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What November 2019’s Local Search Update Means for Your Law Firm

January, 02 2020
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Jo Stephens

They say that real estate is all about location, location, location. But in terms of law firm local SEO, what matters now is prominence, and distance, and—most importantly—relevance.Local search is typically how consumers find everything from a good restaurant to a law firm. 

Someone might type “law firm” or “law firm near me” or “law firm dealing with…[insert your specialty]” into the search bar, and one of the first things that appears on the search results is a map with several nearby options (in technical terms, this is called a local pack).While organic search has long been a complex process of generating content and building a network of authoritative links to your site, local search was more about how close your business was to the searcher and whether or not the category of your business matched their search terms.

But local businesses and their attendant SEO experts have been scratching their proverbial heads since November 5th, with some experts even christening the 11th month of this past year as “total bedlam.”

In case you’re curious, Bedlam is a psychiatric hospital in England that has inspired numerous horror books and movies. Are changes to local search really that frightening in terms of law firm local SEO?

Volatility in local search results might not be as terrifying as bodiless whispers in the darkness, but they are pretty scary if a good portion of your incoming traffic comes from local search—and if you’re running a local business like a law firm, chances are you need Google to consistently deliver potential clients.
After all, local search is what brings people into an offline brick-and-mortar like your law firm’s office. These searchers are looking to take it to the streets—literally—in terms of local goods or services like your law firm.

In times past, Google addressed searches with “local intent” by supplying a list of the closest locations that offered a service that matched your search query—at least according to the way the business was self-categorized. 

But now Google has recently confirmed rumors of changes to the local search algorithm. The process for generating local search results will now be heavily influenced by what is termed neural matching (more on that later).

How Law Firm Local SEO Used to Work:

All you really needed to do to get on to the local search results was put your law firm on GoogleMyBusiness by inputting some key information like a phone number, address, and link to your website.

Phone number? Check. Address? Check. Website? Check. 

You know what they say: three is the magic number—and Google adheres strictly to fairy tale formulas, listing only three businesses in the local pack (usually…sometimes they list more). Of course, searchers could always elect to hit “list more places,” but obviously it doesn’t hurt to be one of the first three (and hence easiest) choices listed.

In the past, one of the best ways to optimize your local search rankings on Google was to list your law on other search engines like Bing, Yahoo, Yelp, and Facebook. The more consistent the information was, the more trustworthy your law firm seemed to Google.

Wasn’t that hard to do.

But if you wanted to really bump your way up the list, you had to get your law firm’s info listed on some secondary vendors like Infogroup, Acxiom, Localeze and Factual. That required a little more legwork.

Another tactic was to maximize your categories by limiting them to really focused options. “Law firm” was too general. “DUI Law firm” would have pleased the Google Goldilocks and placed your law firm in the local search results of someone looking for a local DUI lawyer.

How Law Firm Local SEO works now:

The short answer is that we don’t really know. All we know is that something has changed—and Google has confirmed this in the public confessional of Twitter. Google does not reveal their secret sauce, in part to avoid businesses from manipulating the system and undermining Google’s attempt to deliver genuinely relevant answers to questions.

But what we do know is that Google is always making changes to their algorithms. They make these changes to continually refine their ability to answer searches with the best results possible. Just ask whoever handles your law firm’s SEO about their fond memories of Possum, Panda, Penguin, and Pigeon.

Unfortunately, these changes often throw a wrench in the plans of the best SEO experts. By the time the proverbial white smoke goes up from whatever Google’s Version of the Sistine Chapel would be, SEO experts are already scrambling to get back on top of search results.

This November, major changes were made both in terms of organic search and local search. One of the biggest components to these changes is Google’s increased AI power, which has built up and refined a process called neural matching.

Google continues to get really, really good—creepily good—at reading our minds. With these most recent updates, they’ve gotten even better at connecting a broader set of search terms to a specific business.

For example, let’s say your law firm specialized in anything having to do with driving a car, but you listed “DUI law firm” as your primary category. Under previous algorithms, potential clients looking for help with traffic tickets or fighting an insurance claim were less likely to see you listed on the local pack if they typed those searches into Google. After all, why should they? You listed your law firm’s primary focus as “DUIs.”

What they would get was a list of competing (but perhaps less competent) law firms who did list those those other keywords as their main area of expertise. Even though—in addition to DUIs—your law firm could handle traffic violations, searchers wouldn’t see that because you weren’t listing that as your primary category.

By the same token, if a competing law firm was closer to the potential client, that law firm could outrank you in the local pack. If three firms were closer, that was even worse—you may not have even showed up on the local pack as it showed on the SERP (search engine result page).

But now, times are-a-changing…and rewarding those law firms who have poured genuine effort into their organic SEO—for example, the content on their website. The biggest reason for this change is that Google is putting more emphasis on relevance.

In Google’s own words, they are trying to “go beyond the exact words in a business name or description to understand conceptually how it might be related to the words searches use and their intents.” This means that the categories don’t matter as much in terms of local search rankings anymore—which is good news for law firms who can do more than one thing.

span style=”font-weight: 400;”>Officially, there are no changes you need to make in terms of a local search for your law firm. But as we know, avoiding change against a backdrop of ever changing algorithms is a recipe for obscurity.

Google directs browsers to a document about improving your local ranking with tips like filling out complete information and verifying your brick and mortar footprint. Same old, same old. But at the bottom of the document, Google lets you know that relevance, distance, and prominence are key factors in terms of how Google determines local ranking.

There’s not much you can do about the distance factor, so we’ll ignore it for now. It’s much easier to deal with the other two pillars of local search (relevance and prominence) than to uproot your law firm and move it to where there are more lawsuits.

What is neural matching, and why should your law firm care?

Neural matching has been used by Google since 2018. It’s a complex concoction of linguistics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Without getting into the nitty-gritty top-secret details of what goes on behind the doors of Google (hint: it’s not all about slides, ball pits, and foosball tables) we can tell you that the end result of all this work is supposed to be a search engine that connects words to concepts and then provides relevant results.

Local search is extremely important for a brick-and-mortar business like a law firm. Unlike someone shopping for car insurance, your clients will need to meet you in person. That means they need to find you on Google’s local pack.

But now your distance to the searcher—in comparison to other law firms—may not matter as much as how relevant Google perceives your law firm is in terms of their query. And if you’re wondering how Google has any suggestions about how to become relevant, they suggest “focusing on ensuring you’re offering the best content you can. That’s what our algorithms seek to reward.”

In other words, you’ve got to show Google you’re relevant to user searches by producing a more nuanced presence online. It’s not enough to fill in a few categories on GoogleMyBusiness and pick one as your main area of expertise.

Relevance requires a content strategy. You’ve got to show Google that you’re the best answer to user searches, and the best way to do this with excellent content that establishes your relevance.

Of course, Google has also stated that prominence is important. Establishing prominence will require a lot more technical work that you might want to outsource (unless you can clone yourself). SEO for your law firm will involve building a network of good-quality backlinks, addressing technical site issues at the code level, and creating a fluid site architecture. 

Your law firm SEO strategy might need to go offline as well. You’ll want to get previous clients to leave behind positive reviews. You’ll want to get quoted in online publications, or even contribute blog articles. All of this will be wrapped up with your content strategy in terms of strengthening local search for your law firm and establishing its relevance and prominence. With these two components more highly weighted in the November 2019 update, you may even be able to outrank other law firms who are closer to your next client.

If you need help with your law firm search engine optimization strategy or execution, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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