We get this question a lot. It often comes to us in two ways.
First, someone at a CLE will come up during a break and tell us all the things they are currently doing to work on their search ranking. But they are frustrated because some other law firm is ranking above them on a lot of the keyword searches that they want.
The second is when we are on one of our consultation calls and we are showing the law firm who their online competitors are based on our research. They are often shocked to find out the names of the firms that are consistently ranking on the first page.
We often hear things like:
- “that firm doesn’t even practice in that area”
- “that person is horrible, how can Google think they are better than us?”
- “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I don’t even know who that lawyer is”
It is often the case that the firms that you consider your typical competition day to day are often very different from your online competition. But the question still stands:
“Why is this site ranking higher than mine?”
If you have read our book, Online Law Practice Strategies, you know that there are a lot of factors that combine to influence Google to give a particular website or webpage its position in the organic search rankings.
Unfortunately, it is not a perfect science; we can only provide educated guesses in most cities.
But, we have proven time and time again that with an educated strategy and consistent testing and optimizing, you can move your website up in the search engine rankings on keywords you care about.
The Top Seven Ranking Factors
The top factors we start with when evaluating why websites are ranking toward the top of the organic search results are:
- quality and number of backlinks to the website
- number of pages indexed
- the content quality and keyword usage
- the page and domain authority (which we typically measure using ahrefs (link: https://ahrefs.com/)
- site speed
- structured data
- mobile friendliness
- age of the domain
I would say that 80% of the time the issue is in the first seven factors.
Often a law firm will have a great new website but few quality backlinks built to it. Or they will have some good backlinks that point to very scarce and poor-quality content. These are solvable issues.
Doing some deeper competitive research, a quality digital marketer can uncover the most likely areas where a particular website is falling down compared to the other websites in the rankings.
Based on that research, a strong digital marketing strategy can be built. With the right strategy, time, and effort a law firm can significantly impact the first seven of those ranking factors and see their website move up in the rankings. In fact, we do just that month in and month out for our law firm clients.
One thing we have to remind clients though is that you can’t just move to parity with other competing websites and expect to move above them in the rankings.
We recommend trying to be 10x the quality of the competing websites. You need to really push Google’s algorithm to give it a reason to move your website up in the rankings.
All things being equal, Google is going to typically give the spot to the website that was already there before. But Google’s algorithm is always testing and every once in a while it will test moving your website ahead of the other one.
If you are fortunate to get the click by the user and have done your job on the conversion elements to keep the prospect on your website, Google may reward your law firm website site by trying it above the competing site more often in the future.
Unfortunately, where we often hear frustration in a lawyer’s voice (and it frustrates us too) is when they have followed a strong strategy and spent time, resources, and effort designing a high-quality, mobile friendly, content rich, and search optimized website, with strong backlinks they still see websites above them in the search results that don’t make sense. They click on the competing results at the top of the search results and they get to websites that would have looked dated in 2010.
They see poorly designed websites, with less than 10 pages of content, comparatively the same amount of links or less, not mobile friendly, and so on.
But the last metric in the list above is what many forget to look at: the age of the domain. I know it seems strange—why should age of domain matter?
What does the domain age have to do with the quality of a law firm website?
Fortunately, for those law firms that got their web presence optimized early, and unfortunately for those law firms that didn’t, we see that a law firm website that has appeared on the search results for many, many years seems to provide inertia for that website staying high in the rankings of local law firm search results.
Dust off that part of your brain that was awake during high school physics, remember that inertia is defined as “the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force”
Or as we often remember it: “an object at rest likes to stay at rest, an object in motion likes to stay in motion”
It is our belief, and that of many of our colleagues in the SEO industry, that in local law firm search results (and many other local-focused business searches), there is not enough search activity/volume to allow the automated searchbot algorithms to test different legal websites to see which ones deserve the top spots. Therefore, without the algorithm able to apply enough “outside external force”, Google leaves the websites that were there first.
For example, using Google’s Keyword Planner tool, it shows (see below) that “Personal Injury Lawyer” gets around 40,500 avg. monthly searches, but when constrained to a local city such as one of my favorite cities, Chicago, IL, the average monthly searches for that keyword drop down to 390. And that is for Chicago, one of the top 5 cities in the country in population. If you take a mid-market city like Cincinnati, where our law firm marketing agency is located, the average monthly searches are only 70.
Now let’s compare “Personal Injury Lawyer” to other local searches in Chicago. If I try “Pizza Restaurant” the average monthly searches move up to 1000—maybe I should have tried deep dish pizza as this is Chicago after all.
