Chapter 1: Google SEO Ranking Factors
Google’s Top Three Ranking Factors
For years, SEOs and digital marketers hypothesized about what the most important ranking factors in Google’s algorithm were. Then in 2016 they came right out and told us8.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) September 6, 2017
Links, content, and a sub-algorithm called RankBrain, are the primary factors for where web pages are ranked in Google search results pages.
Links: Google’s #1 Ranking Factor
The quality and quantity of inbound links pointing at a site is one of Google’s most important ranking factors.
Links have always been a part of Google’s algorithm9 from the very beginning. In the eyes of Google, each link pointing at a page is like a vote for that piece of content. The more unique votes a page has from reputable websites, the more authoritative it appears to Google, and hence the higher it ranks in search results (all else being equal).
What makes a good link?
The way a web page is linked to another web page is also important.
- Keyword-rich anchor text: The best links are text hyperlinks. Especially those with keyword phrases that the target page (the page the link is leading to) is trying to rank for.
- Link ordering: Links at the top of a page or near the beginning of content have more weight placed on them than links toward the bottom of the content.
- Number of links: Getting links on pages that have a fewer number of overall outbound links tend to be better.
- Dofollow links: By default, all links are dofollow meaning they pass PageRank to the page they are pointing at. If a link is configured as nofollow (by adding the rel=”nofollow” tag), it no longer counts as a vote for the page it’s linking to.
- Link placement: Links that are placed in the body of web copy are more valuable than those placed in a footer or other areas where they appear sitewide.
- Multiple referring domains: Getting many links from many different websites is better than getting many links from the same website.
Content: Google’s #2 Ranking Factor
Web pages need to be relevant to what people are searching for but there’s more to it than that. In order to get on the first page of search results, attorneys need to build content that is more than just topically relevant.
In other words, it needs to be more authoritative and in-depth than any other competing pieces of content in the same niche.
Data10 shows that content which was longer and covered a topic more in-depth tended to rank higher overall in Google search results.
What makes good SEO content?
The structure and substance of content are key to making it rank well in Google search.
- Topically relevant: A web page or blog post needs to be about a single topic.
- Target keyword placement: The target keyword phrase the page is meant to rank for needs to be placed in the title, the headings, the body, anchor text of internal and inbound links, and image alt tags of the page.
- An authoritative resource: The content should be the most authoritative resource of its kind available on the Internet.
- Supporting sources: The content should link out to other supporting resources like authoritative articles, supporting documents, and other information that users would find valuable.
- Usability: Long-form content should be formatted in a way that makes it easy to consume (i.e. bulleted lists, headings and images that break up content, navigation, etc.)
- Shareability: The content needs to be useful and practical. It should be something that readers want to share with the people they know who also may find it useful.
RankBrain: Google’s Machine Learning Algorithm
RankBrain is essentially a smaller piece of Google’s primary algorithm. Based on information gleaned from studying search results, it is thought that RankBrain helps Google understand how to weight certain ranking factors in an effort to deliver the most relevant results to searchers.
Through machine learning, Google is attempting to more accurately predict or interpret searcher intent with RankBrain, rather than organize web pages using signals, like the core algorithm does.
There isn’t really a way to optimize for RankBrain, but there are things attorneys can do to streamline the optimization process.
Optimize for a Topic Area
Do not create a single page for every different keyword phrase. Instead, look for parent keyword phrases and then include similar terms throughout the content on the same page.
Parent phrase: “car accident attorney”
Similar phrases to include on the page: car accident lawyer, auto accident attorney, auto accident lawyer, car crash lawyer, car crash attorney, auto accident settlement attorney, etc.
More Emphasis On Your Audience
Since RankBrain tries to interpret searcher intent for content, it pays to know your potential clients better than Google does.
If you can create content that you know is valuable to searchers looking for legal services, then the more structural and technical aspects of SEO will be that much more powerful.
Here are some ways you can learn more about how your audience interacts with and responds to your content:
- Watch where visitors go: use a tool like Google Analytics to track visitors’ pathways through your site. What content do they view the most? Where do they spend the most time?
- Track visitor interaction: use Hotjar to make recordings and heatmaps that shed light on visitor behavior.
- Evaluate click-through rates and rankings: use Google Search Console to look at click-through rates and other metrics for pages in search results. This can tell you whether or not your page titles and meta descriptions are compelling enough.
- Deploy surveys: Tools like Hotjar, Foresee, Mailchimp, or Survey Monkey enable you to ask brief questions of website visitors to see whether or not they find content useful.
These activities are time-consuming but when done right, they can help attorneys improve the content on their site and truly understand what their audience finds useful.
Top Local Ranking Factors
Google uses a relatively narrow set of categories11 to determine local rankings for law firms.
Relevance to Searcher Keywords and Intent
Here Google is basically looking for how well GMB listings match user search queries. There are many tactics attorneys can use to make sure their Google My Business listing is as relevant as possible.
