As I’m writing this, Rand just published Google Ranking Factors 2019: Opinions from 1,500+ Professional SEOs over at SparkToro. There are some interesting insights with respect to how SEOs view ranking factors, and more specifically, content and link building.
Nonetheless, I stand by my statement: meh, links.
In my view, high-quality local law firm link building drives most of the SEO value for a law firm website. Most of the major search engines, Google included, use backlinks as a factor in ranking pages. But as most of you probably know, not all backlinks are created equally. While quality links can have a positive impact on search engine visibility, low-quality links can actually harm a law firm website’s search rankings. Unfortunately, distinguishing between the two isn’t always completely clear. Here are some of the link building strategies we’ve seen make a difference for lawyers.
Yes, in our experience, links from legal directories still make a contribution in 2019. If you think about it, it makes sense. Legal directories are topically relevant to law firm websites. For example, Avvo and Justia are recognized as high authority legal directories that appear prominently in Google searches related to law and legal topics. They have large sections of their sites with web pages dedicated to specific practice areas. Take personal injury, for example. Performing a Google search for:
intitle:personal injury site:avvo.com yields about 10,800 results. Put simply, there are thousands of web pages on Avvo.com that contain personal injury in their title. In addition to their robust backlink profiles, these legal directories have massive numbers of internal links with highly relevant anchor text. While we can debate whether these pages contain quality content, there’s little question that, from a search engine optimization perspective, links from these sites have some value.
Admittedly, backlinks from legal directories are really table stakes. Building links from these sites is one of the most elementary link building tactics. Furthermore, it tends to be one of the most abused too. While we typically recommend building links from some of the major legal directories, we don’t advocate trying to acquire backlinks from every single directory you can find. Over the years, SEO companies in the legal industry have really misled lawyers with respect to the value legal directory link building. In an effort to justify their fees, many of these online marketing agencies send backlink reports to their clients (via Ahrefs, Moz, Majestic, etc) that are filled mostly with spammy legal directories that have little to no value. In fact, building links from most of these low-quality legal directories may actually increase the likelihood of Google imposing a Manual Action: Unnatural links to your website:
Google has detected a pattern of unnatural, artificial, deceptive, or manipulative links pointing to your site. Buying links or participating in link schemes in order to manipulate PageRank is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This can result in some or all of your site getting a manual action.
Receiving a manual action relating to links can have a devastating impact on your law firm website’s visibility in Google search results. Further, recovering from a manual action can take months or even years.
Building links from local business directories is another of most common link building tactics. Like legal directories, it’s also one of the most abused by the online legal marketing industry. It is truly absurd to hear so-called search marketing providers pitch local business directory link building. In our experience, many of the backlinks from these local business directory web pages never get indexed by search engines at all. These are not the high-quality backlinks that will drive a legal website to the top of Google in a competitive keyword marketplace. Again, this type of link building tactic is really just table stakes. Sure, claiming and optimizing your law firm’s business information on sites like Yelp, Yellowpages.com, and SuperPages makes sense. There’s little question that citations and backlinks from the major local business directories play a significant role in the local search engine optimization ecosystem. But everyone else can build links there too! Again, these links might be necessary, but they’re unlikely to be sufficient in driving your law firm website to the top of Google.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words on social media for link building. Let’s put to bed the myth that building no-follow links by tweeting provides any direct ranking signal benefit. If only link building were this easy. Just about any teenager with an internet connection can roll-up a bot army to create massive numbers of social media backlinks. This is a complete waste of time, and if someone is pitching you on social media backlink building, run away as fast as you can.
However, it’s worth noting that social media profiles likely provide some signaling to Google with respect to understanding information about your law firm. For example, maintaining accurate information like your firm’s name, address, and phone number on sites like Google My Business, Facebook, and LinkedIn in really a no-brainer. Not just from a link building or SEO perspective, but from a “these are places your potential clients expect to find information about you” perspective.
