Earlier today, Brightlocal, one of the leading and most respected SEO software vendors in the local search industry, hosted a webinar entitled “The State of Local Search in 2020”. Webinar panelists included local SEO experts Joy Hawkins, Ben Fisher, David Mihm, and host Myles Anderson of Brightlocal. From my experience, you couldn’t ask for 4 more knowledgeable guests as it relates to local search. Here are some key takeaway from the hour long discussion.
Back to the basics
Sometimes, in SEO, we are always looking for the new shiny red ball, but all 4 participants agreed that traditional on-page factors continue to go overlooked in 2020. Page titles, meta descriptions, website load times, quality of content, and other traditional ranking factors are still extremely important in 2020.
Google My Business interactions
One of the participants pointed out that local search users don’t always view a GMB profile and simply click on the company’s website. A number of different users will use the GMb profile to read reviews, read Q and A, look at pictures, and find out more about the business before clicking onto the website, if they even visit the site before contacting the business. Make sure your GMB profile is optimized with as much useful information as possible.
Hawkins: Links are still very important
Joy Hawkins mentioned in the webinar that links from local organizations, getting mentioned in the press are still viable ways to obtain new links, which are still ultra important for local SEO. Not necessarily citation building, but building domain authority via link building from sites relevant to your geographical area or service offering still makes a huge difference for local SEO.
Google My Business Insights not always reliable
As many have speculated over the past year or so, Google My Business Insight reports which shows actions and impressions aren’t always 100% accurate. Joy Hawkins brought this up, and mentioned that the search views and other data can be valuable, but that the data generated in other categories isn’t always 100% accurate.
BERT, AI, Semantic Search
To attempt to summarize Ben Fisher’s explanation of semantic search and how Google continues to evolve following 2019’s launch of the BERT update and implementation of AI, Google continues to attempt to understand information. Long-tail search queries can easily be confused, but if a website’s common theme and topic can be narrowed down through informative and relevant content, the better chance that Google can understand semantic search as it relates to that website.
Enable Google Messaging in GMB
Make sure you download the Google My Business app on Apple app store or Google Play to allow customers to message you via Google My Business. Also make sure to build out your Q and A section of your GMB whenever possible.
Mihm: Keyword-rich GMB titles are still effective, if not spam
David Mihm mentioned in the webinar that, if you’re starting a new business, attempting to integrate your service’s main keyword into the business title could be a way to give you an early ranking advantage over your competitors.
Reviews = scalable content
Ben Fisher also went on to explain that customer reviews are the most scalable content pieces you can integrate into your local search strategy. Fisher says to make sure your clients leave detailed reviews, and to make sure you have a solid process in place for collecting new client reviews on your GMB profile. He also mentioned that he and his team developed a piece of software that allows users to upload images to GMb profiles via text, but if you download thew GMB apps on your smartphone you should easily be able to add images to your GMB profile, which do get a fair amount of views and can be good for improving brand visibility.
Predictions for 2020
Joy Hawkins: “you need to be tracking keyword rankings across multiple zip codes, not just in one area. Especially for hyper-niche industries like dentists and restaurants.” Local Falcon is an excellent tool to see how a business ranks across multiple zip codes and different parts of a city.
Fisher: “Test, adapt, and learn”. See how Google evolves in 2020, stay informed, and be willing to try out new things and test new theories.
Those are the main takeaways from an extremely informative Brightlocal webinar, we hope this information helps provide some guidance to improve your website’s SEO efforts in 2020.
In mid-2019, Google began rolling out a test phase of a new search feature called “Google Screened” in which lawyers and other professionals with at least a 3.5 star rating would be displayed in the top results for a particular search query. As of now, the feature has only been rolled out in select markets (Houston, San Diego, and Atlanta) and for a select number of verticals (immigration and estate planning attorneys), but the fact that Google made changes to the “Google Screened” section as recently as January 13th may be a signal that they plan on moving forward with the new search engine result implementation. It is worth noting that these Google Screened results are currently displayed as paid and sponsored ads, but it could be very possible that Google continues to expand this offering in order to combat the amount of spam listings in organic local listings created by those attempting to improve their local visibility in markets where they don’t actually have a physical presence.
What is Google Screened?
According to Google, Google Screened provides background and license checks on lawyers and other types of professionals who are included in the results.
All firms that have the Google Screened badge must pass a business-level background and a business-owner background check. Additionally, each professional in the business must pass a license check and the business overall must have a 3.0 star rating or higher. In some categories, each professional in the business must also pass a background check. See Requirements by category for details.
These checks ensure that the professionals you work with have been vetted and provides you added peace of mind as you work with them.
