The What, Why and How of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
By Jared K. Nelson
You decided to open a new law office.
You may have left a firm and taken an established client base with you. You may have left a firm in order to develop your own book of business. You may have left a public office or in-house position with an organizational client and now need to capture private clients in the marketplace. You may have been admitted to the bar and now wish to launch your career from ground zero on your own terms. Or you may be entering or returning to private practice from a previous occupation.
Whatever the facts and circumstances of your new law office, you need clients (i.e., paying customers) walking through your door, calling your office, emailing your inbox or otherwise soliciting your services and assistance.
In order to do so, former, current and prospective clients alike need to be able to find you. Whether they have old contact information from previous dealings with you or current contact information from colleagues, business cards, social media or marketing activities, your clients in all likelihood want to “look you up” before reaching out to you. And the first place they are likely going to look is Google, Bing or Yahoo.1
The question that remains is: How do you make sure you show up in clients’ search results?
WHAT IS SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION (SEO)?
Searching Oklahoma law reviews and journals, including the Oklahoma Bar Journal, for references to “search engine optimization” revealed that only one article has mentioned the topic, so it would not be surprising if the term were entirely unfamiliar, or only vaguely familiar, to you.2 Even the American Bar Association, with its national reach, has only published one article providing guidance to legal practitioners on this modern marketing concept.3
In simple terms, search engine optimization (SEO) is “the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.”4 More specifically, SEO seeks to enhance a website’s ranking in a “search engine’s unpaid results — often referred to as ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ or ‘earned’ results.”5
All of us regularly use search engines and rely on the results they provide to us. Search engines are the tools that connect us with — and help us navigate — the one billion websites that are now on the Internet.6 Your lunch plans may depend on the results of your search for a new deli or for the menu and phone number of your favorite takeout grill, and your expectation is that your search engine of choice will quickly retrieve the information that is most relevant to you.
The success and popularity of a particular search engine depends on its ability to produce the most relevant results for its users, so each search engine has developed a set of ranking algorithms that seek to cull the useful from the useless.7
Ultimately, a search engine’s goal is to provide users with a positive customer experience. In this case, a good experience would refer to high quality helpful content that links as closely as possible with what the user was looking for when she initiated the search.8
SEO is businesses’ response to search engine algorithms. In order to rank at or near the top of the “organic” (i.e., nonpaid) search results, a business must tailor its website to meet as many ranking criteria as possible.9 SEO is the process by which a business conforms its website content to the standards and recommendations of search engines in order to generate increased internet traffic and enhanced visibility for the business.
WHY IS SEO IMPORTANT?
When you enter your name in the search bar of your internet browser, where do you show up in the results list? What about when you search for your law office? Or what about when you search for your practice area?
Depending on the search provider and the level of paid advertising relating to your search, you may observe three general categories of results in your internet browser. First, there may be paid, sponsored or premium results, which generally appear at the top of the list and include some indicator or enhancement that makes them stand out from the other results. Second, there may be graphic ads that resemble what you see in newspaper columns and other print media. Third, the search engine will list actual, unpaid, “organic” results, which the search engine generated solely based on rankings derived from proprietary algorithms. This final bucket is where SEO provides its value and return on investment.
A recent study using data collected in July 2014 demonstrated that the top spot in the unpaid results portion of results lists generated by Google received 31.24 percent of click-through traffic. Results in the second spot received 14.04 percent of click-through traffic. By the fifth spot, the percentage of click-through traffic dropped to 5.50 percent, and spots six thru 10 combined for only 3.73 percent. Websites that Google relegated to the second page of results lists generated click-through traffic for only 3.99 percent of user searches.10
If you are going to have an online presence and you want clients to find and use your website, then you need to ensure that you consistently land within the first five spots of relevant search results. This will give you a 67.6 percent chance of being selected by the search user. Otherwise, you will not be noticed, much less sought out, by clients.
