Many professional service firms have bemoaned the shifting landscape that Google and wider advancements in technology have brought about – namely, the intensifying competition for firms as access to services and suppliers becomes easier for clients.
As the ‘home’ of information, Google countered the traditional perceptions of the professional services marketplace by presenting people with more choice than ever when it comes to service providers.
Historically, renowned experts were once best-kept secrets, but over the past 10 years Google has brought visibility and choice and shows the market is saturated with suppliers and people have been able to cast the net wider by looking beyond their locale and not be limited geographically to local firms.
Yes, audiences – including potential and existing clients – have access to more information about legal services and the broad choice of service providers in the market. But there are others that recognise that technology – and in particular the power of information – is a two-way street.
Many professional service firms recognise that it is has now become easier for them to learn about their target audiences and their online behavioural traits and habits, enabling them to tailor their offering accordingly. By showcasing their talent directly to target audiences through highly focused and efficient methods, professionals have become more visible, and therefore more marketable and competitive.
This is where search engine optimisation offers considerable opportunities for professional service firms.
Search Engine Optimisation
Fundamentally, this two-way street begins with ‘search marketing’. Search marketing is about connecting searchers looking for information with the most relevant information available online. It is about ensuring your firm is visible within search engines to attract new and returning visitors to your site.
SEO is the process of making your firm’s website and its content work as efficiently and effectively as it can to ensure it can be easily indexed by search engines and displayed for the most relevant search queries within search engine results (SERPs).
All of this starts with the most basic of actions – someone (let’s say a potential client) enters a search query into a search engine. The search query comprises ‘keywords’ or ‘key phrases’ which help web users find exactly the legal services they need. Understanding these keywords enables firms to understand behavioural traits of its audiences and enables them to target web users that are searching for and showing interest in the services they offer.
The reality is, searchers are far more likely to click on the first three results on the first page. Research shows that click through rates for organic (i.e. not paid-for) search results decreases the further down the page you appear, so #1 position has significant commercial impact.
The rapid rise in usage of mobile devices over the past 10 years has added another feather to SEO’s bow. Mobile search is now the majority and this raises the bar for organic search competition as smartphones display 2-3 search results before scrolling, so achieving #1 position is even more important for mobile search.
Despite claims that the relevance of SEO is waning, clients’ use of search engines such as Google to find information about professional services shows no sign of abatement. Ignore at your peril.
For those that do see the benefit in pursuing high-ranking search positions, it is important to remember that Google search is an algorithm – it is mathematics. Mathematics can be reverse engineered, is formulaic and thus can be understood.
While Google continually adapts its algorithms i.e. rules for the indexation of information to online visitors, the SEO industry has, over the years, got much better at making educated guesses as to what the most important factors of search results might be. By examining the characteristics of high-ranking pages they have correlated data about what is (and isn’t) important.
Despite protestations that Google algorithms are now almost impossible to guess – the following four website characteristics still remain the strongest influencers in attaining high rankings SERPs:
High-quality content ranks well. It should be holistic, long (3000 words plus) and include semantically related terms and keywords. Content also ranks better when enriched with other media such as video and imagery.
The content on your website must be well-written, free of grammatical errors, and 100% unique and original.
Purchasing off-the-shelf, ‘canned’ content is self-defeating. It is simply not good enough. Content must read smoothly and provide visitors with the information they are searching for.
Search engines tend to give pages with longer, more in-depth content a higher placement on SERPs. Long-format articles in excess of 3000 words are key for search engines to consider your content as authoritative and trustworthy.
It is also important to demonstrate expertise with a topic. The best way to do this is to ensure that ‘proof terms’ are being used. Proof terms suggest that a webpage possesses a holistic combination of semantically relevant words and phrases. Consider any Wikipedia page, which inherently contains all the relevant words and phrases a topic is related to.
Proof terms can include:
- Industry-specific terms.
- Insider words which only legal experts may be aware of.
- Specific words or phrases that relate to the content, demonstrating authority about a subject.