Choose an Accurate Category
Don’t just choose attorney if there is a more relevant option like personal injury attorney.
Add a Relevant, Keyword-rich Description
Use your target keyword phrases in your law firm description and max out the 750 character limit (including spaces) on the profile. Make sure the description is relevant to your law firm by following the guidelines in the Business Description Guidelines here12.
Add Images and Video
Add in as many images as you can (and definitely more than competitors). In our experience, profiles with 50+ images tend to get a boost over profiles lacking images. In addition, add any videos you have of your firm to your GMB profile.
Add Service Sections
Google provides sections in GMB profiles to describe your practice area. Use all 1,000 characters allowed if possible, and remember to include your target keyword phrases.
Include all areas that your offices serve. For example, if you serve cities surrounding where your home office is located, include those in your profile.
Complete, Accurate, & Consistent Information
Aside from adding information relevant to what people are searching for, having a complete profile provides a better user experience for searchers and increases the likeliness it will be shown to them.
Ensure that your name, address, and phone number information is consistent with other listings on the internet and what appears on your website. Fill in accurate operating hours, website URL, and appointment URL, and make sure all other fields have information in them.
Distance: Your Firm’s Proximity to the Searcher
Part of what Google uses to determine which local GMB directory results to show to searchers is their proximity (the relationship between their location and that reported by a business’s IP address or other methods)13.
Proximity can be such a major factor in local search results that even unoptimized profiles14 can outrank listings with tons of reviews and high-quality websites.
Just because proximity to the searcher is an uncontrollable factor for local results doesn’t mean optimizing for local SEO is pointless. It just means law firms need to make sure their other optimization efforts are top-notch.
Here’s where you start:
Study Your Competition
Download and install the Google Chrome15 browser and open an incognito window (shift+ctrl+N on PC, command+shift+N on Mac).
This mode prevents your search history from influencing results.
Use the primary keyword phrase you want to rank for and see what local results pop up. Focus in on listings for firms that are ranking well in the local pack, but are far away from your physical location.
- What does the content on their site look like? Is it high quality?
- Do they have a lot of links pointing at their domain? Use a tool like Ahrefs or Moz Link Explorer to get an idea.
- Do they have a lot of reviews?
- Are they mentioned a lot in social media?
In a nutshell, look at what they are doing for their optimization efforts and see if you can match it or do better.
Citations are mentions of your law firm name on other websites. Building many of these citations (all with consistent information about your law firm) makes your business appear more trustworthy and reliable. Google may be more likely to show your firm in local results, especially compared to other relevant firms whose data on the internet may be more inconsistent.
Do not build citations manually. Use a tool like Yext16 which, for a fee, will generate dozens of these listings on popular citation-based websites in a matter of hours. All you have to do is input the information once into their website.
Prominence: The Strength of Your Overall SEO Campaign
This is where attorneys can position their law firms to have the biggest impact in local search. Google takes information from other places on the internet, as well as information from within GMB listings, and uses it to determine where listings should rank.
The quality of any SEO work already done on your site, as well as the number and quality of your reviews, plays a part.
Here are some areas to focus on to improve Google’s perception of your site’s prominence on the web:
Get Reviews on Leading Platforms
Start a targeted review campaign on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. The more positive reviews you can get in a relatively short period of time, the better. Spend time answering those reviews too; make sure you respond to all of them, not just the negative ones.
Build High-quality Links to Your Site
If you or an SEO vendor have already been building links as a part of a campaign, that’s great. Continue getting high-quality links from many different referring domains. If you have not been doing this, start as soon as you can. Leverage existing relationships with other businesses or non-competing attorneys to get links on their websites. Submit your site to local directories like BBB.org or local Chambers of Commerce. Build citations, as they often come with links from profiles.
Improve Your Onsite SEO
Make sure you are using best practices for onsite SEO, which include:
- Fast page load times
- Mobile friendliness
- Install a security certificate
- Generate in-depth content on pages that are meant to rank for keyword phrases
- Ensure pages that are meant to perform well in search have optimized titles, meta descriptions, headings, page copy, internal linking, and external links
- Make sure aspects of technical SEO are all optimized
- Ensure you’re targeting primary keyword phrases that you want to rank for
In general, sites that are ranking well in organic search will also see a boost in local results. Therefore ranking well locally means having a strong SEO campaign overall.
Google Webmaster Help Videos
For years, Google employees like Matt Cutts, Gary Illyes, and others have contributed videos to the Google Webmaster YouTube Channel17. We’ve compiled an exhaustive list below of the most useful videos on common SEO questions, ranking factors, and more.
Google Webmaster Videos list last updated March, 2019
Chapter ROI by Chris Dreyer, CEO of Rankings.io
Ultimately, Google wants to provide the best result for consumers’ intent. This means that your content has a better opportunity to fulfill that intent if it’s well-organized and well-written. As a result, you should always keep your ideal customer in mind when writing content.