Extras – Internet Roundtable: How Can I Optimize My Law Firm Web Sites Search Engine Placement?

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable


SearchEngine Watch

WebMonkey’s Search Optimization Tips

Web Site Garage Search Engine Tips

Peter Kent & Tara Calishan, Poor Richard’s Internet Marketing and Promotions (Top Flood Publications 2001).

Robin Nobles & Susan O’Neil, Maximize Web Site Traffic (Streetwise, 2000).

Brenda Howard (BH): Internet search engines like Google, Altavista and others use databases of key words to rank search results. Our topic this month is how law firms can cause their sites to rank higher on search engines.

Jerry Lawson (JL) : Search engine ranking is important for some types of law firms because most Internet users won’t look too far down the list of search results when they are looking for a resource on the Web.

Dennis Kennedy (DK): All law firms need to be concerned about search engine results, but that’s because your search engine strategy should be a key component of your overall web site promotion plan. I’ve also become interested lately in the role search engine results play in creating your overall “web presence” or “Internet image”. Here’s what I mean. If someone wants to find out something about you, more than likely what they’ll do is do a search on your name or your firm’s name on one of the major search engines. The results they see, especially in first page or two, will greatly shape the image or impression they form of you or your firm. For people who are searching for you, search engine placement can send a powerful message, and, unfortunately, one over which you might not have much control. Jerry, everyone has become much more familiar with search engines these days, but a little background might still be useful.

JL: The first step in understanding search engines is distinguishing them from directories. More and more sites use both types of finding aids. Directories are human-generated catalogs of web sites, usually organized by topic. Search engines, by contrast, are computer-driven finding aids based on key words. Brenda, could you go into a little more detail about how search engines work?

BH : Sure. Each search engine uses its own version of the process, but basically, they have developed software that goes through the Internet reading web pages. When the software gets to a web page, it reads the page title, the metatags containing the keywords and sometimes the page itself. Then it “ranks” the page, or whole site, based upon how many times a particular word shows up. For example, a real estate agent that uses the word real estate in their page title, in their keywords and many times in the text will rank higher than another real estate agent that only has the words “real estate” one time on a web page. There are many deviations on this process, but this is how it basically works.

JL: Thanks. There are other ways to drive traffic to your site, like having other sites build links to yours, through banner ads and other techniques. Having other sites build links to yours is particularly important, because more and more search engines are giving heavy weight to site popularity, but this month we’ll concentrate on other methods of improving your Web search engine rankings.

One way you can help yourself is by keeping your key pages simple. Don’t use re-direction. Most search engines cannot process re-directs. Database-generated pages tend to score lower on search engine listings, unless developers know how to compensate for their weaknesses. Other things that can hurt you are Flash, frames, Java and dynamic HTML. You may be able to get away with such techniques on sub-pages, but avoid them on the key pages you hope will draw visitors to your site.

DK: People should note that search engine strategies may not be the best approach to driving specific, targeted traffic to your site, but they should certainly be key components of any firm’s promotional plan. That said, search engine placement is more of an art than a science. The name of the game is to get links to your web page or other positive information about to appear as high up in the search engine results as you can and, ideally, within the first ten results on relevant searches.

JL: This search engine ranking business is like a game. Web site owners try to manipulate the ranking factors to cause their sites to rank highly, while the search engine operators try to keep their algorithms secret. The search engine operators’ goal is to put the sites that are most relevant to particular key words at the top of the “drop,” the list of words that are returned in response to a search request.

BH : It’s not only a game; it’s actually big business. I remember when I provided this service for my clients. I would study the search engines, attempt to figure out their algorithm for ranking a site and adjust my client’s sites to rank high in each one of them. It started taking so much time that I couldn’t spend time developing web sites. Then businesses emerged and that’s all they do.

JL: This relates less to writing, and more to favorable display of what you have written, but the topic Brenda raises is fascinating. Paradoxically, Times Roman and similar serif fonts are considered much easier to read large for blocks of text in well-produced paper publications. However, the curls Brenda talking about (“serifs”) hurt instead of help in online publications like web pages, because the resolution of computer monitors is so much lower. The serifs don’t reproduce will on screen.

