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SEO for Lawyers & Law Firms: The Complete Guide

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What do you do these days when you have a question? You ask Google. And what do you do when you look for a local service? You ask Google too. That’s why lawyers, attorneys, and law firms have been using SEO to get more clients. And with this four-step guide, you can too.

But first, let’s answer an important question…

Why is SEO important for lawyers?

SEO (search engine optimization) is the practice of growing a website’s traffic from organic search results. 

The end result of SEO is more visibility for your website on search engine results pages (SERPs) so that more people can get in touch with your business. That’s, in a nutshell, how searchers can turn into your visitors and how visitors can turn into your customers. 

Moreover, the great thing about organic traffic is that it’s continuous as long as you rank and you don’t need to pay for each click you get (unlike digital advertising). 

Speaking of advertising, law-related keywords can be quite expensive in the law niche. SEO allows you to take advantage of their popularity without an ad budget. 

So basically, the reason why law firms, lawyers, and attorneys need SEO is the same as why they need a website: because people look for law services online. When your business doesn’t appear in Google, you simply leave money on the table. 

Another way lawyers benefit from SEO is by earning potential clients’ trust with helpful content. When people look for solutions to their problems, they may find your content through Google and see that you know your stuff. 

So without further ado, let’s see how lawyers can get the most out of SEO. 

1. Optimize for Google Map Pack

The Google Map Pack (also called Google Local Pack and Google Snack Pack) is a so-called rich result that Google shows to searchers to help them find the best result based on location, among other things. 

In most cases, the queries your potential clients use to find businesses like yours will trigger Google’s map pack because Google “thinks” people want to find something related to a location. 

Google Map Pack vs. regular organic results

As you can see, Google’s map pack is displayed on top of the organic results. And apart from the ads, it’s the first thing that searchers see. So getting your name out there dramatically increases your chances of being discovered. 

No one and nothing can guarantee your place in the map pack. This is because your competition will do similar things to get there. Plus, nobody except for Google itself knows how exactly local ranking works. What we do know are the three principles Google uses fluidly to determine what goes into the local pack:

  • Relevance – How well a business profile matches the meaning of the query. 
  • Distance – The distance between the search result and the location of the searcher or location specified in the query (e.g., “lawyer mountain view”). 
  • Prominence – This counts in a number of things: popularity in the “offline” world, online reviews and rankings, links to the website and, interestingly enough, rankings in the organic search results. 

Based on Google’s guidelines and known local ranking factors, here are three things you should do to increase your chances of showing up in Google’s map pack. 

Get and optimize your Google Business Profile

Google’s map pack is made up of Google Business Profiles, so it’s crucial that you list all of your business locations with the service (but don’t use virtual offices). 

Search results with map pack and organic results

What’s more, with this profile, your business will be eligible to show up on Google Maps. 

Google Business Profiles listed on Google Maps results

And Google will be able to display a local knowledge panel for queries, including your business name. 

Example of a knowledge panel

If you’re starting fresh, you will need to create your business profile. If the business already exists or someone else has claimed it, you may need to claim your profile instead. 

Link to claim business profile

The process of filling out the details in your business profile is similar in both cases. And it’s quite straightforward—a bit like setting up a social media account. But to make sure your profile is optimized, check out tips from our guide: How to Optimize Your Google My Business Listing in 30 Minutes

Remember, the more specific information and relevant photos you share, the better. And when in doubt, check with Google’s guidelines. This is because a violation of those can lead to profile suspension. 

Sidenote.

Some SEO guides state that information displayed in these rich results comes from schema markup. That’s not accurate. First and foremost, they come from business profiles. So while it doesn’t hurt to apply schema markup to your website, you should focus on optimizing your Google Business Profile.

Get listed on local citation sites and directories

Local citations and directories are online mentions of your business that display your business name, address, phone number and, in most cases, your website too. 

You need them for three reasons: 

  1. They are a ranking factor for Google Map Pack; they can help you rank higher in those results. 
  2. While any local directories can help you rank higher in Google Map Pack, the ones that feature a link to your website can help you with organic search results too. 
  3. They will help searchers find your business in a) search engines like Google and b) search results of those directories. 
Google SERP for "lawyer near me"
“Lawyer near me” results in directories, directories, and then some more directories. But those can potentially lead to your business if you get listed.

Start by getting listed with big aggregators like Foursquare. Then submit your data to popular platforms like Facebook, Yelp, and Bing Places, and go for popular directories in your local area and industry like FindLaw, Justia, or LegalMatch. Just make sure to keep your citations consistent at all times. 

A method that saves your time when looking for local citations manually is to use Ahrefs’ Link Intersect tool. Just open the tool, plug in your competitors’ URLs, and leave the last input blank. 

Ahrefs' Link Intersect tool
You will find the Link Intersect tool by clicking on More in the upper menu. Then fill out the fields as shown in the example. You can inspect up to 10 domains in one go (click “Add target”).

Here are some sample results. Note that you can use the tool to find other link opportunities too. (In this case, the tool shows us almost 15K domains.) 

Link intersect showing links from business directories

Encourage your clients to leave reviews 

According to Google, positive reviews and rankings help its algorithms understand which businesses are more prominent. 

You can ask your customers to leave reviews any way you like. Since we’re focusing on ranking on Google, reviews submitted there will likely be the most important ones.

Things to remember: Don’t buy reviews, don’t offer something in exchange for reviews, and try to reply to reviews as often as possible. (Here are Google’s guidelines for managing reviews.)

Recommendation

Google can help with that by allowing you to create a special link you can share to request a review on Google. 

"Review request" tool in Google Business Profile Manager

That’s about it for optimizing for Google Map Pack. Let’s move on to a slightly more complex topic of optimizing for organic results, i.e., the results below the map pack. 

2. Optimize for organic results

To stand a chance of ranking in the organic search results, you need pages with content relevant to a given search query. The more useful, interesting, and well-linked that content is, the higher your chances are. That’s what we’re going to focus on going forward. 

