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What Is SEO?: Introduction to Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an online marketing strategy used to increase a Web site's visibility to the millions of people who find information and services on the Internet. Search engine optimization can help position your firm among the top search results for a given query, which can dramatically increase traffic to your Web site and establish a Web presence for your practice. Among other things, SEO involves optimizing the structure of your site and the text that appears on it, as well as obtaining links to your site from other sites, to help its popularity rating with search engines. With the number of Web sites on the Internet increasing at an exponential rate, gaining primary placements in search engine rankings allows you to market your law firm in a very powerful and effective way.

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 ranks Web pages based on a variety of algorithms, using the word indexes created by these spiders or crawlers. The algorithms assign certain weights to keywords, phrases and links to a Web page, pushing some Web pages above others in a result set. It is important to note that 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 links from more well-established sites and sites with similar content. 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.

The major search engines are Google, MSN Search, Teoma and Yahoo! Search. These search engines supply results to most of the major Web portals, including AOL, Lycos, MSN , Netscape and Yahoo!.

Search Engine Powers:
Google

Google, AOL, Go, Netscape, FindLaw

MSN Search MSN
Teoma Ask Jeeves
Yahoo! Search LookSmart, Lycos, Yahoo!

Yahoo! Search is the result of Yahoo!'s purchase of Inktomi and Overture (which had previously purchased AltaVista and AllTheWeb). MSN Search is currently in beta. Microsoft replaced Yahoo! Search for the MSN portal in January of 2005, and has plans to incorporate MSN Search into the Microsoft Windows platform.

Search engine optimization includes creating a design for your Web site which can easily be accessible to search engines. Successful search engine optimization strategies also include providing strong, targeted content that will improve the likelihood that the pages on your Web site will be found by someone looking for specific information on the services your law firm offers.

It is critical that the automated spiders or crawlers of any search engine are able to access all the pages of your Web site. Anything that interferes with this process will impact your ranking in search engine results, and could even prevent your site from being included in a search engine index. This is why the way you design and build your Web site as a whole and on the individual page level is so important. In this regard, you also need to make it easy for search engine crawlers and spiders to index all of your site's internal pages by providing links which can be easily accessed from your home page. We recommend that you always include a site map that has links to all of your Web site's internal pages.

In addition, you need strong content that includes the words and phrases people tend to use when looking for a lawyer or a law firm. Relevant, substantive content is an absolute necessity for effective search engine optimization.

There are three major components of search engine optimization that you should keep in mind and incorporate into any design, written Web page content, coded HTML, and programming scripts for your site.

They are:

1. Keywords and Phrases - To optimize your site, you must 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 build their indices. If you want your target audience to find your site through a search engine, your Web pages must contain keywords or keyword phrases that match the search queries of your target audience. Often, there are multiple words or phrases that mean the same thing. From an SEO standpoint, it is important to include all the words or phrases your target audience may use in their searches. The closer the match between your Web site's content's keywords and phrases with those terms, the higher you will be ranked in a result set.

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

2. Web Site Structure and Page Layout - The way you structure your site and design your Web page layout 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 or XHTML pages or dynamically from a database or Web script), the directory structure of your site, the names of your site's directories and individual HTML or XHTML files, and the URLs you choose when selecting your domain names. Also, each Web page on your site needs to be optimized individually to most effectively present the content it contains to the search engines. 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 every Web page. Using W3C Web standards such as XHTML and CSS can allow you to place unique content for a given page above its navigational elements, while at the same time reducing the file size of these Web pages. Other factors that affect a Web site's ability to be successfully indexed are the use (and sometimes non-use) of Image Maps, Frames, JavaScript and, most importantly, your Web page title <title></title> tags.

Optimizing these elements is described further in the Web Site Structure and Page Layout Section.

3. Web Page Popularity - Putting up a Web site is not enough to market your firm competitively on the Internet. For your target audience to find you, your Web site needs to be found easily by search engine spiders and then ranked well in search engine results sets for the keywords and phrases you have selected and placed in the content of your Web site.

Search engines follow links from other Web sites when creating their indices, and many of them start with the major Web directories, such as the Open Directory Project and Yahoo!. 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.

Directory Powers:
Open Directory Project

Open Directory Project, AOL, Google, Lycos, Netscape

Yahoo! Yahoo!

Search engines will apply more "popularity weight" to a Web site that is linked from other, well-established sites with a large volume of visitors, than a link from a lesser-known site. This is why it is important to have links to your Web site in law firm sections of popular Web directories, such as Yahoo! and the Open Directory. Search engines also look at the content of the page that is linking to you, which means it also important to be linked by Web sites that publish content similar to yours. In particular, legal Web sites and local business directories linking to your site can help your search engine ranking. Not any link to your Web site will add value to your Web site's "link popularity" weight or rank. The links should be from Web sites and Web pages that contain content that is relevant to the law, your practice or locality.

Some search engines, provide pay services for guaranteed inclusion in their indexes. This does not guarantee that your site will be placed at the top of all result sets, but it does guarantee that at least one page of your Web site (or as many pages as you pay for) is included, for a prescribed amount of time, in the search engine's Web index.

How to get links to your Web site from other sites is covered further in our Web Page Popularity Section.

Studies show that 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. This is why it is important to know how search engines work. You need to ensure that your Web site appears in front of the audience you are trying to reach. 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 on the top of relevant result sets. After looking through a page or two of search results, most people go no further. If your listing is positioned well through SEO, Internet users will stop and visit your Web site before that of your competitor. Hopefully, the suggestions of our SEO Center will help you achieve a higher search engine ranking.

To gain a better understanding of how to use search engines for online research, visit Greg Notess' Web site dedicated to Web searching called Search Engine Showdown. Greg Notess is a reference librarian and associate professor at Montana State University, and is 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 understanding how to use the Web for online research.

Next: How People Find Lawyers Online

Last Modified: 28 August, 2003
Justia Search Engine Optimized Law Firm Web Sites for the Lawyer & Attorney