The Changing Landscape of Google Search Results for Attorneys

This post was written by Scott Morgan.

Scott Morgan is a board certified Texas family law attorney and founder of the Morgan Law Firm which has offices in Houston, Austin and Sugar Land. He blogs on Texas divorce and family law issues here.  When he is not practicing family law or obsessing over search engine rankings he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children.

If like many solo and small firm attorneys you depend on the Internet to send you some of your prospective new clients it is probably not news to you that the look and content of Google’ s local search results have changed significantly over the past few years and especially the past 12 months. This article will provide an overview of how Google’s search results have changed and specifically how you can go about improving the results for your own website.

How I Got Into Search Engine Optimization 

Like most of you reading this article I am a practicing attorney.  In 1999 I looked into having a website built for my family law practice. It seems odd to think of it now but at the time it seemed like a real longshot that a website would ever generate a single client for me.  After all, who would look for an attorney on the internet?  That was what the yellow pages were for, right?  I know, it seems obvious now but it wasn’t so apparent then.

But everyone said the internet was “the next big thing” and not wanting to be left behind I had a website built.  It was three pages long and cost me $2,500.  Times have changed quite a bit.  Today you could probably have the same site built for $100 or just get a template and do it yourself for free in less than an hour.

When the website went up I was actually surprised that it very quickly became an excellent source of new clients.  Along the way I began to learn just how important it was to get your site ranked highly on the search engines for phrases that a prospective client might search for.  The higher my site ranked for my important keywords the more prospective clients would visit my website and the busier my practice was.

When I first began to examine the search engine results pages I became frustrated that there were competing lawyers I knew whose sites ranked higher than mine.  I thought to myself, “doesn’t google know that I’m a better lawyer than them?”  Of course, search engines have no way of knowing which is the better lawyer, they are only interested in who has the better website.

So I began studying how search engines determined how to rank websites and discovered that there was a science to getting a website to rank highly for specific keyword phrases.  That science is known as search engine optimization or SEO.  When I realized that it was possible through SEO to improve your rankings and thereby drive more clients to your practice I became hooked and have been ever since.  For years high search engine rankings have been a huge boon to my practice and a significant source of new clients to my practice.  Everything was perfect.

That is, until Google decided to change the game…

A Brief Recent History of Google’s Search Results Pages

Let’s start with a comparison of what a local search results page looked like as recently as 2011 as compared to today. When I refer to a “local search results page” I just mean the results for a search phrase that has a local intent, such as “Seattle divorce attorney” or “Los Angeles family law.” Below is a screenshot of a current search result page that is similar in format to what all results pages looked like in past years:

organicThe search was done today for the phrase “divorce Harris County family law.” It was actually a bit of a challenge to find a local phrase that gave the old-style results. As you can see, the page was essentially a list of 10 web pages (the “organic” results) with a few pay per click results on the top and sidebar.

Back then this kind of result page was relatively easy to rank for. All that was required was that the website owner (or the search engine optimization hired gun) obtain links pointing to the website using the anchor text (the words in the link) of whatever phrase they were trying to rank for. So if you wanted to rank for “Houston divorce lawyer” you would get links pointing to your site using “Houston divorce lawyer” as the anchor text. Get enough links like these and you would rank well.  Ah, the good old days…

Now let’s compare this to the current state of local search results pages:

As you can see, the results have a very different appearance to them. localThis search was done for “Houston divorce attorney.” The additional element that Google has inserted into the page is known as the “local” results. The key here is that this is not simply an aesthetic change. The local results are determined by Google in an entirely separate algorithm (the mathematical formula Google uses to rank webpages for different search phrases). This change caused many very highly ranking law firm sites to permanently lose a significant amount of traffic (read: prospective clients) overnight.  I know because my firm was one of them.

Google has now given the local results such a prominent position on the results page that the previously all-important organic results are now almost completely irrelevant. In the past a site that ranked number one for an important local phrase would have been at the top of the page and received approximately 25% of the click-throughs. In other words, 25% of the people who did that search would actually have visited that law firm’s website.

That same site may still have a #1 ranking for the phrase but it has been pushed so far down the page that it’s lucky to get a 2% click-through rate. For a high-traffic relevant phrase that might mean that instead of receiving 50 prospective monthly clients from that search phrase they might now get four. Obviously, that is a huge difference.

What Should a Law Firm Website Do Now?

These changes have not been happy events for those websites that in the past consistently ranked highly for their primary keywords. Many have complained but Google does not care.  They believe that their new style of results pages creates a better user experience for their searchers (the only thing Google really cares about) and the reality is that the change is here to stay.

So what is a Webmaster to do? There is no overnight fix to improving your results but here are some basic steps you can take right now to improve your chances of succeeding in the new Google local search results:

  • Claim the Google local listing for your practice and ensure that your business name, address and telephone number are all listed accurately. Google has instructions on how to do that here.
  • After claiming, add pictures, video, and other details about your practice on your Google local listing.
  • Similarly, claim your listing on the other key online local directories such as Yahoo, Bing, Yelp, and Citysearch (Google likely uses this data as part of their local ranking algorithm).
  • Work on your NAP (name, address and phone) consistency across the web. Inconsistent data confuses Google which results in a poor or nonexistent local ranking. You can get a quick check of your firm’s NAP consistency at getlisted.org.

Unless you happen to be a bit of a closet geek (like me) who makes a hobby out of search engine optimization (known as “SEO”) then you may find all of this a bit overwhelming. My recommendation would be to avoid all of the self-proclaimed search engine experts who cold call your office and spam your inbox and instead hire a very reputable local SEO expert to help you.

Note that I said “local SEO expert” and not just “SEO expert.”  There is a big difference between regular SEO and local SEO and you want a local specialist (meaning that they specialize in local SEO, not necessarily that they are geographically close to you).

Let me know your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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