List your services 

SEO or not, you need to provide visitors with a list of services that you offer and also share where you offer your services. Some of the services will have a considerable search demand; others potentially not. Later on, we will expand on that using keyword research.

So for example, say you’re specialized in entertainment law, including a number of areas like talent contracts, music law, and publishing. The absolute minimum here is to create a page that explains your expertise in entertainment law and mentions the above specialities.

However, a more effective tactic is to create a content hub where the pillar page talks about your expertise in entertainment law in general and, at the same time, links to subpages dedicated to each area of that type of law you cover. 

This page is an example of a content hub (aka topic cluster). We have the general information on entertainment law (there’s more of it on the page below that part) and links to relevant areas on the left. Each link leads to a page dedicated to an area.

Content hub with general information on entertainment law and links to relevant areas on the left

And here are some results:

Content hub brings over 1K organic traffic each month, as seen in Site Explorer
This content hub brings over 1K organic traffic each month.
Some of the keywords that the hub ranks for
Some of the keywords that the hub ranks for. A good scenario if you’re an entertainment lawyer in N.Y.C.

In short, here are some benefits of the content hub approach:

  • More topical authority – Interlinks from related content build semantic relationships, which may be a signal of authoritativeness of the topic for Google (learn more).
  • More link authority – Pages linked in a hub benefit from each other’s backlinks.
  • A user-friendly way to navigate your website – Information is just a click away. 
  • More perceived value – People often see such hubs as a valuable resource on the topic (which may also increase the propensity to link to your hub).

An additional idea worth considering is creating separate hubs for practice areas and industries. This way, you will increase the number of keywords you can rank for while providing a clear structure for the user. 

Example of listing showing both practiced law areas and served industries
Example of listing showing both practiced law areas and served industries.

List your locations

The goal here is to help Google index your website for keywords with local search intent. Some will be explicit. It’s when the searcher uses a location modifier like “new york entertainment lawyer.” Some are implicit, i.e., when there is no location modifier, but Google still thinks there’s local search intent (“bakery” will show you bakeries in your area). 

So here is a tactic that will save you time spent on creating a ton of pages for each location and save you from duplicate content issues:

  • You can create a page (for example, one called “Contact”) with at least each location’s exact address (including the state/region), phone number, and email (if the email addresses vary). 
  • Include your locations in the footer. So if you have multiple locations, you can just mention the name of the region and city and link them to the page with the locations’ details. 
  • If you want to provide more specific information related to the locations, such as practicing lawyers, you can create subpages for each location. 
  • Reminder: make sure to list all of your physical locations in Google Profile Manager. 
Example of locations listed on a contact page
Example of locations listed on a contact page.
Example of locations listed inside the footer
Example of locations listed inside the footer. All of them link to pages with more information.

Sidenote.

To Google, N.Y.C. is the same as New York. D.C. is, in this context, the same as Washington D.C. So you don’t need to list all of the popular abbreviations of cities or regions.

Do keyword research

Up to this point, we’ve got ideas on what to create content about from the lawyer’s perspective. Now let’s look at the searcher’s perspective. 

From the perspective of a searcher, a keyword is a word or phrase that they type in Google to find things like local products or services. 

This means that for us, keywords will become the topics of our content, blog posts, landing pages, etc., and/or things worth mentioning in our content. More importantly, they will be the drivers of organic search traffic. 

Here are some keyword research ideas for lawyers. 

Expand your services by analyzing other ranking pages 

For this, you will need a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer

Go to the tool, type in a seed keyword like “corporate law,” and go to Related terms. The tool will show you keywords that other pages rank for and talk about while ranking for your seed keyword.

Related terms report in Ahrefs' Keywords Explorer
You can toggle between Also rank for and Also talk about reports or show them all at once. Choose Top 10 or Top 100 to limit or broaden your search.

So for example, it may be worth targeting these keywords: 

List of keywords worth targeting

Look up specific competitors’ keywords 

Some of your competitors will already be ahead of the SEO game, targeting lucrative keywords with their content. But that shouldn’t stop you from ranking for the same keywords (and even outranking the competition). 

There are two methods for analyzing your competition in this scope. 

The first one is done by plugging in your competitor’s domain in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer set to “subdomains.” This will show all of the keywords your competitor ranks for. 

Site Explorer finds over 18K keywords that this domain ranks for

For a more manageable keyword list, you can also plug in a specific page’s URL (like the blog or practice areas) and/or use filters to display keywords by criteria like search volume, traffic potential, or keyword difficulty. 

Applying the "Position" filter to the Organic keywords report
Filtering the results to keywords ranking at 1-20 gives you a more manageable list.

In the second method, you can look up a few competitors in one go. Go to the Content Gap report in Site Explorer, plug in your competitors, and leave the last input file open.

Setting up a Content Gap report in Site Explorer to show only competitors' keywords

This will show you keywords where at least one of your competitors ranks in the top 10. 

Content Gap report results
To increase the relevancy of the results, you can uncheck the “1 target” intersection.

If you already have a live website, you can also insert your domain to see the keywords that your competitors rank for but you do not. For this, use the last input field for your domain. 

Setting up a Content Gap report in Site Explorer

Look even further 

If you want to uncover more opportunities for driving organic search traffic, spend some more time in Keywords Explorer and browse through:

  • Google autosuggestions. 
  • Common questions. 
  • Topics your competitors blog about. 

For example, we can take our Also rank for report and make it show only keywords with questions by including words like “why,” “how,” “when,” etc., in the Include filter.

Filtering the Also rank for report to uncover common questions

This way, we can uncover common questions related to areas of law like the one below. Note that the first five search results belong to law firms; it’s not uncommon to see law firms attracting visitors through education. 

