Google Ranking Factors: Lawyer’s Edition

SEO ranking factors for law firms

Before we can dive into how ranking factors affect law firms we have to understand the basics of how Google operates as a business.

The algorithm Google uses to rank websites in its search engine is pretty damn complex. A lot of money has been poured into improving the original algorithm Sergey Brin and Larry Page developed back during their days at Stanford.

Google states that it is guided by a commitment to provide you with the best information when you search for something. It does this so well that it has been able to claim {insert stat here} of the search engine market share.

If it were easy to rank in search then everyone would do it — and if that happened the search results would be volatile as hell, people would be less satisfied with Google as a search engine, and Google would lose market share — hurting its profitability.

We have to remember that Google is more than just a search engine — it’s a business. And as a business it has one primary goal: to increase the profitability for its shareholders.

Now that we understand why Google wants to return the best results and why it’s not easy for just anyone to “be the best” we can dive into the top ranking signals.

Top Ranking Factor #1: Content

Content is the base upon which all sustainable search engine optimization (SEO) efforts should be built.  While you can rank a junk page with enough links (more about that in a moment) it will always be susceptible to a manual action by Google.

The same applies to pages that are lacking in content depth but supported with a high number of links. In fact, if your content quality is high enough you can rank pages with few to zero backlinks much higher than competitor pages with many backlinks.

Searcher’s Intent

The most important thing your content must do is satisfy the searcher’s intent. This can be done by analyzing the SERPs to see what Google is ranking already.

This is why it’s going to be a waste of your time to attempt ranking for best attorneys in [city] unless you create a page along with several competitors. When people search for this they’re often looking for a page that compares attorneys, not a single page you’ve created that might state why you’re the best attorney for the job.

If your content doesn’t satisfy the searcher’s intent, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle the entire time to rank on the first page.

Depth is More Important than Length

Some studies have shown that long-form content tends to show up higher in the search rankings. This is just a correlational study, however.

It is our contention that longer pieces of content tend to cover a topic more in depth and that it is depth, not the actual length of the content which matters more. Length alone is not sufficient nor necessary for depth to be met. That being said, in most cases it is difficult to create in an depth piece of content that is not lengthy.

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A Quick History of How Topical Authority Overtook Keywords

Back in 2013 Google introduced an algorithm called Hummingbird that drastically changed the way the search algorithm worked.

Prior to the Hummingbird update many people were able to game Google’s algorithm by stuffing their content with target keywords and building links with these keywords in the anchor text (the piece of text that is actually linked).

The position and placement of keywords influenced things heavily as well. This included things like placing keywords in the domain name, title tags of pages, the first paragraph, heading tags (e.g. the H1 and H2 headings), in the alt text of images, and so on. If you’ve done any research into SEO (especially for lawyers) you’ve likely already read about this.

Google relied on these things heavily pre-Hummingbird because it did not have a great way of understanding the semantic intent of a searcher’s query. That all began to change with Hummingbird.

Hummingbird provided Google with a way of evaluating content quality and topical relevance. This piece of the algorithm was just the beginning though. The common approaches to SEO that involved gaming the algorithm continued to work (and still do in many instances) but that has slowly been on the decline.

You can still take that approach and so long as no one else updates their SEO strategy to focus on modern practices then you’ll be fine.

Or you can get ahead of the curve and start producing topically relevant and authoritative content now. The benefit of doing so will be a massive increase in your website’s organic traffic and more ownership over the market share in your industry.

EAT: Expertise, Authority, & Trustworthiness

A lot of buzz occurs within the SEO community about EAT and it’s role in SEO. It’s a fairly contentious point in our community. Some people have doubled down on it as a critical part of the future while others still swear they are able to bypass these requirements with enough link building and other manipulations of the algorithm.

In keeping with the direction Google began heading with the Hummingbird update, additional emphasis was placed on favoring content judged to come from an authoritative source with expertise on the topic that could be trusted.

We know this because Google’s Search Quality Evaluator’s Guidelines state as much:

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Topical authority is developed by creating content that covers a sufficient number of topics in such a way with enough depth to earn authority in the eyes of Google.

The best way to do this is to analyze the Google search results as they currently exist. Google tells us exactly what it wants to rank in the top results — we just have to go and look. Determine what topics the pages are ranking for and cover those topics in depth as well. Then, going further, continue to do this for side branches in semantic intent with additional pages to build out a cluster of content around a primary pillar page.

Okay, so what the hell does that even mean? Don’t worry. I’m going to break it down in depth and provide examples in the chapter over content marketing.

