Disclaimer: This post is pretty long and meanders it’s way to the conclusion that you should get table stakes right and then mostly focus on building relevant local links. It’s also ranty. Reader discretion is advised.
You can jump down to Prominence to skip the most banal parts.
Yesterday Joy Hawkins, posted this poll on Twitter:
local algorithm = organic algorithm + some local factors
— Joy Hawkins (@JoyanneHawkins) April 4, 2018
At the time of writing, there’s still some time for you to head over and vote. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
First, for the official record, I voted False, which at the time of writing, puts me in the 35% minority (I’ll come back and look at this after the poll closes).
Second, the poll inspired a thread.
The purpose of this post isn’t to cast aspersions. It’s also not intended to diminish the realm of more academic SEO. In fact, I find academic SEO fascinating. I’m certainly no search engineer, and what those folks over in Mountain View do is historically amazing.
What I do is rank websites. So here’s some of what I see.
local algorithm = relevance + distance + prominence + some traditional organic factors
I really have no idea what’s in the local algorithm. I have no idea what’s in any of Google’s algorithms. Neither does anybody who hasn’t worked on the algorithm. And even most of the people who have worked on it, don’t “know it” to its full extent. In fact, in the machine learning age, I think just about everyone has a very vague notion of what’s going on. That’s like, just my opinion man.
If you’re interested, I encourage you to read what Google has to say about improving your local ranking on Google. You should also become familiar with, and regularly check, Google’s Guidelines for representing your business on Google.
These are from where I’ll be working. Needless to say, I take what Google says with a huge grain of salt. From my perspective, they have very little incentive to tell us how to rank in Google. And in fact, they have a lot of incentive to “throw spammers of the trail.” Nonetheless, it provides a working framework that, generally speaking, lines up with my experience. If you’re interested in improving your law firm’s local ranking on Google, read on.
Local results appear for people who search for businesses and places near their location. They’re shown in a number of places across Maps and Search. For example, you’ll probably see local results if you search for “Italian restaurant” from your mobile device. Google will try to show you the kind of nearby restaurant that you’d like to visit. In the image below, Google uses local results to suggest some options. You can improve your business’s local ranking by using Google My Business.
Nothing really controversial here. Anyone who has performed a local search can easily see that, for “local business intent searches,” Google will usually show local pack results, as well as, localized traditional results.
Enter Complete Data About Your Law Firm
Local results favor the most relevant results for each search, and businesses with complete and accurate information are easier to match with the right searches. Make sure that you’ve entered all of your business information in Google My Business, so customers know more about what you do, where you are, and when they can visit you. Provide information like (but not limited to) your physical address, phone number, and category. Make sure to keep this information updated as your business changes. Learn how to edit your business information
Emphasis should be placed on complete and accurate information. A lot of law firms “start” completing their Google My Business listings, but don’t go nearly far enough in providing complete and information. For example, many firms fail to provide accurate:
- Business Name Information
- Category Information
- Phone Number(s)
- Appointment URL
- Description (it’s back)
- Date Opened (somewhat new)
- Answers to Q & A
Furthermore, it’s essential to keep this information updated as it changes. That might seem like a no-brainer, but we see it messed-up all of the time. In addition to keeping data accurate on Google My Business, you also need to keep it complete and accurate “around the web.” In other words, on as many major sites as you possibly can. Or at least, correct it where it appears incomplete or inaccurate.
Verify Firm’s Location(s)
Verify your business locations to give them the best opportunity to appear for users across Google products, like Maps and Search.
Not much to say here. Verify your Google My Business listings. Follow the Guidelines. In most cases, you should probably verify a listing for all of your physical office locations. Don’t verify virtual offices. Don’t verify home offices. Here’s the Guideline on ineligible businesses:
- Businesses that are under construction or that have not yet opened to the public.
- Rental or for-sale properties, such as vacation homes, model homes or vacant apartments. Sales or leasing offices, however, are eligible for verification.
- An ongoing service, class, or meeting at a location that you don’t own or have the authority to represent.
With respect to practitioner pages, things get a bit dicey. I typically recommend verifying listings for firm leadership (partners, etc). You should consider the potential consequences of verifying for all lawyers. For example, who owns those listings? By default, my sense is that Google’s view is that they travel with the lawyers. While you might be able to navigate this by contract, it might be more headache than it’s worth.
You should also consider the impact of practitioner pages competing with office locations. At the time of writing, there are only three organic local pack spots. Furthermore, Google tends not to show multiple listings for the same firm (although this isn’t always the case, as we have been able to generate double-listings for some clients).
