Like many lawyers, one of my marketing goals for 2020 is to drive traffic to my firm website from search engines. But, when I started my practice in 2019, I assumed that it would be too difficult to do so with a brand-new website. I felt I didn’t have the resources to compete. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, I revisited the topic. After investigating, I discovered that my preconceptions were wrong. There wasn’t much competition for the relevant keywords in my geographic area.
I wondered if this was true elsewhere and began to research further. In this post, I’m sharing my findings about what it takes to rank a law firm website in Google.
I decided to focus on three consumer-facing practice areas: personal injury, divorce, and probate. In terms of average total fee per client, my assumption is that they are, respectively, representative of the top, middle, and bottom of the market.
For geographic areas, I choose the following cities in Texas. Their approximate populations are listed in parenthesis.
San Antonio (1.6 million)
Corpus Cristi (325,000)
I used the following search query in Google for each combination of practice area and city:
“[practice area] attorney [city]”
So, for example, I searched for “personal injury attorney San Antonio,” “divorce attorney Corpus Cristi,” and so on.
For each search query, I compiled the law firms listed in the top ten of the Google search results (i.e., first page). I excluded any result from a directory (Yelp, Findlaw, etc.) and any other non-law-firm result. For some queries, only two or three law firms ranked in the top ten.
Once I had the top-ranking firms for each query, I analyzed each firm’s website using the SEO-research-tool Ahrefs, whose database includes over 250 billion webpages. Using the Ahrefs Site Explorer tool, I obtained the Domain Rating, number of do-follow referring domains, total keywords, and total traffic for each law-firm website.
Domain Rating (DR) is a proprietary Ahrefs statistic. It ranges between zero and 100. In a nutshell, Domain Rating represents the “link popularity” of a given website. For context, a brand-new website without any links pointing to it from other websites will have a Domain Rating of zero. By contrast, there are only about a thousand websites across the internet with a Domain Rating greater than 90.
Here are some Domain Ratings for a few popular legal websites:
Above the Law – 79
Law Technology Today – 70
My Shingle – 54
Domain Rating is calculated on logarithmic scale, so going from 40 to 50 is exponentially more difficult than from 30 to 40.
Do-Follow Referring Domains
The number do-follow referring domains is calculated by adding the total number of unique websites that contain at least one do-follow link to the target website. Do-follow links are a substantial basis for Google’s search results. (Here’s some background on do-follow versus no-follow.) Below are the number of do-follow referring domains for each of the three legal websites previously mentioned.
|Website||DR||Do-Follow Referring Domains|
|Above the Law||79||19,855|
|Law Technology Today||70||1,522|
As you can see, the DR 70 (Law Technology Today) has about 550 more referring domains than the DR 54 (My Shingle). By contrast, the DR 79 (Above the Law) has over 18,000 more referring domains that the DR 70.
This example demonstrates the logarithmic nature of Domain Rating. Simply adding more referring domains doesn’t guarantee an increase in Domain Rating; the quality of those referring domains matters. In other words, adding a significant number of low DR referring domains won’t move the needle for most sites.
In the chart below, I coded each firm with based on its ranking withing the top ten among law firms, not all search results. For example, SA-7 was the seventh ranked law firm for “personal injury attorney San Antonio”, but not the seventh overall result. The height of the bar signifies the number of do-follow referring domains and the number on the top of the bar is that firm’s Domain Rating. Also, I reset the numbering for each practice area (i.e., W-2 for divorce is not the same website as W-2 for probate).
Let’s start with personal injury. As you can see, San Antonio is quite competitive for the personal injury keyword. With over a million residents, that was expected. The majority of ranking firms have several hundred referring domains and the top three have Domain Ratings of 50 or higher. These firms have invested substantial resources into their SEO and, collectively, are bringing tens of thousands of visitors per month across all keywords.
As you move along the horizontal axis to the lower-population cities, you can see that many firms are breaking into Google’s top ten with fewer than 100 referring domains and Domain Ratings below 20. Indeed, the first-ranked law firm in Galveston (G-1; DR 8) beats out a firm with almost 35 times more referring domains (22 versus 733).
As we move on to the divorce sites, you can see that only two of the 13 total firms that rank in top ten across these cities are substantially investing in SEO. SA-1 and W-1 each have Domain Ratings north of 40, which suggests a concerted and successful effort to develop a strong backlink profile.
Yet most of the divorce firms are ranking despite pedestrian Domain Ratings and referring domains. Traffic wise, these firms are bringing in several hundred organic-search visitors per month. Not great, but nothing to sneeze at either.
Wrapping up with probate, basically none of the firms that rank in the top ten appear to be investing any resources on SEO. Most of the Domain Ratings are abysmal.
Consequently, probate law firms in these cities are collectively doing a poor job competing with the legal directories. Of the 40 possible spots (top ten times four cities), law firms claimed only 11. By contrast, the personal injury firms occupied 24.
From the results above, we can safely draw a few conclusions.
First, in the big-money practice areas, you’ll need to make a big investment to compete in the major population centers. But, in smaller cities, you can definitely rank and bring in traffic from these high-value keywords with a more modest site.
Second, outside of personal injury, there’s an opportunity for lawyers who want to invest in SEO. Even in major cities, the competition from other law firms is light.
Finally, lawyers shouldn’t be scared of or beholden to the big directory websites. As we saw from the personal injury results, Google is willing to squeeze out these directories in favor of law firms, provided the firms are making an adequate investment in their SEO.