Top Ranking Factor #2: Links

Links are still a key factor influencing the rankings on Google. Google’s original algorithm was heavily based on links. This approach, called PageRank, used a weighted system of edges (links) between nodes (web pages) to distribute authority across the world wide web.

Each link one page gave another was essentially a vote for that page — much in the same way citing a resource in a paper is your way of deeming that source authoritative and trustworthy.

While it’s our contention that links are losing their importance over time we’re not quite ready to hang the hat up just yet — and neither are most other SEOs. For better or for worse, links are here to stay for the time being so you might as well understand how they work and how to acquire them.

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How Backlinks Work

As I previously mentioned, backlinks are like votes. Each link is a vote for a web page (not to be confused with a website). In this sense it’s very similar to the way the popular vote works in the U.S.

However, it isn’t just the quantity of links that matter. Quality is an important element as well. Most models that predict Page Authority (Moz) or URL Authority (ahrefs) measure them using a logarithmic scale and place more emphasis on quality links versus the quantity.

We can think of this in the same way the electoral college works in the U.S election system. All votes are important but not all votes are equal — some votes carry more emphasis (e.g. swing) than others.

What Makes a Backlink High Quality?

There are a variety of factors research studies have found correlate with links that pack a punch. While there may be hundreds of factors, we can apply the Pareto Principle and focus on the following since they seem to be the most important:

Editorial Links in the Body of the Content

Links placed in the body of the content carry more weight than links found in footers or sidebars. Authoritative publishers take their reputation seriously and that means editorial content goes through a review process to some extent.

During review, editors will often check the sources writers link to in an effort to determine their relevance and legitimacy. Because of this, search algorithms trust these types of links more than links that can be bought as a promotion – like those often seen in sidebars.

The Authority of the Linking Page

Pages with a lot of links from unique web pages (and websites) are typically seen as more credible than one with merely a high volume of links.

Imagine someone is looking to hire a personal injury attorney and starts to ask around for recommendations. They ask 13 people in all.

One friend recommends Joe Lawyer, Esq. over and over and over again — they’re pretty insistent this particular attorney is the best.

However, a dozen other people all recommend a different attorney: Johnny Attorney, Esq.

Which attorney do you think is likely to be chosen and has a better chance of being “the best?” Let me assure you, it’s not typically going to be the one who had a hundred recommendations from the same person.

You can obtain quality backlinks via manual outreach to other websites following the same principles you would when trying to network with someone professionally. That means take your time and don’t ask them to link to you during your very first conversation — build a little rapport first!

The Number of Links the Referring Page is Referring Out

The more a page links out to other sites the less overall authority it has to pass around. A page only has so much authority to pass around. The more links it sends out the more divided the link equity becomes.

In keeping with our election analogies, imagine I have $50,000 to donate to a political campaign. I can donate all $50,000 to one political candidate or I can divide my campaign donations between a dozen candidates. The more I divide my donation the less overall impact it has for any one candidate.

Links work in the very same way. If a page is linking to many other pages the weight of any one link is greatly diminished. That being said, this also depends on how many links the linking page is receiving from other pages itself as well.

It is also commonly believed that the overall link popularity of the domain as a whole plays a role. This is known as domain authority (moz) or domain rating(ahrefs).

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Dofollow Links: Intentional Endorsements

Links come in a few flavors.

  • dofollow
  • nofollow
  • ugc
  • sponsored

These link types are defined by using a rel (relationship) attribute in HTML. A dofollow link is traditionally the best type of link and the one we would often seek to obtain from a website. All links are dofollow unless otherwise specified.

Links with a nofollow relation were traditionally not seen as important because they effectively told search engines not to follow the link (meaning no substantial edge was formed between the two nodes). However, that all changes as of March 2020 when Google begins following nofollow links.

While we don’t know whether or not authority will be passed from one page to another whenever a nofollow link is used, we at least will know that Google will start to follow the links between two sites.

In 2019 we saw two new types of links come into existence: ugc and sponsored. Links with a sponsored attribute serve as a way to recognize that there may be some compensation-based relationship between two entities.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean the link isn’t trustworthy we can reasonably assume the reason site A is linking to site B is biased. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that the relationship exists in that matter — much in the same way affiliate sites are required to make it known that they may be compensated for their recommendations.

Links with the ugc attribute are links generated by users. These are typically in the comments found on pages or in the case of some websites, entire sections of their website’s content (e.g. saleshacker.com and wikipedia.com).

We’ll strive to get any link we can so long as it’s from a reputable source. Our goal is to secure dofollow links more than the others but we won’t pass up an opportunity for another type of link if it’s from a high-quality site. We would recommend you take the same approach.

Anchor Text: Be Reasonable

The original search algorithm was heavily reliant upon the anchor text used to hyperlink one page to another. The chosen anchor text was used as a key component for understanding the context within which the link was being used.

