On-Site SEO for Attorneys
What is On-Site SEO?
On-site SEO refers to optimization of those elements of a website that allow search engines to crawl, analyze, index, and return relevant results for users. These optimization tasks are performed on the website itself, as opposed to tasks performed elsewhere on the internet to influence a site’s ranking. Examples of on-site SEO include:
- The optimization of page copy for specific keyword phrases.
- Optimization of page titles, headings, and meta descriptions.
- Utilization of schema and/or other structured data.
- Organization of a logical content hierarchy.
- Implementation of best practices for usability.
- Technical elements like site security (HTTPS), sitemaps, and indexability.
- Usability like mobile responsiveness, page load times, and working links.
On-site SEO vs Off-site SEO
Off-site SEO is just what it sounds like – SEO that happens off of, or away from, a website. These tasks are performed in other areas of the internet to influence a website’s ranking in a search engine’s results. Some common examples of off-site SEO are:
- Creation of citations (mentions of a business’s name on other websites)
- Submission of a website to directories
Off-site and on-site SEO work in concert with one another. On-site SEO is the foundation of a website’s performance in search, with things like structure and content at its heart. Off-site SEO are tasks related to promoting that foundation. Both on-site and off-site SEO can have a profound impact on where a site ranks in search. Both are necessary to achieve success with any kind of SEO campaign.
Most Important On-Site SEO Signals
There are already well-defined on-site SEO strategies and tactics that should be performed on pretty much any attorney website. Each element by itself may provide incremental benefit, but as a whole, these elements can be very impactful for a site in search.
Title tags are an HTML element that every web page has (regardless of whether it’s filled with text or not). This is a critical element to get right, because it’s often the first thing searchers use to determine if a search result is relevant when scanning search results pages.
How to make a good title tag:
- Front-load your titles by putting the primary keyword first, then any applicable secondary keyword phrase (a synonym or related phrase), followed by the name of your law firm last.
- Ensure that it is no more than 60 characters in length (including spaces).
- Title tags should “sell” the web page they are about if possible.
- Make sure your titles stand out from competitors targeting the same phrases.
Here’s a page title targeting a primary keyword phrase:
And an example of a title targeting a long tail phrase:
From Matthew Laurin, Director of Marketing at Rankings.io
“Well crafted title tags increase the likelihood that people will click on your search result which sends signals to Google that the result was helpful. Google provides some good advice for crafting good titles here https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35624?hl=en”
A meta description is a snippet of text wrapped in an HTML meta tag that gives search engines and other websites an idea of what the page is about. Websites that pull in meta data use that information to generate rich snippets to show users. For example, Google may choose to pull meta data from a web page to show in search results. Facebook may choose to pull that same data to create a snippet to be shared in a news feed.
Here are some best practices for writing and using meta descriptions:
- Meta descriptions should contain compelling sales language.
- They should feature a call to action.
- They should be no longer than 155-160 characters max.
- They should contain the target keyword phrase for the page somewhere at the beginning of the description.
- All practice area and relevant service pages should have a well-crafted meta description.
Here are some examples of good meta descriptions:
Google has a great help article on meta tags that touches on meta descriptions.
Header tags (or headings) are HTML elements that denote headings in content. They are used to tell the reader (and Google) the subject of the content underneath them. Headings also help break up content on a page by making it easier to scan.
Here are some best practices for headings:
- Each page should have only one H1 page heading; any additional heading should be a sub-heading (i.e. H2, H3, and so on).
- Page headings should contain the target keyword phrase for the page.
- Headings should help break up content on the page.
- Headings should be descriptive of the content underneath them.
- Keywords should be included in H2, H3, and additional sub-headings where appropriate.
- Use long-tail and semantic keywords in headings other than the H1.
Here’s an example of an H1 header on a practice area page that contains the page’s target keyword phrase.
Google cannot see images on web pages, so they cannot tell what is pictured. An HTML attribute called an alt tag is used to describe to search engines what an image is.
There are also other cues that search spiders take from web pages to figure out what images are, such as their titles, captions, and file names.
Here are some tips on optimizing your images for search:
- Ensure your images are as small as possible so they don’t take a long time to load. You should also make sure they are the same size that they will be when rendered on a screen. That way, the browser does not have to work so hard to resize them.
- Use your target keyword phrases in the alt text of the page, but go easy here. If the image is not about your keyword phrase, then there is no reason the primary keyword phrase should be in the alt text.
- Name your images after your primary target keyword phrase.
- Use images to help you make text on a web page easier to read. This won’t help rankings, but it promotes a better user experience…and Google does pay attention to that.
- For attorneys, the logo is the most important image to optimize, because it’s on every page of the website.
Google outlines best practices for image optimization in their help articles. The more you can optimize images on your site, the more likely they are to show up in image search results and drive additional traffic to your site.