On the other hand, in our experience, social media can be a powerful tool in building high-quality backlinks. By leveraging social media as part of content marketing campaign, you can amplify the reach of your firm’s great content and increase the likelihood of earning high-quality backlinks to it. Of course, your content has to actually be great. What is great content? For the purposes of link building, it’s content that actually earns high-quality links. These editorial backlinks are the closest thing we get to one-hundred percent Google-approved.
Legal bloggers have realized the link building value of blogging really since blogging was a thing. Some of the highest-quality legal bloggers earn links from .edu, .gov, and other exceptionally high authority sites. By using social media to amplify their posts, these legal bloggers earn meaningful attention from webmasters that manage some of the most authoritative sites on the internet.
In addition to using social media for content amplification, social publishing can also serve as a useful link building tactic. For example, publishing content on sites like LinkedIn and Medium, that contains links that get indexed, can prove valuable. Because of the inherent domain authority of these platforms, posts there tend to appear prominently in search results. When other publishers research source material, these posts are often cited. When these social posts earn links, they pass some of that value through the links embedded in the posts back to the law firm’s website. This is just one example of how social publishing can provide some value in the context of a larger digital marketing strategy.
Before I get into some of my favorite local law firm link building tactics, I wanted to say a few words about some of the other tactics about which we are regularly asked. Before you get all bent out of shape, let me encourage you test different strategies for yourself. What has worked for some, may not work for you. What I discount as basic, might actually move the dial for you. Don’t fall victim to best practices. With that said, let’s talk about guest posting and infographic link building.
First, guest posting for backlinks can work. Again, like everything else, law firm SEO companies have ruined it for everyone. However, in our experience, if you publish a guest post on a legitimate blog that is topically or locally relevant to your practice, the links from that post are valuable. Please read this carefully. I did not say email every blogger you can find and submit guest post topics and embed several overly-optimized anchor text links in your guest post. I also did not say pay for backlinks from a private blogger network. I also did not say spin-up a bunch of completely fake wordpress.com blog sites.
Second, infographic link building can work. If you actually have information that is better communicated via an infographic or data visualization, there’s a good chance that it is more likely to earn links than a mere table that contains the same data. In our experience with law firm link building, depicting publicly available data in an infographic or data visualization that brings the data to life, greatly improves the chances that it will acquire backlinks. If the data visualization depicts topically and locally relevant data, the corresponding links tend to be more topically and locally relevant as well!
Again, please read this carefully. I am not advocating creating ugly infographics and submitting them to as many infographic directories as you can find. Data visualization is just another form of content marketing. If the web views your infographic as great content, it will reward it with backlinks. Of course, you also have to actually market the content, don’t fall for the if you build it, they will come great content scam.
In my view, there are only really two mantras you need to build links for your law firm website: Topical and Local Relevance.
Too many law firm SEO companies focus on metrics like domain authority and whether or not the links are no-follow. In my experience, these don’t tend to correlate as strongly with visibility in local legal industry SERPs. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that local search engine algorithms are different from traditional ten blue link algorithms. But I’m not a Google search engineer. I’m a search marketing consultant, and I can tell you that local and topically relevant backlinks play a role regardless of their domain authority or nofollow status. Here’s what I see working.
Start by opening up Google Maps and find your law firm. Start loading local business websites into a spreadsheet. These will likely be your most valuable link building prospects with respect to location. Next, identify your local competitors with the largest organic share of voice. We like to use Local Falcon and STAT to find the local law firms that appear most prominently in local pack results. Once you have a list of the top three to five, pull competitive backlink data from Ahrefs, Moz, and Majestic. Look for patterns of local links that these competitors have. Again, don’t obsess over their links from high domain authority websites. Also, don’t ignore no-follow links. Look for backlinks from:
Try to understand why these different sites linked to your competitor law firms’ web pages. Is there a sponsorship? Publishing opportunity? Broken links on the site? These local link building strategies can really make a difference. However, it’s worth noting that this type of link building takes a lot of work. Finding the right mix of prospecting, content development, and outreach involves a lot of research time even for the most knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced link builders.