If ever an entire profession existed whose online content exemplified that which Google was trying to suppress in the search results with updates like Penguin and Panda, it might just be the law field. Thin content, link networks, overly aggressive anchor text, exact-match keyword domain names and/or keyword stuffing of just about everything that’s stuffable exemplify the majority of them. Perhaps it’s the ferocity of online competition; maybe it’s that Google’s let everyone “get away with it”; maybe no one was actually getting away with it, but most just thought the next lawyer was, so they jumped on board with the same lowly tactics.
In any case, things are changing. Think of the frog in the slow-to-boil pot of water, oblivious to its probable eventuality. That might be you. And you, there. And you, over there, pretending you’re fully within Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, but secretly knowing you’re not. And you, reading this with your feet up on your desk, remaining oblivious to what those SEO people overseas are doing to your site isn't going to save you. The semantic-focused exploits that have been the hallmark of SEO for so long are now waning in favor of projecting strong business acumen, engaging content, authoritative authors, social integration and attention to the user experience. It’s time for many to pull themselves up and out of the old mentality of search marketing and jump into the fresh, cool waters of content strategy.
The evolving algorithm
The Old: Search engines order their results with the help of software intelligence called algorithms, and apply them to just about every site on the web. Over the years, the rules have developed in complexity as computing power has grown in its ability to apply the rules within acceptable wait times. Once upon a time, about all the search engines could manage to do was gather up all the written copy on a site, send it back to the home server, compare it to the copy it found on other sites, then organize search results based on how many times a search term was used on each site. Today’s results are arranged by vastly more complex algorithms.
The New: Now, the online interactions of a company’s customers, peers and partners, competitors, potential customers, past customers, and employees are also being measured, and those results are now playing a part in search results. This is the case for two main reasons: 1) It has the potential to make for better search results; 2) It can now make use of algorithms that take into account not just what a company says about itself on its own website, but also how the wider online community interacts with the site. With the magnitude-greater computational power and storage capacity of today’s search engines, your content can be evaluated more and more based on the quality of engagement that it causes. This means individual social profiles – not just web page copy, keywords, and links – now influence search results.
Engagement signals can now be associated with social profiles whose fingerprints may be evident across the web. Who follows whom; who writes what; who comments, shares, likes, tweets or links to content is all being compiled. With this information, Google is building a social graph of who interacts with what and the relationships between any particular profile and any particular search query. Eventually and algorithmically, the content that’s been interacted with most often by relevant, influential social profiles lifts toward the top of search results that had formerly been semantics-only–dominated. The change is enormous.
To be sure, Google’s understanding and tracking of all this social interaction is still spotty, but Google is learning, and is already using sources that it can trust. Its relationship with Facebook may prevent it from seeing into everyone’s personal profile, but interactions with public Facebook business pages are fair game. Google+ is a game-changer, in that nothing happens there without it being attributable to an individual’s personal profile. Type your name or that of your firm into Google and look at all the social sites that show up with it. For many, if not most, Google knows what you say about yourself there, the reviews that have been written and the Google accounts that have clicked on search results that brought them to those pages—and it’s looking to know more.
The evolving content marketing strategy
The secret to getting out of the way of Google’s downward push on old-school SEO’d sites is to do just what Google has been asking the marketer to do since 1999: Do online the same things that reputable, long-term entities have always done offline to maintain viability as a company. Forge specific business objectives with goals of reaching defined audiences; continually brainstorm on creative ways to address client needs before, during, and after the sales so that you reach those business objectives; cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with vendors, partners, employees, and customers—and then, in today’s world, create content about all of it. If there is a dominant theme in the content strategy universe, it is that the successful online entity has to develop a business unit with importance equal to that of its operations unit that is tasked with publishing all realms of content specific to the advancement of its unique business objectives. It boils down to this: If your firm can’t publish effectively in the coming years, it will be marginalized online.
All that is to say that engagement now needs to be seen as the holy grail of online marketing. Engagement says something of the audience and of the content. It indicates interest, and value. It is the point at which comments, shares, likes, retweets, links and co-citations burst forth and from which they ripple out into the social graph. Your firm’s goal is to create more ripples, larger ripples and more sustained ripples.
Engagement – The fundamentals
Engagement doesn’t just spontaneously occur out of the blue, though, right? You need a defined audience, content that the audience can engage with, and a way to bring audience and content together. Each of these tasks requires specialized knowledge and resources to be effective. In-source them, out-source them or learn to do them yourself, but somehow you’ll need to wrangle them into a productive, long-term business practice that can be defined, measured and evaluated against the firm's bottom line.
Right out of the blocks, the law firm needs to define the audience for each practice area and develop personas for each audience. Having a strong understanding of the client personas helps the firm define and dial-in their marketing efforts, making them more effective and cost-efficient. In the context of content strategy, not only do personas help the content producer focus their creative on a particular audience segment, but having a clear picture of the intended audience helps to focus the ensuing social outreach efforts as well.
This is where the work of persona development starts to pay off. When the firm knows who it’s looking for, it’s time to tool-up and begin sifting through the social media to find where the audience may hang out and, especially, to whom they subscribe and whom they follow. It takes a lot of legwork, but your firm will end up with its own valuable social graph of members and authorities in your niche. With that, you’ll have lists of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Avvo, Justia, and numerous other forum members and influencers who, ultimately, you’d like as followers of your firm’s social profiles and as subscribers to the feeds for which your publishing team is producing content.
The catalyst that turns ordinary web denizens into sharers, likers, retweeters, followers and, ultimately, clients, is not your product or service, it’s your content. It may be said that many lawyers provide the exact same service, but the content in which it is packaged needs to be uniquely you, advance your corporate philosophy and appeal to the client personas you are targeting.
To build your brand through search and social sources, there is no shortcut to creating content that is exceptional, inspirational, unique, credible, fun and worth sharing. On a pure algorithmic level, this kind of content elicits the engagement signals that are picked up by search engines and, in turn, help with search engine visibility for the content, author and website. On a business level, that is what builds familiarity, likability and trust for your brand.
As you’re planning your firm’s content strategy, don’t make the mistake of trying to be all things to all clients. Not every firm is going to have the chops to publish content at the most prodigious levels in every niche – in fact, few will. A smart online business person with a crafty publishing arm can take advantage of gaps in the competition’s marketing and algorithmic understanding. Just as in the real world, it can take finding and penetrating an under-served niche and establishing your firm there by creating only niche-centric content. Many a large online entity started out by tossing the ego aside, laser-focusing on a tiny niche, becoming the expert there, then taking the lessons learned there to expand into other niches in following years.
Content, social media and search are integral to the successful law practice today and will become inextricable components of tomorrow’s practice. For the firm that has ambitions of longevity and growth, adopt this mindset or hire those with it and let them help you lead the way. Here’s the deal: The friction of fundamental change is heating the online environment around us more and more quickly, and those who don’t take steps now will become good pickin’s for those who are seeing the bigger picture and changing how they’re marketing online.
Chris Menke is owner of the Metapilot Content Strategy, a boutique web marketing strategy and SEO firm in Miami Beach, FL. He’s worked in the organic search marketing field since 2005 and when he’s not working with clients, he’s often competitive sailing or cruising with his wife and dog in Biscayne Bay and around the Florida Keys. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn or Google+.