Get Started with a Smart SEO Strategy for the New Year

BY Alisha Corbitt



As the new year begins, taking stock of recent developments in the SEO world can inform a balanced SEO strategy in 2015 and beyond. The changes are numerous, but there is one key principle: while SEO techniques are still important, SEO must be centered on high-quality, relevant content in order to be effective.


Google Hummingbird is the sweeping revamp of Google’s search algorithm that was released in August 2013. Unlike an algorithm update like Pigeon or Panda, Hummingbird totally changed the way that Google processes searches. In fact, Hummingbird was the most dramatic alteration to the search algorithm in 12 years. The algorithm seeks to more accurately identify searcher intent, and it match searches with high-quality content.

Now that the update has been out for more than a year, what has changed?
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The driving concept behind Hummingbird is semantic search. Semantic search results interpret a user's intent and the contextual relevance of other information. It is designed to interpret the meaning of the search, rather than to only evaluate the keywords contained in it. For example, if a user searches for “food,” Hummingbird uses context to interpret that a user is most likely to be looking for restaurants, and it presents local restaurants at the top of the page. But it also provides websites on recipes and a Wikipedia page about food in case the search had a different intent.

Essentially, searchers no longer need to use exact keywords -- Google translates search queries into relevant keywords by interpreting the likely context and intent of the queries.

Another key change, in part related to the idea of semantic search, is the introduction of the Knowledge Graph. The Knowledge Graph attempts to find the answer to a question in a search query, and it presents that answer at the top of the page in boldface. For example, searching “how many lawyers in Florida” brings, at the top of the page, statistics from a New York Times piece. The other results are also intended to answer the question, rather than simply match it to keywords.

The Knowledge Graph means that instead of clicking on one of the top-ranked websites for a simple answer to a question, users looking for a quick answer get it immediately without providing clicks to any website.

Lessons Learned From Hummingbird

When Hummingbird was released, many webmasters worried that the update would completely overturn everything content marketers had taken for granted about keywords and SEO.

Now that Hummingbird has been out for some time, webmasters have identified SEO strategies that work well with the new algorithm. The changes have been significant, but not catastrophic; in fact, most changes have been neutral to positive for many companies.

The good news is that SEO for Hummingbird is intuitive and honest, and the best way to rank highly is to focus first and foremost on creating high-quality content. The best strategy is to create content that meets users’ needs, incorporating keywords into that content (as opposed to writing content around keywords).

Because Hummingbird analyzes user intent and attempts to identify which pages have the best information, law firms can benefit from taking an authoritative tone that uses industry-specific language. This can help Google identify the website as a source of valuable, accurate information.

The use of semantic search also influences the types of keywords that attorneys should be optimizing their sites to accommodate. As searchers increasingly enter question-based queries, law firms should choose keywords that match up with the type of language that will be used in search. In addition, it is important for websites to avoid techniques like keyword-stuffing, and instead simply provide high-quality content in which keywords naturally appear.

Optimizing for the Right Keywords

Not all keywords are created equal, especially with the advent of Hummingbird and the widespread use of voice search. The goal of search marketing should be to rank for the phrases people are actually using in search, not for every possible keyphrase. This goal includes longer-tail keyphrases for which people actually tend to search.

One thing to keep in mind when conducting keyword research is the fact that the use of voice search is becoming increasingly prevalent among people of all ages, who use the feature on their phones and tablets. Even more than in text search, voice search users are likely to enter queries in the form of a question, and queries are typically very close to natural speech.

One effective technique for developing a good list of keywords is to use word association. People may use many different word combinations to search for content that has the same idea. A traditional keyword planner can’t do this step for you, because the goal is to think of loosely related search terms. For example, a personal injury attorney may brainstorm keywords like “car accident,” “wrongful death,” “contingency” and “catastrophic injury.” Reviewing other firms’ websites can also be useful.

Keyword cloud tools can help supplement this process. A keyword cloud tool can help identify keyword co-occurrences, synonyms and words that correlate together. The association technique can help develop a more comprehensive list of terms with contextual relevance, but not all terms will be ideal for SEO. Further research will reveal whether or not a particular search term is appropriate for use in content.