A common question sending traffic to lawyers' websites

An important skill in keyword research is choosing and prioritizing keywords. To see how it’s done step by step, read this: Keyword Research: The Beginner’s Guide by Ahrefs

Create optimized pages 

Now that we know what to create content about, it’s time to learn how to create that content. So in this section, we’ll focus on optimizing the so-called on-page SEO factors: Things that you can include on your page or inside its HTML to improve its ranking and visibility on the SERPs.

Align with search intent 

Search intent refers to the reason behind the search. It’s one of the strongest ranking factors.

The search intent of any given search query can be identified by looking at the SERPs and determining three things: 

  • Content type – Is the domination type a blog post, landing page, video, or free tool?
  • Content format – Common formats include how-to guides, list posts, opinion pieces, definition posts, etc.
  • Content angle – The unique selling point of the results, e.g., “in 2022” or “for beginners.” 

For example, judging from the top-ranking pages and the “People Also Ask” box for “emancipation in new york,” it seems that Google thinks people want to know what that is. 

The SERP suggests that people seek knowledge first and foremost

So the best way to align with search intent is through an article that explains what emancipation is and maybe even explains the processes behind it. 

To become proficient in optimizing for search intent, see our guide: What Is Search Intent? A Complete Guide for Beginners

Create quality and up-to-date content

Google is getting better and better at understanding quality content. To give you a quick overview of its SEO guidelines, you should make your content:

  • Easy to read – When writing about the law, you probably won’t be able to avoid jargon. But you can still explain it sufficiently and use simple sentences everyone (actually, even a 9-year-old) can understand. 
  • Clearly organized – Break text into sections with descriptive headings. 
  • Up to date – Crucial in law-related topics. 
  • Unique – You can take cues from the best-performing content but try to provide some unique value to your readers at the same time. For example, you can provide a unique content angle or include educational materials like an infographic. This is also the part where you want to consider adding link bait. 
  • Focused on providing essential information to solve a searcher’s problem – Longer content doesn’t mean that it’s of higher quality. 
  • Aligned with E-A-T guidelines – More on that in the next section. 

Demonstrate E-A-T 

E-A-T- stands for expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. It’s a concept taken from a guideline that Google Quality Raters (humans) use to help engineers improve Google’s algorithm. It means that Google wants to promote pages that demonstrate E-A-T, and it’s getting better at it.

E-A-T bears the most importance for YMYL topics (Your Money or Your Life). Surely, law is one of them. 

Besides the quite obvious things like keeping your content accurate and up to date and citing your sources where necessary, flashing your credentials can be helpful too. 

So create an About page introducing you and other lawyers in your firm and demonstrate why people should trust you. Mention things like education, bar admissions, affiliations, awards, etc. 

Example page showing the lawyer's credentials
Flashing credentials is not bragging. If you’re an accomplished lawyer, people (and Google) will find you more trustworthy.

Then make sure each article that you publish mentions the author and links to their About page. 

Two other tactics that may help you with demonstrating your expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness are:

  • Using schema markup on pages where you introduce the lawyers – Schema markup is a simple code that helps Google better understand your content. You can learn how to apply it with this guide.
  • Getting links from authoritative sources – I’ll explain some link building tactics later on in the article. 

Recommended reading: What Is EAT? Why It’s Important for SEO 

Optimize page titles and meta descriptions 

Page titles and meta descriptions are important because the searchers can see them on the SERPs, and this can impact what they click on. Additionally, page titles are considered a “small ranking factor.” 

Here’s what to take into account when crafting a page title: 

  • Make the title eye-catching and accurate – Write a line that piques users’ interest and accurately describes what’s unique about your content/offer. 
  • Insert the target keyword in your title – Make it sound natural to the reader. For your homepage title, make sure to include your company’s name. 
  • Fit within 60 characters 

And here’s what’s important for meta descriptions: 

  • Make it compelling but not clickbaity 
  • Fit within 920 px – You can use a tool like SERPSim to help you with that. 
  • Synchronize the description with the title – The description can be an extension of or support what you claim in the title.

Use short and descriptive URLs

URLs are another “small” ranking factor. And you should optimize the URL with the user in mind. This means:

  • Keep it short – Don’t use an overly nested structure. URLs should be an indication of the user’s location on a website. 
  • Make it human-readable – Use a few words that describe the page. Don’t use cryptic signs. 
  • Get an SSL certificate This will show users that the connection is secure and private; they will see “HTTPS” at the beginning of your domain as a sign of secure connection in the browser. It’s also a lightweight ranking signal.

Here’s an example of a user-friendly URL that checks the above boxes. It comes from a subpage on art law—part of a content hub on entertainment law. 

https://www.romanolaw.com/entertainment/art-law/

Recommended reading: How to Create SEO-Friendly URLs (Step-by-Step) 

Add internal links 

Internal links are the links to other pages on your website. You need them for a few reasons. They can: 

  • Provide a crawl path to target pages 
  • Boost other pages you own – This means they pass link equity. So pages that tend to get a lot of links can help other pages (where building links is harder) rank higher (see the “middleman” method).
  • Help Google understand what the page is about – This is possible with the internal links’ anchor texts. 
  • Help users navigate your website 

The content creation phase is the best time to include internal links. The three places you should consider when adding internal links are:

  • Your money pages, i.e., the pages that describe your services or help visitors contact you. But don’t force it; add them when it’s a natural next step for the user. 
  • Other relevant articles on the topic. 
  • Related articles

To find internal linking opportunities, you can use search operators in Google. Use the site: operator together with a search term in quotation marks, like this: 

Using search operators in Google

Another way is to use the Link opportunities report in Ahrefs’ Site Audit. It focuses on the 10 best keywords for each page on your website and looks for mentions of those terms on your other pages. 

Link opportunities report in Site Audit
You can find the report in the menu on the left in Site Audit.
Sample results from the Link opportunities report in Site Audit
Sample results from the Link opportunities report in Site Audit.