A Forbes.com contributor and SEO provider put it this way:
Every small business should have a basic knowledge of search engine optimization. In fact, you should almost be exhausted by the term “SEO” at this point . . . . . In our web-facing world, the (already) dominant search engines are becoming the cornerstone of the Internet. Standard procedure for individuals looking for information is to search first.11
SEO and the web traffic it captures is important, regardless or your practice area, business model, marketing strategy or even the maturity of your client base. No matter who you are, clients will try — and expect — to find you using a search engine. SEO enables you to make sure they find you.
HOW DO YOU IMPLEMENT SEO?
One of the conundrums presented by SEO is all too familiar to those opening a new law office: Do you do it yourself, thereby saving money, or do you outsource it to an expert, thereby saving time? The answer depends on the extent to which you want to harness SEO to improve your rankings and drive traffic to your website.
You can likely implement some SEO basics on your own, provided you are willing to invest some personal time and effort to the cause.
For example, the most impactful SEO strategy is to publish quality content that clients find useful. The Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide published by Google (SEO Starter Guide) instructs webmasters that “[c]reating compelling and useful content will likely influence your website more than any of the other factors” discussed in the SEO Starter Guide.12
Evolving search engine algorithms are placing increasingly greater emphasis on quality, authoritative content.13 Your content strategy may (and should) incorporate a variety of online media formats, including web pages, blog posts, guest posts, social media updates, articles, e-books, whitepapers, reports, presentations, videos, pictures, infographics and animations.14
Regardless of format, you should always develop your content to address identifiable client preferences and business objectives.15 Brett Relander, a contributor for Entrepeneur.com, provides these guidelines for ensuring that your content is timely, relevant and useful (i.e., authoritative):
1) Be knowledgeable and passionate about your topic. Take the time to conduct thorough research.
2) Be original. Whether it is producing original research or taking a different perspective, make a point of bringing something new to the table.
3) Focus on well-written content. Take the time to produce carefully crafted content.
4) Share your content with targeted communities. Remember, social signals are often a vital source for determining authority.16
Google provides the following tips in the SEO Starter Guide:
1) Include well-written text that is easy to read and understand.
2) Organize your content topically, breaking up information into logical chunks or divisions that help users find the content they want.
3) Create fresh, unique content that keeps existing visitors coming back and attracts new visitors; avoid reusing or duplicating content that adds little value for users.
4) Create content that addresses the needs of visitors, rather than focusing on driving search engine traffic; a website that is useful to visitors and accessible to search engines will naturally achieve higher rankings.17
Another aspect of SEO available to do-it-yourselfers is the process of developing a network of links to your website that lend credibility and authority to your content.
Search engines analyze, in effect, how your website is regarded on the Internet. If high ranking websites link to and direct traffic to your website, search engines will recognize this and increase your ranking in their algorithms. These inbound links also serve to introduce external readers, who otherwise might not find you, to your online content.18
You can cultivate these links in countless ways; however, the best links are those that arise organically. If you create newsworthy content, other sites will naturally link to and promote your content.19
But you have to start somewhere, and a logical place to jumpstart the link-building process is by placing a link to your website on your LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media profiles.20 These links seed your professional network by, first, making it easy for others to click on and follow your link and, second, providing an opportunity for others to link to your website. Also, as you create new content (re-member, your content should be timely, original and informative) you can post updates to your social media profiles to generate recurring traffic to your website and potentially earn additional inbound links to your website.
Legal directories are another prime opportunity to start getting your name and website introduced to the World Wide Web. There are an abundance of directories, most of which provide free listings for your basic information (with paid options for premium listings and services). The top five online legal directories in the U.S. are: 1) FindLaw.com; 2) Martindale.com; 3) Nolo.com; 4) Justia.com; and 5) Avvo.com.21 Search engines consider these directories to have the most “authority,” so you can always expect their links to dominate the top of search engine results pages.
Finally, pursue opportunities to lend your expertise to others by providing content for their websites, blogs and other online media outlets. By appearing in other online forums, you can promote your services and business in front of a new audience while earning a backlink to information residing on your website.
