What Does Google’s 2015 Bring For Us Attorneys?

colt-logo2.jpgIt is now a new year, and we saw amazing technological advances by Google due mainly to dialing in the Hummingbird. Google has lept light years ahead. So this is my first real stab at 2015 and SEO for attorneys. First, many of you were probably pleasantly surprised when the rolling Penguin update took a lot of your sites out of penalty this last Thanksgiving. Many of you actually feel that the Link Disavowal Tool worked. Others feel that the penalty was only lifted due to herculean efforts at content and link removal at a micro and macro level, and others feel that is was simply ignoring the bad links and moving full steam ahead with “quality” link acquisition.

I personally believe the tool works in combination with all of the above, and I believe that Eric Enge and a few others believe this to be true. Links were always the backbone of good ranking on all the major search engines, and probably will be for some time to come. But slowly we have seen Google not give full value to the juice of some links, unless the receiving site itself is really a Juggernaut also. It’s not just about chasing links, it is also onsite factors of the receiving site. Getting the full value from a great link means that the site getting the link needs to be incredible.

Of course, the full value of a bad link is basically a boat anchor on your rankings, even if your site is superb navigationally, and content wise. Once the ratio of good to bad links tips against your site’s rank, your site drops. So the idea is to neutralize the crummy links somehow right? But then I ran across this Top Shelf Copy article that predicted the disavowal tool was going away. I just had to talk about it a little bit.

Could Google Get Rid of Disavow Tool?

Silly question right? Google can do whatever it wants. It owns the internet. The disavow tool that Google released in October of 2012 has been the topic of SEO people and webmasters since its creation. It was added as a Webmaster Tool, due to the difficulty in removing bad links, and negative search engine optimization that hit so many of us so hard starting in 2012. The Panda and Penguin algorithms, and their updates have made the disavow tool one of the better options for SEO experts, since clients often need fast help in recovering from algorithm filtering or manual penalties and in some cases both.

Disavow Tool

The discussion surrounding the disavow tool includes opinions on the tool not working, with others commenting the tool does work, though it may be a slow process. Some SEO experts and webmasters believe that it even works in some cases without other recovery efforts with a link building program. My theory is that this tool could be easy to abuse, and could be used for link sculpting, and as a way to ignore your crummy profile, instead of cleaning it up. Of course the other side of the argument in Google’s favor, is that competitors will now have to be very careful about trying to reverse engineer their adversary’s web links and acquire the same ones from the same sites. How do you know which link is hurting and which one is helping? Google no longer updates the PageRank Toolbar, so you have know real way to gauge if you are getting a good link or not when you try to copy your competitor’s linking profile into your site’s metrics.

I mean in the old days, we would look at the external backlinks pointing to the top ranking legal site, and try and get those same external sites that point to our competitors to link to our sites. Remember? I mean, this is why every lawyer that wants to rank has to have a few Findlaw links for example. It is like having eggs without bacon. Google ranks sites with good links. Often those links can cost a lot of money when the company selling them, calls them something else, and makes a truckload of money selling you listings, or websites they link up, optimize and maintain for you, the lawyer. Of course, if the links work, you rank, and you are in the money too. So yes, if you get enough of these good links, arguably, you can step outside the penalty ratio without removing or disavowing. But what if all things are equal in a competing Orca’d or “clean” site, and your “dirty” site? What if you both have a basically equal profile and are both at the zenith of of onsite navigation and other ranking factors? Well, it appears that you would need to neutralize any caustic links. In my opinion, the cleaner, newer site wins, despite domain age.

But what if I leave all those crappy links and just disavow? Then my competitor won’t know which links are bad, and which ones are good. See what I mean? With or without the tool, SEO has an air of fear, uncertainty and doubt that it never had before.  Some people use what is referred to as forensic SEO to identify and fix link related problems and count on the disavow tool to do so. Google is the real winner here with or without the tool. SEO just got a whole lot harder, and PPC is looking a whole lot better.

Excessive Use of the Tool

At the launch of the Google tool Matt Cutts described it as a “power-user tool” and stated they did not want SEO experts and webmasters to use the tool excessively, even saying most people shouldn’t need to use the disavow tool. What was not accounted, or maybe it was, for was the numerous website owners with a large number of spam links that without using the tool would not be able to remove a small percentage of the links, even when requesting removal three times.
What has ended up happening is the advice of Matt Cutts has been ignored by many site owners and SEO people about the use for link cleanup efforts.

The other thing that is happening is many people are using the disavow tool rather than link removal requests. Some people are even using the tool proactively and its possible Google will not view this method with approval. The tool maybe getting much more use than what Google had planned and while it probably doesn’t have a lot of impact on them, it is possible if they begin seeing it used outside their terms they could decide to get rid of the tool. This would have a great impact on SEO experts and webmasters depending on it to clean up their links.

What is not clear is how it would affect Google’s ability to clean their link graph, which is in constant change; however it is possible the link graph could be made obsolete in ranking. It could be that links will no longer be the major ranking signal. We have already seen other onsite factors that can make links less necessary for newer sites with great navigation. This could be a good thing for SEO experts and webmasters, since there would not be new penalties, existing penalties or filters imposed, unless Google to change this system rapidly.

