One of the most important, yet most neglected, steps in launching a law firm website is planning it with search engine guidelines in mind. There are a variety of simple mistakes that lawyers make in rushing to get their sites live, that can have significantly negative consequences as to how the site performs in search engines.
Google provides some pretty comprehensive guidelines for webmasters. With regard to design and content, Google recommends:
- Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.
- Offer a site map to your users with links that point to the important parts of your site. If the site map has an extremely large number of links, you may want to break the site map into multiple pages.
- Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.
- Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.
- Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.
- Try to use text instead of images to display important names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images. If you must use images for textual content, consider using the “ALT” attribute to include a few words of descriptive text.
- Make sure that your title elements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.
- Check for broken links and correct HTML.
- If you decide to use dynamic pages (i.e., the URL contains a “?” character), be aware that not every search engine spider crawls dynamic pages as well as static pages. It helps to keep the parameters short and the number of them few.
- Review our recommended best practices for images and video.
Design and Content Guidelines Explained
Clear Hierarchy and Text Links
Search engines don’t “see” websites the same way people do, at least not yet. If your site is organized and doesn’t contain a clear link structure, search engine spiders will have a difficult time accessing your pages. This is likely to result in certain pages not making it into a search engine’s index and results. Site structure also helps tell search engines which pages on your site are most important and which pages are related to one another. All of these signals can impact the performance of your web pages in search results.
Sitemaps are an additional aid to search engines. These are especially helpful if your site doesn’t have a clear link structure that is readily apparent from your home page. Sitemaps are like a website’s table of contents or index. There are a variety of tools that will generate a sitemap for your website. There are also XML sitemaps that you can submit to search engines through webmaster tools. This is will help ensure that search engines are getting the most recent updates to your site and understand how your site is organized.
Limit Links on a Page
It’s easy to get carried away with adding hundreds of links to a particular page. However, adding too many unnecessary links can actually hurt your pages’ performance. Without getting into all the gory math, the authority of a page is measured, in part, by links pointing to it compared to outbound links on the page. If you page doesn’t have many inbound links (links pointing to it) and many unnecessary outbound links, it’s authority with search engines will be greatly reduced. Further, many search engines will stop crawling links on a page after a certain number. Therefore, excessive links may not get crawled at all. This means that the pages to which those links point may not be indexed.
Create Great Content
This is the classic search guideline. Search engines want to surface the best web pages for their users for each specific search that a user makes. In fact, this is exactly how they make their money. So, the advice from search engines is always to create great content that people want online. This is often much more easily said than done. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of your resources should be focused on developing great web content. And this includes designing an effective website.
Like links, keywords is an area on which folks tend to hyper-focus. The general guideline is that you want to use relevant keywords on your web pages. This helps search engines understand what your pages are about. You especially want to include keywords in URLs, page title tags, headers and the text on your pages. However, you don’t want to use keywords excessively and unnecessarily. I’ve always liked the mantra: “search-mindful” content. Which means write for people, but be conscious of how search engines will read your content.
Text vs. Images
Search engines can’t yet quite read the content of images (although they’re getting pretty close). That means that if you want to communicate something to a search engine, you had better do it through text. Prefer text over images for expressing what pages are about. However, don’t omit images. And if you do use images, make sure you optimize them appropriately.
Meta information like title tags and alt attributes are very important in communicating to search engines. If title tags are inaccurate or missing altogether, search engines have a much more difficult time understanding what your pages are about. Therefore, use concise and highly descriptive titles and alt attributes to accurately describe the content on a particular page. Further, make sure that your page titles are unique for every page of your site.
HTML and Broken Links
You should do your best to create code that is clean. In other words, that is organized and compliant with web standards. Broken links, 404 errors, missing page titles, etc, can all have deleterious effects on the performance of your pages in search results. Use webmaster tools for feedback on problem errors on your site.
If you don’t know your way around search engines and dynamic page creation, I recommend avoiding creating dynamic pages altogether. If you use a content management system like wordpress (which I recommend), make sure that you create “pretty permalinks” that pass semantic information back to search engines (i.e. include keywords describing your pages).