While thinking about how to drum up more business and grow your practice, you have likely performed a fair number of Google searches to see how your rankings stack up against the competition for various relevant search phrases. You have performed these targeted searches from the comfort of your office, and even if you did not rank highly in the standard, 10-links-per-page search results, you may have happily noticed that you seem very well-represented in local searches.

But have you ever performed similar searches from home and been troubled to find your firm ranking far lower? Read on to understand why, and what you can do about it.

Proximity is King

Local Google searches are those with results displayed on a map. Searchers can navigate to Google Maps on a computer or phone or click on the map embedded in a search engine results page to perform a local search.

Remember, it is not only your phone which can tell Google where you are, but also your desktop or laptop web browser. For local searches, your location is crucial.

For local search, proximity to the searcher is the top factor. Even a small, little-known business can rank well in a local search if you are standing right outside its door.

But it is possible for your firm to rank highly in local searches performed outside your immediate vicinity. This depends on a number of factors.

Old Methods are Out

Before discussing what to do, we should mention what not to do.

“Virtual offices” are a shortcut SEO strategy for local searches that used to lure in many businesses. Virtual offices may be legitimate, full-fledged offices where you can meet clients on an occasional basis, or they may be little more than a mailbox and a phone number, specifically intended to dupe search engines.

In either case, trying to register these addresses with Google My Business is a bad idea, because the company is cracking down on this loophole in a big way in the name of a more informative user experience.

Google’s guidelines state: If your business rents a temporary, "virtual" office at a different address from your primary business, do not create a page for that location unless it is staffed during your normal business hours by your business staff.

The penalties for faking a GMB listing are steep: It is grounds for a “hard suspension,” meaning your listing, reviews and photos will be removed from Google entirely — likely for all locations, including your main office. Having a hard suspension reversed is very difficult.

In Mid-June, agencies managing Google My Business accounts began noticing a steep spike in profile suspensions. Some companies reported having all profiles suspended, even those that did not contain a virtual office profile. It seems that Google has begun cracking down on virtual office spam in earnest — to the point that legitimate offices are getting caught up in the dragnet

You should forget about using such an office to rank in local searches unless your own staff occupies it on a daily basis, and you can prove its validity.

Reality check

For all local searches, Google will attempt to put together a “local pack” of results: a fair number of relevant matches to give the searcher something to choose from. If the search returns a lot of results in the immediate area, searchers are quite unlikely to see results from further away, no matter the qualities of any given business.

Consider two people side-by-side in a car in the middle of the suburbs. One searches for “fast food near me” and sees a dozen results within a few miles. Results in a neighboring town will not be returned, no matter how relevant. The other searches for “Ethiopian restaurants” (try it, it is delicious) and sees a zoomed-out view with just one or two results. These restaurants easily rank outside their immediate area.

How well-represented is your practice area in your local market and neighboring markets? If you practice a more common field of law, ranking well in local searches from outside your vicinity may be out of reach.

Perhaps you have a sub-practice area in which you truly have carved yourself a niche in the local market. These are the search keywords you may wish to analyze and target in surrounding markets. For example, you may focus on intellectual property, but have important related experience in entertainment law. If you can find a practice niche without a saturated market in nearby communities, you may have a viable target for attaining a high rank.

Tools

If you want to get a clear idea of how you rank on a variety of searches from a number of locations, you are going to have to do some research. Fortunately, some powerful tools are available to help you, and save you from having to drive around town seeing how your ranking fluctuates.

LocalFalcon is one of the best. It displays a graphical ranking overlay onto a Google Maps view of any area for any target search phrase. The results are eye-opening, clearly showing just how steeply a business’s ranking can drop off with distance — especially for competitive searches in competitive markets.

Other tools are worth exploring as well, including Whitespark, BrightLocal, and Mobile Moxie.

Factors

In the end, proximity is a powerful ranking factor that will tend to trump other factors by design. After all, if the searcher is thought to be seeking a nearby result, that is what they should see most often.

The good news is that it is possible to rank well outside your immediate area. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts. The methods for increasing your local search ranking are not unique unto themselves — they go hand-in-hand with standard SEO practices.

As the specific workings of Google’s algorithms are a closely held secret, no one can spell out exactly which factors are the most important for a given search. But casual analyses tend to point in the same directions.

Reviews: Local search rankings are heavily influenced by both the quantity and quality of reviews. Businesses with a few good reviews will rank higher than those with none, and businesses with many good reviews will rank higher than those with just a few. It is worth swallowing your pride to gently request an honest review from your valued clients.

Links: This encompasses both the number of links to your site and the “linking root domains,” i.e. the number of different sites which link to yours. Link-building is a cornerstone of any SEO strategy, and strategies for link-building are as numerous and varied as the reasons to pursue it. Join free and paid legal directories. Start or sponsor a Meetup group. Comment on legal blogs. Offer to write guest posts on blogs. Answer legal questions on forums.

It is in Your Hands

It is a recurring theme in the SEO world: Shortcuts do not cut it. Any actual method of gaming a search engine is a detriment to the user experience and will be ruthlessly coded out of existence. The way to rank best is to be the best, both in your practice and in your online presence. So get to work and make it happen.

About Author

Ryan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and a legal content strategist for U.S. based law firms.

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