Make sure you consider how people are likely to search for you and your firm, including:
- Attorney Names
- Firm Name
- Variations on Attorney Names
- Trade Names
- Relevant Local Business Look-Up Searches
Finally, and this one is important, if you hire someone to help with this stuff, insist that YOU OWN YOUR LISTINGS. Get it in writing. Confirm that an email you own and control is the owner. Huge land mine here folks.
Keep Your Firm’s Hours Accurate
Entering and updating your opening hours, including special hours for holidays and special events, lets potential customers know when you’re available and gives them confidence that when they travel to your location, it will be open.
This one tends to be less intuitive for lawyers. For starters, make sure you think about when your clients and potential clients are likely to contact you. Pro tip: It’s not always nine-to-five. If you have a practice area that takes clients that are likely to contact a lawyer “after regular business hours,” you better “be open” during that time. What does that mean? In this context it means having a human being answering the phone. If you can figure out a way to do it, you should work toward “being open” 24 hours a day (read someone answers the phone 24/7). For many local law firms serving local legal services consumers, being open 24/7 is a huge competitive advantage. Even if “rank number one in Google,” if your listing says closed, people aren’t going to call. It’s really that simple.
Manage and Respond to Reviews
Interact with customers by responding to reviews that they leave about your business. Responding to reviews shows that you value your customers and the feedback that they leave about your business. High-quality, positive reviews from your customers will improve your business’s visibility and increase the likelihood that a potential customer will visit your location. Encourage customers to leave feedback by creating a link they can click to write reviews
This one creates a ton of challenges for lawyers. Let’s start with legal ethics. Newsflash: the rules apply online. Which means you can’t blow client confidences online. Which means you have to be very careful about how you respond to client reviews online. I could write a whole thing about responding to reviews (actually I’m sure I have at some point), but that’s not my ultimate goal here. My goal here is to help you improve your local ranking.
Practically speaking, where you can do it ethically, you should be encouraging happy clients to leave reviews on Google My Business and around the web. At the risk of stating the obvious, this starts with providing remarkable client service. But it doesn’t end there. You should also consider your entire process as it relates to encouraging reviews. There are also tools that can assist with this (Get Five Stars, Grade.us, Yext Reviews, etc). Make sure that your tools follow the Guidelines too.
Where you can ethically and eloquently do so, you should also encourage reviews that contain relevant keywords. This helps Google understand more information about your practice and may influence how and where they show your listings in local pack results.
Adding photos to your listings shows people your goods and services, and can help you tell the story of your business. Accurate and appealing pictures may also show potential customers that your business offers what they’re searching for.
Not a ton to add here. Get some professional photos taken. If it helps put your best foot forward, have some taken of the outside of your office. Honestly, people can look it up on maps anyway, so you can’t really hide a gross office. More importantly, get photos of the people (lawyers, staff, etc). Again, for most practices, you’re going to meet your clients face-to-face at some point. No point in hiding, in my humble opinion. With their consent, you should also consider photos of happy clients. People expect to be able to find out information about what your clients think about you. It’s as simple as that.
Recently, Google also added the ability to post videos to Google My Business. Use this! Video provides a much more powerful experience than words and photos. Again, where ethical, consider using video testimonials here. Really effective tactic here.
How Google Determines Local Ranking of Your Law Firm
Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance, and prominence. These factors are combined to help find the best match for your search. For example, Google algorithms might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer, and therefore rank it higher in local results.
Honestly, everything up to this point is table stakes. If you’re in a competitive online legal landscape, and most of you are, everyone is doing all of the things above. They’re necessary, but not nearly sufficient. Here’s where the magic happens (and really is the impetus for this post and crux of twitter thread at the outset). Pay attention.
Your Firm Listing’s Relevance to Searcher’s Intent
Relevance refers to how well a local listing matches what someone is searching for. Adding complete and detailed business information can help Google better understand your business and match your listing to relevant searches.
At first, this one sounds like table stakes stuff. Complete your listing information. And, in my view, a lot of it is. But there are some nuances here. For example, the domain and page you use in your listing can make a huge difference. Another example is your firm’s name. You would probably be greatly disappointed to learn how much your firm’s name matters to how it appears in results. Google really needs to fix this. But from a practical standpoint, changing your firm’s official name to include relevant keywords works. I also encourage you to carefully review the Local Search Ranking Factors survey. My hunch is that there are many factors relating to relevance that you haven’t even considered.
Distance of Searcher’s Location & Intent from Your Law Firm
Just like it sounds–how far is each potential search result from the location term used in a search? If a user doesn’t specify a location in their search, Google will calculate distance based on what’s known about their location.
Proximity is among the most important factors in local search. In fact, some smart folks believe it’s the most important factor. From a practical standpoint, the main way to influence this factor is open a physical office closer to where your target audience is located and what they’re searching for. For most small law firms, this simply isn’t an option.