DK : It’s important to realize that the ranking algorithms for a search engine can change dramatically from time to time. Subscribing to the excellent and free e-mail newsletter from Searchenginewatch.com will keep you up-to-date on the constantly changing world of search engines.

Before we talk about specific techniques, I recommend that readers go to one of the major search engines, such as Google, and run a search on their names and their firm names. The results may surprise you and, most likely, will disappoint you. As I suggested, for better or worse, this list of results represents your “Internet image” to people who are unfamiliar with you. This exercise will give you a baseline from which you can measure the effectiveness of the techniques you decide to adopt. Jerry, let’s assume that everyone has done their searches and are disappointed with the results. What’s the first technique you’d suggest to start to improve someone’s search engine rankings?

LP: The most basic way to increase your Web site’s ranking is through the use of key words. Brenda, what are key words and how do you use them?

BH: Keywords appear in a header tag (at the top) in the HTML. They have to be hand coded into the web page. They are not visible on the web page, but other software programs can read them. I went to the site of http://www.hotjobs.com and here’s a sample of some keywords in the HTML code of their site:

Premier job search engine on the Internet – HotJobs.com

One can quickly see how they effectively used the word “job” in their page title, page description and in the keywords. This is an excellent example that does not abuse the system. Dennis, it seems that to rank higher, you should just type the same keyword hundreds of times. This is a common mistake. Why don’t you explain why this is harmful to a site?

DK: Like so many things on the Internet, many people already have thought of this technique and used it to excess. That technique is sometimes known as “keyword spamming” and probably all of the search engines have rules in place that will ignore or even penalize pages that overuse keywords. In fact, I’ve read some analysis suggesting that the list of metatags you just quoted may in fact have too many uses of the word “job.” It’s a great example of how important it is to know the algorithms search engines use. There are some similar techniques.

JL: Could you give us an example of keyword spamming, sometimes known as “index spamming”?

BH: This goes along with what Dennis mentioned earlier. People try to get more keywords on their page. One way is to type in the keywords and then make the text white – to match the background of the page. The visitor to the site cannot see them, but a search engine can read the words in the code and count them. Of course, Dennis explained why this is detrimental to a site.

JL: Right. Some search engines will ban sites using this and other dubious techniques from their listings completely. Optimizing your site is good, just learn about and avoid the hot spots that get you in trouble.

DK: Effective use of key words in the page title, first few words on a page, headlines and the like tend to produce better results than sheer volume of usage of words these days. Brenda’s Hotjobs.com is a good example of a way to use the underlying code of your page to help your search engine ranking in a way that’s invisible to visitors to your sites. It illustrates the use of several types of metatags.

JL: This is a remarkably subtle area. For example, some search engines consider the percentage of key words to the total text of a page. In other words, a few keyword repetitions in a short page might rank higher than many more keyword repetitions on a longer page. Another example: do your keywords appear in headings, or in body text? Further, is the heading a graphic that is a picture of words, or is it a heading as defined in the HTML specification (H1, H2, through H6)? Only the latter will give your keywords a boost, because the search engines can’t “read” a graphic.

Changing topics, “Metatags” are often touted as a way to cause a site to rank higher. How do these work?

BH: They are words embedded into a page so that they are not visible to the casual visitor, but so that search engines can pick them up and read them. As in the Hot Jobs.com example, it is the legitimate way to index a site for search engines. If everyone used metatags and used them properly, the truly valuable sites would be listed at the top of the search engine rankings. Unfortunately, I searched for Nike and ended up at a page for fishing lures. When I looked at the HTML code, I saw where the site owner had put in top name brands to draw traffic to his site about fishing lures. This is deceitful and wasted my time. I would never go back to this site – even if I did need fishing lures.

JL: Lawyers and law-related businesses are not above using such dubious promotion techniques. One of the earliest lawsuits involving metatags involved lawyers who used the names of some Colorado IP lawyers, Oppedahl & Larson LLP, owners of www.patents.com, in their metatags.

