Currently, getting to the top of search engine rankings may not be a high priority for legal Web sites. Many legal firms only have a Web site as a status symbol, an expensive online brochure of their firm’s activities that probably attracts few new clients and generates little income. Web site designers probably spend more time designing the Flash Intro for the Web site than optimising it to rank highly in search engines. However, when the kudos of having a brochure Web site disappears, and firms seek to generate income from their Web site through legal e-commerce, getting to the top of search engine rankings will become crucial.
Research has shown that people who use search engines hardly ever go past the top 30 search results for any one search. The top 10 results receive 78% more traffic than those in position 11 to 30. The top 30 results get over 90% of all search traffic. This research is really only stating the obvious: it is human nature always to take the easy option. If a person can find the information they need on the first Web site they visit, they will not continue their search. Similarly, when legal e-commerce allows clients to get a divorce or do their conveyancing or make a will or solve a myriad of other basic legal problems online from the comfort of their home, the first Web site that they visit that solves their problem, will be the one that gets their custom.
Search engine positioning is a rapidly expanding business and firms will pay large amounts for a top 10 ranking. There are several specialist Web sites currently offering advice on search engine positioning and Web site optimisation (such as www.searchenginewatch.com; www.searchenginehelp.com). Specialist knowledge is necessary for targeting a particular search engine. Nevertheless, all search engines work in roughly the same way and when a site is optimised it should rank highly in all search engines. Keywords are the secret to Web site optimisation. All search engine algorithms are based on looking for keywords in certain parts of the site. Admittedly, algorithms have other factors, such as link and page popularity, but keywords are the basis for all formulas. Consequently, when optimising a site, there are four main considerations: choice of keywords; location; frequency; and submission.
Choice of Keywords
Choosing the right keywords and phrases is the single most important factor in gaining a high ranking. Potential clients will be searching for an answer to their legal problem. They will be using generic keywords and phrases for their specific problem. As much as it might hurt a firm’s ego, its trading name is not a keyword. Unless of course, the name has become synonymous with their specialist area and been promoted to a generic term. A good starting point for deciding which keywords to use is to view the metatags in the source code of similar Web sites that rank highly. However, be warned – simply copying keywords will not guarantee a high ranking, since the most potent keyword would be used by every searcher but not by any other site.
When considering which keywords to use, consider two types: general and specific. General keywords are necessary to ensure that a Web site is listed, but they will not guarantee a high rank. Moreover, a search using only one general keyword, such as ‘solicitor’, would undoubtedly return too many irrelevant results to be helpful. Potential clients will filter their search results by using specific keywords or phrases.
Specific keywords and phrases define a firm’s niche, for example ‘commercial property solicitor’. They are the key to high ranking. When choosing specific keywords, a useful resource is at http://inventory.uk.goto.com/d/searchinventory/suggestion/. This is a database of keywords used in searches on UK Goto, which powers searches on UK portals such as Freeserve, Altavista, Excite and Ask Jeeves.
Individual search engines will place a different emphasis on keywords found in certain parts of a Web site. A more detailed analysis of this can be found at http://www.cral.ac.uk/guidelines/search/advanced_promo.html. The location algorithms of individual search engines are beyond the scope of this article. However, as a general rule, search engines will rank the location of keywords in the following order of priority:
1. Domain Name (ie. www.yourkeywords.co.uk)
2. Page Titles
4. Page Content
Resources and Links
www.cral.ac.uk/guidelines/search/advanced_promo.html – detailed UK article on achieving a high ranking.
www.24hourNAMES.com – interesting US article about doorway pages – US jewellers, DeBeers have 1600 keyword domains pointing to their main Web site.
www.searchengineoptimizer.com – US software that performs a search engine compliance check similar to an HTML validator.
www.wordtracker.com – Excellent US database of keywords, with analysis of keyword potency called the Keyword Effectiveness Index. Unfortunately, of little relevance for UK legal terms.
http://inventory.uk.goto.com/d/searchinventory/suggestion/ – Searchable UK database of keywords used in searches on UK Goto. Advertisers on Goto bid for keywords, the higher the bid, the higher the Web site will appear in rankings.
www.searchenginewatch.com – Specialist advice on Web site optimisation.
www.submit-it.com – Search engine submission tips.
www.legalnames.co.uk – UK database of keyword domain names.
Search engines place a high priority on keywords found in the domain name. If the domain name matches the keyword then the Web site is likely to be highly relevant to the searcher. Unfortunately, the domain name is the only part of a Web site where the use of keywords is restricted by registration. Consequently, most generic legal terms have now been registered as domain names. Many legal firms have exploited the priority given to keyword domain names, by using these as Web sites. A list of these firms can be found at www.venables.co.uk/firmsx.htm. Other firms increase ranking by using a generic term domain name as a doorway page for their Web site. This has the added benefit of raising link popularity.
Contrary to popular opinion, metatags are not the priority of ranking algorithms. Keywords placed in the metatags are decided upon by the Web author, they may have little relevance to the page content and hence are not heavily weighted in algorithms. Some algorithms even penalise Web sites for placing irrelevant keywords in the metatags, by cross checking the metatags with the page content. Keywords found in the page title are prone to reflect the page content and are probably more relevant to the searcher.
Indexing every keyword in the page content of every Web site is a gargantuan task. Consequently, search engines may only search the first paragraph of page content. Including every keyword in the first paragraph may not produce good prose and enterprising designers may suggest placing all keywords as an invisible first paragraph (eg white text on a white background in a very small text size). This compromises the integrity of the search algorithm and, as algorithms become more sophisticated, they are penalising this practise by checking text size and comparing text and background colour.
The more often a searched for keyword appears in a searched location, the higher the Web site will appear in the rankings. However, simply repeating keywords in the metatags – keyword spamming – is bad practice and will usually result in the removal of the offending Web site from the search engine listing. It is perfectly acceptable to use the singular and plural of keywords and, if relevant, capitals, lowercase and common mis-spellings.
A variation of the frequency theme that some search engines use is the ‘weight’ of keywords. This is the ratio of keywords to all other words. When considering weight and frequency of keywords, specialist Web sites have an advantage over general Web sites since a specialist Web site will have a higher density of keywords. Similarly, Web pages devoted to a specialist subject area will rank higher than general Web pages.
Each search engine has its own unique submission criteria. This must be followed to ensure listing. As a general rule, page titles should be no more than 70 characters long, description metatags no more than 200 characters, keyword metatags no more than 800 characters, and page content should have the most potent keywords in the first paragraph. Search engines usually do not penalise Web sites for exceeding character limits, they simply do not search beyond the cut-off point. Consequently, if you are unsure about character limits, make sure that the most potent keywords and phrases appear first.
Even when a Web site has been optimised and is appearing high in rankings, it is unlikely to remain there. Achieving a high ranking is an ongoing process. Search engines will consider recently submitted sites and updated page content as more relevant to the searcher. Consequently, regular updates of page content and re-submission are necessary to attract both search spiders and new clients.