Only firms that provide professional services including Law, Financial Planning, and Real Estate are eligible for the Google Screened badge.
While this may be a way to “weed out” those who simply attempt to dupe the search engine rankings while not being as trustworthy or credible as some of their local competitors, it still remains to be seen how Google will rank multiple firms who apply, or are included, in the Google Screened program. Some of the requirements based on each industry that Google plans to include in the future can be found here. These industries include:
Carpet & Upholstery cleaning
Real estate agents
Water damage services
Google’s recent updates to the Google Screened program includes adding images to the Google Screened results in markets where the SERP feature is currently available:
You can find out more about Google Screened (what they look for during a background check, what the minimum criteria is for a business to be listed, etc.) directly from Google on this page.
If Google’s new Screened program is rolled out Nationwide, it would surely be an added benefit for industries in which many have violated Google’s Terms of Service in order to obtain top local rankings. For example, the locksmith industry is one vertical in which those looking for reputable locksmith services have been taken advantage of by individuals acting as independent contractors for Nationwide companies setting up bogus Google My Business profiles in order to obtain local rankings and generate leads. Recently, CBC in Canada published an investigative report showing that a Google user searching for a reputable locksmith became a victim of fraud. The company that was displayed in the Google search showed a reputable address, which ended up being a vacant lot, and the user was significantly overcharged once the locksmith (which was supposed to be local to his address) actually arrived. These lead generation scams are far too common in certain industries, and hopefully Google’s new Screened program will help users feel comfortable again searching for local businesses on the leading search engine in the world.
If your industry is listed above among those which Google plans to roll out their new Screened program, you may want to setup Google and Twitter alerts and stay updated on the progress of this potentially massive shift in the Local SEO industry.
Clio recently launched their 2019 Legal Trends report in which they “secret shopped” 1,000 law firms via email and 500 law firms via phone. They surveyed 2,000 consumers who were recently in the market for legal services, which should hopefully give lawyers some critical insight into what their potential clients are thinking and looking for when researching a lawyer to potentially represent them in their legal matter. They also surveyed 2,507 legal professionals.
Before I go on, I want to clarify. I am not actually an attorney. I am an SEO consultant who has been in the legal marketing field for the past 12 years. I’ve worked with hundreds of firms, across a wide variety of practice areas, but I’m not involved in the day-to-day operations or marketing strategies of law firms. I am simply a provider attempting to offer a service and any marketing advice I can. I do, however, believe that this outside advice can be helpful to lawyers who might not take the time to attempt to understand the intent and behavior of potential clients.
In reading everyone’s responses and feedback on social media sites and elsewhere, I believe that this report does present some very valuable data that lawyers can use to improve their own marketing process.
What The Study Doesn’t Mention
Not all lawyers are the same in terms of how hands on they with their marketing efforts.
Some managing partners are able to hire capable marketing managers to stay on top of a variety of marketing channels- SEO, paid search, content, social, email, traditional internal marketing (mailed newsletters, direct mailing letters to those recently arrested, etc.), newspaper and print, television, radio, and more.
Some prefer to be more hands on when it comes to managing marketing efforts for their law firms. According to the 2019 Legal Trends Report, the majority of firm marketing managers are confident handling their own marketing efforts:
Yet the majority of managing partners and lawyers who I’ve worked with over the years continually express that they are too busy to manage their firm’s marketing.
One of the issues that I take with this report is that it generalizes all lawyers as the same. Every lawyer and managing partner doesn’t have the time to manage multiple marketing channels in-house. Are they confident in their firm’s marketing because they have a good marketing manager in place? Are they confident because they know which outside providers to use? This is all unclear.
Not all lawyers are the same in terms of how tech-savvy they are.
Of the 2,000 legal consumers that were surveyed in the study, 59% sought a referral, 57% searched on their own, and 16% did both.
In SEO, the main goal is to make a website and law firm more visible on search engines. We want to improve the number of keywords (money and long-tail) that a firm is found for. We want to improve how a law firm’s website ranks on Google.
Because consumers who are looking for lawyers use Google, Bing, and Yahoo! to search for lawyers. Consumers research multiple lawyers, read reviews, visit law firm websites to research lawyers and make an educated decision on who to contact and potentially retain for their legal matter.
Of the 57% of people who searched for a lawyer on their own, here is the breakdown of methods they used to search:
Social media accounted for 5% of the 57% of people searching for a lawyer on their own, with SEO-related methods (lawyer’s website, online search engine, online reviews, map or service app) accounting for the vast majority of people who were searching for a lawyer.
What does that mean for social media? Does it mean that lawyers shouldn’t spend time on improving their social media marketing from a branding perspective? Of course not, it would be stupid of me to say something like that.
