The lawyers’ guide to ranking in local search results

When lawyers talk about “SEO,” they’re usually referring to ranking for local Google searches. Although ranking for these searches isn’t always the best way to make the phones ring, that’s where we see the most focus in the legal community. What constitutes a local search? In the “Los Angeles personal injury lawyer” search below, the local results appear just below a slew of paid ads as map listings. Why do certain websites rank for these coveted searches, while others don’t? Is it worth investing your firm’s time and money in local SEO?

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First some background

Local map results and “traditional” organic results were once governed by separate algorithms. However, through an algorithm update called Venice, Google localized most search results. Once uniform organic searches, changed based on the location of the searcher. Conversely, local searches that were once unaffected by link signals, became influenced by traditional organic ranking factors. Today, local search rankings are determined by a mixture of location based and link based signals.

For more information see, what is the difference between local SEO and traditional SEO?

The two faces of the local search conversion funnel

Local search has two primary components: initial discovery and brand research. Both have potential value for law firms.

“Discovery” searches are usually looking for a specific type of practitioner within a local area. As with the Los Angeles search above, the user expects to see a number of options. In these cases, the local search results are used as a starting point for researching different firms.

By contrast, brand research  involves reviewing the experiences a community has had with a business as documented on local search websites (Yelp, Google, CitySearch and many others). To continue with the personal injury example, the user visits a number of law firm websites, and zeroes in on one that they like. They Google the law firm to read what others have said about their experiences. Retail firms are often most concerned with the discovery phase of local search, but law firms of all sizes should pay attention to the reputation management side of branded search just as much. Before a client of any size or stripe hires you, they will Google you. What they find can decide whether they decide to hire you.

Ranking for discovery searches – prove you’re local

Why do certain law firms rank in local search results? Why does Google assign more significance to your competitor than to your business? How do you get to the “top” of the map?

By proving you’re local.

Forget for a moment about link and location signals. Forget about Venice. Local SEO is about trust. It is the art of proving to a search engine that you are where you say you are, that others in your community have done business with you, and that you can be reliably reached at the name, address, and phone number you present to the community. Trust can be earned through links (perhaps a local government website is linking to you), reviews (numerous clients write reviews on your Google plus and Yelp pages every week), or by good, consistent data populated across the internet (which we’ll get to in a minute).

Think for a moment about what a link from a local government website says to Google about your law firm. It says:

  • you are located in the same neck of the woods as the local government
  • your website is trusted by a respected local organization

If respected local organizations trust you enough to link to your law firm, Google is much more likely to rank your law firm.

Just as you want to serve your customers, Google wants to make their users happy. Theoretically, if a business appears in local search results, it’s because Google has verified from other sources that the listed business information is accurate. Google doesn’t want to send its users to a closed business, or a business that’s moved, or that lists an incorrect phone number. As a result, they corroborate information a business owner fills out in their Google local profile before including that business in search results. They do this by crawling the web looking for information about the business.

All mentions of the business, from reviews, to citations (directory listings), to links (especially local links), to on-page content are evaluated. To the extent the information contained in the file is consistent, the business has a better chance of appearing in local searches. Inconsistent information is a red flag as it could hurt the overall experience for Google users. Businesses with conflicting information online are therefore demoted, tending not to rank as well.

In summary, local SEO is the practice of creating signals of trust around a location or series of locations. If your business name, address, and phone number are listed consistently across multiple, trusted sources on the internet, Google is more likely to advance your law firm’s listing in local rankings.

The important thing to understand is where Google gets its business data from, and what sources of information it sees as particularly trustworthy.

