Lawyers do some crazy things to get links to their websites. From posting spammy blog comments, to crappy infographics, to sending email spam to bloggers, to spinning up unreadable articles, to linking 50 websites together.
Seriously, lawyers have tried it all.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have the equally misinformed “if you write it, search traffic, inquiries, and clients will come” crowd. That’s not to say becoming a recognized authority on a niche subject can’t earn you links; it most certainly can. But it takes a lot of work, a long time, and typically cannot be outsourced.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Getting ranked favorably in Google’s search results is not exactly a white hat wonderland.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for crappy Internet legal marketing. But instead of lamenting the loss of a simpler time in legal marketing, let’s cut through the BS and talk about what solo and small firm lawyers can actually do to earn links that drive inquiries from potential clients.
The Importance of Links
While there are some who predict the death of links, acquiring quality links has long been—and continues to remain—critical to success in search. In fact, quite recently, Andrey Lipattsev, Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, confirmed links & content are the most important ranking signals that Google uses.
Before we explore some of the ways I’ve seen links help lawyers earn meaningful traffic, here are a few obligatory disclaimers for the uninitiated:
- I have no idea whether you specifically should spend any time or money on marketing (let alone, Internet marketing and search marketing).
- Web and search engines are dynamic. Part of this means what works for one law firm may not work for you and your corner of the web.
- Search engines and the Internet are not a substitute for traditional notions of reputation and relationships. You might be able to suppress some unfavorable listings, but you can’t SEO your way out of bad lawyering and poor client service.
Now that you’ve sobered up a bit, let’s examine a few ways lawyers build links that matter.
I suspect some of the search-savvy among you expected to jump directly to external links (other web pages pointing to your web pages). But if my suspicions are correct, you are probably overlooking an important source of links: your own web pages.
The power of internal linking is regularly overlooked by novice and experienced SEO experts. Old-school webmasters probably remember when on-page signals reigned and building intricate internal link schemes could propel pages to the top of the search results. Like most things in the search world, internal links were widely abused, causing search engines to adjust, but not abandon, these signals.
In fact, internal links make up part of the content soup Andrey Lipattsev referred to in the video above.
To get a better sense of how search engines work and why internal links matter, I recommend checking out Paul Haahr’s presentation at SMX West 2016:
Internal links play a role in three major components of search.
Internal links help search engines find your pages. The most basic rule here is to make sure all of your pages can be found and crawled by a link from another page.
All hypertext links should also include contextually descriptive words relevant to the page to which they point. For example, a link that points to your contact page should probably include “contact” as part of the anchor text.
Like page titles, internal links help search engines understand what your pages are about. This is critically important to whether your page will even be considered as part of a search engines what pages to consider analysis (i.e. relevance to the query).
Internal links help visitors use your site, and it’s not always obvious or intuitive how your visitors will navigate your site. I encourage you to read Dr. Pete’s The 2 User Metrics That Matter for SEO. But in a nutshell, search engines want to deliver results that satisfy their users’ queries.
Useful internal links attract a visitor’s attention and compel them to click through to another page on your site. This gives you additional opportunities to supply your visitor’s demand for information and may reduce the chance that the visitor will return to the search engine to perform the same query. This tells the search engine your web pages satisfied the user’s query, potentially improving your site’s ranking for that query.
Creating and Maintaining Internal Link Structures
If you’re building a new site from scratch, you ought to spend some time considering your site’s internal link structure. I see too many legal websites that implement haphazard navigation, category, and tag structures. This is particularly problematic for WordPress sites (mostly because WordPress makes it so easy to create these elements).
Think about the information that will be most important to your potential clients, and then tell search engines that those pages are more important through well-organized internal links. In other words, would a visitor to Page X be interested Page Y? If so, make it easy for the visitor to quickly find and click on that page.
In my view, there’s no single correct way to organize a site. However, it’s usually pretty easy to tell how well a site is organized from its internal link structure. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to read Everything You Need To Know About SEO Web Structure & Internal Links by Tom Schmitz. It’s a few years old, but Schmitz’s book still contains a lot of great information related to organizing internal links.
If you already have an unruly site, you’re going to need to look into “crawling” your website to get a sense of what your internal linking structure looks like. I’m partial to Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider Tool. In this context, pay particular attention to the Internal tab and internal inlinks and outlinks. Check to see if your site follows a logical internal linking structure that would be useful for visitors.
It’s also useful to compare your internal linking structure to your competitors who appear prominently in search rankings for relevant terms.
You should also check to see whether any of your internal links are broken (i.e. return a 404 error) or include unnecessary redirect chains (i.e. return 301 or 302 errors). These can send mixed signals to users and search engines.
Finally, be mindful of how you link out to other sites. Google recently issued link penalties for patterns of unnatural outbound links. If you have participated in certain incestuous outbound link schemes, consider yourself at risk to be penalized.
External links point at a domain different from the domain on which the link exists.
Most search marketers agree that signals related to these links play a significant role in how search engines order relevant pages for a search query. But …
External links aren’t equal. At the risk of stating the obvious, links aren’t equal. Further, their inequality isn’t like linear inequality; it’s more exponential or logarithmic. This makes focusing solely on quantity a losing game.
