The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Cirlce of Legal Trust.
Search engines (mainly Google) are software programs that take a user’s query and match it against trillions of different web pages using complex mathematical algorithms to find the most relevant one. Attorneys often make mistakes when trying to determine where their websites fall in the rankings. I’ve provided optimization services for attorneys over the past several years and here are some common mistakes lawyers make when looking at their own rankings.
Personalized Search Screws up Data
Google tries really hard to deliver relevant results to their customers. An innovative strategy that they employ is using a person’s cookies from their browser cache to serve more relevant results based on that particular user’s search history. This is known as personalized search and can drastically affect the results that one person sees over another.
For example if you’ve been on Ford’s website a number of times and then use the generic term “new cars for sale” chances are you’ll probably see some results related to the pages you ‘ve been looking at. If you’ve been using search for navigation to the same websites over and over, you might start seeing those results appear more prominently than they would for other users who’ve never clicked on them before. Of course the mechanics behind this behavior are probably far more complicated than that but you get the idea.
This muddies the water for lawyers trying to check their own rankings in search. Not only do other websites they’ve been visiting throw off the results they get but they will drive themselves crazy in the process.
Personalized search rolled out a while ago in beta-mode but became part of the core algorithm in 2009. Personalized search determine what results may be more relevant based on what you’ve clicked on already in an SERP as well as sites you’ve visited. Once enough data has built up in the browser, Google’s algorithm can make inferences on what you might be looking for based on the other websites you’ve visited. Lets look at a little experiment.
I open a browser (I’ll use Firefox for this example) and go to the settings and clear all cookies, browsing history and other preferences. It’s probably not necessary to clear everything but I want a completely fresh start. I’m also logged out of any Google account. I visit Google.com directly to start my experiment.
I set my location to Chicago, IL and typed in the query “personal injury lawyer Chicago”. Besides the 3 pack of Google Places listings, below are the organic listings that I see.
I purposely went to the second page of results and clicked on the first result. Without hitting the back button, I visited Google.com directly again in the same browser window. I repeated this same process about 9-10 times, searching for the term “personal injury lawyer Chicago”, navigating to the second page, and clicking on the first listing. After several times doing this, the listing that was repeatedly showing at the top of the second page of results has jumped to the middle of the first page! You can see I’ve been clicking on it (purple link) and now Google figures I’ve visited that site enough, why not show it on the first page of results.
Although it’s a very innovative and useful feature, personalized search makes it difficult to use the customer-facing side of a search engine for testing rankings.
Location Settings May Send Different Results
Google has a notable track record with focusing on local results for users. Updates like Venice in 2012 and most recently Pigeon in 2014 have made it easier for searchers to find relevant localized results. A variety of factors influence the results that are shown to users like IP address, the type of query used, search history, and location settings of the searcher. Factor in law firms that are ranking multiple locations and things get even more complicated.
When attorneys try to check their rankings, location settings can influence results making it hard to know if you’re really having an impact or not. For example maybe your firm’s home office is in Naperville but you also have branch offices you want to rank well in Aurora and Oak Park. Searching from Naperville will give you different results than if you were closer to those other locations.
Centroid bias also plays a role in the results that you see in search. For example if there are a cluster of relevant law firms closest to the center of a particular location (or more accurately what Google considers the center), those results may appear more prominently in search.
Misinterpreting Data from Google Webmaster Tools
Google’s webmaster tools is an excellent source of data and optimization on lawyer’s websites. I’ve seen people dive into using it without really understanding the information that it provides. One common misinterpretation is the search queries information provided by Google.
Google shows the top 2,000 queries (max) that pages of a site appeared for in search at least once. One common mistake I see lawyers make is misinterpreting the data in Google’s interface. For instance the search queries report shows keywords that searchers used to find a website. By default the filter on this data is set to web. When looking at data for search queries, it is not a complete picture of all the channels by which users found a website. You can add filters to see search queries by location, by video and by image search among other dimensions.
Even though you can see your data from these different perspectives, there are some limitations. For example the locations filter doesn’t go any more granular than the country of the searcher. For attorneys that focus mostly on local markets, it isn’t currently possible to tell if queries are coming from a town or even a state. With all queries not broken out be default, it’s easy for those not experienced with webmaster tools to get an inaccurate story of what’s happening on their website.
Focusing Too Much On Keywords and Rankings
Keywords are a foundational element of SEO and yes it’s important for lawyers to rank well for terms related to their practice but that shouldn’t be the only focus. You also have to focus on how users are converting on your site as well as their experience. Google’s core mission is to organize the web’s information and SEO isn’t about ranking well for the most profitable or most popular keyword phrases. The idea is to develop a site that is relevant overall to what users are looking for and to ensure they can easily perform the actions that you want them to perform.
If it were Google’s goal to have websites rank well for whatever keywords they wanted, there wouldn’t be restrictions on the data they provide. For example Google does not always provide the queries that people use to find your site as evidenced by the ‘not provided’ metric in analytics. They give weight to hundreds of different factors such as site speed, structure, organization of content, links leading to a site and away from it. Matt Cutts elaborates on having too narrow a focus as an SEO in this video.
So What Can An Attorney Do?
The best thing you can do to get accurate measurements related to how your site is performing in search is to use something other than the search engine itself. Marketing a website in search also requires much more all-encompassing goals and a patient approach. Attorneys need to be thoughtful about the data they gather and how they interpret that data.
Focus on groups of keywords instead of a few high-volume or “trophy” keywords. Check Google Webmaster Tools for the terms your website is already showing up for in search and look at the pages associated with those terms. Make sure you are optimizing for many different terms that searchers are using to find your website.
Check your site’s analytics to see the top landing pages that people are finding in via Google and other search engines. When you are checking your rankings using the customer-facing Google search engine, use an incognito window in chrome and sign out of Google so you don’t get personalized results. If you don’t use chrome, ensure you’re still signed out of search and clear your browser cache. If you’re testing rankings for a specific location, set your location settings in Google for that specific locale.
The best way to get results that are not skewed is to use a third party tool. MySEOTool.com & BrightLocal.com are a couple tools I’ve used that allow for city-specific tracking and breaks apart local and regular organic rankings. If you are still adamant about checking rankings of keywords on a one by one basis check them out.
Chris Dreyer is the president and founder of Rankings.io, an Internet marketing agency with strong emphasis on law firms. Learn more about Attorney Rankings at Rankings.io.
Posts by Chris Dreyer
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- Bing Ads: Why Your Law Firm Should Use Them
- Preparing Your Attorney Website for the Shift to Mobile
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