Does it mean that people don’t go on neighborhood groups on Facebook and other social media sites and ask for a legal referral? No, but are we considering someone posting a recommendation request on social media as a referral request, or as a search?
The majority of lawyers that I’ve worked with aren’t as tech-savvy as everyone arguing about this on social media channels. They don’t have the time to manage their own social media marketing and networking on a day-to-day basis, nor do they have the understanding of how social media can be effective as a long-term marketing strategy. So the lawyers who are implying that social media marketing is important for long-term referrals, networking with potential referral sources, and overall marketing are 100% correct, but they’re also among a minority of practicing lawyers who are tech-savvy enough to research online legal marketing on a daily basis, and stay up-to-date on tech-related legal marketing. This is not, from my experience, the majority of lawyers who I’ve come across over the years. Outside vendors exist because lawyers don’t have the time, or knowledge, to manage it themselves.
Not All Law Firms Are The Same.
A law firm could handle cases in a number of different practice areas. Some of these practice areas may be more reliant on the quantity of cases they bring in, versus more niche practice areas where they handle only a handful of cases at a time.
Bankruptcy, criminal defense, family law, these are generally types of legal matters in which a law firm might need to work with more clients at once. There are more potential clients searching for these types of lawyers.
Personal injury law, mass tort law, business law, wills and estate planning, these are more niche practice areas which multiple firms are competing for. Personal injury law keywords are ridiculously expensive on Adwords because there are a lower number of potential personal injury clients searching for a law firm, and of course the cases yield a higher amount of revenue. There are more firms competing for less cases, so comparing marketing efforts for a niche practice area like personal injury, which can be harder to target potential clients, to a bulk-based practice area like bankruptcy or criminal defense isn’t always apples to apples.
There are also a number of B2B (versus traditional B2C) law firms in which methods like SEO and social media marketing might not be as effective, since it’s more based on referrals and networking.
Without going into too much more detail, I believe that the three main problems with this report are that:
It’s assumed that every lawyer and managing partner are the same in terms of how much time they have to spend on marketing, and how tech-savvy they are.
It’s assumed that every law firm is the same in terms of their practice areas and how their potential clients are searching for them.
The “how clients searched” categories are extremely confusing and broad. How can someone search for a lawyer on the lawyer’s website? How did someone search for a lawyer on a lawyer’s blog, videos, or articles? It says that people searches for lawyers via online reviews, was this on Google Local, an online directory, etc?
All lawyers and law firms are not the same. Social media marketing may be working for you if you have the time to spend networking on social media sites, but the topic of the marketing section isn’t “how to improve client referrals”. The topic is “how people searched for a lawyer”, which I believe is being lost in translation by those saying that social media should be used to improve referrals, branding, and even lead generation in some cases. I do believe that there is a lot of value, for any business, in social media marketing.
Either way, the purpose of SEO is to get your law firm information (website, Google My Business profile, firm name and brand) in front of potential clients. It should be the primary goal of a law firm to understand how clients who are searching for a lawyer in their practice area, those interested in finding out more about a lawyers’ qualifications and services, are actually searching. I don’t believe that the primary issue with this report is how law firms are marketing to potential clients, we can argue about that until the cows come home. I believe that the primary issue is that firms do not take enough time to understand what their potential clients are looking for, and what their expectations are for the lawyer they’ll eventually hire.
What Lawyers Can Improve and Learn From This Report
Managing Clients and Expectations
At the beginning of the report, in the very first paragraph, the main issue and concern for lawyers is basically summarized:
The market for legal services faces a critical paradox. On one hand, the vast majority of law firms say they want to increase their revenues, yet they have trouble finding business.
On the other, clients struggle to get help with their legal problems.
I am a small company with limited resources. I left a position at an agency 8 years ago which managed multiple law firms because it was practically impossible to provide the amount of service that clients expected, due to juggling multiple clients and projects at once. Long story short, the agency never turned business away. They took on every law firm which contacted them, regardless of whether they already had a client in that prospective client’s geographic area or practice area. I’m not throwing shade at them, I’m just describing the same issue that every business struggles with.
Every business needs to take into account how much time they can spend servicing multiple clients, and at which point they will turn away business because they’re not equipped at the time to manage additional clients.
However, this report confirms what we all know and rarely discuss. Law firms, like every other business, rarely turn away business. They take on as many clients and cases as they can, to improve revenue and grow their firms. This may not be the case for all law firms, but according to the report:
While growing firms increased their number of lawyers by 32% over five years, the number of cases they worked increased by an impressive 57%. The same goes for the gravity-defying revenue growth among these firms, which saw their total revenues jump by over 100%.
