SEO Data Science: A Study of 112K Personal Injury Law Firms
Over the last seven years, we’ve learned from hands-on experience how to get incredible SEO results in the personal injury law niche.
We’ve never been the type to rely solely on commonly accepted SEO “facts.” Ongoing experimentation and innovation are needed to get results in arguably the web’s most competitive niche.
That’s why we kicked off 2020 by launching a large scale, data-based study to evaluate 112,000 personal injury law SERPs (search engine results page), to find evidence that our strategies are plausible and identify new opportunities for our clients to gain an advantage (the full methodology of our study, including keyword selection, data extraction, data mining, and data analysis, can be found here).
It’s worth noting that there is no single, definitive SEO ranking factor; it’s comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of components and variables. However, there are a number of factors that are generally regarded (both from independent SEO analysis and directly from Google itself) as both relevant and important.
We chose to review these data points as the baseline of our study because of their status as a commonly accepted SEO ranking factor. Of course, correlation does not equal causation…and, as Google is not transparent in their algorithm (and likely never will be, for a multitude of reasons), we cannot definitively stand on our findings as being “certain.”
With the help of data sourced from Ahrefs, we unearthed some compelling discoveries:
Summary of Findings
2. Older domains tend to rank higher in the personal injury law firm space, with SERP listings gaining an average of one position per six years.
3. Nearly 96% of websites that showed up in our study had a valid SSL certificate; the remainder that did not had a clear disadvantage in their rankings.
4. While the number of referring domains per page appears not to influence rankings, the overall number of referring domains for the domain was a top indicator of overall domain traffic.
5. Domain Rating (an Ahrefs metric that describes the strength of a target site’s backlink profile) was one of the most influential factors we found in our study. The directories with Domain Ratings higher than 75 exhibited a disproportionately high benefit from their higher score.
6. Higher word count trended alongside higher rankings up to around 3,000 words, after which additional word count had a negligible impact.
7. Optimized meta data had the expected result, with exact match data adding up to 3 positions.
8. 36.6% of the SERPS we reviewed contained at least 1 Google Ad. Of those, “personal injury lawyer sacramento” exhibited the highest number with 5 Google Ads in total and a full quarter of the remaining results displayed 4 ads.
Final disclaimer: this is simply our interpretation of the data that we analyzed. As stated above, it is impossible for anyone outside of Google to take a definitive stance on SEO ranking factors, as we are all operating (at least partially) in the dark.
Law Firm Directories Have A Notable Advantage Over Individual Law Firm Websites
This should come as no surprise to anyone in the personal injury law SEO space, but there are two distinct types of players in the niche:
On the one hand, you have the websites of individual law firm websites and on the other, you have the large, national directories of personal injury law firms.
The latter have a distinct advantage, as they have invested in thousands upon thousands of backlinks and have exceptionally high domain ratings.
Findlaw, for example, averaged the #4 position across our entire study, despite a median of 0 referring domains per page. SuperLawyers and Justia exhibited similarly beneficial rankings treatment, as did Expertise and Yelp to a lesser degree.
In the graph below, you can see the commanding presence of these websites within the top 10 search results for our study.
One caveat about this data: it’s worth noting that, as this data is sourced from Ahrefs, there is the possibility of the influence of local data (e.g., Google Maps) being omitted.
Looking at the bottom half of the above graphs, we can see that Avvo, Thumbtack, and Lawyers.com have results more in line with the broader field of individual law firm websites (pictured in the bottom graph).
We can see this at work in the individual search results as well. Here’s the full front page display for the search term “personal injury lawyer sacramento.”
Notice that the top two organic results are from national lawyer directories, as well as six of the full nine organic results showing on the front page for this search query.
The difference in search behavior between these large directories and the rest of the field was so large that we had to differentiate our findings throughout the rest of the report.
Older Domains Tend To Rank Higher In The Personal Injury Law Firm Niche, With SERP Listings Gaining An Average Of One Position Per 6 Years
Overall, our analysis indicated that older domains tend to rank higher in the SERPs, as anyone in SEO would expect to see.
The overall data showed that legal websites gained one average position with their SERPs for every 6 years their site had been live.
While the overall results weren’t surprising, it’s interesting to note that the position gain over time is not linear.
If you look at the curve above, you’ll notice that there is very little difference in rankings for websites that have launched within the last 10 years. A website launched in the last year won’t be at much of a disadvantage compared to a website launched in 2010.
Going beyond that, however, we see a significant uptick in positional gains per extra year the site has been live, with sites published prior to 2000 seeing the most notable benefits.
While this insight doesn’t do much to help law firms and law firm SEOs seeking to improve rankings today, it further demonstrates the difficulty of competing within the personal injury law firm niche. This niche had some of the earliest adopters in the internet age and most of them have been pumping in a considerable amount of money into their SEO and marketing for over a decade.
96% Of Websites In Our Study Had A Valid SSL Certificate and Those That Didn’t Were At A Clear Disadvantage
Google has stated that the use of HTTPS is a ranking signal and our analysis clearly confirmed this. There was a notable drop in positional rankings for websites without a valid SSL certificate.
While SSL compliance isn’t surprising in such a competitive niche, it was interesting to note just how broadly compliant the personal injury law niche is in comparison to the internet at large.
Through the SERPS caught in our study, 95.5% of websites had active SSL certificates, in comparison to only around 50% of the internet at large and 79% of the Alexa Top 100,000 websites.
It’s just one more reminder that you can’t afford to miss ANY boxes on the SEO checklist, particularly when you are competing in the personal injury space.
