There are many online marketing companies that offer search engine optimization for law firm websites. We’re surprised to see that these companies posted case studies and made claims regarding how they were able to rank law firms #1 in search results for keywords and phrases such as “Indiana car accident attorneys” or “Florida keys criminal law.” These claims sound impressive, but the real issue is whether high keyword rankings mean anything regarding a law firm website’s online visibility or, better still, generating new client leads. In this article, I’ll explain why keyword ranking reports are “old school,” useless information for law firms and why keywords rankings have little to do with whether a law firm’s website is effectively targeting potential clients.

Keyword Rankings for Law Firm Websites are the Canary in the Coal Mine

Futeral & Nelson’s website, http://charlestonlaw.net, ranks very high (in many cases #1) for various keywords and phrases. For example, as of the date of this post, the site ranks #1 for “charleston military divorce lawyers” and “james island DUI attorneys.” As impressive as that may seem, many of these key words and phrases have little to do with the approximately 20,000 visitors who visit they site each month.

When JustLegal begins the process of search engine optimization, we run keyword ranking reports. Having said that, we run these reports as evidence of a “canary in the coal mine.” Essentially, if we observe that the law firm’s site isn’t showing within the search engine results, we know that site is in trouble and it needs more TLC. Otherwise, the metrics we use most are: (1) the volume of site traffic and (2) whether visitors are engaging with the site by visiting  other pages, filling out the site’s contact form, etc.

Sure, there’s a connection between having a high ranking for a high-volume keyword or phrase and having that keyword or phrase bring your site search engine traffic. However, keyword rankings aren’t the “end all and be all” of a search engine optimization mainly for two reasons. First, search engine results are highly personalized, and therefore vary for different users. Second, [tooltip title=”Long-tail keywords are used to target niche demographics rather than mass audiences. In other words, they’re more specific and often less competitive than generic keyword terms.” placement=”top” trigger=”hover” class=”” id=””]long-tail keywords[/tooltip] and [tooltip title=”Semantic search is a data searching technique in a which a search query aims to not only find keywords, but to determine the intent and contextual meaning of the the words a person is using for search.” placement=”top” trigger=”hover” class=”” id=””]semantic search[/tooltip] results mean that Google is returning results to users that are much more relevant than just a few keywords or phrases.

Search Engine Results Are Personalized for Different Users

Typically, the same search in Google run by two different people will produce two different results. Here’s why – Google has been “personalizing” search engine results since 2009. Essentially, when you use Google to search or use Google’s other services such as Gmail or Google +, Google constantly tracks where you are, what you search for, and what you click on. Over time, Google “learns” more about your online habits and interests and, in turn, gives you different results than other searchers such as your family members, your neighbor across the street, or a stranger searching online 500 miles away from you. For example, let’s say that you favor a particular news site such as CNN.com. Over time, Google will show you more results from CNN than from another news site such as DailyNews.com. Additionally, when you’re using Google on a mobile device, Google learns where you go each day based on your GPS coordinates when you perform a search or use a Google app such as Gmail. Based on this information, if someone from Topeka, Kansas searches for the term “criminal lawyer” on their mobile device without including any geographic information, Google will show the user criminal attorneys from Topeka, Kansas.

All of this is not to say that Google doesn’t use other ranking factors to determine which sites are most relevant to your search. However, the important thing to remember is that your target audience is going to see pages from websites that Google thinks they specifically want to see which renders keyword ranking reports all but useless to a law firm as a metric of whether the site is attracting potential clients.

Keyword Rankings Are Dead – Long Live Long-Tail Keywords & Semantic Search

The way people search online for lawyers and legal services is becoming more intricate over time for two primary reasons. First, Internet users are savvier then they were nearly two decades ago. Instead of searching for “drunk driving attorney,” they are using more complex words and phrases such as “I need a defense attorney for a drunk driving charge I got in Phoenix.” The second reason why searches are more intricate is because devices, especially mobile phones, easily allow searchers to voice, instead of type, complex queries. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather talk to my smartphone to search than to type out my question. Because searches are more intricate, there are two very important digital marketing terms that you should become familiar with – long-tail keywords and semantic search:

1) Long-Tail Keywords: Long-tail keywords are used to target niche demographics rather than mass audiences. In other words, they’re more specific and often less competitive than generic keyword terms.

Example: If you’re a criminal lawyer in Atlanta Georgia, the chances are that your pages may never appear near the top of an organic search for “lawyer” or “criminal lawyer” because there’s too much nationwide competition online. Even if we narrow the organic search down to “criminal lawyer in Atlanta,” the competition is still daunting. When I ran that search (using “incognito mode in Chrome to avoid “personalized” results), Google gave me 15,500,00 results. At the top of that list were major sites such as Avvo, FindLaw, and Justia. However, let’s say that you’re a criminal lawyer in Atlanta who focuses on defending juveniles. Long-tail keywords like “juvenile justice defense lawyer in Atlanta” may help potential clients reliably find exactly what they’re looking for – your firm!

Importance: Long-tail keywords help to target niche demographics and quality traffic rather than mass audiences rather than focusing on more general, and often highly competitive, generic keyword terms.

2) Semantic Search: Semantics is that science of the meaning of language. Semantic search is an attempt by Google and other search engines to improve the accuracy of search results by “understanding” the searcher’s intent and the contextual meaning of terms used by the searcher.

Example: Suppose someone searches for the term “bark.” Standing alone, the term “bark” may mean the sound a dog makes, the covering of a tree, or a three-masted sailing ship. However, Google attempts to determine the intent and the context of the search by analyzing other terms in the search. For example, if you searched “does bark make good kindling,” then Google associates the term kindling with “tree” bark and returns relevant results to match your search.

Importance: For purposes of SEO, semantic search means that although keywords and phrases still play a role in search results, the “context” and “intent” of the content of your law firm’s website is playing a much larger role with each passing year. Stated another way, creating quality, relevant content for your website is becoming much more important than just focusing on keywords.

Focus on Content, Not Keywords, to Generate Traffic to Your Law Firm’s Website

Most law firm websites get found and clicked on in Google and other search engines for thousands of different keyword combinations and phrases. Although digital marketers may do their best to identify a limited number of the best keywords and phrases that will attract new clients, there is no realistic way to optimize a law firm website for the thousands of other phrases that may bring you targeted visitors to your site.

Search engine optimization isn’t just about tweaking a law firm’s website to target keyword phrases; it’s also about having quality content that responds to the need of a potential client. Clients need answers to their legal questions. Having numerous web site pages that describe your law firm’s legal services doesn’t fulfill a potential client’s needs. However, if you create enough quality content on your website to give the best possible answers to these questions, then you will accomplish 4 important SEO goals: (1) your site’s pages will begin to surface to the top of search engine results in response to law-related search queries; (2) as the pages of your site rise in search results, you will drive more quality traffic to your website; (3) your content will establish you as an “authority” on the subject over your law firm’s competitors; and (4) your online authority will convert your site’s visitors into potential clients who call or message you about your legal services.

Final Thoughts on Keyword Rankings for Law Firm Websites

When a digital marketer tries to sell you on the importance of being #1 for keywords such as “[practice area] lawyer in [whatever location],” run, don’t walk, out of that sales meeting. Rankings won’t tell you which keywords people actually came into your site for and which ones really matter. High keyword rankings may look great on paper, but they have little to do with acquiring more relevant visitors to your law firm’s website and converting them into clients. Instead, to attract more visitors to your site and more potential leads, focus on the creation of quality content instead of getting hung up on trying to rank #1 for a particular keyword or phrase.