By Robert Ottinger. Google is the primary market for consumer oriented legal services. A recent NexisLexis study found that 76% of people use the internet to find lawyers and Google currently handles 66.7% of search. Lawyers looking for new clients must appear prominently on Google to survive. But a new challenge faces lawyers who depend on Google for business. Google is changing its search technology, and firms on page one today might be on page ten tomorrow. This could kill your practice.
Small Law Firms Outsource Marketing to SEO Firms
Most lawyers do not have time to understand Google’s evolving search algorithms. Lawyers typically hire SEO firms such as Findlaw, Justia, Lexblog and countless other legal SEO companies to manage their on-line marketing. This arrangement works well because lawyers can focus on being lawyers and let their SEO firm handle the details. But blind faith in an SEO firm is no longer an option.
Legacy SEO Tactics Are Dangerous
Firms like Findalw, Lexblog and Justia trace their roots back to the beginning of the internet era. Findlaw was formed in 1995 and Lexblog was launched in 2002. Justia was created by the founders of Findlaw after they sold it to Thompson West in 2001. Google, for frame of reference, was incorporated in 1998. This period marks the beginning of Google’s viability as a market place for legal services.
Back in this period, SEO firms optimized law firm websites by building backlinks, creating networks of legal blogs, and other low priced SEO tricks designed to quickly move a website or blog into the top of Google. These techniques worked and law firms slowly started hiring SEO firms to build and optimize websites and blogs. Today Lexblog says that it has over 6000 lawyers publishing blogs on their platform. Justia and Findlaw, I suspect, have even more lawyers.
Are Blog Networks Still a Good Idea?
The larger SEO companies like Justia and Lexblog leverage their thousands of clients to form blog networks that optimize their client’s search rankings on Google. Lawyers with a blog in one of these networks instantly gain the appearance of authority because the blog is linked to the other blogs in the network.
If a lawyer chose Lexblog as his blog provider, his blog would join Lexblog’s network of 6000 other legal blogs. These links to other legal blogs signal relevance and authority to Google and tends to improve their ranking. By using Lexblog a lawyer can purchase instant authority and obtain a better chance of ranking well on Google.
Blog networks once offered value, but today being in such a network is risky because most of these networks use site-wide links (those links on the side of blogs listing other blogs etc.) and these could trigger a penalty. Also, just being in a blog network is a potential sign of SEO manipulation. The Search Engine Journal has a post entitled 25 Ways to Get Penalized in 2012 and site-wide links and blog networks are on the list.
Justia offered more than just membership in their blog network, they trained their army of legal bloggers to link back to their main websites with key word anchor text. A keyword anchor text link includes the key words used to find a lawyer’s web site like “car accident” or “divorce lawyer.” Google used to view anchor text links as a positive signal and using them would cause a website or blog to rise up in search results. This was a trick in which a lawyer was simply linking between his own Justia blog and website to create the appearance of popularity, but it worked. SEO techniques like anchor text links and blog networks successfully gamed the system to put law firm websites at the top of Google for years.
Search is Changing
SEO tricks of the past like content spinning, keyword stuffing, anchor text links, and other manipulations no longer work. Websites that currently employ those measures now risk being punished. The message from Google is clear – they want quality content not technical manipulation. If you get caught trying to trick Google, they will punish you.
Most small law firms today have no idea what kind of SEO practices are being used on their websites. To get an idea what to look for, read Marie Haynes’ post on SEOMoz, Are SEOs Destroying Small Business? A Penguin Story. Also see, Could Bad SEO Bring Down Your Business by Sonia Simone on Copyblogger. Lawyers running their own firms today need to become familiar with the basics of SEO to they can protect themselves.
Why is Google Making Things so Difficult?
A.J. Kohn, author of Blind Five Year Old, is a leading voice in the fast changing world of search technology. According to Mr. Kohn, the internet is flooded with too much information because now everyone has a blog and a website. In order to produce good search results, Mr. Kohn says Google has to separate quality content from the junk and identify spammers.
In the last year alone, Google has dramatically altered its search algorithms with modifications named after animals like Panda and Penguin. These new filters identify websites that do not contain quality content or that attempt to manipulate the search process. Penguin, for example targets blogs and websites that contain an unnatural amount of key word anchor text links. So bloggers following Justia’s keyword anchor text tricks might fall victim to Penguin and see their websites drop in ranking. This happened to my New York Employment Law Blog (thanks Justia) and it lost eighty percent of its traffic on the day Penguin was released.
The Future of SEO for Lawyers
The positive side of the new changes in search will ultimately benefit lawyers who know how to produce quality content. In the past, law firms that used technical SEO tricks dominated Google search. But Google wants to reward quality content providers, not search optimizers. As part of this effort, Google is developing authorship profiles and those who consistently produce good content will be rewarded with prominent placement in search results.
Google Plus is part of this effort. Create a profile on Google Plus and link your profile to your blog and start producing great content. In fact, some say that a blog is not even necessary anymore and that producing great content on Google Plus is more effective. See Mike Elgan’s article Why I Blog on Google + (and how) . Vic Gundotra, known to be the head of Google Plus, endorsed Mr. Elgan’s article by sending it to his three million followers. It has never been easier to succeed on Google but the game has changed and the road to top placement is deceptively simple.