Don’t rely on one metric. The most common metrics we have to determine link quality aren’t very reliable. I’m not going to be able to completely untangle this here, but don’t obsess solely on metrics like domain authority. That’s not intended as an indictment on those metrics, it’s just that search engine ranking soup is complex and nuanced.
Spam still works. Search engines are good and getting better, but they’re not perfect. While I tend to recommend taking a long-term approach to link building, I’m sure many of you have plenty of counter-examples of aggressive spammy link building that just works. At least until it doesn’t.
It’s complicated. A cynical person might suggest that search engines are interested in spreading misinformation and creating FUD around what works. A less cynical person might suggest that search engines release aspirational information—suggesting where it is trying to go, as opposed to what’s working today.
Each lawyer must decide their own link-risk tolerance.
Now let’s look at some examples of ways solo and small firm lawyers can build links that matter without breaking the bank.
As search engines evolve, they are getting better at delivering personalized, localized results to their users. For many solo and small firm lawyers who want to be found online by people in their local communities, local link building should be made priority. But local link building is a lot less about link-begging and buying and much more about taking a leadership role and developing relationships in your community.
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.
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.
Let’s start with a few lay-ups. Listing your firm in legitimate local business directories is typically easy and free. You’ll usually be able to determine the legitimacy of a directory by simply looking at the site. If the directory site looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 90s, contains a series of hyphens in the domain, or is heavily littered with AdSense or other ads, it’s probably not even worth your time.
On the other hand, if the directory lives within a legitimate site, like your local municipality’s official site, then it makes more sense to complete a listing.
Even better than general local business directories are legitimate local legal directories. Again, these might also be found within local legal organization websites.
Using the Ahrefs Site Explorer Tool, I sifted through a couple of search prominent law firm websites from around the country. You can do this too.
Here are two examples:
You can also earn these relevant, highly-local links by being active in your local community. Here are a few more ideas:
- Coach a team.
- Officiate local youth sports.
- Volunteer at an elementary school.
- Sponsor a local organization.
- Participate in local meet-ups.
These are the type of things you should be doing anyway.
It can also be useful to participate in online conversations at local blogs and forums. Not only do these matter to search engines, but they’re also likely to get clicked by real people who actually need your help.
You’ve probably heard that if you focus on just writing great content, links, ranking, and visitors will just appear.
If you’re a talented, prolific writer, they might. And even if you’re not, you might get lucky here and there. But if you’re in a competitive practice area and location, you’re probably going to have to do something beyond merely pushing publish.
The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.
This, of course, isn’t wrong per se. However, even most link-worthy content needs a little nudge.
Let’s start with some basic examples.
Write an Article
In this example, the firm simply wrote a post discussing the NFL concussion story.
This link from the firm got picked up by a writer at the thenation.com. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this firm did nothing else but publish this post and through pure search serendipity, the author found it and linked to it. This is the editorial link-vote search engines want to recognize.
But it’s quite possible the firm took some action to get this post in front of the writer. Maybe they:
- Connected on HARO.
- Sent an @reply on Twitter.
- Chatted by email.
- Had an existing relationship.
However it went down, this is the type of link that helps.
Let’s consider something a little more gimmicky that’s a bit easier to pull-off: a jingle contest.
Now it is unlikely jingle contests will get picked-up by wsj.com. But the same, or similar, concept can work on a hyper-local level.
Write an Ebook
Another option is write a book or online guide.
If you’ve already tried this and it didn’t work, ask yourself why not. It’s possible the content you had wasn’t very good, or you just didn’t get it in front of anyone who was willing and able to link to it.
Lawyers tend to love adding legal information resources on their sites. Most of them are lousy and are reincarnations of other firms’ pages. This is particularly problematic with practice area pages. But even basic legal definitions, glossaries, and case summaries can earn links as source material.
Write About Currents Events
Being a regular source of credible information on current events can also earn valuable links.
Unfortunately, too many lawyers prefer to regurgitate local news stories without adding anything of substance. After all, that’s hard and takes time.
Here’s an example of something that might be considered a bit controversial: offering a discount.
A 10% discount on a personal injury contingency fee? This might be the first time I’ve ever seen this.
Support What You Love
Another really easy and obvious method for link building is to sponsor organizations, events, and other causes that you care about. Here’s a sponsorship of Creative Commons.
Finally, Prioritize Relationships and Reputation
With all of this talk of search engines and links, it’s easy to lose perspective of what’s most important: reputation and relationships. But it’s not reputation or the web, it’s reputation and the web. In fact, as the lines between the web and the real world continue to blur, they actually work together.
If you take this approach to marketing your practice online, not only will you earn visibility in search engines, you’ll also avoid algorithm updates that harm your traffic.
Here are some additional resources for follow-up reading on link building:
- Jon Cooper’s “Link Building Tactics—The Complete List”
- Mike Ramsey’s “The Ultimate List of Local Link Building Ideas”
- Casey Meraz’s “11 Ways for Local Businesses to Get Links at Moz”
- Paddy Moogan’s “Beginner’s Guide to Link Building at Moz”
Photo by: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Meyers [Public domain]