Long-tail keywords can be extremely useful, especially with the rise of semantic search and voice search. Rather than short keywords, entire keyphrases should be developed. In addition, long-tail keywords should mirror natural speech as well as possible.

Niche keywords are also useful, especially for local businesses and law firms who work in a very particular area of law. Using keywords that make it clear that the firm is a local business can help its webpages rank higher in local results, while using niche keywords can help ensure that the firm is competing for rank in a keyword that not every single other law firm is trying to rank for.

One strong tool for evaluating the potential effectiveness of a keyword is to use the keyword effectiveness index (KEI) and keyword difficulty score to identify how effective a keyword may be and how hard it is to rank for a keyword. The right keyword balances those two factors.

Finally, as an SEO strategy becomes ingrained, firms can evaluate which keywords are associated with higher conversion rates. Special attention should be given to optimizing for these keywords. This is not something that will be obvious at the outset of a campaign, but continuous analysis to identify which content is the most successful in terms of conversion can help firms better focus their keywords in the future.

Creating the News

A smart SEO strategy should aim to create content that puts a spotlight on the firm. Rather than just writing a certain amount of content on a certain schedule, this method requires firms to proactively launch campaigns that create news. Basically, this strategy focuses less on content quantity and more on content quality and target audiences.

Both Hummingbird and Google’s most recent, smaller algorithm updates like Panda punish SEO techniques that rely on low-quality backlinks, keyword stuffing and other techniques that do not focus on quality content.

At the same time, the new algorithms reward websites that generate natural interest in and linking to websites. In order to accomplish this, the content needs to have value to users rather than simply serve as an advertisement for the firm. To accomplish this, firms must develop a strong understanding of what is important to a particular audience, then create campaigns that fill those needs.

Market research is absolutely essential to this approach. For example, a business law attorney should look for local businesses' concerns Are they looking for information about confusing areas of corporate law? Are there certain issues that many of the area’s businesses are concerned about? The subject does not have to be solely linked to law -- an elder law attorney may develop a campaign aimed at educating the local community about early signs of Alzheimer’s, for example.

A diverse range of content can help. One type of content alone will not engage all users, and it can become repetitive; offering ebooks, charts, podcasts, infographics and/or videos can help capture a wider audience. In addition, a comprehensive campaign may include outlets like guest blogging. One advantage of using a variety of platforms is that the same subjects can be repurposed into different formats with slightly different focuses, which reduces the resources a firm needs to spend generating many new topics.

Offering unique information that others will draw on and link to is a good move. For example, a law firm may consider running and publishing a study on a subject related to one of its practice areas. A case report can also allow firms to report on interesting information without the resources required to perform a study.

Another method is to consolidate already researched information into more palatable pieces of content like infographics or charts, which tend to draw users. This allows firms to establish themselves as an authority on information in which readers are interested.

One of the most effective ways to create real news is to engage in community activities related to practice areas. Sponsoring an event, speaking at a gathering or working with charitable organizations can spur other organizations to publish something about the firm’s activities. For example, an elder law lawyer may speak at a local event for seniors, or volunteer information or services at a conference. This is a natural way of engaging with the community that can generate a lot of interest without appearing self-serving.

In a way, public relations is merging with content marketing. A great PR campaign can also offer natural content marketing opportunities and even press coverage. That fact is part of what defines "creating the news."

Tying It Together

The continuing trend in SEO and content marketing leads high-quality content that fills the need of an audience to success. This benefits law firms because the focus on content that has meaning and integrity is consistent with a firm’s desire to present itself as a competent, knowledgeable source of information.

At the same time, creating great content isn’t the end of the game. Optimizing that content using white-hat SEO techniques and promoting it through high-quality channels ensures that audiences engage with great content -- and then convert.[/s2If]

Alisha Corbitt

Alisha Corbitt is a former Bigger Law Magazine staff contributor.


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