WordPress & SEO Tips & Tricks

Is Your Law Firm Lagging Behind in Google? Here are 3 SEO Basics You Might Be Missing

The race to the top of Google search rankings is a competitive one in any industry, but few are as competitive as the legal industry. Law firms and solo attorneys are spending thousands – in many cases tens of thousands – of dollars or more each year on search engine optimization (SEO) to reach the coveted top spot in Google, and that’s not even taking AdWords PPC (pay per click) advertising into account.

Despite all the effort and resources being put into search engine marketing, some law firms are still falling short when it comes to on-page and technical SEO basics. While this is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list, here are the three most common, easy-to-fix on-page and technical SEO issues I’ve found on attorney websites – particularly those websites languishing at or near the back of search results:

  • No SSL certificate
  • Poorly optimized title tags
  • Poorly localized website content

Secure Your Website with an SSL Certificate

Security has always been a priority with Google – security with regard to its own apps and services and, more broadly, security on the internet in general. Back in 2014, Google began its “HTTPS Everywhere” initiative and really began the push for website owners to secure their websites with an SSL certificate and began using SSL as a ranking signal.

SSL stands for Secure Socket Layer, which is a security protocol that creates a secure, encrypted link between the server a website is hosted on and the viewer’s browser. An SSL certificate is a digital certificate that verifies a website’s identity and enables that secure connection.

Today, nearly 80% of websites utilize SSL certificates, which is great, but that means that 1/5 of all websites still remain unsecured, many of which are law firm websites. In fact, the American Bar Association’s 2020 Legal Technology Survey Report revealed that only 40% of respondents said their firm’s website uses SSL encryption.

So how can you tell if your website is secure?

There are tools out there that can scan your website and tell you, but the easiest and quickest way to tell is by opening your website in your browser and taking a look at the address bar. If you see an alert icon and a ‘Not secure’ message and your website URL begins with HTTP:// (see Figure 1 below) then your website is most likely not using SSL encryption.

Figure 1 'Not Secure'​ alert in Chrome showing that the website does not have an SSL certificate and is not secure
Figure 1 ‘Not Secure’​ alert in Chrome showing that the website does not have an SSL certificate and is not secure

On the other hand, if you see a padlock icon and your website URL begins with HTTPS:// (see Figure 2 below) then your website is secure and you are good to go.

Figure 2: Padlock icon and presence of HTTPS:// in URL indicates that the website is secure
Figure 2: Padlock icon and presence of HTTPS:// in URL indicates that the website is secure

So just how significant a ranking factor is SSL? When Google first announced SSL as a ranking signal, they wanted to give website owners time to make the switch, so it was a relatively lightweight ranking signal. However, they also acknowledged that they were leaving the door open for it to become a more significant factor:

“For now, it’s only a very lightweight signal – affecting fewer than 1% of global queries and carrying less weight than other signals such as high-quality content – while we give webmasters time to switch to HTTPS. But over time, we may decide to strengthen it, because we’d like to encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe on the web.”

Whether SSL remains a lightweight ranking signal or becomes something more significant remains to be seen, but for now, you can consider it a “tiebreaker”, meaning that if you have two websites both comparable in terms of quality content, on-page SEO, site speed, backlinks, etc… the site that uses HTTPS:// will outrank the one that does not.

CAUTION: Be careful when implementing an SSL certificate on your website. Transitioning from HTTP:// to HTTPS:// is treated by Google as “a site move with URL changes.” Done incorrectly, it could actually harm your rankings rather than help them. To provide more information on this process, here’s a link to a tutorial to help you migrate your website to HTTPS without losing SEO.

Front Load Your Title Tags

Did you know that one of the most important pieces of SEO real estate on your law firm’s website is almost never seen by site visitors? Title tags are pieces of metadata that tell browsers, search engines, and social media sites what the title of a given page is and is, ideally, a succinct description of the content of that page.

Not only is it a significant ranking factor, but Google, Bing, and other search engines use title tags as the headings for your page listings in their search results, as shown in the image below:

Figure 3: Google often uses the title tag in its SERPs listings
Figure 3: Google often uses the title tag in its SERPs listings

The problem that I am seeing is that a lot of law firms – especially those who are appearing after the third or fourth page of search results – are leading with their firm name in their title tags. As an example, for the search phrase criminal defense attorney Orlando, I noticed a number of SERP listings with titles like:

Law Firm Name : Orlando FL Criminal Defense Lawyers

and

Law Firm Name : Criminal Defense Attorney in Orlando

There is evidence that content that appears at or near the beginning of a title tag may be given more weight than content that appears toward the end, so in the examples above, the law firm’s name is given the most weight rather than the targeted keyword. Unfortunately, most prospective clients aren’t going to be searching by firm name but by their specific legal problem.
From an SEO standpoint, you’re much better off front-loading your title tag with the targeted keyword and location and moving your firm’s name to the end of the title tag, like this:

Orlando FL Criminal Defense Lawyers : Law Firm Name

and

Criminal Defense Attorney in Orlando : Law Firm Name

Front-loading your title tags may also boost your CTR (click-through rate). Since most users tend to scan search results – sometimes as few as the first couple of words of each listing – a title tag that has the keyword phrase at or near the front is more likely to catch the eye of the user and capture that coveted click.

Localize Your Content

Unless you are an international law firm, the chances are pretty good that your target search audience is pretty local. For most firms, that translates to a handful of cities in the same general area.

To improve your law firm’s rankings for a given location, that location must appear in the content of your website – and it needs to appear more than once. While I was doing research for this article, I was surprised at how many lower-ranking attorney websites’ only mention of their target city name was in the office address in the footer or that focus their title tags on one city but the website copy on another.

At a minimum, the areas of your website where the target city should appear include:

  • title tag
  • meta description
  • section headings / sub-headings
  • text copy

Locally optimizing your website’s content can be a bit of a balancing act. You want to include your target city(ies) enough to help your rankings but not so much that you risk getting flagged for spam.

Another way to optimize your website is to create location-specific landing pages that contain useful information for their intended audience. “Useful” is the key word here (no pun intended). Taking the same basic page content and just swapping out city names isn’t going to cut it.

Final Thoughts

There are literally hundreds of factors that Google takes into account when ranking web pages, and I’ve only covered three. By implementing them, are you going to catapult to the top of the search engine rankings? No, probably not. But if you find your website stuck at the back of the pack and you haven’t been able to move the needle on your rankings no matter what you do, try incorporating these SEO basics into your search engine marketing strategy and see if it helps get things moving again.

A quick suggestion – if you do decide to include one or more of these, implement them one at a time and give it some time before including the next one. That way if your rankings do change – up or down – you’ll know which SEO fix was responsible. And as always, before you make any major changes to your website, make a backup – just to be on the safe side.
Also, although this article is focused on solo attorneys and law firms (since that is what I was researching when I noticed these issues), these tips can also apply to any local business that is struggling to improve its search engine rankings.

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