Recommended reading: Here’s Why You Should Prioritize Internal Linking in 2022 

Optimize images 

Optimizing images for SEO is about these three things: 

  • Compressing image file size – You can use a plugin like ShortPixel or a bulk image optimizer like Kraken. This will help your website load faster and load speed counts for SEO (as shown in this case study). 
  • Using descriptive image file names
  • Use descriptive alt texts – Together with file names, they help Google understand the context of your page. In addition, alt texts help visually impaired users. 
Using a person's name inside the file name of their portrait—a good practice spotted at wilmerhale.com
Using a person’s name inside the file name of their portrait—a good practice spotted at wilmerhale.com.

Translate your content (for multilingual regions) 

International law firms and lawyers working in multilingual regions who provide services in multiple languages should consider looking into translating their content. They should do so for at least the pages they want to rank for multilingual phrases, e.g., homepage, services, locations, and contact page. 

Here’s why:

  • Content in the same language as the search query is likely more relevant to that query. 
  • It helps with link building outreach in the same language. 
  • Translated content will be more accessible to the group of people speaking that language. 
Canadian lawyer's website with content in English and French ranking for a keyword in French
Canadian lawyer’s website with content in English and French ranking for a keyword in French.

Multilingual SEO involves many details and technicalities, so let me point you to our guide on the topic: Multilingual SEO: Translation and Marketing Guide.

That concludes dealing with on-page factors. Now we can move to off-page factors, i.e., factors that occur outside the website. 

Build links 

Links from other websites are one of the most impactful ranking factors. The more good quality backlinks you have, the higher you can rank in the organic results.

You can get backlinks in two ways:

  • Earn them organically through link-worthy content on your site 
  • Build them through link building methods (what I’ll be explaining in this section of the article) 

Sidenote.

According to some SEOs, all backlinks can help you rank both in Google’s map pack and organic results. This actually makes sense if you read into the hints that Google gives us on how it determines local ranking:

Google explaining that position in web results can impact the map pack

Generally speaking, to improve your local rankings, prioritize those link opportunities that are at the same time contextually relevant, are locally relevant, and come from authoritative sources. 

Venn diagram showing ideal backlinks for local SEO

With all that out of the way, let’s look at some ideas on how lawyers and law firms can build relevant backlinks. 

Publish press releases

Following an important case, it’s a good idea to issue a press release and distribute it online. Depending on the type of the case, it can gain interest from international, national, and local magazines alike. 

One example of this is the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case led by Camille Vasquez and Benjamin Chew from Brown Rudnick. As you can see below, that case earned that law firm follow links from 213 quality domains. Some are local, and some are national/international. 

Backlinks report in Site Audit filtered by anchor text, follow type, and DR
Quite frankly, that case has gained so much worldwide attention that the law firm probably doesn’t have to issue a PR note. I bet there are some unlinked mentions that can be turned into links, so that number may be even higher.

Some other ideas for press releases include:

  • New hires.
  • Mergers.
  • Important company statements.

Look for newsjacking opportunities

Also called “reactive PR,” this technique is about providing reliable information on current events. 

This requires regular monitoring of what’s happening in the world or your local area related to your law specialization. Here are two ways to do this and remain sane. You can:

  • Hire someone, e.g., a local PR agency. 
  • Use a web monitoring tool like Google Alerts. If you’re an Ahrefs user, you can also use the Mentions tool. 
Example use of Ahrefs' Mentions tool
This alert setup will send daily emails about new content mentioning the words “startup” and “law” in English-language websites with a DR of at least 40. As a lawyer offering law services tailored for startups, you can pitch your expert opinion when some news about this topic comes up.

Link from your publications, teaching, or public speaking events 

Lawyers often have the opportunity to teach at universities and present lectures at conferences. Oftentimes, this will come with the possibility of including a link in the lecturer’s bio. It’s a great opportunity to earn a link from a domain with high authority (strong backlink profile) and local relevance, as in the example below. 

Backlinks report in Site Audit filtered by anchor text, follow attribute, and DR

Go after guest blogging opportunities

Guest blogging is a common link building practice. Yet the availability of opportunities varies depending on the topic. Below is an example guest post on TechCrunch about the legal issues with the startup credo “move fast and break things” that links back to the law firm of the authors. 

Guest post on TechCrunch

Here’s how you can find and vet guest blogging opportunities using Ahrefs’ Content Explorer. You can:

  • Type in law AND (“guest article” OR “guest post”) in the search bar. This will search our database for the word “law” and at least one of the two phrases “guest article” or “guest post.”
  • Set the website traffic filter to “From 500” to filter out new websites and websites with potentially low quality. 
  • Turn on the “Only live” filter to weed out broken pages. 
  • Use the “One page per domain” option because we only want a single result from any website. 
Advanced search example in Content Explorer

Here’s an example find. Note that you can instantly see metrics of each page, which can help you vet prospects. 

Sample results from Content Explorer

Answer journalist requests

Services like HARO, ResponseSource, and SourceBottle allow you to track journalist requests for expert commentary on legal matters (or from a legal perspective). If your commentary appears in a newspaper or magazine, you benefit twofold: You earn a link and increase awareness of your law firm. 

All you need to do is to sign up for their services, subscribe to topics that interest you, and wait for an email with the latest request. If something piques your interest, answer as soon as possible. 

Additionally, you can follow the #journorequest hashtag on Twitter.

If you can, prioritize local news and magazines because those links will have local relevance that can help you rank for keywords with local intent. 

Local magazine linking to a lawyer's website (data from Site Explorer)

Local rankings 

Here’s the last thing on our menu: local rankings published by local magazines, blogs, or review sites.

Not to be confused with local listings and directories featured at the beginning of the article. 

While “local rankings link building” is a sound tactic for any local business to pursue, I haven’t seen many of those opportunities in the law niche. Still, if that kind of opportunity knocks on your door, give it serious consideration. Just remember to evaluate it in terms of contextual relevance, local relevance, and authority. 