To put this in perspective, revenue growth for these firms increased at three times the rate at which they brought on new lawyers, and casework increased at twice the rate…..In other words, these firms increased the number of clients they worked with while also increasing the amount of revenue collected from the work they performed.
Cases go up, revenue goes up. Lawyers may not experience the same amount of growth (since hiring additional in-house lawyers could affect revenue), and it’s unclear if hiring additional support or admin staff to help manage this growing number of clients was considered.
Growing firms took on increasingly more cases and clients
Generating more business. Growing firms increase the amount of work they bring in compared to the number of lawyers they have.
Every lawyer I’ve ever worked with or spoke to wants more cases. But as firms continue to add more cases, how are clients being serviced? How are potential new clients being responded to? How solid is the firm’s intake process?
Referrals are important, social media marketing and networking is important. However, this study shows what is important to prospective clients who actually went through the process of researching and hiring a lawyer, and it shows that firms are having a hard time providing it.
Here’s what’s most important to potential clients, according to the clients themselves:
79% of legal consumers who were surveyed said that it’s important for a law firm to respond to them within 24 hours. Yet 69% of people who said that they contacted a law firm never even got a response. Some additional stats as it relates to client intake and setting expectations:
65% didn’t get any indication on what to do next.
64% didn’t get a sense of how much their case would cost.
62% didn’t understand the process for their case.
61% didn’t get enough information they could understand.
52% said the lawyer they spoke with wasn’t likeable or friendly enough.
As law firms continue to add clients, as law firms continue to focus on generating more leads, it appears obvious from this study that a majority of firms have a hard time communicating with potential clients, preparing clients for the cost of representation, or taking the time to communicate to clients what to expect and next steps.
This, from my experience, is usually a big problem. I read client reviews all of the time, “he/she is a good lawyer but I never got a timely update on my case.” If your clients and potential clients can’t get answers to their questions because the firm they’re working with is more concerned with increasing revenue and adding cases than they are with servicing their clients, that could be a problem. Client communication and a seamless intake process which leaves potential clients with a good first impression of the firm is probably as important as the marketing methods used to find the firm, yet lawyers continue to spend more time on how they can get more clients and less time on how they can convert clients and keep them updated.
Again, not all law firms and lawyers are the same. I am not trying to generalize lawyers, but it should be more of a primary concern, coming from a non-attorney on the outside looking in, for lawyers to focus on what their clients want and are expecting.
Give The People What They Want
So what are potential clients actually looking for when researching attorneys to represent them in their case? Well, in addition to the important factors listed in the section above (be up front about pricing, respond in a timely manner, set the right expectations and adequately prepare potential clients for next steps), the study clearly lays out what lawyers’ potential clients are actually paying attention to from a marketing perspective:
77% want to know a lawyer’s experience and credentials (also ranked the most important).
72% want to know what types of cases they handle.
70% want a clear understanding of the legal process and what to expect.
66% want an estimate of the total cost for their case.
The study goes on to survey both younger (Gen Z and Millennials) and older (Gen X and Boomers) generations on what they are likely to care about as it relates to a lawyer’s online presence. These are ranked below in order of importance, which is the same for both younger and older generations:
1) Reviews– important to 99% of younger consumers and important to 64% of older consumers.
2) Website– important to 97% of younger consumers and important to 55% of older consumers.
3) Brand/Image– important to 81% of younger consumers and important to 47% of older consumers.
Younger consumers are important for potential long-term referrals. Making sure they’re aware and followers of your social media presences is very important for brand awareness. But what consumers, both old and young, are paying attention to when researching lawyers is your law firm’s website, lawyers’ qualifications, a clear understanding of what they can expect during the process, and cost.
The information that a law firm provides on their website should reflect this important information, minus cost in most cases. Informative articles and blog posts are very important, they will help keep potential clients informed and can take a load off of attorneys in terms of educating potential clients on what to expect during the process.
Prospective clients want to know that they’re working with a qualified expert in the practice area they are researching, so the more informative that your law firm’s website is, the more likely they are to come away with the impression that your firm understands everything involved with their legal matter.
Reviews are obvious, they are non-biased and come from others who have worked with the individual attorney or law firm in the past. Online reputation management and knowing what reviews are out there about your firm is still critical, and this goes back to understanding your potential clients and what they’re paying attention to. Prospective clients will do a Google search for the individual lawyer’s name and the firm name. If you have negative reviews out there which haven’t been responded to or addressed, that should be your #1 concern as an attorney trying to understand what your prospective clients are actually looking at. You can generate leads by the bucket load, but if someone searches for you after an initial phone consultation or meeting in person and are left with the impression that your business isn’t making an effort to reflect a positive online brand which cares about their clients, it goes without saying that you’d want to improve this.
