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Google, Lawyers, and The End of SEO

 

For many businesses, their website is their storefront. They want their website to get noticed. But how to to get noticed – how do you stand out – from a million other websites? SEO. If you spend any amount of time online, you’ll hear about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), especially if you run a business. Specifically, law firms hear about it all the time from the legal marketeerting crowd. Generally speaking, it’s not look on favorably by many practicing lawyers. Recently over at Popehat, Ken White pointed this out in a post deconstructing marketing tips that recently appeared in the ABA Journal:

We write about legal marketing here a fair amount, and one of the concerns we express is that there is a legal subculture that celebrates search engine optimization over substance, to the detriment of the profession and its clients.

Ken is correct that celebrating SEO over substance is a detriment to our profession and borderline deceptive to clients. Lawyers should conduct themselves to a high ethical standards in promoting their practice and not engage in marketing that confuses clients. The legal services provided by lawyers to individual consumer clients is often seen as fungible by consumers – especially those who do no already know a lawyer. These consumers don’t know how to differentiate between one law firm to the next. They have to enter into a relationship with a lawyer from a position of vulnerability. So they go online and search for lawyers, hoping to find reliable, reputable information in order to make the most informed decision they can when selecting a lawyer. They might find a solid, reputable  upstanding law firm or they might run into SEO-laden marketing drek – and they might not be savvy enough to tell the difference. But the evolution of Google Search looks like it is going to make it all obsolete anyway.

Death of Organic Search

The entire point of SEO is to push a website to the top of “organic” search rankings. Organic search results are those that appear on a search engine when a phrase is entered. Google’s search algorithm was (is) so good that they blew every other search engine out of the water. Most have died. Bing and Yahoo limp along in a distant 3rd & 4th (Google-owned Youtube, while not a search engine, processes the 2nd highest amount of searches online). Google got to be the best at delivering search results that exactly matched what people were looking for. Google became the default go-to to find something online. Marketers soon realized how important this was. Google’s search was so good, most people never move past the first page of results. Often times they don’t even scroll down the page. So having a business be at the very top of organic results became of paramount importance to marketers. Thus the emergence of SEO.

But Google is changing. Microsoft, Facebook, Yelp and others are all pushing into Google’s space. Pure organic search is giving way to an exclusive Google ecosystem. Over at Tutorspree, Aaron Harris points out how Google is killing organic search:

13%

That’s the amount of real estate given to true organic results in a search for “auto mechanic” when I’m logged in at the Tutorspree office in TriBeCa.(1)

google organic search

 

The top organic result? Wikipedia. The next two? Yelp, a competitor against which Google is clearly moving.

The Google ecosystem takes up the majority of the page, with organic search barely visible. If you haven’t registered your business with Google Plus, marked your business on Google Maps, registered your business with Google Local Listings, or….paid Google to be featured in their AdWords, you’re not appearing in the “first glance” results. On mobile it’s even more extreme. Again from Tutorspree:

0%

Open your iPhone. Search for “Italian Food.” What do you see? If you’re in NYC, you see 0 organic results. You see an ad unit taking half the page, and then a Google owned Zagat listing. Start scrolling, you’ll see a map, then Google local listings. After four full page scrolls, you’ll have the organic listings in front of you.

google mobile search results

 

Search = Mobile = Local

Mobile is the future of search. In an August 2012 presentation, Google noted that some 63% of search starts on a phone (based on a study they ran, not on global search data).  Combine that with Google stating that 50% of mobile search is local (http://screenwerk.com/2012/10/01/google-50-of-mobile-search-is-local/). Those two pieces of information are the pillars of Google’s future strategy.

Google is building a new version of the search engine that made it great. This time, however, it is a search engine exclusive to the garden of Google products. If you compete with Google in any way, you’re in its crosshairs. Your chances of ranking high enough to garner traffic are virtually nil and getting smaller.

How Do Lawyers Fair?

The above results made me want to test out a search phrase for a lawyers. I tried to think up a random search that a consumer might place if they were suddenly in need of a lawyer. I went with:

wichita DUI attorney

witchita dui lawyer results

Click for larger version.

Zero organic search results. Well, unless you count Findlaw.com – which is only going to take a consumer to a directory full of paid listings. Everything else on the page is a part of the Google Ecosystem. Adwords, Google Maps, Google local listings. If you scroll one page down?

Click for large version.

Click for larger version.

Only 2 organic results: billcummingsllc & oharaohara - and I question if the first billcummingsllc isn’t part of the local listings. That would mean that oharaohara is the only organic search ranked website that appears on on the first two page scrolls when searching for “wichita DUI attorney.” All the SEO and content generation in the world doesn’t mean a thing with the way Google is headed with their search business.

So if you are a lawyer spending marketing dollars on SEO, why are you doing it again?

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

5 comments

  1. I understand the thrust of this article (which is a good one), but I think targeting Google’s Local and Plus results are part of any SEO strategy.
    If Google becomes too biased with its search engine favoring its controlled ecosystem results (YouTube, Google Maps, Plus, Local, Zagat, etc.), Google will be extremely vulnerable to a competitor that focuses on independent, neutral results.

    • CochranFirmDC Well, I address SEO strategy for lawyers in the next article. Outside of a few practice areas (DUI, PI), most people actually don’t search for lawyers – but they DO “check out” lawyers.

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