Occasionally we publish ranking checks featuring various industries and this month it is the turn of Australian law firms. A few of them show signs of search engine optimisation (SEO), and a handful have done a good job, as the results will show. SEO causes a website to show in the first page of a search engine for a specific search. As there are millions of possible word combinations that may lead to a law firm’s website, you cannot expect to rank well for all of them, but you should try to rank for the ones that will bring you new clients.
The top 20 results (first two pages) were checked across Google, Yahoo and Bing. Yahoo uses Bing results now, but in a different way. Normally we check only the first page, but in a few legal specialties such as Insurance, Maritime, Energy or Mining, there would have been no law firm on the first page. I have no personal connection with any of the firms mentioned, past or present. They were selected based on the ones that showed up in the top 100 results for the various keywords. So, if a site is not listed, it did not rank in the top 100 results for the chosen keywords.
Ranking with non-competitors
When searching, you may have noticed that the top results are often from Wikipedia, universities, magazine/news articles, legal publishers, law associations, or directories, which are not business competitors. However, they are ranking competitors and some are difficult to outrank. Of course, ranking depends on the exact search term used, so Wikipedia or the University of Melbourne (for example) will not rank if you are searching for “Brisbane commercial lawyers”.
Humans sometimes type strange things into search engines. Take, for instance, the basic words lawyers and solicitors. Globally, lawyers is used more than twice the rate of solicitors, but in Australia, the ratio is closer to 55:45. So you can’t ignore one of them in your website text. Just because you and I type the same word does not mean that most people would do the same.
Google has kindly given us a free Keyword Tool that you can play with to find out search volumes and phrase suggestions.
The sequence of two words is also unpredictable, depending on the industry. Lawyers melbourne and solicitors melbourne are used over 90% of the time compared to melbourne lawyers and melbourne solicitors. You can’t use these popular phrases in your text literally, so some thought is needed.
The selected keywords
The following 22 keywords were chosen for this small exercise. In a detailed study you would need to pick a larger set of keywords, or ones better tied to the locations of interest. For this brief study, we chose very generic ones, but most of the websites used them to list their services:
- agribusiness law
- australian law
- banking and finance law
- competition law
- construction law
- corporate litigation
- employment law
- energy law
- franchising law
- industrial relations
- insolvency law
- intellectual property law
- international law
- legal advice
- maritime law
- market regulation law
- patent attorney
- privacy law
- property law
- real estate law
- tax law
- technology law
- workplace relations
More than 160 sites were checked, which included a small number of directories and other high-ranking non-competitors. The ones that are not listed did not show up in the first two pages. They may well rank very well for location based searches and for other keywords that better suit their business.
Bear in mind that the law firms do not necessarily handle the specialty featured in every keyword, so a large firm with many pages could appear many times compared to a smaller firm with a small website. The rankings are affected by one’s physical location and past searches, unless you choose not to allow personalisation.
Twenty of the 22 keywords had at least one website that showed up in the first two pages, which is a good result. A Google appearance is worth a lot more than one in the other two engines, given that Google gets more than 90% of searches.
The Average of Page tries to show an approximation, e.g. 1.2 means that most of the appearances were on page 1, whereas 1.9 suggests that most were on page 2.
There isn’t a Top Ten or Top Five list simply because after the first three, the rest barely have one solitary appearance in Google. The top three law firm sites that rank (relatively) well in Google are:
- Allens Arthur Robinson: http://www.aar.com.au/
- Clayton Utz http://www.claytonutz.com.au/
- Piper Alderman http://www.piperalderman.com.au/
Some law firms are using separate micro sites to display additional content. Minter Ellison, for example, uses a site called Construction Law Made Easy to showcase one of their specialties. Watson & Watson has built Building & Construction Law to do likewise. McColm Matsinger uses a subdomain for Franchising Law.
While it is best to use one’s own domain and private hosting to house such sites, the free hosts are another option. Allens Arthur Robinson uses Google’s free Blogger.com service to host Construction Law at Allens, Insolvency Law at Allens, and so on.
There are some concerns with using free hosts. The obvious one is that you don’t own the site and it might shut down overnight. Google recently changed its own policy on Blogger (blogspot.com) domains, so that we in Australia are forced to view them at the blogspot.com.au domain.
Why does that matter?
It does, if you care about SEO and rankings. Take, for example, my own (long neglected) page, which can be seen in Google as thus:
However, if you go to that URL ash-nallawalla.blogspot.com (and are sitting in Australia), you are redirected to ash-nallawalla.blogspot.com.au. What’s the big deal, when the content is the same? Some brilliant product manager in Google thinks that we might trust a blogspot.com website more if it ends in .au – maybe they are right (or there could be an underlying technical reason, such as hosting a copy of such content closer to us), but this stuffs up your inbound links.
Someone sitting in the UK sees that page at ash-nallawalla.blogspot.co.uk (try it). Someone in India sees it at ash-nallawalla.blogspot.in. This does not extend to every country so far, e.g. not in Japan or South Africa, but given time, Google is bound to extend this hare-brained idea to other countries. Say, I have lots of fans in the UK and India and they link to my site from their own pages. They are not linking to http://ash-nallawalla.blogspot.com but are linking to the one in their own country. This dilutes link “juice”. I don’t see any toolbar PageRank for any of those pages and I don’t mean just my own.
We don’t know if Google aggregates this within its ranking algorithm, but using blogspot.com is no longer a good SEO linking tactic.
A small number of sites are using blogs, either on the main website, or at separate domains. This is an excellent way to get partners to contribute fresh material, which in turn keeps the search engines happy.
Not surprisingly, the legal directories have good SEO in place and had a few more Google appearances.
A few solicitors have chosen generic or location names such as shiplaw rather than the names of their partners. While this can help with ranking (subject to proper linking), there were no signs that such sites ranked well. This may simply indicate a lack of SEO tactics used at those sites. Some have bought location-based domains, which redirect to their real sites. One was noted with an incorrect “302” redirect, which does not help with SEO, but works just as well if done the right way.
One of the sites has been targeted with a reputation smear. The WOT (Web of Trust) plug-in for Firefox shows a circle symbol next to each search result. In this case, no less than 39 “people” have rated it as fairly untrustworthy (and amazingly not one of them gave a rating for the other criteria). Not one of the other lawyer sites has a single rating, good or bad, hence this smells of a smear attack. Hardly anyone knows about this WOT plug-in, so perhaps it does not matter.
Any website that does not try to rank high in the free, organic search results is missing out on potential new customers. Their only option is to pay for advertising, which suits the search engines perfectly.
Many law practices simply do not rank in the top 20 results in Google or Bing. Some don’t even rank in the top 100 results and, possibly, some don’t even have a website. The big firms are not short of work, it seems, but within such large practices, certain specialties could surely do with more work.