This is the fourth installment of a four part series on how to build a website for your law firm.  Previous parts tackled initial steps (Part I), design and development (Part II), and site metrics (Part III).

Likely, you have heard the terminology “search engine optimization” or “SEO” in reference to online marketing.  The terms are widely understood as describing the efforts used to land your website within the top search results for certain search terms.  For example, SEO is used to return the Mass LOMAP website within the top results when someone searches for “Massachusetts law practice management” or “Mass LOMAP” or “Heidi Alexander”.  SEO is important for law firms because most users searching for a lawyer online will not look past the first few pages of the search engine results.  So, the big looming question is:  how can you use SEO to get your site to appear in the top results of a search?

First, you should have a general understanding of how search engines work.  Search engines use software robots (“spiders” or “bots”) to collect information from the billions of web pages on the Internet.  The information that is collected by the bots is based on a number of different factors (discussed below) and then indexed and stored.  When a user submits a search query, the search engine uses the index to find and return websites that contain the information queried.

Second, you must understand that SEO is an evolving concept.  The reason being that Google (the most widely used search engine, and as such, the focus of this post) constantly changes its search engine algorithm.  That algorithm considers and prioritizes certain factors when it combs and indexes websites for return in search results.  Because Google does not publicize the algorithm, no one knows the precise criteria, but many who study have provided insight.  The perpetual changes and secrecy help prevent and penalize “black hat” techniques aimed to game the system.  A well-known story of how black hat techniques have played out to a company’s detriment is the case of JC Penney.  Essentially, JC Penney was penalized for a link scheme that involved payment for links on thousands of sites, some of the sites were unrelated to JC Penney’s business and others were merely shells sites (URLs containing only links and no content).  As a result of JC Penney’s violation of Google Guidelines (warning against link schemes), JC Penney plummeted in Google’s results.

Third, you must understand the difference between organic and paid search results.  Services, such as Google Adwords, that you pay for to appear in Google’s sponsored links section do not impact organic search results, that is, the inclusion of your site or rank in general Google search results.  You cannot pay Google for organic search results.  Instead, some people will hire an SEO, a professional who can help advance a website in organic search results.  Others will do their own SEO.  Google provides some great considerations for hiring an SEO, here.  If you employ someone to build your website, you’ll want to be sure that the designer has an understanding of SEO because even the design can impact search engine rankings (as described below).

What Elements Impact Search Engine Rankings?

Content

Google values high-quality sites.  According to Google, a high-quality site contains original, unique, relevant, and honest content.  Google spells this out and more, here.  First, you need to think about what people are looking for.  You can use tools such as Google Adword’s Keyword Tool, Google Insights for Search, and Wordtracker’s Keywords Tool.  These tools can suggest keywords and provide statistics on the demand or volume of a certain terms.  You can also use Google to search terms to determine the amount of competition you have for these words, and thus how hard it will be for you to rank toward the top for these words.  Second, when you incorporate keywords into your content, you should use them naturally, making certain that they are relevant to your site’s content.  If you give an article a keyword title, write good content that is relevant to that title.  Before changes in Google’s algorithm, many websites used the trick of “keyword stuffing“, that is, placing as many keywords both on the page and in the meta data as possible, to rank highly for those keywords.  However, keyword density and meta keywords no longer impact SEO, and indeed you could actually be penalized by using keyword stuffing techniques.  In sum, when it comes to content, you should write content for your audience and not for search engines.

A note on your URL: Your URL or domain name is important not only for user ease (i.e. www.masslomap.org) but also for SEO.  Use short descriptive URLs.  If you need to use a longer URL, use hyphens rather than underscore.  You should also discuss with your web designer the use of URLs as they work with individual pages.  Page links should be descriptive (www.masslomap.org/consultations) rather than use default page ids or similarly unidentifying characters (www.masslomap.org/?p=123).

Platform and Design

WordPress and other web development and content management systems (CMS) (such as Joomla and Drupal) have search engine optimization tools and best practices built into their systems. From a development standpoint, this makes it easy for you or your website designer to develop a website that adheres to good basic SEO practices without doing much work.  For example, when it comes to URLs, WordPress enables you, with a switch of a button, to make all your individual links descriptive rather than use default page ids.  Before WordPress and other systems, these changes would need to be made within the code of the pages, which would require time and expertise.  For more on WordPress and CMS platforms, see Part I of this series.

Search engines like sites that are simple, intuitive, and easy to navigate.  That means your site should be built for the ease of your user allowing for easy navigation through each page of your site and content that will be useful to the user.  The site should be built to work with modern browsers and should not use sophisticated elements such as flash design, which is either ignored or devalued by search engines primarily because it does not allow the site to be accessible to all users.

Links

Links to and from your site to another demonstrate popularity and reputation, and thus boost your SEO rankings.  Links from your site should be relevant and based in good content.  Linking to your site can be accomplished from relevant directory listings and social media profiles, in addition to news sources, blogs, bar associations, etc.  The more authoritative (i.e. high traffic) and relevant the site linked from, the greater the SEO benefit to you.  You can submit your site to lawyer directories and business directories, some of those sites such as Manta and Yelp are free.  You can also gain links to your site by guest blogging for other reputable sites.  Again, be wary of link building schemes that violate Google Guidelines, which may include reciprocal linking strategies (i.e. quid pro quo – you link to me, I link to you) and paid options.

Social shares (similar to links) also bear on search engine results.  This may include having sharing tools available on your website for visitors to share your content, as well as distributing your content via social media so that people will re-share and link back to your site.  To build a social media presence and following, however, means that you must engage with your network, not only push out your content.

Further, social media sites, such as Twitter are now being indexed by Google.  Your Tweets will appear in searches.  This can help enhance your web presence and indirectly increase traffic to your website.  Not surprisingly, Google also values social engagement with its own social media platform Google Plus.  Indeed Google Plus has already begun to impact search results through Google Search Plus Your World, bringing SEO and social networking even closer together.  Make sure your firm has a Google Plus page and start using it as way to share content and engage.

How Can You Boost Your Search Engine Rankings?

1) Write good content, regularly.  Blogging makes this easy.  Get insight into current trends and competition by using keyword tools and adapt accordingly.

2) Use the major social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and others) to push out your site’s content and engage with others.

3) Employ a professional who understands SEO to develop your site.

4) Submit your site to Google (and other search engines).  There are two easy ways to ensure that Google recognizes your site:  use Google Webmaster Tools to 1) add your URL and 2) submit a Sitemap.  You can sign up for Google Webmaster Tools for free with an existing Google account or by creating a new Google account.  Other search engines such as Yahoo!, Ask.com, and Bing all have similar processes for submitting your site to their engine for indexing.

For more information on Search Engine Optimization, check out SEO Moz – a reputable site devoted to SEO information and resources – and its Beginners Guide to SEO.  In addition, listen to Jared’s podcast with Conrad Saam, a contributor to another good SEO site Search Engine Land.