At a Page Level, Referring Domains Did Not Impact Rankings; On a Site Level, They Were Significant
One interesting result from our study had to do with the distribution of referring domains.
In the broader world of law firm SEO, websites tend to focus on increasing links at the page level and most agencies will evaluate pages based on their referring domains per page.
In our study, this evaluation showed little impact.
In fact, the data indicates that 25.3% of the pages in the “top 10” spots exhibit no referring domains at all. 26% of “top 10” listings show between 1 and 5 referring domains. Only 8.1% of pages have more than 100 and most of those are root domains, as you can see in the graph below.
Now, you might be tempted to think that this means that referring domains are less important, but in reality, our data shows the exact opposite.
Total domains for the large directories are orders of magnitude higher than most individual law firm websites:
- Findlaw.com has over 20M backlinks and 106k referring domains
- Justia.com has more than 12M backlinks and 70k referring domains
- Superlawyers.com has nearly 6M backlinks with over 22k referring domains
By comparison, and with only a few exceptions, nearly every individual personal injury law firm website in the country has fewer than 2000 referring domains at the domain level.
So while referring domains didn’t seem to correlate with positions at the page level, they proved to be incredibly powerful at the domain level, with average positional rankings rising significantly with overall referring domains.
Yet again we see that if you really want to compete with the directory level websites, one of your best weapons is to aggressively increase referring domains.
We’ve also found from working with our clients that if you can get your overall referring domain count high, then you will often start to see advantages at the page level.
Domain Rating was one of the most influential factors, with Domain Ratings higher than 75 exhibiting a disproportionately high benefit
“Domain Rating is a proprietary Ahrefs’ metric that shows the strength of a target website’s total backlink profile (in terms of its size and quality). DR is measured on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 100, with the latter being the strongest.” We found it to be one of the most significant SEO signals, with DR higher than 75 exhibiting a disproportionately high benefit.
As you might have surmised from our findings so far, DR turned out to be one of the strongest SEO indicators in the study.
As you can see from the above graph, rankings increased notably from DR0 through DR25, then evened out for the most part until DR75, where they spiked significantly.
The main drivers are links and referring domains, which further emphasize the advantage held by national directory sites. If individual law firms want the “authority” needed to compete with these national directories, this data indicates that they should consider boosting their number of both links and referring domains.
Rankings Trended Higher Along With Increased Word Count, But Only Up To Around 3,000 Words
In our study, we found that 3000 words was a relatively optimal length for content. As you can see below, position on Google increases alongside word count, up to around the 3000 word mark. After that, it appears that increasing word count offers something of a diminishing return.
Google is shifting more towards answering consumer intent.
When you are attempting to rank for a shorter query, the intent is harder to determine within the query string. For example, from the query “steps to take after a car accident,” you know that their intent is to find a list of steps to take after they’ve been in a car accident.
However, if their query is simply “car accident,” you cannot cleanly determine whether they are looking for steps to take after one (as above), common injuries received from car accidents, or even a news story about a local car wreck.
When creating longer form content, you can answer multiple consumer queries and intents.
In my opinion, the data indicates the challenge represented (from a UX/readability standpoint) by content at the upper end of the word count.
Optimized Metadata Increased Rankings By Up To 3 Positions
No surprises here: optimizing metadata is a key item on an on-page SEO checklist for a reason.
The 112,000 SERPs reviewed in our study were all 4-word keyphrases, so exact match (4 out of 4 words) would be 1.00%, 3 out of the 4 words would be 0.75%, and so on…
As you can see from the above charts, having an exact match in the Domain, Title, Meta Description, H1, and at least one H2 all resulted in a noticeable increase in rankings.
Most Difficult Locations
Unsurprisingly, population dense regions like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Florida coast exhibited numerous location-based terms with high difficulty scores.
37% of SERPs Had At Least One Paid Ad And A Full Quarter Of Those SERPs Had 4 Ads Displayed
While this data isn’t consistent with the overall goal of our study, we also wanted to take a look at the advertising presence across the 112,000 SERPS reviewed.
One interesting discovery was the wide range in pricing, given how similar the terms in our study were.
The mean CPC price was $71.4. 23.2% of keywords in our study had a CPC of $0, and the most common range was between $51-$100, which accounted for 25.6 of keywords.
We also looked at law firm PPC frequency and volume.
36.6% of the SERPS we reviewed contained at least 1 Google Ad. Of those, “personal injury lawyer sacramento” (100 monthly searches) exhibited the highest number with 5 Google Ads in total, followed by 75 keywords (25.1%) with 4 Ads, 118 keywords (39.5%) with 3, 31 keywords (10.4%) with 2 and 74 (24.7%) with 1.
Interestingly, this means that well over half (63%) of the standard search terms we studied did not have notable PPC competition.
Conclusion: These Areas Offer The Most Improvement Potential For Law Firm SEO
In our interpretation, the domain level is primarily where rankings are won in the personal injury law niche.
Domain Rating and overall referring domains at the domain level were large indicators of SEO performance, while at the page level, word count had a notable impact.
In summary, we believe the data shows that the following factors demonstrate the best opportunity for improving SEO rankings in this niche.
As you can see above, increasing word count demonstrated the largest immediate opportunity for individual websites to better compete against both their local competitors and large national directories.
Pushing for exact match metadata is next on the list, following closely by overall efforts to increase Domain Rating.
If you don’t have social pages, schema markup, or SSL, you should add those as well for a minor boost.
I hope you feel like you’ve gained some insights from this study. I’d love to hear from you.
What was the most interesting takeaway for you from this study? Do you have a follow-up question concerning the study or our interpretation of the data?
Regardless, let us know below in the comments!