If you are like most lawyers, including myself, the SEO strategies above are well within, or at least in the vicinity of, your technological comfort zone. The concepts and tasks above largely relate to two things we deal with daily: words and people.
However, there are far more possibilities in the realm of SEO than what resides within our skills and capabilities as lawyers. For the following SEO strategies, odds are that you will need to find and engage the services of an expert in the field.
First, all content on your website and elsewhere on the Internet should revolve around a set of “keywords” that are highly relevant to your practice, and, perhaps more difficult, to your clients’ perception and understanding of your practice. Clients are expecting the search engine to produce results that are relevant to them based on the words used by them, not the words that would have been carefully selected and used by their lawyers.
A central piece of the SEO puzzle involves identifying, researching, selecting and using the right “keywords” throughout your online portfolio. This process is referred to as keyword optimization, and it is an enduring tenet of SEO. “The basic premise of keyword optimization is simple: Discover the search words that potential customers are using to find products or services like yours, and then build your Web content around those words.”22 This sounds simple enough, but the devil is in the details.
You want to focus on keywords that are “popular” but not necessarily “competitive.” Otherwise, the bar for top placement in search results may exceed your SEO budget.23 It would be a fool’s errand, for example, for you to try to compete for top billing in a search for “Supreme Court.” You would have to compete with the likes of the Supreme Court of the United States, Wikipedia (the most authoritative website on the internet), The New York Times, The Washington Post and SCOTUSblog.24
Identifying the right keywords for you and your practice requires understanding how search engines work, harnessing various tools that provide metrics on the popularity, competitiveness and relatedness of keywords, and applying strategies to leverage local and niche search behaviors. This complexity alone necessitates employing the skills and experience of an SEO consultant.
But the complexity does not end there. After identifying and strategically selecting a slate of keywords for your SEO campaign, the keywords must be strategically placed and used throughout your on- and off-site content. This requires incorporating keywords into heading tags, title tags, alt tags, meta tags, URL structures, etc.25 If this list is Greek to you, then you have no business trying to rollout a full SEO package on your own.
Even if you understand the technical aspects of keyword placement, you must still consider the evolving art of satisfying search engine crawlers. Concepts like keyword stuffing, density, proximity distribution, siloing and contextual search all must be considered. Be honest with yourself: Do you have the expertise, time or energy to fully develop and implement an effective keyword optimization strategy?
Returning to what users see when they interact with your website, a comprehensive SEO initiative will consider the aesthetics of your website. How does your website look? Is it user-friendly? Is the layout well organized and pleasing or cluttered and distracting? With the advent of Google’s so-called “Mobilegeddon” algorithm update, which went live April 21, 2015, it is now imperative that your website be mobile device and mobile user friendly.26 A website design professional, working with your SEO consultant, will be in the best position to address these concerns.
Whether you keep your SEO program in-house or outsource it to a consultant, your SEO strategy needs to include content development, link building and social engagement. “Content strategy, inbound links and social media strategy are the three key elements to building a strong, successful SEO campaign, regardless of the industry.”27
The legal industry is known for being resistant to change, and information technology is constantly changing. This is one scenario in which change can literally wipe you off the map if you do not keep pace. No matter how skilled, talented, respected or established you are, clients will have a difficult time finding you if search engines cannot find you.
1. As reported by comScore, the share of search queries handled by leading U.S. search engine providers as of January 2015 was: Google, 64.4 percent; Microsoft, 19.7 percent; Yahoo, 13 percent; and others, less than 2 percent each. See www.statista.com/statistics/267161/market-share-of-search-engines-in-the-united-states/ (last visited May 20, 2015). Google is a registered trademark of Google Inc. Bing is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation. Yahoo! is a registered trademark of Yahoo! Inc.
2. Don G. Pope, “Changing the Face of Law Office Marketing,” Oklahoma Bar Journal, Vol. 84, No. 8 (Mar. 16, 2013).
3. John M. Kruger, “Get Found! Search Engine Optimization Demystified,” GP Solo, Vol. 29, No. 3 (May/June 2012).
4. Search engine optimization, Oxford Dictionaries, www.oxford
optimization (last visited May 18, 2015).