Local rankings of lawyers in New York
Local ranking of lawyers in New York.

That concludes the link building section. If you want to learn more about link building, see our detailed guides: 

Next stop: how to stay on top of technical SEO and SEO tracking. 

3. Keep your site healthy

The “SEO health” of your website can impact your rankings or prevent you from showing up on Google’s. Here, we’re stepping into the territory of technical SEO: optimizing your website to help search engines find, crawl, understand, and index your pages. Fortunately, there are tools for that.

Tl;dr: The easiest way to keep your website’s SEO health in shape is to get a tool like Site Audit and fix any error it reports (also available for free in Ahrefs Webmaster Tools). 

Looking into technical SEO issues is not something that will consume a lot of your time on a regular basis. Once you make sure your site is crawlable and indexable and fix any errors or warnings that may already be occurring on your site (e.g., broken links, slow page loading), it’s a matter of occasionally checking on the report. 

Example email technical SEO report from Site Audit
Example email technical SEO report from Site Audit.

For a deeper dive into the subject of technical SEO, check these out:

4. Track your SEO progress 

Tracking your progress “manually” on Google is not reliable because Google personalizes results based on factors like search history, device, and current location. Here are some tools you can use instead. 

Starting from Google Business Profile, Google allows you to track a set of performance metrics for free within the service. For example, you can see queries people used to find your profile, the number of direction requests, or the number of people who viewed the profile. 

You’ll also need a tool to track your Google Map Pack performance, e.g., the freemium Grid My Business or Local Falcon

If you want to track all of your keyword rankings, try a tool like Ahrefs’ Rank Tracker. It lets you track up to 10,000 keyword rankings for “regular” organic search by country, state, city, and even ZIP/postal code.

Setting up local rank tracking in Rank Tracker

Recommended reading: 10 SEO Metrics That Actually Matter (And 4 That Don’t) 

Final thoughts 

While SEO can bring you traffic that you don’t need to pay for, it’s worth noting that this marketing tactic takes time and effort. The more competitive the keywords you try to rank for, the more time it can take you to rank for them. 

The first steps will probably be the hardest, so it may not be the best idea to bet everything on SEO just yet. But once you get the process up and running, you can use the same techniques over and over again for consistent results with compounding effects. 

Got questions? Ping me on Twitter



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SEO

What Is A Sitemap? Do I Need One?

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What Is A Sitemap? Do I Need One?

Sitemap. While this is a term you may be familiar with, what does it mean?

Do you need one? Where do you find one? How do you make one?

These are valid questions; for some, there might be more than one answer.

Today, we will take a deep dive into the sitemap world, so that you can walk away with the necessary answers and confidence around the topic!

What Is A Sitemap?

Let’s start here.

Defining a sitemap is essential for several reasons, and we are going to go through the two main types that apply to technical SEO: XML and HTML sitemaps.

XML Sitemap

An XML sitemap is a file that provides a website’s essential pages, videos, and other important files for Google to discover when crawling the site.

Not only are these listed in the file, but the sitemap can also provide details for Google to know – for instance, when the page was last updated, and if the content is available in other languages.

As I mentioned, you can also provide details about content types like videos, photos, and news-related content, specifically in your XML sitemap.

According to the Google Developers Sitemaps section, the following can be included for specific types of content in your sitemap:

  • A sitemap video entry can specify the video running time, rating, and age-appropriateness rating.
  • A sitemap image entry can include the location of the images included on a page.
  • A sitemap news entry can include the article title and publication date.

Next, we will talk about what an HTML sitemap is and the differences between the two.

HTML Sitemap

An HTML sitemap is more targeted for users on your site than for Google.

This is a page that exists on your site and has links to the pages on your website – and in some cases, includes a little context into what those pages are.

Google mentions that you should try to establish a consistent and clear hierarchy on the HTML sitemap as, although not its purpose, it can help with indexation.

You can think of an HTML sitemap as a directory that users can leverage to navigate your site and find what they need.

An HTML sitemap should not be an attempt to replace the important pages in your site’s navigation.

XML Sitemaps Vs. HTML Sitemaps

So, what are the key differences between these two types of sitemaps? Let’s review.

XML

  • The intent is for Google and other bots.
  • There is no hierarchy.
  • Used primarily for indexing.
  • You can submit via Google Webmaster Tools.

HTML

  • The intent is for users.
  • A hierarchy should be used.
  • No place to submit in Google Webmaster Tools.

Do You Need A Sitemap?

If you are wondering if you need a sitemap, that depends!

First, let’s discuss the XML sitemap. There are a few questions you can ask to determine if you need an XML sitemap:

  • How big is your site? Is it large enough that Google may miss newly updated content when it is crawling?
  • Is your site relatively new? If so, it may not have a ton of external links on the Internet that point to it to help Google discover it. Even if your site isn’t new, and you don’t have external links, your answer to this question should be yes.
  • Is your site content heavy? Do you have many photos, videos, news content, etc.?
  • Does your site need a better architecture that results in pages not being well linked to each other? This can also be the case with archived and orphan pages you want to be indexed.

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then yes, it is best practice to have an XML sitemap.

Even if you answered no to all of the above, I would recommend an XML sitemap for a few reasons; If your site grows, expands its scope, and other situations may arise, having a sitemap will be beneficial!

Next, let’s review whether it makes sense for you to have an HTML sitemap.  Depending on where you look, you will find that answer to be yes or no.

HTML sitemaps are known to be an older concept, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one.

The XML sitemap has the information needed for Google to crawl, index, and learn other important information about these pages. However, an XML sitemap does not show hierarchy like an HTML sitemap.

Google will crawl the links on your site, and including an HTML sitemap could allow Google to understand your site’s architecture and relationships better.

This is even more useful for sites that have an incredibly large number of pages.

So, is having an HTML sitemap critical? No, it is not.