DK: There are two key metatags to consider. The first is the keyword metatag. You can, and should, use the keyword metatag definition to “seed” your page with the keywords that you think are most important. If you are not now using this technique, you should put it first on your to do list. For the rest of us, we want to look at fine-tuning those keywords. The other type of useful metatag is the “description” metatag. Some search engines simply use the description metatag you supply for the page summary displayed on the list of search engine results. You’ll want to take advantage of that opportunity to write your own description. It’s a great advantage to have the search engine summary say something like “Excellent resource for . . .” and the Hotjobs.com example that Brenda gave is a good illustration.

JL: One of the more advanced promotion techniques is the use of “doorway pages.” What are these?

BH: These are special site-promotion pages that would come up higher in a particular search engine’s ranking. It’s not the home page of the law firm, but maybe an article on bankruptcy. Since the article is likely to legitimately mention the word bankruptcy many times, it makes sense that it should be listed higher in the search engines. Since the user came to the site through this “doorway” page, and not the front door of the home page, it is called a doorway page. It shows why ALL pages of a site need to be indexed with a search engine and not just the home page.

JL : Excellent point! Some firms only promote the main page or use the same metatags for all pages in their sites. Focused and specific promotion of individual pages takes time and effort but it can vastly enhance your results. Remember that on the Internet, searchers are looking for practical solutions to particular questions, not your marketing brochure. Your key task is finding ways to put your site, or part of it, in the path of someone asking the question that you want to answer. As we’ve discussed before, many visitors will come to pages on your site other than your home page and may never even visit your home page.

JL: What is a “hallway page”?

DK: Hallway pages are used as a technique to enhance rankings on search engines that place a high value on the number of other sites that link to your site. A hallway page is usually a simple page that contains hyperlinks to other web pages. It is then submitted to a search engine for indexing with the idea that the search engine’s indexing software (commonly known as a “spider”) will follow those links and index those pages. It can be part of a customized approach to search engine placement. Brenda, are there some easier approaches?

BH: I’ve found that submitting my site to individual search engines is a cumbersome process. I’ve used a couple of software products that submit my site to multiple search engines at once. The best one is Web Position Gold, http://www.webposition.com/. It works well and is powerful, but as with all powerful software, there is a learning curve. The standard version is $149 for one site and I purchased the professional version for $349 – since I was submitting for multiple sites. What is your opinion of submission software?

JL: I think it has some value, but I would be reluctant to use it for the top 8 or so search engines. I don’t think Yahoo, for example, even accepts automated submissions. Some search engines that do accept them give them lower priority.

DK: Maybe as an initial technique for the launch of a new site, but I prefer to schedule a regular routine of submitting new pages and observing the results you get. The “one size fits all” approach does not work across the board for all search engines and I prefer to do some fine-tuning.

JL: Some search engines have begun “pay for placement” plans. This could be an ad that appears in a defined area of the page where search results are displayed. Much more controversially, the business that is paying for the placement is inserted into the actual search results, where they don’t appear as an advertiser. What do you think?

BH: I’m not in favor of this, but it is the trend. Basically it means that the site owner with the most money gets the highest ranking – not necessarily the site with the most information for the user.

DK: It seems like a necessary evil these days. If there is no other realistic way to get into the top few results for certain keywords, and your strategy is based on drawing traffic from those keyword searches, pay for placement makes very good sense. There are several ways to go. You need to assess whether your audience will respond negatively to what they perceive as an advertisement rather than an objective response to a search request. It saddens me a bit that web searching is being distorted by these pay for placement schemes, but, given the current state of affairs, I’d recommend that every firm consider the technique and I’d argue that it makes more sense to spend your money on this technique rather than paying a service for blanket submissions to multiple search engines. I may be in the minority with that point of view.

JL: Personally, I don’t think pay for placement makes sense for very many law firms. Possibly it could work in a few practice areas where there are truly national practices.

JL: That’s not to say there are never any good uses for hypertext links. For example, you can use them to build credibility by linking a quote to its source.

On another topic, there are many search engine consultants who claim that they can cause a Web site to rank higher. What’s the verdict?