If one page has dozens of links from external sites that all use words related to dogs in some way, shape, or form then we can reasonably assume that particular page is about dogs.

The problem is that the importance based on the actual words used in the anchor text was exceedingly vulnerable to manipulation. People, like water, will often follow the path of least resistance. Many folks spammed the hell out of exact match anchor text when obtaining backlinks to their site that Google was forced to take action.

And take action they did: enter the first iteration of the Penguin algorithm. Penguin devastated the SEOs that were intentionally manipulating anchor text and resulting in many manual penalties and decreased rankings.

In a comprehensive study performed by ahrefs it was found over and over again that anchor text carried a very weak to almost non-existent correlation with a page’s rankings.

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Ahrefs recommendation was to put the days of chasing exact match anchor text in the past. Why? Because they, like us, have concluded that Google is granting more weight to topics rather than keywords as time goes on. Moreover, it’s an unjustified risk to receive a manual penalty given the weak correlations (note that this doesn’t seem to apply when building your own internal links between pages).

Top Ranking Factor #3: Rankbrain

Rankbrain is a fascinating bit of artificial intelligence that Google uses to automatically optimize the search results.

Imagine you surveyed visitors after they visited your site to find out if they got what they wanted when they visited. That’s sort of how Rankbrain works except it uses user experience (UX) signals to determine this instead of actual surveys.

Pogo-Sticking

When a user visits your site and quickly realizes it isn’t providing them with what they’re looking for, they’ll often hit the back button and try another link or refine their search query – increasing the page’s bounce rate.

This is called pogo-sticking and Rankbrain takes notice of this behavior and acts accordingly. If a lot of people are pogo-sticking Rankbrain will automatically devalue that page for that particular query in the future.

Page speed is something we can consider here as well. If a page takes a long time to load (especially on mobile devices) we can presume that users will get frustrated quickly and return to the Google search engine results page to try a different result.

You can quickly get a grip on page speed and other useful metrics like impression count and click-through rate via Google Search Console. Other tools like Google Analytics can help you assess the dwell time on pages as well as their bounce rates.

This is just another case of pogo-sticking.

Some studies, such as the one by Backlinko, submit that dwell time and click-through rates are factors Rankbrain considers as well when ranking pages. I haven’t been presented with sufficient data to call these first-order influences on the decisions Rankbrain makes, however.

The general thought is that pages with a higher-click through rate are seen as “better” and increases in dwell time is an indicator of a page being valuable enough to spend time with.

I submit that these are likely second-order correlational factors instead. Increases in click-through rate alone shouldn’t impact search results if satisfying searcher’s intent is the primary focus — otherwise, clickbait headlines would impact results at a greater level.

Regarding dwell time, it can reasonably be assumed that pages that are more useful are going to tend to show increases in dwell time versus those that clearly do not provide value.

The common denominator?

Value. It’s that simple.

This is why it is so important that you satisfy searcher’s intent with the content on your page. Rankbrain effectively takes the emphasis off of keyword research and optimization and places it on the usefulness of your content.

Rankbrain has made the job of SEO much easier for content creators that focus on the users and harder for people just looking to manipulate the results and rank higher (despite having low-quality content). This is something we happily welcome — and you should too.

The Future of Search: Semantic Analysis and Topical Intent

As Google’s algorithm gets increasing more intelligence link relevance will likely decrease. It has been a thorn in their side every since spammers first learned they could manipulate things. While Google has improved its ability to identify unnatural link building and punish people accordingly, there’s still plenty of cases that go undetected.

As the artificial intelligence gets smarter through advancements in machine learning the logical shift is for Google to move toward topical authority build by consistently building up a corpus of authoritative content on a topic and brand building.

At Ardent Growth we do this for our client using advanced methods of machine learning and natural language processing. Our clients see consistent growth and in many cases major upticks whenever a body of work gets published in rapid succession.

Ardent Growth Client Search Console Growth

Additional SEO Factors that Impact Law Firms

Everything we have just discussed largely applies to standard search engine results. Things change a bit when we add local SEO results into the mix (i.e. when maps with local search results begin appearing). Additional factors like the health of a businesses Google My Business listing and citations play major roles as well.

We’ll dive into how to do keyword research for personal injury firms in the next chapter.

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Skyler Reeves Transparent Background

Article by:

An avid advocate for small business owners and victims of personal injury. Committed to helping the best attorneys help others.

Founder of Ardent Growth. CMO of RunDoyen. Author of the #1 Guide to Google My Business.

B.S. in Computer Science & B.S. in Philosophy from MSU (with honors).

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