Enter the Orca Method

Eating penguins

Orca Method

In a nutshell, the Orca Method involves creating a new business domain, preferably one that is an exact match domain, and 301 redirecting all the old pages to the new sites new pages, and 404 redirecting bad links away from the new site. This what most lawyers that survived Penguin used to get out of algo filtration under Penguin, as opposed to waiting over a year for the next update. I have seen it work with my own eyes, so I don’t care what you say.

I personally did not use this method, and instead have striven to save my crusty old url. I have seen lots of back and forth on Google forums and Youtube over this. So far Google has not stopped the steamroller of top ranking Orca’d sites. In fact, if you see a top ranking legal site, and you Ahref it and see little if any links, dig a little deeper and I am willing to bet you will find that its old, penalized site was redirected to the new domain and that is why you cannot see the links. They are there, but Ahrefs is not sophisticated enough to show you the links from the old domain redirecting. Get it?

Of course, as a business, these are drastic measures to take, and I personally feel that Google could decide this is a black hat method at some point. It just works too well, and it really doesn’t make sense to change your url just to please Google. Already many of us have had to change office policies and guidelines just so we can get into and remain in Google Places for Businesses.

Of course the upside is that Google seems to be blasting and favoring well optimized exact match domains straight to the top for key terms, over better optimized sites that use the branded business names in the domain. So using Orca, along with an EMD or partial EMD may just give your struggling site a chance at a new life. Caveat emptor.

Avoiding Penguin Penalties with Good Links

Of course, the surest way to avoid a penalty or a “filter,” if you prefer, is to acquire great links. Of course, as a busy lawyer, that seems almost impossible. Most people with high quality websites are not tripping over themselves to link to your “Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney” page, for example. In fact, I don’t even think that is a great link anyways. I would want someone to link to my latest article about safety tips, or how to handle a pi case in small claims court, not necessarily my site’s main index page. Google is seeking out that deep link to an interesting page on your site. Sure, you should have links from some local listing sites to your main page, absolutely. That is natural.

It is even natural for another lawyer to list your main page on his “resources page” of trusted third party sites. But your goal should be to write content with VERY catchy titles that answers questions in advance, and that even presents both sides of an argument. So a catchy title is probably the single most important factor in pleasing people and the Google gods.

The silo of good content that you built will now funnel link juice to your main practice pages. But the important thing here is that people share and vote for your excellent content. I did not say use exact match anchors, or ask for them. Instead, you just want a compelling source to cite your article in their interesting article, and link to you with a “Click Here.” or “Read More,” “Source,” etc. Nothing contrived or sketchy here.

Google’s most recent Penguin search algorithm update is shaking up the way companies and sites utilize SEO. Search engine terms and trends are changing and the new methods Google have introduced is challenging the way that companies and websites have been gaining publicity and market share. Many sites that link to your own site have been hit with Penguin penalties for pre-existing bad links, and that will sharply decrease your site rank as well. Some sites that link to you may also have been hit by Panda for failure to have decent site navigation, or sub par content. Many lawyers with links coming from poorly designed and built sites are getting a feel for “good” and “bad,” and trying to remove these links or use the disavow file.

However, as discussed above, many experts think this is not always necessary. Instead your site’s reputation and rank can be salvaged by going along with Penguin’s game. Google means to build up a reservoir of higher quality links to lead consumers to more legitimate means of information. According to Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, Penguin aggregates across the entire site- both good and bad links. If the good links can outweigh the bad ones, the site can start a recovery in the search results without disavowing. There’s no way of determining which level of each is needed, but it shows that there is hope for sites that have been penalized for bad links, and who don’t wish to use the Orca Method. Removing such links is still recommended by most experts, but it is probably not as much of a nail in the coffin as previously believed.

This shows the importance of prudent SEO work. Throwing a series of non-branded, artificial links into a site will still most likely penalize your site and affect the ratio of good to bad links. A series of branded links, especially from more reputable sites and news links, will be able to bolster the overall weight of the site. Penguin’s algorithms will determine whether or not the ratio of good to bad links is shifting towards the desired level at that point.

This would make fixing such penalties easier than many other previous tools. Rather than depending on removing the “bad” links and using disavow, the webmaster can now more effectively use all of these tools at their disposal. The combination is a way to get your site back in Google’s good graces for the duration it uses Penguin. Don’t forget that this type of SEO work is often as important if not moreso than the effective use of keywords and formatting. The more tools at your disposal the better.

In any event, whether or not the Disavow Tool goes the way of the Do Do Bird, or whether you are able to dilute the good to bad ratio of bad links, your site is still not out of the hole. More than ever, internal site navigation, and siloing is just as important as the many offsite factors that you will face. What do you see the future is for links and SEO? Do you think that social signals and user reviews will replace backlinks as the primary ranking signal? If so, there may not even be a reason to disavow anything.

Posts by Michael Ehline

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6 SEO Strategies for New Lawyer Websites

Chris Dreyer, President and Founder of Rankings.io

The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Cirlce of Legal Trust.