Once again, I’m not a lawyer. But if I were, I would focus more on how to keep new potential clients informed on what to expect. I would make sure I nailed down a solid intake process where potential clients are provided with informative resources detailing what they can expect during their legal process. Ask yourself why every personal injury law firm active in online marketing has 5 free downloadable reports on their websites to try to generate new business, yet (from my experience) the only information that new potential clients are provided with during the intake process is what the lawyers or paralegals tell them in person.
Provide your prospective and new clients with the information and attention that you know they are expecting. Overwhelm them with service, and there are automated ways to do this. Show them you’re the most qualified and experience attorney they can hire by showing them that you understand how important it is for them to be informed and confident in their decision to hire you. Send them PDF reports and informative emails from the beginning of the process, showing them that you know the answers to their questions before they’re even asked. Send descriptive drip campaign emails and follow-up emails that remind them what to expect during the process moving forward, which in exchange reminds your prospective clients that they made the right decision. Spend as much time on developing a process to inform clients, setting the right expectations, and leaving potential clients with a good first impression as you do marketing to clients. If the main benefit of social media marketing is to network and build your referral base, how is it possible that lawyers are not spending more time doing whatever they can to keep prospects and clients, their most important referral sources who are likely to leave important reviews at the end of the process, informed and satisfied?
Once again, I’m not an attorney. I know, from my own personal experience, that lawyers are busy and that every law firm doesn’t run like a well-oiled customer service machine. I know that, in a perfect world, every phone call would be answered, every email responded to, and every client would leave with a positive first and last impression. But from the outside looking in, I do believe that more lawyers could focus on how to maximize conversions and develop an internal process that provides prospective clients with the information they desire. If the only information that a prospective client is receiving is the information communicated to them by the lawyer via phone or email consultation, that may not be enough, and they might not retain 100% of this.
What if, after the prospective client fills out an intake document where the law firm captures their email address and other information, the prospective client was sent an informative email following their phone consult listing FAQ’s (linked directly to the firm’s website pages, the same FAQ pages which may be bringing in quality organic search visits), describing the ongoing process, and also listing additional firm resources such as how to make online payments, how to find out more about the lawyer with links to lawyer bios, Avvo profile, etc., where to find the firm on social media sites, and how to read and leave reviews? You know what information your clients are looking for, so why not develop a process to provide them with this information and show your potential clients that you understand what they’re looking for? Why wouldn’t law firms want to spend the same amount of time developing internal documents to keep prospective and current clients informed as they do developing resources from a marketing perspective?
This, from an outsider looking in, would be more important to me than arguing over which marketing method is going to bring in more cases and leads. Yes, there are multiple marketing channels that law firms need to manage and maintain moving forward to 2020. But I do believe that law firms, in general, could spend more time on maximizing conversions and keeping clients informed.
As someone who has done SEO for over 15 years now, watching the SEO industry continue to change and evolve has been both fascinating and frustrating.
In the early days of SEO, any software tools or methods that helped automate SEO were frowned upon. SEO automation was automatically looked at as a waste of money, primarily because the one factor that can’t be replaced when it comes to an effective long-term SEO strategy is time. The time that is spent on a project by a person who knows enough about SEO to know what he or she is looking for in order to make improvements.
The time that is spent by an experienced SEO professional to focus on a wide variety of ranking factors, from a coding and web development standpoint, to a content writing and conversion standpoint, to an SEO standpoint which covers everything in between, such as crawlability, indexing, meta data, inbound link profile, and any of the additional 200+ ranking factors that Google takes into consideration when determining search engine rankings.
Moving into 2020, SEO has not died, nor has it evolved.
It has taken a step back, and in an era where Google’s search engine algorithm continues to evolve, SEO as a common perception has instead moved backward.
When SEO is being sold to a client, what used to be the most important factor as it relates to SEO – time – is no longer valued.
Here are 5 problems with SEO heading into 2020 that is damaging the perception of search engine optimization as a service.
1. Common misconception: you’re competing against Google
When most potential clients that I speak to about SEO voice concerns with their past SEO campaign(s) or providers, it’s almost always communicated as if they are under the assumption that the goal is to adhere to Google’s guidelines and terms of service, and that my primary goal should be work my “SEO magic” to make their website more “Google-friendly”.
The first thing I learned when I started doing SEO is that the future of SEO will be dependent on how much a webmaster or SEO consultant can actually perform to a website to make a difference to a site when compared to competing websites, and that there was going to eventually be a ceiling in terms of what can be done to improve search engine rankings.