BH: Here’s where I tend to recommend paying for a high listing – even though I don’t care for this trend. You can use the money you would pay a search engine consultant and simply guarantee a top ranking. There are legitimate companies out there, but there are hundreds more that aren’t legitimate and you could waste your money.

DK: Agreed. As I mentioned, there are definitely situations where for pay for placement makes good sense. Back to Jerry’s question: it’s clear that effective techniques can make a dramatic difference in search engine rankings. I’ll only give away a few of my tricks in this articles, but I’ve achieved a #1 or top ten ranking for my pages in response to searches for certain search phrases on a consistent basis using a number of standard techniques. It can take a little time and requires some patience, but you can definitely get higher results.

JL: Some search engine consultants do an excellent job, but it’s a good idea to watch out for snake oil. Some of them promise much more than they can deliver, and following some of their advice can actually hurt you. For example, some consultants tout metatags as a miracle cure, but some search engines ignore metatags. Brenda already explained another trick, adding many key word repetitions in a small font that is the same color as the page’s background. Some of these tricks can get you banned from some search engines.

BH: I agree. You have to figure out what works. One thing you can do is to determine the Top Ten search engines. Approximately 80% of the traffic is driven by the Top Ten. Trying to accommodate all the other search engines is an effort in futility. Focus on the Top Ten.

JL: Excellent advice. The top few search engines deliver almost all the traffic brought in by search engines. Concentrate on them.

DK: Being aware of what search engines people actually use is key. It can also be important to be aware of specialty search engines your target audience may use. For example, I’m not sure how many law firms are aware that FindLaw allows you to submit pages for indexing. That can be an effective technique. Also, search engines may be built on the same underlying database and focusing on the underlying database can pay off in your results on several search engines. For example, Yahoo draws its results from the same database as Google and you’ll have the same or similar rankings.

JL: One of the best ways to determine what works and what doesn’t is to study competitors’ pages that rank highly in various search engines. Of course, there are a couple of caveats about this technique.

DK: You would be referring to our intellectual property laws and some recent cases. It’s pretty clear that you do not want to use your competitor’s trademarks as part of your metatags, especially in any way that might cause confusion. I can assure you that your competitors will not like it if you pay for the first placement for a search engine request or their name or one of their trademarks. There is evolving case law in this area. Flat out copying metatag information or titles will raise some copyright issues as well.

BH: Of course, even if you simply copy their metatag keywords, you have no guarantee that you’ll be ranked somewhere near the top. Keep in mind that you have to submit your site to the search engines and do this diligently. Different search engines drop a site out of their index at different times. Just using the same metatag information or style will not work alone. You have to submit your site.

DK: At best, someone else’s metatag information might be a useful starting point to give you some ideas. Designing and fine-tuning your own metatags should be a nuanced process and one that you can certainly do better than your competitor. After all, you want to be the top result in searches run by your potential customers, not their customers.

JL: The single most important piece of advice I have on this topic is to make your site relevant to visitors. Instead of trying to trick search engines by making your site look like something it is not, work with the search engines by providing a site that is a genuinely useful resource on particular topics.

JL: The single most important piece of advice I have on this topic is to make your site relevant to visitors. Instead of trying to trick search engines by making your site look like something it is not, work with the search engines by providing a site that is a genuinely useful resource on particular topics.

BH: Most definitely. You’ll save an enormous amount of time and have fewer headaches if you don’t get caught up in the “search engine ranking” frenzy. People really will review the first 30 listings from a search engine and some users will go even further. While it is ideal to come up on the first results page, the rule of thumb is that visitors will look at the first 3 pages of a search engine’s results.

DK: Once again, it comes down to a content-based approach. Useful information will rise to the top. There are some relatively simple techniques that will enhance that rise to the top. But it’s not a one-time thing. Good search engine rankings take time and effort and must be tended to and monitored on a regular basis.

JL: This month’s discussion has provided an introduction to a complex topic. If you are serious about drawing traffic to your law firm’s web site, then use the resources below to deepen your understanding, and get into the game.

Posted in: Internet Roundtable, Law Firm Marketing, Search Engines, Web Management