5. Search engine optimization, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://goo.gl/PVYqFX (last visited May 18, 2015).
6. Total number of websites, Internet Live Stats, www.
internetlivestats.com/total-number-of-websites/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
7. Search engine optimization, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://goo.gl/PVYqFX (last visited May 18, 2015).
8. John Rampton and Jayson DeMers, “The Changing SEO Landscape,” Search Engine Journal, www.searchenginejournal.com/seo-guide/changing-seo-landscape/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
9. Inc. Staff, “How to Optimize your Site for Search,” Inc., www.inc.com/magazine/20100701/how-to-optimize-your-site-for-search.html (last visited May 18, 2015).
10. Caphyon, “Google Organic CTR Study,” Advanced Web Ranking, www.advancedwebranking.com/google-ctr-study-2014.html (last visited May 20, 2015).
11. Newtek, “SEO Basics for Small Business Owners,” Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/thesba/2014/10/30/seo-basics-for-small-business-owners/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
12. “Search Engine Optimization Guide,” Google Inc., available at http://goo.gl/OhGkxz (last visited May 19, 2015).
13. Brett Relander, “Why Authoritative Content is More Important Than SEO,” Entrepreneur, www.entrepreneur.com/article/241258 (last visited May 18, 2015).
14. John Rampton and Jayson DeMers, “Content and Inbound Marketing,” Search Engine Journal, www.searchenginejournal.com/seo-guide/content-inbound-marketing/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
15. John Rampton and Jayson DeMers, “Content and Inbound Marketing,” Search Engine Journal, www.searchenginejournal.com/seo-guide/content-inbound-marketing/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
16. Brett Relander, “Why Authoritative Content is More Important Than SEO,” Entrepreneur, www.entrepreneur.com/article/241258 (last visited May 18, 2015).
17. “Search Engine Optimization Guide,” Google Inc., available at http://goo.gl/OhGkxz (last visited May 19, 2015).
18. Jayson DeMers, “The Three Pillars of SEO in 2014,” Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2014/01/28/the-three-pillars-of-seo-in-2014/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
19. Rand Fishkin and Moz Staff, “Growing Popularity and Links,” Moz, https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/growing-popularity-and-links (last visited May 20, 2015).
20. LinkedIn is a registered trademark of LinkedIn Corporation. “Facebook” is a registered trademark of Facebook Inc.
21. Data reported by SEOmoz Inc. on May 20, 2015, for keywords “lawyer directory.” Full report contents on file with author.
22. Inc. Staff, “How to Optimize your Site for Search,” Inc., www.inc.com/magazine/20100701/how-to-optimize-your-site-for-search.html (last visited May 18, 2015).
23. Inc. Staff, “How to Optimize your Site for Search,” Inc., www.inc.com/magazine/20100701/how-to-optimize-your-site-for-search.html (last visited May 18, 2015).
24. Data reported by SEOmoz Inc. on May 20, 2015, for keywords “supreme court.” Full report contents on file with author.
25. Rand Fishkin and Moz Staff, “The Basics of Search Engine Design & Development,” Moz, https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/basics-of-search-engine-friendly-design-and-development (last visited May 20, 2015).
26. Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Finding more mobile-friendly search results,” Blogger, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2015/02/finding-more-mobile-friendly-search.html (last visited May 20, 2015).
27. Jayson DeMers, “The Three Pillars of SEO in 2014,” Forbes, www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2014/01/28/the-three-pillars-of-seo-in-2014/ (last visited May 18, 2015).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Nelson is the founder of Tulsa-based Blackstone Legal Advisors PLP. Mr. Nelson’s experience is primarily in healthcare law, and his specific practice areas include business formations, corporate governance, LLCs and partnerships, regulatory compliance, various business and commercial transactions, healthcare transactions, select securities law issues and mergers and acquisitions. He is a 2009 graduate of the TU College of Law. He earned a Bachelor of Science in geography from Texas A&M University in 2005.