In the early days, optimizing on-page meta data like page titles, meta descriptions, H1/H2, internal linking, alt image tags, and other on-page factors were extremely important, in addition to obtaining as many backlinks from other websites as possible.
The link building aspect of SEO during these times was equivalent to the Wild Wild West. You could have thousands of links from irrelevant websites, you could write articles and submit to article directors to obtain additional dofollow links, you could write bogus press releases and syndicate to PR sites for link authority. However, as Google and SEO evolved, they started imposing penalties to websites which were building links for the sole purpose of obtaining more links.
Does building links from irrelevant sites still work? Yes, its not something that I do personally, but the main point is that Google’s search engine algorithm continued to evolve over time in order to weed out spammers and those looking to “dupe” search engine rankings and flood the web with spam.
Link building has evolved, but on-page SEO is still extremely effective. More websites have launched in 2019 than were launched 15 years prior, dramatically more. The mobile revolution came along which saw mobile-friendly websites more “SEO-friendy”, but aside from the off-page link building aspect and advanced on-page metrics like schema.org markup, much of SEO in 2020 will be the same as 2004: how optimized is your website, and how user-friendly is it?
The ceiling I referenced earlier is one I thought about a lot back in those early days. As more websites continue to launch over the years, how will SEO evolve? Will having keywords in page titles and meta descriptions still be as effective in 2020 as when there were less sites 15 years ago?
Will maintaining a certain percentage of keyword density in the website’s content still matter? Not necessarily.
But what’s lost in all of this is that your website is not competing against Google, it’s competing against the other websites trying to obtain top rankings for the keywords, services, and topics that you’re trying to rank for.
If your SEO company is building harmful links to your site, your website will suffer, your rankings will drop, and your competitors will gain.
If your SEO company is writing content for search engines, stuffing keywords into content that is barely readable because they paid a freelance copywriter that they found on Fiverr $20 per blog post to meet a monthly content quota, your rankings will drop, and your competitors will gain.
Working with an SEO company who employs people or works with experienced SEO consultants who know how to do the right things, know what to actually improve and work on, spend the time focusing on factors that will make a positive difference, and know how to keep you ahead of your competitors is what you’re paying them for. You’re not paying them to work “SEO magic”, you’re not paying them to compete with Google, you’re not paying them to write content or Tweet every month. You’re paying them because they know how to make a website more user-friendly in terms of the information and how it is made available, and more SEO-friendly in terms of making that information more crawlable and optimized than your competitors. This needs to be taken into account when considering SEO pricing.
Are you working with experienced SEO strategists and consultants who possess the variety of skills to be able to improve your website load times, optimize your content in an effective manner, know their way around extremely important data tools such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console, have their finger on the pulse in terms of what website content should be indexed and which content might be causing duplicate content issues, and any of the other long list of ranking factors with the end goal being to make your website as user and search-engine friendly as possible? Or are you paying a monthly SEO retainer because you fell for attractive PowerPoint presentations and fancy sales pitches, thinking that the company you signed up for can “work their SEO magic?”
Which brings me to the next problem with SEO heading into 2020:
2. SEO: something everyone’s offering
In 2004, I could tell someone that I just met that I do SEO for a living and they would look at me like I was speaking another language.
15 years later, and the SEO landscape has dramatically changed.
As an SEO agency, I’m no longer competing with other SEO’s, many of whom the majority of potential clients don’t trust because of their bad past experiences with SEO consultants.
I’m now competing with marketing agencies who see SEO as an opportunity to offer an additional service. I’m competing with web development and advertising agencies who see SEO as a way to possibly land more clients and offer additional revenue.
But what happens when all of these new companies in the SEO game actually land SEO projects? Who is doing the work? Is it being performed by an in-house SEO team with years of experience? Unless you’re paying them $5k, $10k, $20k/month, probably not. You get out what you put in, this is why I mentioned that important “time” aspect at the beginning of this post.
The experienced SEO consultants who possess a wide variety of skills, and time they spend on a project, is what usually makes a difference. So if you’re paying your ad agency $2000/month to manage your SEO, they are going to take their percentage, and outsource the rest either overseas or to a local individual consultant for a monthly retainer, unless they have an in-house person who is managing it all and trying to keep everything together. The freelancers or overseas providers then have to communicate with the in-house project manager at your ad agency who is communicating the monthly strategy, with he or she almost certainly being a novice when it comes to SEO despite what your ad or marketing agency promised you. So how does that working relationship work? Company charges monthly retainer, outsources work to most cost-effective provider, project manager believes whatever the outsourced consultant or provider tells them is important or what they are working on, and that is communicated to the client.
So what is lost here?
