Search Engine Optimization: What Really Works for Law Firms?

Boy oh boy, is this a hotly debated topic – and we happened to attend a very illuminating presentation by Mark Jacobsen, the Senior Director of Strategic Development and Thought Leadership for FindLaw (long position title!). While I am normally somewhat skeptical of FindLaw (after all, they are in the business of selling websites/SEO), Mark did a great job of presenting a study done by FindLaw in a “teaching” rather than a “selling” way.

His presentation was entitled “The Futility of Chasing Silver Bullets: An Analysis of Aggregate Search Performance for Law Firm Websites.” They apparently like long titles at FindLaw. You can download the 2013 study here so long as you don’t mind giving up contact information. You will probably be contacted – we were. :)

Here are some of the highlights:

Branded searches account for 38% of all searches for law firm websites. In other words, they already know your firm, someone in it or some other aspect of its brand. Any competent SEO provider should be able to get you traffic for branded search.

But 62% of searches are non-branded. This is where the fight for results gets bloody. Most lawyers suffer from the misconception that “head-term phrases” (such as divorce attorney Los Angeles) is key to success and they waste a lot of money trying to get those phrases to come up on the search engine results (SERPs).

People also search for research reasons and for what are called “long tail searches with lawyer intent.” An example might be “lawyer in Virginia who specializes in appealing school decisions about student discipline.” Because of the sheer volume of those doing research, even though the click rate is very low, they will result in 66.9% of non-branded visits to your site. Long-tail searches will end up visiting your site 31.8% of the time and head-term searches will visit just 1.3% of the time.

The contact rates (what you care about most) are 0.8% for research queries, 4.6% for head-term/intent to find a lawyer queries, and 4.6% for long-tails searches with intent to find a lawyer.

By combining website traffic level and contact rates, the study determined the percentage breakdown of contacts generated by non-branded queries types. The percentages were: Research 26%, Long-tail with intent 71% and head-term with intent 3%.

Clearly, the lesson is this. For non-branded queries, research queries are high in volume but it is less likely that they will result in contacting the firm. Long-tailed queries with lawyer intent deliver the most contacts to the firm. Head-term queries with lawyer intent result in the least contact to the firm.

So for those of you who have been trying to deliver first page results for “geography plus area of practice” queries, you are probably spending too much money chasing too few results. Good SEO experts have known for years that the best results for unbranded searches come from long-tail searches. So rethink how you spend your SEO monies!


  1. Gyi Tsakalakis

    According to Jon Wiley, every day, 15% of the questions people ask of Google are questions they’ve never seen before. There’s no question that optimizing for the long-tail remains a very effective SEO strategy. In fact, most lawyers are shocked to learn that aggregate long-tail search volume greatly exceeds the volume for the “handful” of head terms they believe potential clients use to find lawyers like themselves. As you note, these long-tail queries are much less competitive (read difficult to appear prominently for) than those head terms. Further, for those legal head terms, we’re seeing a trend toward local results. So, if you’re going to optimize for head terms, you should make getting those local search ranking factors a priority.

  2. This problem illustrates what happens when we think in terms of keywords rather than concepts.

    As Gyi pointed out, there are an infinite amount of queries that users could search to find your site; but there are only certain concepts that your firm needs to become an authority on. So if you form your content strategy around the most important concepts, the keyword optimization will come naturally.

    Furthermore, once you have Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools data for your content, you can make optimization adjustments, based on actual data, to improve the performance.