It is also not a cure-all for a poorly architected and nested website. While it isn’t a critical element of success, it has shown benefits that make having one a best practice.

To close this topic out, I recommend you have an XML and HTML sitemap because let’s be honest, why not, when the pros outweigh the cons very clearly?

Now you may be wondering how to create these two assets and what to do with them – so, let’s jump into some ways you can create these files and where to put them on the site.

How To Create An XML Sitemap

First, we will go over how you can generate sitemaps from scratch, and then we will get into some great tools that can do it for you.

XML sitemaps have specific criteria in order to be rendered valid.

Screenshot from lowes.com, January 2023

Below are a few specific requirements for XML sitemaps:

  • Begin with a <urlset> tag and end with that tag closing </urlset>.
  • Include the protocol you are using within the <urlset> tag.
  • Each URL entry must have a <url> tag as a parent XML tag.
  • Include a <loc> child entry for each <url> parent tag.
  • Each sitemap can only contain up to 50,000 URLs and 50MB.
  • Must be UTF-encoded.

XML Sitemap Best Practices

Now, let’s look at some key best practices when it comes to creating XML sitemaps:

  • Only URLs you want to be indexed should appear in your sitemap. This means no redirected URLs, non-canonical URLs, or pages marked as no-index.
  • Do not use session Ids.
  • Only include the primary if you have two versions (mobile and desktop) of your site.
  • Include media assets like videos, photos, and news items.
  • Use hreflang to show Google that there are alternative language versions of your website.
  • Google documentation notes it leverages <lastmod>, but only if it’s consistent and verifiable. If you can’t keep this accurate, don’t use it.
  • Google ignores the <priority> and <changefreq> tags at this time, according to John Mueller on this Search Off the Record podcast.
  • Google will not crawl your URLs in the order they are listed, nor does it guarantee indexation.
  • Your sitemap should be updated regularly – automatically, or manually – or Google may not trust it.

Now, if you felt lost reading those beginning requirements, that is okay, because there are tools to help you achieve your desired outcomes! We will go over some later in this article.

Check out the refined version below:

refined sitemap of lowes.comScreenshot from lowes.com, January 2023

How To Create An HTML Sitemap

When putting together an HTML sitemap, remember its purpose is to serve a user on the site and help Google understand the hierarchy of your website.

You do not want to no index this page from Google; keep it crawlable!

You will want to ensure you don’t just throw thousands of links on an HTML sitemap page with no sense of organization, as this won’t help anyone – bots included.

Home Depot sitemapScreenshot from Home Depot, January 2023

HTML Sitemap Best Practices

Let’s go over a few quick best practices when it comes to HTML sitemaps:

  • Arrange the page’s structure to align with your website’s structure. You will want to make sure that the hierarchy is easily understood.
  • The HTML sitemap should be located somewhere the user can easily find it. You will often see it in the footer links of a website.
  • Use anchor text that is valuable to the user.

Need a little help getting started? No worries – there are plenty of tools to help you.

Sitemap Generator Tools

There are a number of tools to help you generate different types of sitemaps. Let’s go over a few now.

XML Sitemap Generator Tools

  • Screaming Frog – This tool is a great option for generating a sitemap, especially if you want to generate one after crawling your URLs. Screaming Frog is free if you have under 1,000 URLs, but you would have to buy a license if you have more.
  • XML-Sitemaps.com – This web-based application allows you to enter your website URL and it generates an XML file for you. This is a free tool for up to 500 URLs.

Depending on which CMS you are leveraging, there are also thousands of XML sitemap generator plug-ins, but be cautious as even the best generator tools have their limitations, so make sure to double-check the output.

Here are a few popular XML sitemap plugins for WordPress:

HTML Sitemap Generator Tools

  • com: this is a free online tool where you can scan your website URL or upload a document to generate an HTML sitemap. As we discussed earlier, there may be better approaches than a generator if your site is poorly architected.
  • Crawler: Like Eli mentions, if you have a large site and are already using a crawler like OnCrawl, DeepCrawl, Screaming Frog, or SiteBulb, you can leverage the output from a crawl to help generate your HTML sitemap.

Like XML sitemaps, there are also a variety of CMS plugins for creating HTML sitemaps. Here are a few for WordPress:

In Conclusion

Sitemaps have existed in the SEO world for some time as a method for helping search engines discover and crawl websites.

And, while having a sitemap isn’t always necessary for every site, it certainly doesn’t hurt – and can be especially useful for both new and large sites.

When you are determining your next steps for creating a sitemap for your website – whether XML or HTML – I hope you can leverage this guide to decide which path makes the most sense for your site’s needs.

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Keyword Mapping. A Practical Guide for the Curious

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Keyword Mapping. A Practical Guide for the Curious

Deciding whether a keyword should be targeted by a separate page or clustered with other keywords is a common problem in SEO. Keyword mapping is a process aimed at solving this.

Keyword mapping is popularly defined as assigning keywords to pages. But what you really need to solve the problem is assigning topics to content types

In this article, I’ll explain the benefits of this approach and, more importantly, I’ll show you the process. No templates required.

Benefits of keyword mapping (the alternative way) 

Fact 1. Google may see seemingly different keywords as the same topic.

For example, we rank for these keywords in the top 10 with a single page: 

  • seo basics”
  • how to use seo” 
  • beginner’s guide to seo”
  • getting started with seo”
  • seo knowledge”

Fact 2. Conversely, Google may see seemingly similar keywords as different topics. 

For example, let’s compare “digital marketing” with “online marketing.” I’d say those two keywords are pretty close to each other. Google disagrees. 

Low SERP similarity score signals potentially different topics
Everywhere you look, the same story. Top-ranking pages and our SERP similarity score (100-point scale; the more, the higher similarity) say that these are completely different topics SEO-wise.