This is exactly what is killing SEO as a service, and the overall SEO industry. It’s being undersold (in terms of the price SEO is being sold at) by more unqualified providers, and managed by agencies who are simply not knowledgeable about SEO. It’s being outsourced and managed by people, either domestic or overseas, who are being paid to manage as many client projects at once as possible.
Everyone is adding as many projects as they can handle, a ton of work ends up falling through the cracks, but as long as those advertising and marketing agencies can simply show their clients that their sites are being “SEO’ed”, they keep collecting their monthly retainers, take a percentage for managing their clients, and two things happen as a result:
The ad and marketing agencies, and their clients, are left with a negative impression of SEO once things go south because they feel like they’re been screwed over, as a result of not being able to effectively communicate a clear strategy, or not being able to manage client expectations. Throughout most of this time, they don’t even know what they’re selling or offering, meanwhile…
The experienced SEO’s who know how to improve overall search engine visibility, understand how things work, can develop a long-term effective strategy, can communicate to the client not to panic the second they see a drop-off in organic search traffic or search engine rankings…they’re reduced to basically teaching in-house project managers what SEO is or how it works, they’re forced to present data and presentations simply to keep clients happy, and they’re undervalued in the grand scheme of things because ad and marketing agencies have turned SEO from a strategic investment to keep you ahead of your competitors to an over-simplified line item. SEO: something everyone’s offering.
3. Communicating time to a client
Communicating to a client everything that has been worked on and managed to improve their website’s overall search engine visibility is just about impossible. I could spend 5 hours improving on-page meta data, analyzing competitors, reviewing crawl stats and implementing improvements, analyzing important data, utilizing in-house tools… if I communicate all of that to a client, they may just want to hear that things are being worked on, but they will almost certainly not have an idea of what you’re talking about, or why it’s so important.
In 2020, none of this will matter, because of the issue I raised in #2.
Breaking SEO tasks down by hourly line items, agencies reporting to clients what has been completed each month, all of this is severely damaging SEO. It’s discounting the most important aspect, which is time spent, it’s more valuable than you believe but communicating to a client every month what has been worked on as an hourly breakdown is not good for managing expectations, developing a strategy, or for the overall SEO industry. It’s good for agencies who want to show their clients things are being worked on as they attempt to justify how effective a department is performing on an hourly basis, but if you have a solid relationship with your client as an SEO consultant who has helped them build a long-term strategy, they understand that it is practically impossible for me to break down everything I do, analyze, and work on as individual line items every month. I’m doing everything I can to keep you ahead of your competitors, improve your rankings, organic search traffic, and overall search engine visibility, that is what you’re paying me to do. If I spend the majority of my time reporting everything that was completed each week, a lot would be lost in translation, and it damages the overall value of the time that I spend on your project.
Many who believe they have been screwed over by SEO consultants in the past are reading that statement and thinking to themselves “SEO’s are lazy, they want to put everything on auto-pilot and do nothing” which is fair, many in the SEO industry have helped to contribute to this negative stereotype.
However, the same people who think that are likely the same folks who, as potential clients, signed up with an agency to manage their SEO, all while knowing that same agency is working with 30 other clients and have limited in-house SEO professionals working on projects every day, at a lower monthly price than they were paying two years ago AND likely at a lower monthly price than their competitors are paying.
It goes back to what I mentioned in problem number 2. More agencies are offering SEO, the average monthly price point for experienced SEO campaign management has dropped significantly because SEO has transformed from a long-term investment into “something everyone’s offering” with the hope for immediate results that can allow agencies to show clients that “its working”. The time being spent is what suffers as a result, because more SEO consultants have to take on projects at a discounted rate and still try to get by and stay competitive in the market.
So if you think that your current SEO provider is in a position where they have experienced SEO professionals spending time on your project, and they’re obtaining results, that is what’s important. Not a monthly breakdown of what has been done on an hourly basis, because that’s likely being performed by hourly SEO’s overseas or entry-level domestic SEO professionals who are taking on as many hourly projects as they can without completely losing their minds, because that’s what the outsourcing agencies and providers need to prove to clients that work is being completed.
4. Justifying an ROI in 2020 for both clients AND providers
Showing clients that SEO is paying off from a return on investment standpoint in 2020 will continue to be difficult, due to the various aspects involved with tracking individual leads and conversions. This all comes back to, in my opinion, what is the most important aspect as it relates to selling SEO: communicating and managing client expectations.
The goal of SEO, as a service, is to optimize your website and improve overall search engine authority. You can improve keyword rankings, you can show improvements to organic search traffic. You can show improvements in phone calls and website clicks in monthly Google My Business insight reports. You can show monthly improvements to search engine impressions and clicks through Google Search Console reports. But can you attribute each individual lead, sale, or client to organic SEO efforts? It’s becoming easier to do, but still far from flawless in terms of tracking individual conversions.
