google logo law gavelThe power of the Internet to transform business has been revolutionary. And in that transformation, Google and its functionality have been leading change-agents.

Attorneys—already occupied by the law and business sides of their work—likely scratch their heads at the possibility of being “found” by anyone among Google’s billions of bits and bytes. That’s why I was pleased to hear from Texas attorney Scott Morgan, who offered a primer on the topic of getting found in Google search (more about Scott follows his great post; I’m also pleased to note that he’s a prolific blogger). And if you thought you already understood Google’s algorithm before, read on, because the math of search has changed.

Here is Scott:

For many law firms, the Internet, and particularly Google, has developed over the last several years into their primary source of new clients. Many law firms use pay per click advertising (PPC) as a way to rent online real estate for important keyword phrases. Other law firms use search engine optimization (SEO) as a way to get in front of those same searchers without having to pay every time they click.

While SEO sounds great in theory, the reality is that it is extremely changing and, as we will discuss below, constantly changing. This article will discuss how Google results for local attorney phrases have dramatically changed over the past year and what law firms can do to best position themselves.

Google’s Search Results—A Brief History

Our analysis begins with a comparison of what a Google search results page for a local phrase such as “Phoenix divorce lawyer” looks like currently as compared to as recent as 2012.  Since I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture of an old results page back, I will have to replicate it by using a phrase that won’t trigger Google’s “localization” of the results. It actually took some work to find an appropriate phrase, but eventually I came across “Phoenix divorce property division,” which looked like the old-style results.

As shown in the picture below, the results basically had some paid ads at the top and right sidebar, but the rest of the page was just the 10 highest-ranking organic results for the phrase. Under the old system, the key to ranking highly for almost any particular phrase was to get lots and lots of links pointing to your site with anchor text (the words that are in the link) that either exactly matched or were close to matching the phrase you’re trying to rank highly for.

Google search results for "Phoenix divorce property division."

Google search results for “Phoenix divorce property division.”

So if you were trying to rank for “Phoenix divorce lawyer,” you would get links pointing to your site with that anchor text, ideally from other highly ranked sites, preferably in the legal niche. Many professional SEO firms made a lot of money by promising (and occasionally delivering) to get lawyer websites to the top of the rankings for their desired keywords using just this strategy. While certain types of links became more and less effective with Google over the years, it was still a relatively straightforward process to get a website to rank for a particular keyword phrase.

Fast Forward to the Present

Let’s now take a look at how the Google results pages have changed over the past year using the keyword phrase “Phoenix divorce lawyer” (below).

Google search results for "Phoenix divorce lawyer."

Google search results for “Phoenix divorce lawyer.”

As you can see, the results still show PPC ads at the top and right side of the page. What is significantly different are the seven local listings that are blended in with the organic results. On this particular search there are actually three results that appear above the local listings. In many locations, the seven local listings appear above all the organic listings.

While at first blush this may seem like a relatively minor cosmetic change in the results, it is anything but. Here is the often misunderstood part of the new localization of the results: Google uses two separate algorithms to rank the local results and the organic results.

Texas attorney Scott Morgan

Attorney Scott Morgan

In other words, you could be the #1 ranking site in organic but not be found at all in the local listings. The end result of this change could have been that overnight you went from having the top listing for multiple client-generating keywords to being pushed all the way to the bottom of the page by the local listings, causing your traffic and potential client inquiries to slow from a flood to a trickle.

What Should Law Firms Do Now?

So the bottom line is that if law firms want to get in front of potential clients on Google result pages without having to resort to PPC, they will need to rank highly in the local listings. While this is no small task, given the amount of potential clients that a high ranking on a good keyword can generate, it is worth it to master this new area of SEO. Here are some basic things that you can do to improve your chances of your website being listed highly in local:

  • The very first thing you should do is claim your Google local listing. By claiming it you gain control over the content of the listing, including the basics such as your business name, address and telephone number, as well as more advanced features such as pictures, videos and periodic postings about your practice.
  • Many other websites have local listings, such as Yelp, Yahoo local, Bing Local, Yellowpages, and Localeze. You should claim these listings as well. Not only can it generate some website visitors for you but Google looks at these listings as a way to confirm the information on your Google local listing.
  • Work on getting your name, address and phone consistent across the Internet. This is probably the most common problem that websites have in getting good local rankings. If over the years you have moved your office once or twice or changed phone numbers, it is likely that the old data is floating around the Internet still. This will cause Google to have less confidence that the information they have for your business is accurate and will cause your local rankings to plummet.

Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into how the new Google results pages for lawyer searches work and what you need to do to improve your chances of getting a steady flow of clients from this very valuable channel.

About the Author

When not obsessing about his firm’s search rankings, Scott Morgan is busy representing divorce clients in Texas. He is a board-certified family law attorney and founder of the Morgan Law Firm, which has offices in Sugar Land, Austin and Houston.