The above two facts are also reasons why keyword mapping by just relying on keywords is not the optimal way. You won’t know whether you’re wasting your time targeting the same topic with different keywords or just “confusing” Google. 

But why content types instead of pages or even URLs? Because before you decide what page will be used to target the keyword, you’ll need to identify the search intent of the keyword. And a good starting point for that is identifying the dominating type of content on the first page of Google. 

To sum up, the benefits of keyword mapping using topics and content types are: 

  • Seeing keywords the same way Google sees them: as topics and subtopics. 
  • Incorporating search intent into the process. 
  • Keeping an organized list of topics, which also helps to prevent duplicating content.

Note

Keyword mapping can’t substitute keyword research. While keyword mapping is basically a form of organizing keywords, keyword research provides you the keywords and the confidence that: 

  • Your keywords have traffic potential.
  • You can match the search intent behind your keywords.
  • Your keywords will bring valuable traffic. 
  • You can rank for those keywords. 

Learn how to choose the right keywords with our full guide.

Going further, we’ll look at two levels of using this method: the fast lane and the more thorough one. 

Learn more: What Is Semantic Search? How It Impacts SEO 

Level 1 – Fast, reasonable job

You’ll need a keyword research tool that can do keyword grouping based on what’s on the SERP, such as Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer. In the case of this tool: 

  1. Enter your keywords
  2. Open Matching terms report
  3. Go to the Parent topics tab 
Three steps to find Parent Topics via Keywords Explorer

If you click on a Parent Topic, you will find separate topics “distilled” from your keywords. So for example, you will see keywords like “can babies get covid” and “babies and covid” grouped under the same topic. 

Keywords grouped under the same Parent Topic

Sidenote.

To identify the Parent Topic, we take the #1 ranking page for your keyword and find the keyword responsible for sending the most traffic to that page.

At this level of keyword mapping, your target keyword is the Parent Topic (not the keywords inside that Parent Topic). 

The next step is to identify the content type. The easiest way to do this is to see what kind of content dominates the first three to five results in Google. 

Typical content types are:

  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Product pages
  • Product category pages
  • Landing pages 
Top-ranking pages with a dominating content type
For example, the dominating content type for “teething symptoms” is the article.

As a result, assigning topics to content types will give you a super simple yet highly actionable database.

Topic Content type
Teething symptoms Article
When do babies roll over Article
Baby formula Mixed (product pages on top)
When can babies have water Article

Sidenote.

What about secondary keywords or supporting keywords? We recommend picking them in the content creation phase as subtopics needed to cover a topic in full. Learn a few ways you can find them here.

So this is the fast method. The great thing about it is that it automates keyword grouping by using real SERP data (and not just semantics). 

However, it has its downsides too. Sometimes, it “hides” less popular topics that could potentially be targeted with a separate page. Here’s why. 

The parent keyword is derived from the top-ranking page on the SERP. If Google thinks that the best answer to the query is found on a page that is targeting a broader topic, it will still use it. This may result in a confusing SERP like this one: 

Confusing SERP example
The top result is a featured snippet taken from a page with a broader topic. Hence, the Parent Topic (here seen as “Top keyword”) in Ahrefs. But pretty much every other page on the SERP targets the keywords directly.

This kind of situation probably won’t happen too often. But if you want to squeeze everything out of your keyword mapping process, you need to go to level 2. 

Level 2 – Thorough but time consuming

In level 2, we’re going to take a closer look at the Parent Topics to see what’s in them. 

  1. First, you should pick a Parent Topic.
  2. Sort keywords inside the topic by KD (Keyword Difficulty). Big differences in KD will be an indication of a different set of pages on the SERP.
  3. If you see a keyword with a significantly different KD than the Parent Topic, click on the SERP button.
  4. See if the top-ranking pages, excluding the first result, talk about the keyword instead of the Parent Topic. You can use the Compare with feature for a quick overview of the situation. The lower the SERP similarity score, the higher the probability you’re looking at two different topics. 
How to investigate Parent Topics

Let’s look at a couple of examples. 

In the first example, we’ve got a keyword with a KD score that’s 20 higher than the Parent Topic. Upon investigating, we see that we may be dealing with two separate topics: The SERP similarity is quite low. Also, there is only one common result, while other pages target the keyword directly. 

Keywords grouped under the same topic but have dissimilar SERPs

Next example. Here we have “teething symptoms” (KD 65) and “when do babies get molars” (KD 28). Looking at SERP similarity, we see that this, again, may be a case of two topics. 

Low SERP similarity between two keywords

But there’s more. Only the bottom results target the keyword directly. Others talk about teething timelines, stages, charts, etc. This is a hint for yet another way to rank for the keyword. 

Only bottom results target the keyword directly

Generally speaking, when you see that you’re dealing with a separate topic “in disguise,” the decision comes down to:

  1. Targeting the Parent Topic anyway. For example, if the top result is a featured snippet, you may be able to win it with a page on a relevant broader topic. 
  2. Marking the keyword as a separate topic and targeting it directly with a separate page. In this case, add that keyword as a topic to target and note down the content type. 
  3. Turning to SERP analysis in tougher cases (like our example above). 

Final thoughts 

Feel free to customize the process and add your own data points. If you feel like going a step further and assigning URLs, your website folders, or introducing some kind of prioritization (e.g., business potential), this won’t hurt. 

However, keep in mind that keyword mapping is not a good way to design your entire website structure. Most often than not, not all pages on your site should be search-based. 

What are the next steps after keyword mapping? 

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Everything You Need To Know

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Of all the many, many functions available in Google Ads, I have a few that are my favorites. And sitelink assets – previously known as sitelink extensions – are at the top of my list.

Why? Because they’re so versatile. You can do almost anything with them if you think through your strategy carefully.

For example, you can use the mighty sitelink in your advertising to:

  • Promote low search volume themes.
  • Push lagging products out the door.
  • Maximize hot sellers.
  • Highlight certain product categories.
  • Answer common questions.
  • Handle PR problems.

