How to Benefit from Google’s Enhancements

Behind the scenes, Internet search engines continually refine how they rank information and provide search results. Recently, however, they’ve rolled out changes that are more dramatic. Search-engines users are noticing the difference and so are law firms that market themselves online.

Google and other popular search engines like Yahoo! and Ask are attempting to give their users both more information and more personalized information — by incorporating maps, video and other useful tools into their search results and by tailoring those results based on data they collect about the user.

The three key factors driving these changes are:
  1. Universal search
  2. Geo-targeting
  3. Personalization

Universal search, which Google introduced in May, is a broader, more comprehensive way to search the Web. A universal search serves up standard Web results alongside video clips, blog entries, images, news results and other categories of information — all pulled from Google’s so-called "vertical search" tools which index information by type (images, maps, blogs) or content (finance, shopping, academia). Those specialized search tools have been available at google.com for years, but now they’re being brought to the forefront.

So a search for "Chicago car accident," for example, might generate local TV video, newspaper coverage of recent events and (if you do personal-injury work in the Windy City) a listing for your law firm, integrated into one result. For Google and other search engines implementing universal search, the goal is to break down the walls that separate different types of Web content and give users a better search experience.

Geo-targeting refers to the increasingly sophisticated way that search engines are tailoring results based on a user’s location, which Google says it can determine nearly 90% of the time. As a result of geo-targeting, two people searching for "Boston defense lawyer" — one from a coffee shop in Massachusetts, the other from a home office in Denver — likely will get very different results.

User-based information (the physical location of the computer, MapQuest defaults) is part of this trend, but geo-targeting is a two-way street. For both legal prospects and law firm Web sites, geographic details now matter more. Referencing local towns and neighborhoods on your site, displaying the firm address prominently, your presence on local directories ... all are becoming more critical as search engines strive to provide relevant, location-specific results.

Personalization means that along with geographic information, search engines are collecting more data about the search behavior and online browsing patterns of users, then using it to shape results. Type in a Google search and your Web history, Gmail account, iGoogle settings and other unique-to-you information all may impact the results delivered to your screen.

Universal search, geo-targeting and personalization are good news for law firms that market themselves effectively online. With access to better, more relevant results, prospects are likely to spend more time online. On the attorney side, law firm Web sites that are grounded in their target market and provide a diverse mix of relevant content — and that are monitored and updated frequently — may see better qualified prospects and convert them at a higher rate.

How can your law firm take advantage of these Google updates? Consider these specific steps:

1) Get your firm on Google Maps. When users search for services online, they’re more likely to include a geographic qualifier than when searching for products. The integration of Google Maps into general search results is an opportunity to make yourself more accessible to those prospects. There’s no charge for adding your firm, though a Gmail account is required — go to google.com, select Maps, then select "Add or edit your business."

2) Think content, not just copy. As search parameters expand, new ways of communicating with your prospects beyond standard Web site text are more likely to find an audience. Video is an example of this. YouTube streams more than 200 million videos daily, and Web video is emerging as an important new tool for online legal marketing.

3) Go local. In today’s search environment, with results tailored to each individual, being #1 is relative. Achieving a top rank is less important than being seen by your target audience. Zero in on your prospects by utilizing keywords, key phrases and geographic terms relevant to your local market — avoiding legal jargon in favor of commonly-used terms. By incorporating targeted, unique content into your site, you’ll define your market and capture more local traffic.

4) Stay relevant. On the Internet a generic, one-size-fits-all approach is less effective than content that sets you apart and speaks to your prospects; Spanish-language information, for example, if you’re in a city with a high concentration of Spanish speakers. Or consider establishing a topical practice center on your site that focuses exclusively on an industry or area of the law that’s big in your market.

5) Incorporate current events. Search engines increasingly are blending news, blog entries, video clips and other timely, event-focused information into results, and that’s an opportunity for your firm. Keep your eye on news that’s relevant to your practice and integrate it into your site. Reference current events and local stories in case results, on your blog and in online articles. The key: make updates frequently.

6) Use local directories and search engines. Get your Web address out through a variety of online resources including local search engines, superpages.com, legal directories and your bar association and chamber of commerce Web sites. That’s important not only for the leads they generate directly, but also because search engines like Google pull from smaller directories and search tools to validate information, compile rankings and provide better local results.

7) Monitor, then modify. Increasingly, there’s no one "right" set of keywords or content strategy for legal Web sites. Results are fluid. They vary by user and location and are influenced by trends. That makes understanding user behavior through the use of analytics more important than ever. Available from Web site developers, analytic programs help you determine how users find your site and how they behave once they arrive. Which keywords drew prospects last month? What are the most (and least) effective pages on your site? Use analytics to ask these questions; use the answers to make upgrades to your site.

Overall, search is becoming more refined and precise, and opening up to encompass new categories of information.

That’s good news for a law firm that knows its target market and is proactive about staying relevant to its prospects, monitoring site performance and delivering a diverse mix of quality content.

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