New websites need a lot of attention to start ranking well in search.  A new domain is not trusted by Google and is typically buried deep in search results to start.  It takes time to build up the authority on any website but here are the key activities lawyers should be doing first.

Submit site to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools

Google and other search engines will index your site[1] regardless of whether you tell them about it or not.  There are still some good reasons to submit to these leading search engines.

  1. Lawyers can get their pages indexed faster.
  2. Initiating a manual crawl from Google and Bing alerts them to your pages a little sooner.
  3. Search Console gives site owners other valuable information about their domain such as keyword positioning, technical information, and alerts about potential issues.
  4. In as little as 15-20 days, you can have some useful information on how people are finding your site

Search Console from Google and Webmaster Tools from Bing are free to use and fairly straightforward to set up.

Build Citations and Other Links

Citations can help a new domain get a solid web presence quickly.  Lawyers should use a citation service[2] like Moz Local or Yext to get a new domain out on the web.  Citation services are also an effective way to build multiple local links to a site in a short amount of time.

Most citation services and websites will allow for links to be placed, but higher quality links should be obtained from other sources.  Here are some good places to start:

  1. Submit your site to top legal directories (both paid and free).
  2. Create social profiles.
  3. Look for guest posting opportunities on niche-relevant websites.
  4. Submit your site to local directories and authoritative business related websites like the Better Business Bureau.

The idea with citations is that your firm will be listed in dozens if not hundreds of locations online all with the same consistent information.  Being listed in so many places with consistent information can improve your rank in search.  Links are a core part of Google’s ranking algorithm[3] which makes earning them one of the most important tasks in SEO.

Keyword Research and Content

Content is another top ranking factor so it should be a primary focus for lawyers working on ranking a new domain.  Attorneys should be making well-researched, helpful content that is beneficial to their audience.  Along with good content, it’s important to keep the keywords that you want to rank for in mind when generating new content.

Here are some best practices for keyword research and implementation:

  1. Each page on a website should target a particular keyword phrase.
  2. Look for purchase intent keywords (i.e. personal injury lawyer cost, bankruptcy attorney pricing, etc.).
  3. Use synonyms of your target keywords on your pages.
  4. Insert target keyword phrases in page titles, headings, meta descriptions, image file names, alt attributes, anchor text of internal links pointed at the page and in page copy.

It should be noted that having a blog can increase the number of pages (and hence the number of keywords that can be targeted).

Lawyers should use tools to find out search volume of keyword phrases before going after them.  After all, if an audience is not using a phrase to find legal services, it doesn’t make much sense to target it with SEO.

Here are some useful tools to get that data:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Ahrefs Keywords Explorer

Google’s keyword planner can be used to figure out search volume for specific phrases, and it’s free.  Ahrefs Keywords Explorer can be utilized for the same thing although you can only use it so much for free before having to sign up for a subscription.

Use these tools by plugging in a few phrases as ‘seed’ keywords (starter phrases).  The tools will produce more phrases that searchers are using to find legal services like yours.

Onsite Optimization

Onsite SEO refers to things you can do to your actual website to rank well in search.  Configuring onsite elements builds a solid foundation for a site to perform well in search.  Here is a short list of onsite elements that should be optimized:

  • Write a unique and compelling title tag and meta description for all pages with valuable content (especially practice area specific pages)
  • Make sure your target keyword phrases are included in page copy and other key areas on the page
  • Check that each page has an h1 tag (just one) and if necessary, subsequent header tags (h2, h3, h4, etc.)
  • Add alt attributes to images and try to work your keyword phrase in there
  • Make sure you have a correctly configured Robots file
  • URLs on pages should be short and easy to read
  • Here is a more comprehensive onsite checklist[4]

Claim Your Google and Bing Business Listings

These are great business listings for local businesses.  Google in particular has a strong interest in delivering relevant local results to users.  When people look for law firms, Google tends to serve results that are close by a searcher’s location based on their IP address.  Lawyers who do not have a robust Google Business listing are not going to show up in those results.

Bing has a good listing service as well and being present there helps for a lawyer’s presence on that platform (which has surpassed 20% market[5] share in search).  For both of these services, it is important to fill out profiles as completely as possible which includes:

  • Adding Name, Address, phone number to the profile
  • Adding website URL
  • Add as many images and videos as allowed
  • Add accurate categories including practice area categories
  • Add a keyword-rich description of the business
  • Verify the listing
  • Add a local phone number and not a toll-free

Adding as much content as possible to a listing makes it more useful for users.  More useful content is more likely to be served.

[1] https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/6259634?hl=en

[2] https://rankings.io/local-citations-for-lawyers-what-they-are-2-citation-finding-tools/

[3] http://searchengineland.com/now-know-googles-top-three-search-ranking-factors-245882

[4] http://altitudemarketing.com/seo-checklist/

[5] http://venturebeat.com/2015/04/15/comscore-bing-steals-from-google-and-yahoo-to-pass-20-search-share-in-the-u-s/

Posts by Chris Dreyer

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