With Chicago being on the lakefront and containing 20 miles of lakefront bike paths, even something very niche like “rent a bike” gets over 1000 average monthly searches (over 2000 in the summer). And coming off of a couple good years, the searches for Chicago Cubs in Chicago are averaging over 550,000 per month.
With under 500 avg. searches per month (or lower for many other legal keywords), there just isn’t enough traffic to allow Google to have testing data to quickly change the law firms that are in the top spots.
With more than double the amount of searches, Google can much more quickly adjust the top pizza restaurant websites as things change, and even the rent-a-bike locations.
With over 500,000 average searches, good luck staying on top for the keyword of “Chicago Cubs” if you do not have the resources of the MLB, ESPN, or the Chicago Tribune.
Many believe that the Google algorithm gives weight to websites that get more clicks without a fast ‘bounce’ back to the search results.
These old, lower quality law firm websites that are in the top spot, naturally results in them getting a predominant amount of clicks. Even though the site might not convert as well as your high-quality website, they are getting a significant amount more of clicks.
Unfortunately, for someone with a burning legal issue, even a bad website might provide just enough information for someone to call the firm and not hit the back button, thus reinforcing to the algorithm that this website was the right one to deliver to the searcher.
One more thing to think about is the total dollar investment based on the age of a domain. From an investment perspective, many of these law firms who were early to get their web presence optimized have been investing in some type of SEO work for many, many years now.
For example, let’s look at a law firm that got their website online in 2009 and invested, on the low side, in SEO at about $1,500/month. If you look over the past 8 years, that law firm has invested over $144,000 in their web presence.
The fact that this law firm spent enough when the web was not as competitive and got ranked in one of the top spots provides a lot of inertia, making it hard to knock them off. The search results page is often a zero-sum game, for someone to move up the ranking, someone has to move down.
Based on the inertia of the website, if someone is starting from scratch they may need to quickly invest $150,000 just to get to parity and maybe more to actually out-rank this website. We would argue that with educated strategies based on experience and data from a law firm marketing agency like ours you may be able to do more with a lower investment, but a real investment does need to be made.
An interesting aside, because the Google algorithm has to take factors like backlinks and quality of content as a key indicator of the quality of the law firm website, the typical TV, radio, and billboard, big budget firms in a city often do not dominate the top spots in the search engine rankings.
Thanks to data from our colleagues at Smart Set Media, I know that out of the top three TV, Radio, and Billboard advertising law firms in the Cincinnati area, only one has a position on page one for a strong keyword such as “car accident lawyer Cincinnati” and they are ranked number 8 when I searched just now.
Therefore, the web is still a great place to put an investment for a smaller firm to compete against the million-dollar TV advertising by the bigger firms.
How do we overcome this inertia to help our clients move up in the search rankings?
In addition to the typical strategies (typical, not easy) of continuous onsite-optimization, rich-markup, speed of site, mobile friendly, local citation/directory work, and backlink acquisition campaigns, we start by focusing our content marketing efforts targeted at long-tail keywords.
Instead of “DUI Attorney [city]”, we may start with “what happens if I get a second DUI”. This longer tail keyword may be easier to get a high ranking for and therefore will receive clicks from Google search results.
If the website is correctly optimized for conversion, the searcher doesn’t ‘bounce’ back to the search results and you just sent a positive signal to the search algorithm. As we do that with enough long tail keywords of which have a strong relationship to the competitive short keywords, we see that over time, our client’s start moving up in the search results against the inertia we discussed earlier.
While we are an impatient bunch and are always anxious to see our client’s get to the first page and see traffic and conversions sky-rocket, we have to remind ourselves that if we are working with a client that is relatively new in investing in their web presence, it is going to take time.
If you have an existing presence—maybe you are hanging around page 2 or 3 on many competitive keywords—it can still take about 9–12 months to get to the first page, let alone the top listings.
For those that are nowhere to be found, it may take 18 months or more to unseat the incumbent search results for those competitive short keywords. But the return on your long-term investment (when you look at dollar of business from these leads vs. what you spent to acquire those leads vs. alternative expenses to acquire the leads) of getting to the first page and then the top spots will outpace most other methods of online lead sources.
Fortunately, once you get there, you will then be rewarded with some of the inertia that will make it harder for competitors to knock you off the top spots too.
More ways to learn about how to grow your law firm with online marketing:
- GNGF Live: Facebook Live series
- Grab a copy of our best-selling book Online Law Practice Strategies
- Schedule a 30 minutes consultation audit with one of our legal marketing experts
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