Google refreshed its page layout algorithm in early February with a change that has been dubbed the “top heavy update.” The adjustment seems primarily to affect websites that have heavy advertisement population above the scroll. The objective is to filter sites that do not offer strong, original content up front and those with excessively busy layouts that distract users' attention from page content.
As with many of its updates, Google has been hinting at the change for several months. At Pubcon last October, Google's Matt Cutts said, "If you look at the top part of your page and the very first thing you see front and center, top above the fold is ads right there, then you might want to ask yourself, 'do I have the best user experience?'”
While attorney websites rarely display banner ads, Cutts' emphasis on user experience is an important takeaway.
When search engines evaluate a website to determine relevance and usefulness, their algorithms are considering much more than just content. Content marketing is a huge industry buzzword at the moment, and for understandable reasons. Quality, regularly updated content has long been key to improving placement in search results. The characteristics of successful content have changed over the years as Google has intensified its focus on positive user experiences, but the basic need for businesses to consistently produce content remains.
Getting a visitor to a page is not enough; Google wants people to be engaged, informed and presented with relevant material when they click-through a search result. Your firm should want the same.
Providing a good user experience requires harmony between design and usability.
Pretty websites are not necessarily easy to use – and can be highly opaque – while un-or under-designed sites may be very successful. Craigslist is a good example of the later; the site has never abandoned the neon blue links and plain white pages of 1995.
However, Craigslist is an outlier. Most sites require both good aesthetics and usability to effectively hold visitors' interest and prompt them to take action. Law firm websites in particular need to achieve this balance, as people are more likely to hire an attorney with whom they feel a personal connection and who they feel they can trust. Your website must be easy to use and tell a story with which your visitors can relate.
Below are some ways to make your users' experiences more enjoyable and intuitive.
1. Test color combinations for calls to action. The colors used for important buttons can affect conversion rates. You may find that switching from a cool to a warm color encourages people to click. Colors can elicit strong emotional responses, and they tap into subconscious motivations that encourage visitors to act. You can test changes in real time by making a series of updates and studying your website's analytics, or you can use offline focus groups to study user behavior across different color options.
2. Use your clients as a resource. Ask clients what was most important to them in their search for an attorney. You will likely find that many of your clients were interested in the same things or encountered the same frustrations during their searches. Use what you learn from these informal interviews to enhance the experience for future visitors.
3. Use focus groups to find strengths and weaknesses in the conversion funnel. You and your marketing company are very familiar with your website. You know where everything is and how to access the pages you need. It is difficult in such a circumstance to separate yourself from this knowledge. When you bring in a group of individuals who do not use your site regularly, they can quickly find points of confusion or miscommunication that cause the conversion process to break down. Ask participants how they would organize your content, what they found helpful and where they may have been distracted. You do not have to follow a group's advice exactly, but if you notice patterns, consider implementing some suggested changes.
4. Show personality to create a connection. Attorneys must find a balance between displaying an over-the-top, for-show character and remaining too stiffly professional. Remember, you are not writing for a law journal; you are writing for individuals who need answers to difficult problems. Also remember not to insult your audience's intelligence with tired slogans and overblown graphics. Create a simple emotional connection by injecting some personal details. In terms of design, use fonts, graphics and colors that demonstrate your firm's culture.
Personality can also come in the form of social proof like testimonials. Your clients can be your best advocates and reveal tidbits about what it is like to work with you on a more personal level.
5. Schedule updates. Your firm should be blogging regularly – at least once every week or two – according to an editorial schedule that is realistic given your attorneys' schedules. If you do blog regularly, consider displaying a featured article on your home page or relevant practice area pages. If you cannot, consider removing any recent post or article references from your navigation. If a visitor sees the term “recent” and clicks-through to a five-month old article, it can be a turn-off. To build trust, you must present prospective clients with new ideas and show you are at the forefront of the legal community.
6. Use consistent branding. While some variation from page to page is interesting and necessary, layouts should remain consistent. Users should always know where to look for navigation elements. Call to action buttons, pull-quotes, headlines and lists should be formatted in the same way from page to page. Use a limited color palette that corresponds to your firm's offline branding. Ensure fonts are constant from element to element; buttons have a button font, headlines have a headline font, paragraphs have a paragraph font and so on. When design elements are coordinated harmoniously, visitors are more likely to feel a sense of calm and ease. Their minds are free to focus on your message.