In-depth Page Content
The copy on web pages should be as substantial as possible. This means that it should cover a topic area completely and be framed as a reliable resource for that particular topic compared to other, similar content on the web. Content that fits this bill is typically well-written, edited, proofed, contains links to additional resources, etc.
Note that not every page on a website must have content of this caliber, but the Practice Area, Bio, About, Service, and Blog topic pages should all have substantial amounts of well-written content content that should:
- Be written by a J.D.
- Be longer than 500 words (ideally 1,500 – 2,000 or more to adequately cover a topic).
- Contain links to external resources that support arguments/points in the piece.
- Be a better resource than other similar pieces of content on the internet.
- Be grammatically correct without errors.
- Be relevant and exclusive to the target keyword phrase for the page.
Duplicate content is the presence of repeated text, either internally on pages of a website or externally on other sites.
Google does not like duplicate content, because its presence makes it much more difficult to determine which source is the original (or more authoritative) version.
It also makes it hard for Google to decide which page to show in its search results.
Even though duplicate content is a pain for Google to deal with, there is no “duplicate content penalty” and Google will not directly penalize your site for it. There are even acceptable forms of duplicate content, such as printer-friendly versions of web pages.
The reason this phenomenon can be harmful to your site is that Google may choose to rank other web pages ahead of your own, even if you were the original producer or the one with rights to the content.
Here are some ways you can avoid the negative impacts of duplicate content:
- Use rel canonical35 to help Google understand which page is the one that should be given credit.
- Reach out to other site owners who may be copying your content and ask them to stop.
- Go through your own domain and eliminate any unnecessary duplicated content.
- Be careful in the use of boilerplate content across the internet and on your own site (e.g., in calls to action).
More people are using the internet on mobile devices than on desktop, so it’s important to make sure your pages are mobile friendly.
In 2015, Google expanded their use of mobile responsiveness36 as a ranking factor. This meant that sites with superior mobile experiences would rank better than their counterparts that were not optimized for mobile.
Google also rolled out mobile-first indexing37 in 2018, meaning users would see the pages best for mobile devices in search rather than desktop pages.
In other words, your site should be mobile friendly. Here’s what you can do to start the process of evaluating your site for mobile responsiveness:
- Test to see that you have a responsive design, using Google’s Mobile Friendly Testing Tool38. You can also test a separate mobile site in the tool (e.g., m.example.com)
- If your site is not mobile friendly, you can try transferring content to a WordPress site with a mobile responsive theme.
- Many leading web-based CMSes (i.e., WordPress.com, Blogger.com, etc.) are also responsive.
- You can have a developer do the conversion to mobile for you.
From Matthew Laurin, Director of Marketing at Rankings.io
“You can use Google’s mobile usability report in search console to see mobile usability errors over time with your site. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/6101188?hl=en”
Here’s what the report looks like after running a mobile-friendly site through the tool.
It’s important to point out that a mobile responsive site is often a better solution than a separate mobile version.
A responsive site renders content based on the screen that is viewing it. A separate mobile version is always displayed on a mobile device and does not change with screen size.
Google uses a bot called Googlebot (also known as a spider, crawler, or just bot) which is a software program used to scan web pages and store them in their database (called an index).
There are a variety of things that can make it challenging for Googlebot to scan a page, so it’s important to make sure there is nothing standing in the way of Google seeing the content you want them to see.
- Robots.txt: You can configure a file called a robots file that instructs search engine spiders on how often and which pages to crawl on your site. If you have no robots file, Google will crawl your site anyway…but if you have a misconfigured one, Google may be ignoring important pages, so it’s crucial to be sure that it’s configured correctly.
- Robots Meta Tag: Another way you can manage crawlers is through the use of meta tags in the header of your web pages. These to can prevent Google from seeing important content.
- 404 Error Pages39: If there are pages on your site that are broken, Google will not crawl those URLs. There are many types of HTTP status codes40. However, pages that give the 404 or 500 error could prevent Google from reaching all pages of your site.
It’s tempting to permanently (301) redirect every single crawl error. However, this is not necessary, as it’s not only a waste of time and taxing on your web server’s resources, but it also does not add any SEO value.
Attorneys should only be redirecting pages that:
- Have traffic data (i.e., people have been visiting the pages).
- Have link equity (i.e., there are links from other sites pointing at the page).
- Are a part of the navigation for the site and/or have an impact on user experience.
You can use Google Search Console to test whether or not your site is configured to allow for crawling and indexing by Google. Once your site is setup and verified in Google Search Console, visit the robots.txt tester and click the test button.
Note that you can scan your whole site or specific pages.
Your URLs play an important role in SEO, both for search engines and your visitors. Permalinks (a WordPress-specific label) are essentially everything that comes after the .com. Permalinks help users understand if a page is relevant to their search and they can also be a signal to search engines that the page is about a specific topic. Google favors a simple URL structure.
