Panda algorithm, so being a good citizen of the web id also strengthening your SEO. Not every piece of content that appears on your blog will be perfect. Far from it. The idea is that you put effort into the content.
If you must have a word count target for each post, I would suggest pieces with a length of at least 1,000 words.
Should I Publish A Blog On My Law Firm Website?
Some commentators believe that publishing a law blog on a law firm site undermines the purity of the blog as an art form. The idea is that a blog is a hub of information and commentary, and adding to that a commercially driven website taints the experience.
In my view, the “purity of blogging” argument overlooks the way most visitors interact with blog content. Blog posts are granular additions to larger, niche conversations. They operate at the micro-level. Blog posts are both published in this way, and consumed in this way.
Readers find blog content via search engines, and through social media campaigns, as landing pages. Their first point of contact, whether it’s a blog on a law firm website, or a blog that is just a blog, is with the individual blog page. The typical blog visitor doesn’t arrive via the home page, they arrive as the result of a long tail query, after asking a question, or performing research. If they see blogginess when they arrive, they’re happy. These types of visitors may never see the firm’s home page, or about page, or services page. They interact with the content they searched for, and judge its quality based on how well it addresses their needs. What matters is that the quality of the blog content is high, and that it’s regularly updated.
Critics of law blogs are quick to point out that ghost town blogs that are never updated, or spam blogs that churn out keyword dribble, are cheesy and unnecessary.
Long Tail Search Traffic
Regardless of where this type of stuff appears, it will fail. However, not all good content achieves visibility in search. As long as Google’s search algorithm is predicated on PageRank, links, both at the domain level, and at the page level matter. Moz compiles a list of the most important search engine ranking factors. The authority of the root domain is still considered one of the strongest indicators of how well a page will perform in search. This means that a strong link profile at the root domain level (links pointing to the home page), can influence rankings for interior pages (even when those pages may have weaker linking signals). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Moz publishes blog content from its community on the Moz.com domain?
Blogs are designed to harness what is known as “long tail search traffic.” Long tail searches usually come in the form of questions, and in the aggregate they can drive far more traffic to a website than more obvious large volume vanity searches. However, as we’ve established above, harnessing long tail traffic is still largely a function of domain authority. Most law firms don’t have the time, budget or expertise to build more than one authoritative site. Housing a law blog on the main site gives published content more credibility in search as the authority of the root domain increases. This is an important point for small businesses like law firms, because many of the valuable links they can and should acquire, are what I call “one bite at the apple” links. For example, let’s say your firm sponsors a local charity. The charity links to your home page. This link passes PageRank and strengthens the authority of your root domain. As the Moz study demonstrates, increased authority for the root domain also increases authority for the blog content you publish to that domain. Yes, you want people to link to and share your blog content. Yes, it will help with visibility in search. But the online publishing space is crowded. Competition is fierce. Links at the page level are important, but so is domain authority. Ideally, you want to publish content from an authoritative domain, that also achieves authority at the page level as it is linked to and shared.
Lawyers who start a blog separate from their primary URL dilute link equity as some links point to the blog, and others to the law firm site. The result is that neither site performs as well as it could were they consolidated. Any marginal SEO value gained by linking your law blog to your law firm website, is outweighed by the benefit of publishing content to an authoritative domain.
Advanced Blogging Tactics
I’m an advocate of housing law firm blogs on law firm websites, in part because doing so allows interior pages to gain traction based on the authority built at the root (homepage) level. However, if you want to see the content you write flourish, you will want to ensure that links flow to actual blog pages as well. Consider Drug Watch, a website devoted to covering issues related to defective drugs and products. According to Open Site Explorer, the Drug Watch homepage has a whopping 237 linking root domains. Those links alone will pass a good deal of authority through to the interior article pages. However, Drug Watch doesn’t stop there. The site has a robust outreach effort that targets universities, non-profits, and other organizations who can link to the site’s content. For example, this hip replacement lawsuit page has more linking root domains (18) than most law firm websites. One word of caution: some of the links Drug Watch has secured to their interior pages do have the look and feel of links that are over-optimized. Many have exact match anchor text reminiscent of an era gone by in the SEO industry. Nevertheless, the principle of outreach is still relevant. In order to promote and grow the authority of blog content, there is nothing wrong with reaching out to other bloggers and journalists who are in a position to link to your work. Doing so will take your blog traffic to new levels. If outreach isn’t your thing, an engaged social media following can be a great way to amplify your content as well.
See also: Link Building Strategies For 2015
In addition to outside links from other sites, it’s also important to build a network of interior links to blog articles as well. Search engines crawl sites through links. Adding internal links is an SEO best practice since it provides users, and search engines with new pathways to your content. For more on internal linking, take a look at this guide from Moz.
Ok, so we’ve laid out the basics, as well as some advanced issues, surrounding legal blogging. Let’s say you’re ready to dive in and start producing great quality content. What platform should you choose? Should you host your own site or use a hosted solution?
As a starting point, we recommend clients use WordPress as a content management system, both for a blog or a firm website (or both). WordPress powers over 20% of the web, and for good reason. The platform is easy to update and is easily customizable. For more on why WordPress is a great solution for a website, take a look at this article. Once you’ve settled on WordPress, there are two basic options: WordPress.com (a blog hosted at WordPress.com) or WordPress.org (using WordPress software on a URL you own and host). Any WordPress.com site will be a subdomain of WordPress.com, and not a domain you own. For example, if JSO were to set up a blog at WordPress.com, the site URL would be jsodigital.wordpress.com. By contrast, WordPress.org, as a self hosted solution, allows you to build a site at a domain you own.
In order to help site owners make a decision between the two options, WordPress put together a helpful chart which can be visited here.
It’s also worth reviewing this guide to WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com.
Although WordPress.org comes with more maintenance responsibility, we recommend this option as it gives site owners greater freedom in customizing and owning their site’s and content.
Blogs can be a great way for law firms to engage an audience, and attract new business. However, creating quality content that people actually want to read is not an easy job. If your firm wants to invest in content, be sure that the quality of what you publish is an accurate representation of your professional expertise. Live up to that standard, and you’ll have success. Stray from it, and you’ll be doing more harm than good.