If you can’t open a new office, I suggest you reconsider your approach to local search. In other words, stop wasting time and money trying to rank in local pack results in locations in which you don’t have an office! Instead, think about other ways you can get your message to those audiences, including:
- A local section of your site optimized to a specific location. While you won’t appear in Local Packs, you may be able to get these pages to appear in traditional organic results.
- Ads. That’s right, good old-fashioned advertising. Whether it be search ads or placements that are geographically tailored. You should probably get help with this.
Most lawyers fail to recognize the importance of proximity, not only as a local ranking factor, but as a qualifier for legal services consumers. For better and worse, how far your office is located from your potential client, matters a lot to the potential client. Way more so than it might matter to you, the lawyer. You must take this fact into consideration in your marketing and advertising efforts. Short version, time and money spent to attract hyper-local clients will generally “convert” more efficiently than those dollars and hours spent to win a far away client.
Your Firm’s Prominence in Google’s Eyes
Prominence refers to how well-known a business is. Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking. For example, famous museums, landmark hotels, or well-known store brands that are familiar to many people are also likely to be prominent in local search results.
Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business from across the web (like links, articles, and directories). Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.
There’s no way to request or pay for a better local ranking on Google. We do our best to keep the details of the search algorithm confidential to make the ranking system as fair as possible for everyone.
Around two-thousand words in, and we’re finally to the “good stuff.” It’s not that all of the previous stuff isn’t important, it is. But prominence is what seems to me to matter the most (okay, excluding proximity).
We’re going to parse this one a bit more slowly.
Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking.
This may sound wild to some of you, but there are actually law firms that are more well-known in the offline world that get a “prominence bump.” The rarer cases include really old firms. Some of them are even in designated historic buildings. This stuff actually helps. Not much you can do about this if this doesn’t describe your firm. On the other hand, the much more common example are the offline advertisers. Think old-school television and billboards.
Now you might be wondering, how could Google possibly “know this?” Short answer, they’re really smart. Medium answer, search volume on brand terms (i.e. firm names). Best answer: who cares. Unless you’re going to spend some serious cash in offline advertising, it doesn’t really matter how they know.
If you don’t have piles of cash to spend on brand building, the good news is that the internet provides a host of tools to build “brand awareness.” Here’s the rub, measuring awareness is very fuzzy. While you can (and should) measure how many people search on brand terms (i.e. attorney names, firm name, etc), it’s much more difficult to attribute spend to these clients, as compared with, more direct response online advertising (i.e. search for “personal injury lawyer,” paid per click, phone call, fee).
At the risk of stating the obvious, I wouldn’t encourage you to spend money on brand awareness campaigns merely to improve your local search prominence. However, I would encourage you to consider local search prominence as a factor in deciding how brand awareness campaigns fit in your marketing mix.
Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business from across the web (like links, articles, and directories).
Finally. Here we go. This means that Google uses traditional organic factors in delivering local pack results. Period. Full stop. No academia necessary. But don’t take my word (or Google’s help documentation) for it, Joel Headley worked at Google. On local stuff.
Right – local search is a flavor of organic search. They have to do somethings special to make local work well, but they share the same DNA that makes them much more alike than you would think from looking at patents.
— Joel Headley (@headley) April 5, 2018
they share the same DNA.
Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking.
We’ve already talked about this, but reviews and responses to reviews, matter a lot to prominence. They also matter a lot to whether a use is more likely to click on your listing. For what it’s worth, I’m convinced that user engagement metrics are part of, well, “the DNA.”
Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.
Rank for a query in the traditional organic results that also triggers a local pack and you’ll be more more likely to also appear in the local pack. I don’t know what the correlation coefficient is on this (hoping find out, let me know if you have the data), but my money is on that it’s high (Mihm seems to think so too, so I’m in excellent company).
So, what’s an ambitious lawyer to do?
Meh, build links.
But not exactly in the same way you may have been building them in the past. Focus on quality over quantity. So what’s quality? Here’s my take:
- Topical Relevance
- Location Relevance
Prefer links from sites and pages that are topically relevant, geographically relevant, and are real. The example I always like to use is that the best link may be the competitor down the street. Their site is likely to be the most “relevant” from this perspective. Of course, it’s probably going to be tough to get them to link to you.
But you should also build links from sites and pages of:
- Local news organizations
- Local businesses
- Local schools
- Local governments
- Local non-profits
- Local chapters of national non-profits
Most importantly, local businesses, organizations, and causes that you care about. Here’s why: You’re going to get a ton more value out your participation there beyond merely “improved prominence.”
Okay, that was a lot of words to say: build links.
Notice I didn’t mention PageRank.
Feel free to rant below. I’ll update this post if you convince me where I’m wrong. Promise.