Here are some best practices for your permalink structure:
- Avoid special characters wherever possible.
- Make your URLs short (try to keep them below 100 characters).
- Use target keyword phrases in URLs where possible.
- Use a single domain or sub-domain.
- Make them as readable as possible by humans.
- Exclude words like and, or, but, of, etc.
- Avoid using punctuation.
- Use fewer directories (the shorter the better, use fewer /’s).
Visitors scan URLs to see if the page they are visiting has anything to do with what they are looking for. Having clean, easy to read, and relevant permalinks makes that easier for real people. A clean URL structure is also known as SEF URL (SEF stands for Search Engine Friendly). In the past, search engines had difficulty processing unique characters like @, or $, or _, or other parameters found in many URLs.
Search engines scan URLs to try and determine what a page is about as well, so it’s important to make sure your primary phrase is there.
Here is an example for a law firm with a single location:
And here is an example of a permalink for a law firm with multiple locations:
Here’s an example of how NOT to format your permalinks:
If you’re using WordPress, you can set things up so that each time you make a new page or post, there won’t be excessive back slashes, dates, or other numbers in your URLs.
Visit Settings > Permalinks.
Change the permalink setting to Post name and then click save at the bottom of the page.
SSL is an acronym for secure socket layer, but marketers and SEOs commonly use it to refer to the security certificate that can be installed on a website.
Google is a strong believer in delivering the most secure results for their users, so much so that they made having a security certificate installed on your site a ranking factor in their search results41.
Here are some tips on security certificates for SEO:
- Don’t spend a ton of money on one (unless you’re accepting payment or other sensitive information through your site)
- You can usually purchase one through the same company that handles your hosting.
- Change your preferred URL in Search Console to an HTTPS version from HTTP once you have a certificate installed.
- Ensure that you redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS.
Structured Data / Schema
Structured data is HTML markup that makes your content machine-understandable. In other words, it helps computers, software, and Googlebot understand the context of the content they see.
For example, a computer would read 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a string of alphanumeric characters. Schema markup helps a computer understand that the string is an address to a building that has a historical significance in American society.
Google is already very good at understanding what a lot of content means and schema helps things along, especially if the data it’s crawling is not prominent in the offline world.
Schema can help Google display your content better in search results pages. Attorneys need to use a specific kind of schema that identifies them as a legal services provider. Here are some key pieces of content to which attorneys should apply schema:
- Type of organization (Legal Services)
- Phone numbers
- Blog posts
Applying Schema to Your Site
There are three tactics for applying schema to your content. Depending on your level of skill with technology, any one of these tactics should work well.
Google Data Highlighter (easy)
The easiest way to let Google know what content is marked up on your site is to use their Data Highlighter42.
You can literally highlight the information you want to mark up and let Google know what kind of data it is (e.g., phone number, email, blog post, address, etc.).
You will have to set up and verify your site in Google Search Console, which takes just a couple minutes and is free.
After that, visit the data highlighter43. Select your verified property (you’ll only have one if you just set up your site in Search Console).
Click the red “Start Highlighting” button in the top right hand corner of the page.
Next, enter the URL of the page on which you want to highlight data. For example, if you’re highlighting the address information you have in the header of your “Contact Us” page, paste the URL for the page into the Data Highlighter.
From the dropdown menu below where you enter your URL, select the type of information to highlight (such as articles, books, reviews, local businesses, etc.).
Attorneys will most likely choose “Local Businesses” for most types of content highlighting.
Click “ok” and the data highlighter will open on your website.
Simply click and highlight sections of text and apply tags to them so that Google can better understand what they are.
Once you highlight something, a menu will appear allowing you to select the data type.
In the right column of the screen, available data types for the page will appear.
Once you’re done, click the red “Publish” button in the type right corner of the screen.
WordPress Plugin (also easy)
Attorneys who have a website built on WordPress will have a much easier time finding plugins (add-on software) to apply schema to their site.
Here are some great schema plugins for WordPress:
Note that some of these are paid and some are free. Some have a free option with a premium upgrade.
Manually adding Schema to your site (difficult)
If you don’t have a WordPress site or you’re just feeling ambitious, you can manually add schema to your content.
This requires knowledge of HTML editing, logging in and editing files of your site, and some tech savvy.
You can either manually copy and paste code from Schema.org47 onto your pages or you can use one of the many schema generators around the web.
When adding schema manually, you should verify that you have done it right. Honestly, you should do this even if you use a plugin, as they can cause errors.
Google has a structured data testing tool49 that allows you to see if you configured code correctly.
Chapter ROI by Chris Dreyer, CEO of Rankings.io
On-site SEO is like building a house. If you want it to stand and endure, you need proper construction (in this case, meta-data, permalinks, content hierarchy, accessibility, mobile optimizations, speed, etc.).