Adding proof terms to your content helps a page appear at the top of search engine rankings, provided other influencing factors and criteria are met.
2. Technical page architecture
For your firm’s site to rank highly, it is essential to include strong site architecture, a balanced internal link structure, fast load time and standard meta tags.
Website performance metrics also play a large role in SERPs, because they indicate how well visitors can engage with and consume your content.
In general, these performance metrics include:
- Site speed
- Page load times
- Clean code
- Image/CSS/scripts caching
- File/resource management
- Content delivery from server
- Hosting/server configurations
Search engines observe these performance metrics via software applications like Google analytics or by data sharing with browsers like Chrome and Firefox. But regardless of how they get the data, you should just expect that they have it.
A complete list of website configurations for speed and performance can be found in the Google Developers documentation on site speed, and you should also make regular use of a testing tool such as this to see where you need improvement.
Overwhelmingly, the most important of these metrics is the site speed. Web users tend to be impatient, and studies have shown that if a site takes too long to load, it won’t appear as favourably in search engine results.
A fast website keeps the attention of site visitors and encourages them to browse the content. A page that loads slowly will often drive users away – perhaps toward competitors.
There are a number of other typical, static variables that impact performance, such as:
- Length of URL
- Video integration
- Keywords in description
- Page loading times
- Image optimisation
By keeping the site’s underlying code clean and up-to-date, developing a stable site architecture, and maintaining excellent file and resource management practices, you can help guarantee quick-loading webpages for your site’s visitors and make a positive contribution to your efforts in achieving high ranking SERPs.
3. Keyword links
Backlinks are links from other websites to yours, and they are incredibly important for successful SEO. In fact, backlinks are seen by many as the most important aspect of a comprehensive SEO plan.
The mechanism of a backlink is essentially a vote from another website to yours – a vote that says that your website is authoritative enough or trusted enough to link to.
As Google attaches a lot of importance to these links when analysing websites, the more backlinks your site has, the better your placement in SERPs.
But not all backlinks are created equal. A pro-active process is needed to ensure your website’s inbound links are originating from trusted, relevant sources and to avoid junk or spam citations, which can have a negative impact on your site’s visibility. Search engines like Google can tell the difference between the two, and will penalise your search position if they recognise links that are set-up to improve search engine rankings as opposed to those that are from trusted, relevant sources.
Legitimate backlink sources can include:
- Legal directories
- Press releases
- Legal industry relevant sites
- Industry influencers
- Blog posts
- Social network citations/profiles
- Online articles
- Social bookmarks
The age of backlinks also matters. Links that have existed for a long time weigh more heavily in your website’s favour. Links with longevity suggest that your site is an established voice for whatever topic it covers. Also, new links from legitimate sources, such as those listed above, are well received by SERPs because they indicate a time-sensitive currency.
4. Social signals
When your website content is shared on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and YouTube, it is considered a ‘social signal’ or ‘citation’. These social signals carry similar weight to inbound links, and have tremendous power in influencing website rankings in search.
Social signals can include:
- A Facebook post that is shared, liked, or commented on.
- A Twitter tweet that is retweeted or replied to.
- A Pinterest pin that is repinned or marked as a favourite.
- A Google+ post that is reshared or commented on.
- A YouTube video that is commented on or liked.
Search engines love to see this kind of activity, and these social signals play a large role in a site’s placement in SERPs. The activity generated by social media suggests that your website is trustworthy, worth sharing, currently important to people, and is being referenced as a valuable resource.
An important consideration here is that every social signal is credited to your website without penalty (unless very spam-driven tactics are used – these do exist). In general, you can include links back to your website on social platforms, and encourage website visitors to share your content on social, without fear of repercussions from Google’s algorithm, which in other areas of SEO such as linking can result in penalisation or a demotion in rankings.
The simple fact is search marketing, done properly, can help firms generate leads and deliver the right message to its audiences. Firms can capitalise on this potential by focusing on the SEO factors of most influence with search engines and through concerted efforts to be and remain ‘visible’ online – because being seen by search engines improves your chances of being seen by your target audiences.