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Search engine optimization > introduction

November 29, 2003

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an online marketing strategy used to increase a Web site’s visibility to people searching for information and services on the Internet. SEO helps position your firm among the top search results for a given query. This can dramatically increase traffic to your Web site and establish a Web presence for your law firm. SEO involves: (1) optimizing the structure of your site, (2) optimizing the text that appears on it and (3) obtaining links to your site from other sites.

Studies show more people find what they are looking for online through search engines or directories than they do by going directly to Web sites they might see listed in print or hear about on radio or television. So it’s important to know how search engines work to ensure your Web site appears in front of your target audience. Given the thousands of results that can appear when someone enters a query into a search engine, it is critical to do all you can to make sure that your listing is near the top of the search results. Most people stop after looking through a page or two of search results. If your listing is positioned well through SEO, Internet users will stop and visit your Web site before your competitors’.

Basic information on search engines

Search engines compile word indexes from the information they collect when they “spider” or “crawl” Web pages. When an Internet user enters a search query, search engine software displays Web pages based on a variety of algorithms, using the word indexes created by spiders or crawlers. The algorithms assign certain weights to keywords, phrases and links to a Web page, pushing some Web pages above others the results displayed. Different search engines use different algorithms to produce their rankings. For instance, some search engines may weigh keywords found near the top of a Web page more heavily than those found lower on the page. Other search engines, like Google, also rank Web pages based on which other Web sites link to them, giving more weight to more well-established sites. For example, if Yahoo! links to your Web site, it will likely be ranked higher by search engines than if a less well-known site linked to it.

Note the difference between a Web site directory and a search engine. A directory like a phone book lists Web sites broken down by categories. Generally a directory is built by people submitting their Web sites or paying to have their sites included in the directory. Yahoo, though originally started as a directory, now includes a search engine that uses Google to retreive relevant pages when you key in a search. The categories you see listed on the bottom half of Yahoo! is their directory.That’s the box you see near the top of the Yahoo page. The most well known directory for lawyers is Martindale-Hubbell and their new consumer lawyer directory for consumers,

The major search engines are:

These search engines supply results to most of the major Web portals, including AOL, Excite, Go, Lycos, MSN and Yahoo!.

Here’s a list of search engine powers and the portals they power:

  • Google: Google, AOL, Excite, Go, Netscape, Yahoo!, FindLaw
  • AltaVista: AltaVista
  • AllTheWeb: AllTheWeb, Lycos
  • Inktomi: LookSmart, Overture, MSN
  • Ask Jeeves: Ask Jeeves

Your site must be accessible to search engines

Search engines are knocking on the door of your law firm Web site. They want to store the content of your site and display the results to people doing searches for lawyers like you. It would be foolish not to let them in and show them around to see your content. However, many law firms with the way their site is designed, built or the content (or the lack thereof) is presented keep the door closed.

Anything that interferes with the automated spiders or crawlers of search engines will adversely impact your ranking in search engine results. It could even prevent your site from being included in a search engine index. The way you design and build your Web site as a whole, as well as its individual pages, is so important. You also need to make it easy for search engine crawlers and spiders to index all of your site’s internal pages, by providing clear and easily followed links from your home page, as well as a site map that has links to your site’s internal pages.

You need strong content that includes the words and phrases people tend to use when looking for a lawyer. Relevant, substantive content is an absolute necessity for effective search engine optimization. What you do to position the keywords that relate to the services you offer can pull you up in search engine rankings.

There are three major components of search engine optimization you must incorporate into the design, content, coded HTML, and programming scripts for your site:

Keywords and Phrases

Strategically select and place words or phrases into your Web page content and specific HTML tags – the areas from which search engines grab words and phrases to building their indexes. Your Web pages must contain keywords or keyword phrases that match what your target audience is keying in for their search. Often, there are multiple words or phrases that mean the same thing. It is important to include all the words or phrases your target audience will use in its searches. The better the match between your content’s keywords and phrases with the terms being included by your target audience’s search, the higher you will be ranked in the result set.

For more information on choosing effective keywords for your site, visit my Keywords and Phrases page.

Web Site Structure and Page Layout

The way you structure your site and design the layout of its content will have a large impact on your site’s search engine ranking. This includes how you serve your Web pages (e.g., as static HTML pages or dynamically from a database or Web script), the directory structure of your site, the names of the site’s directories and individual HTML files, and its URLs. Each Web page needs to be optimized individually to present the content it contains to a search engine. Thus, the elements of a page’s layout, including navigation, site maps, graphics and multimedia elements such as Flash and QuickTime movies, need to be placed correctly on each Web page. Other factors that affect a Web site’s ability to be indexed are the use of Image Maps, Frames, JavaScript and, most importantly, your Web page title tags.

Optimizing these elements is described further on my Web Site Structure and Page Layout page.

Web Page Popularity

Search engines follow links from other Web sites when creating their indexes, and many of them start with the major Web directories, such as the Open Directory Project, Yahoo! and LookSmart. Getting your Web site linked up in these directories is the best way to make sure that your Web site will be indexed by the major search engines. The more popular your Web site is, as measured by the number and quality of the links coming to your Web site from other sites, the higher it will be ranked in search engine results.

Search engines will apply more “popularity weight” to your Web site when it is linked from well-established sites with a large volume of visitors than from a lesser-known site. It is important to have links to your Web site in popular Web directories, such as Yahoo!, LookSmart and the Open Directory. Search engines also look at the content of the page that is linking to you, making it also important to be linked by sites with content similar to yours. You want legal Web sites, local business and local community resources directories linking to your site to help your search engine ranking.

Here’s a list of major Web directories and the portals with a directory they power:

  • Open Directory Project: Open Directory Project, AltaVista, AOL, Google, Lycos
  • LookSmart:LookSmart, MSN, Lycos
  • Yahoo!: Yahoo!

With some search engines, you can also pay for guaranteed inclusion in their indexes. This does not guarantee top placement in all search results but it does guarantee that at least one page of your Web site (or as many pages as you pay for) is included in the search engine’s index for certain keywords and phrases, for a prescribed amount of time.

How to get links to your Web site from other sites is covered further on my Web Page Popularity page.

To have a better understanding of how to use search engines for online research, visit Greg Notes’ Web site dedicated to Web searching, Search Engine Showdown. Greg, not only a wonderful guy, is a reference librarian & associate professor at Montana State University, a writer, speaker, and consultant focusing on the Internet, online information resources, Web searching, and the search engine industry. Greg also does consulting for companies and firms who are interested in better using the Web for online research.

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