And that’s just a start! Sitelink assets can almost do it all.

Best Practices For Using Sitelink Assets Extensions

If you truly want to get the most out of your sitelinks, you need to think about your intention.

To help you with that, I’m going to lay out a few sitelink guidelines.

1. Get clear on your objectives. Before you start, you need to think about your goals. What are you trying to achieve with these assets? Are you advertising products or services? Will the asset work well with both branded and non-branded keywords? Your answers to these questions will help determine if your sitelinks are versatile and useful to the searcher.

2. Use sitelinks as part of your larger strategy. Don’t think of your sitelinks in isolation. You should also consider the accompanying ad, landing page, and other assets. Make sure they all work together in service to your overarching strategy.

3. Use a mix of sitelinks. Sitelinks can serve multiple purposes, so make sure you’re using a variety. For example, you don’t want to use every sitelink on an ad to promote on-sale products. Instead, use a mix. One could promote an on-sale product, one could generate leads, one could highlight a new product category, and one could direct prospective clients to useful information.

4. Create landing pages for your sitelinks. Ideally, you want to send users to landing pages that tightly correlate with your sitelink instead of just a regular page on your website.

5. Track sitelink performance and adjust. It’s not enough to set up sitelinks. You should also track them to see which links are getting traction and which ones are not. This doesn’t mean that all sitelinks should perform equally (more on this below), but it does mean they should perform well given their type and objectives.

Why it’s Better To Use A Mix Of Sitelink Assets

Let’s dive deeper into this idea of using a mix of sitelinks by looking at an example.

In a new client account, we created four different types of sitelinks:

  • Two sitelinks are product-focused (as requested by the client).
  • One sitelink connects users with an engineer to learn more about the product (“Speak to an Engineer”). It has more of a sales focus.
  • One sitelink allows users to learn more about the products without speaking to an engineer (“What is?”).

The “What is?” sitelink is outperforming the “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink when we measure by CTR. While we need more data before making any changes, I predict we’ll eventually swap out the sales-y “Speak to an Engineer” sitelink for something else.

The fact that the educational link (“What is?”) is performing better than the sales-y link (“Speak to an Engineer”) isn’t too surprising in this case. The product is a new, cutting-edge robot that not many people are aware of, yet. They want more info before talking to someone.

Screenshot by author, January 2023

By using a mix of sitelinks, and assessing the performance of each, we gained a lot of valuable information that is helping to guide our strategy for this account. So going with a mix of sitelinks is always a good idea. You never know what you’ll discover!

Sitelink Assets Examples

Now, let’s look at some specific examples of sitelink assets in Google Ads.

Example 1: Chromatography

Sitelinks extension - Chromatography exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

Application Search: This ad is for a highly technical product that can be used in a wide variety of applications. (Chromatography is a laboratory technique for separating mixtures.) So putting “application search” in a sitelink here might make sense. It helps prospective clients find what they’re looking for.

Sign up and Save Big: A good sitelink for lead generation and potential revenue.

Technical Support: I’m not a big fan of putting technical support in sitelinks. Tech support seems more targeted to current users rather than prospective users. But who knows, maybe they really do want to help current users get tech support via their advertising.

Guides and Posters: Again, this sitelink is a bit unusual, but it might be appropriate for this product. Perhaps people are downloading branded posters and posting them in their workplaces. If so, it’s a great way to build brand awareness.

Example 2: Neuroscience Courses

Sitelink Extensions - Nueroscience courses exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

I love everything about these sitelinks! The advertising is using them to reach people in all phases of the buyer journey.

For people not ready to commit:

  • Study Neuroscience: This sitelink is broad and informational. It’s helpful to people who have just started to explore their options for studying neuroscience.
  • Get Course Brochure: This sitelink is also great for people in the research phase. And while we mostly live in an online world, some people still prefer to consume hard-copy books, brochures, etc. With this sitelink, the school is covering its bases.

For people getting close to committing:

  • Online Short Course: This is the course the school offers. It’s a great sitelink for those almost ready to sign up.

For people ready to sign up:

  • Register Online Now: This is the strongest call to action for those ready to commit. It takes people directly to the signup page.

Example 3: Neuroscience Degrees

Let’s look at another example from the world of neuroscience education: this time for a neuroscience degree program.

Sitelink extensions - neuroscience degree exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

In contrast to the previous two examples, the sitelinks in this ad aren’t as strong.

Academics Overview: This sitelink seems more appropriate for a broad term search, such as a search on the school’s name. If the searcher is looking for a specific degree program (which seems like the intention based on the term and the ad), the sitelinks should be something specific to that particular degree program.

Scholarships: Just as with the above sitelink, “Scholarships” doesn’t seem very helpful either. The topic of scholarships is important—but probably doesn’t need to be addressed until the person determines that this school is a good fit.

Example 4: Code Security

Next, let’s look at two Google search ads for code security products.

Sitelink extensions - code security exampleScreenshot from Google, January 2023

 

The sitelinks in these two ads look like typical assets you’d find for SaaS, cloud-based, or tech companies. They click through to a lot of helpful information, such as product plans and success stories.

I particularly like the Most Common Risks sitelink in the second ad. It leads to a helpful article that would be great for engaging top-of-funnel leads.

On the flip side, I’m not a big fan of the Blog sitelink in the first ad. “Blog” simply isn’t very descriptive or helpful.

Still, there are no right or wrong sitelinks here. And it would be interesting to test my theory that blog content is not a top-performing asset!

Sitelink Assets Are More Than An Afterthought

I hope I’ve convinced you of the usefulness and versatility of sitelinks when created with specific objectives that align with your broader strategy.

So don’t create your sitelink assets as an afterthought.

Because if you give them the careful consideration they deserve, they’ll serve you well.

Note: Google sitelink assets were previously known as sitelink extensions and renamed in September 2022.

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