By Mark Homer
At live CLEs and in webinars, at legal marketing events and on daily calls with our clients, we speak to hundreds of lawyers each year from across the country about their marketing and online presence.
And one question we often get, truthfully, is one that sometimes drives our own internal team a little bonkers too.
We get the question: “Why is that site outranking me?”
If you have read our book, you know that there are a lot of factors that we believe are combining to provide a site its position in the organic search rankings. And unfortunately, it is not a perfect science; we can only provide educated guesses in most cities.
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, content keyword quality, page/domain authority (which we typically still measure using Moz.com), site speed, structured data, mobile friendliness, and age of domain.
Where I often hear frustration in a lawyer’s voice is when they spend some time Google-ing the keywords they would like to rank on; and after spending time, effort, and money on designing a high-quality, mobile friendly, content rich, and search optimized website, 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 metric many forget to look at in this case is the age of the domain. I know it seems strange—why should age of domain matter?
What does the age have to do with the quality of a website?
Fortunately, for those that got their web presence optimized early, the fact that a website has appeared on the search results for awhile seems to provide some inertia for that site staying around in the rankings in local law firm search results.
We feel the reason is that in local law firm search results, there is not enough search activity to allow Google’s automated algorithms to test different websites and see which ones deserves the top spots.
For example, using Google’s Keyword Planner tool, it shows that “Personal Injury Lawyer” gets around 28,280 avg. monthly searches, but when constrained to a local city such as Miami, FL, the avg. monthly searches for that keyword drop down to 190. Compare that to other local searches, like “Mexican restaurant” which has 750 avg. monthly searches. Or compare that to the avg. 1,940 people per month that search for “New iPhone in Miami.”
With under 200 avg. searches per month (or lower for many keywords), there just isn’t enough traffic to allow Google to have enough data to quickly change the law firms that are in the top spots. On top of that, because of the way many believe the algorithm to work, the fact these law firm websites are in the top spot results in them getting a predominate amount of clicks. Even a bad website may provide 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 send the searcher to.
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 a while now.
Let’s say that a law firm got their website online in 2009 and invested, on the low side, in SEO at about $1500/month. That law firm has invested over $108,000 in their web presence over the last 6 years. 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.
An interesting aside, it is not always the large advertising budget firms that always dominate the top spots either. Thanks to 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 standard (but not easy) 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 that 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. But the return on your long-term investment, of getting to the first page and then the top spots will outpace most other methods of online lead sources.
Once you get there, though, 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.