Keyword research has long been fundamental to achieving SEO goals. In order to drive traffic to your site by achieving good organic search placement, you need to identify words and phrases that are relevant to your practice, that people are searching for, that are not too highly competitive and that convert at a reasonable rate.
Keyword research used to be easy in part because keyword stuffing used to work. Now, however, Google actively punishes content that attempts to rank well through spammy use of keywords. Changes to both Google’s algorithm and the technology people use to perform searches is influencing keyword research in some fundamental ways.
Hummingbird and semantic search
Google’s Hummingbird algorithm was originally released in the summer of 2013. Hummingbird was not an update; it was a completely new algorithm and one of the most comprehensive overhauls in at least a decade. The introduction of Hummingbird ended Google’s reliance on specific keywords to return results. Instead, Google began relying on semantics, or meaning, when looking for relevant content. This is known as semantic search.
Semantic search attempts to deliver results based on a searcher’s intent and the context of the search. Search context includes data about the searcher, like location, and conditions, like the time of day and trending topics for which others have been searching. To parse searcher intent, Google looks at personal information like search history and browser history. It also compares the query to similar queries made by other searchers to see which results have been successful historically. And it looks at the structure of the phrase itself to determine the intent behind misspellings or words with multiple meanings (think Apple or apple).
Because Google is no longer looking for a specific keyword or string of keywords within a page’s content, it is possible for a page to rank well for a phrase that does not appear within that page at all.
Difficulties uncovering keyword data
Google has been progressively eliminating keyword data over the past six years. In May of 2010, Google launched encrypted search. By 2011, it had added SSL encryption for searches made by logged-in users. And in 2013, Google switched entirely to encrypted search, making it the default for every user and essentially eliminating keyword data for website owners. Before the switch, if a searcher clicked on your website’s listing in search results, Google would pass along the keyword(s) that searcher used to find that listing. Secure searches, which use HTTPS, do not pass along this data. In Google Analytics, the keyword is simply listed as “Not Provided.”
Google still allows people using AdWords to see keyword data, and it offers a Keyword Planner tool that tracks keywords. However, the permanence of even that information is not guaranteed. This summer, Google confirmed that users would need to have an active AdWords account without a “lower monthly spend” in order to see all keyword data. Essentially, Google is saying that if you don’t spend a certain amount of money you are not entitled to all data.
A variety of tools exist to help website owners get around Google’s restrictions on keyword data. Many of these tools have a monthly or yearly fee. The question is: with the direction search is headed, is the investment worth it?
Google is smart and will only continue to get smarter, tweaking its algorithm regularly as it collects a breathtaking amount of data every day. As Google increases its ability to understand context and intent, traditional keywords may become less relevant.
Additionally, the devices people use to search will change SEO in ways that are difficult to predict. Already, mobile devices and personal assistant technology have put a spotlight on conversational search. Devices with even smaller screens, like watches, or no screen at all, like internet connected appliances, will further modify the way humans interact with search tools. Many of these tools will not display a list of results; they will simply speak one answer.
Changing research strategies
Keywords are not yet irrelevant. However, the way law firms approach keyword research and implementation must inevitably evolve to match the changing search landscape. Here are four predictions about the shape keyword research will take in the future.
1. Increased focus on content themes and concept planning
The cost of optimizing for high volume searches like “law firm” and the low conversion rates for such broad phrases have already pushed many attorneys to focus on lower-volume, higher-value long-tail keyphrases. Moving away from optimizing for keywords and toward optimizing for topics is a natural progression.
The difference is subtle but significant. In the first, you are targeting specific words or phrases and in the second you are producing content focused on a general theme that will likely contain these words and phrases. Some claim that this advice is not actionable — that it is the equivalent of saying you should just write great content. To some extent, these critics may have a point. You should write great content. Planning content themes and writing topic-based pages is one way to achieve this goal.
Writing concept-based content does not force you to abandon keywords altogether. However, your focus will be on clarity and substance. You are not pushing for a specific keyword volume; you are trying to write about the keyword as an idea, with plenty of supporting information.
To start, try listing topics about which your prospective clients are most likely to be interested, then brainstorming on concepts and questions related to those topics. Pick an idea or a question and plan batches of content around that idea. Think about the types of natural language phrases people might use to talk about the topic and include those phrases within page content. This places the focus on your readers, their interests and the words they are most likely to use to search for you.
2. Client-focused research
A mistake that many law firms (and businesses in general) often make is optimizing for high-volume phrases they assume are relevant to their clients. A secondary issue is optimizing for phrases they assume people are searching for because those are the terms used within the industry. This is a notable problem among attorneys with niche specializations who assume non-lawyers use the same language to describe their practices as they do.
When engaging in client-focused research, you must forget what you think is popular and put yourself in the shoes of a non-attorney. Who are your clients? What are their interests and hobbies? What concerns do they bring to meetings with you? What is their education level? These questions will lead naturally to keywords that are relevant to the people who will be searching for your firm.
3. Identification of rich supporting keyphrases
The goal of this strategy is to build pages that contain the deep informational context for which Google is looking. Begin by identifying one keyphrase, for example a practice area. Then, develop a list of the following:
· Questions related to that practice area
· Additional areas related to that practice area (sub topics or sub areas)
· Processes related to that practice area
· Facts about the practice area or statistics related to the practice area (arrest statistics, accident statistics, funding statistics, foreclosure statistics, etc.)
· Resources or organizations related to the practice area
· How-to’s related to the practice area
All of these lists will contain collections of supporting keyphrases that you can weave into your content. For example, questions related to the practice area can become content section headlines. Processes can become subjects for a slideshow. Statistics will make pages more interesting and can provide inspiration for infographics. How-to’s will answer questions potential clients have about what to expect when meeting with you. The addition of supporting keywords and concepts will enhance page value in the eyes of Google in a way simply repeating a target keyword over and over cannot.
4. Identifying natural language phrases through multiple research tools
Again, this strategy will focus on finding the language your prospective clients are most likely to use.
Google Trends is a good place to start with this type of keyword research. Google Trends is helpful for semantic searches because it tells you what people are actually searching for and offers suggestions of related topics and related queries.
The Google search page itself is another good, free tool. Type a couple of words into the search box and see what Google suggests. These suggestions are the questions people are asking. Do a search for one of your practice area keywords and look at the related searches Google suggests at the bottom of the results page.
Your knowledge about your practice and your clients is and will continue to be a great source of potential keywords. Focus on the things they want to know. Use language they will use. If your keyword research starts from the client’s perspective, it is more likely to produce relevant, helpful phrases.