The local search eco-system

Due to the fact that Google is the dominant force in search, many have a hard time believing it gets local data from outside sources. But it does. One needn’t look further than Google’s own legal notices to understand the sources it uses to get local business and map information. Quoting the legal notices for Google Maps/Earth:

5.2 Google Local Business Listings in the United States

When you search for local listings, Google displays business listings which may be supplied by Acxiom Corporation and/or infoUSA Inc. (“Axciom” and/or “infoUSA”). This information is proprietary to those corporations and is protected under U.S. copyright law and international treaty provisions. This information is licensed for your personal or professional use and may not be resold or provided to others…

As you can see from the quote above, Axciom and InfoUSA are data aggregators that supply much of the web, including Google, with information about local businesses. Inaccurate information with these providers a big problem if you want your law firm website to rank. Let’s say you moved offices a year ago, but the new office address wasn’t updated with Axciom or InfoUSA. Through a process known as conflation, information about your new location has leaked on to the internet alongside the old office information. This causes duplicate information across the entire local eco-system. Google crawls the eco-system, sees the old and new office information, and can’t decide where your firm is located. The name, address, and phone number information is conflicting. They fear giving a Google user a bad listing, so they don’t give them your listing at all. They can’t corroborate you are where you say you are.

For a depiction of the data flow within the local search eco-system, take a look at the chart below courtesy of Moz:

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In order to give Google the best chance of corroborating the local information you present to the world as trustworthy, it is important to organize your law firm’s data at the source, which in the case of the local eco-system are four providers: InfoGroup, Axciom, Localeze, and Factual. It is these “feeder” websites that supply the rest of the directories you see on the web with data. If information about your firm is incorrect here, it will flow downstream to supporting directories and be wrong there as well. Therefore the first step in any local SEO campaign is almost always to claim and organize feeder listings.

Dealing with duplicate listings – a highway with no lanes

Local data doesn’t stay in neat, painted lanes. Data infiltrates the local search ec0-system from a host of sources, including the IRS. Yes, the IRS. Consider this article by Andrew Shotland: Why Duplicate Business Listings Are Like The Walking Dead. In the article, Andrew discussed two important concepts for local SEO: matching algorithms and conflation. I’ll address each below.

Matching Algorithms

Large publishers receive data from a diverse range of sources. They use matching algorithms to attempt to consolidate information around a single business listing, but are very often unsuccessful. This creates duplicates, that can really only be dealt with manually. To quote Andrew:

Each source has its own data hygiene issues. InfoGroup may have three separate listings for a business with different phone numbers and addresses. The IRS might have two slightly different business names for the same business. Publishers use a Matching algorithm to try to merge this data, but across a few billion records, inevitably Skynet Local misses a lot of these issues, which often leads to an SEO extinction event.

Conflation

To deal with the inherent issues associated with piecing together data from a myriad of different sources, publishers try to rank the authority of data sources. This process id called conflation. Back to the Shotland article:

For example, a user-submitted phone number might not be as trusted as a phone number submitted by the IRS. The conflation process leads to a business record where each piece of data may be from a different source (e.g., the business name is from the IRS, the address from InfoGroup, the phone number from web crawling, etc.).

Success in local search requires constantly pulling weeds

As we’ve established, data is constantly fed to many directory sites through providers like Axciom, Localeze, and InfoGroup. However, Andrew’s article shows that the process doesn’t stop there. Web crawlers, manual submissions, and government agencies are all responsible for contributing to the repository of local data. This is an ongoing process, with publishers always looking for fresh data. Perhaps the best analogy is to a garden. Gardens require constant care and attention to ensure they aren’t overrun by weeds. The same can be said of a local search profile. Without hard work, citations will become over grown, causing rankings to slip.

Additional considerations

There are over 100 factors that contribute to local rankings. An organized citation profile, standing alone, will not be enough to rank your law firm in competitive legal markets. Having said that, fixing citations and finding trusted local sites in which to list your law firm can be a big help. This article is intended as an overview to give lawyers a basic understanding of how Google views the local internet, so they can set up their online reputation to maximize success.

Other important issues we help clients with include:

  • Often overlooked basics like proper category associations and proper keyword targeting
  • Creating repeatable procedures to enable online reviews
  • Local public relations and outreach
  • Hyper local content marketing
  • HTML, schema, and site speed

In the quest for rankings, it’s important to keep an eye on what channels actually drive calls and emails. Rankings alone won’t pay the bills. Google’s shift to keyword “not provided” has made it more and more difficult to tie a keyword to a call. This doesn’t mean rankings aren’t important, but it does require law firms to be open to making decisions based on data rather than a general quest for rankings.

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