The old school days of false promises: “we’ll get your website to rank #1 for these 5 keywords, and it will make you so much more money!” are long gone, and if you’re an SEO provider focusing on a small number of individual keyword rankings as the key to client success, then we are not on the same page in terms of what’s important.
SEO over the past few years, and heading into 2020, isn’t about improving keyword rankings for a select number of keywords. The old days of building a bunch of spam links to an internal page with the keyword you want to improve rankings for as the anchor text, monitoring ranking gains and trying to tell the client to get ready to expand once they’ve reached #1 on Google are over.
The goal of SEO is to make a client’s website more user-friendly, more optimized for conversions, more optimized for search engine visibility. Improving overall search engine authority means that, as experienced SEO professionals, it’s our job to focus on full-scale SEO and improving overall usability and full-scale SEO aspects of your website. If we do our job correctly, and we are doing things the right way, your site won’t just start ranking well for 5 keywords in 6 months. Instead, your overall search engine visibility improves.
Your site is now being found for more relevant search terms.
Your overall organic traffic continues to naturally improve over time.
You’ve noticed more phone calls coming in from the web, and that’s a great sign, but if you’re also managing a paid Adwords campaign and a social media campaign, attributing these increases in online lead generation to SEO can be increasingly difficult.
It has always been my personal opinion that promising more business, and taking accountability for an increase in lead generation, can be irresponsible as SEO’s. You could work with a law firm who ranks #1 for every search term imaginable, if they have terrible online reviews, or their intake process is far from optimal, or they refuse to invest in a live chat provider or other effective conversion methods that their competitors are using, if they fail to keep their clients updated on their case progress, if their website looks like it was designed in 1988, whatever the case may be…using leads and sales as a measuring stick for ROI as it relates to SEO can be tricky, and I don’t see it becoming any easier to do in 2020.
To be clear, I’m not saying that SEO doesn’t need to be justified from an SEO perspective. Just the opposite, and I personally found this out the hard way early on. You can charge a client $5k/month for an SEO campaign, with the hope that they land a few big cases as a result, turn around and want to keep investing the next year. But what happens to the OVERALL public perception of SEO, and how much harder does it make to sell SEO as a service and manage those expectations, when you’re promising your client more business, more leads and cases or sales, you obtain top search engine rankings but the client isn’t seeing an ROI? The monthly SEO price needs to be taken into account when selling SEO, for both the clients and providers.
As an SEO consultant, if you’re spending the majority of your time on a $500/month client, that wouldn’t make much sense since your return on that time investment, after taxes and expenses and time that could be spent on other projects, is very limited.
At the same time, if you’re charging $8,000/month for SEO, are you actually able to justify and prove an ROI to your client?
Monthly SEO retainers do continue to decrease as a result of a number of providers undercharging in order to land clients, that’s a fact. Most SEO consultants have had to, as a result, charge less than they used to in order to land clients and remain competitive. Whatever the case may be, in order for SEO to work as a long-term strategy, it has to be sold and managed at a price point that makes sense, from an ROI perspective, for both the provider and the client, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
5. The elephant in the room: Google
SEO as a profession can be extremely difficult and stressful, if you haven’t noticed by now. For in-house SEO professionals, managing multiple clients and being pulled in different directions, trying to explain SEO to clients and co-workers, developing a strategy and communicating to clients what will be worked on every quarter can be a lot of stress, especially when managing multiple projects which are all different.
For individual SEO consultants, staying competitive in a market which has become over-saturated and competitive, during a time when potential clients are operating under the assumption that all SEO professionals are “snake oil salesmen” or spammers emailing them every night asking for a blog post link can be increasingly difficult as well.
I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that setting and managing client expectations can be the most important aspect of an SEO campaign, and one thing clients need to know up front is that Google can be bi-polar, unpredictable, mean, and unruly.
SEO in 2020 is tougher to sell and manage, but is it reasonable for SEO professionals and consultants to be completely responsible every time keyword rankings drop, or every time organic search engine traffic drops? Absolutely not, and this won’t get any easier in 2020 and moving forward. As more and more SEO providers continue to battle for business, more promises will be made, in-house SEO’s and individual consultants will be under more pressure from clients, and as a result they will likely be forced to come up with an explanation every time something negative happens, instead of being able to simply communicate to the client that we are working with an extremely complicated algorithm that could change at any moment.
This is why it’s important to build up the value of the experienced people working on the client project. If Google launches a new update, the experienced SEO professional monitoring rankings, impressions, and traffic to make sure a client site isn’t potentially penalized is worth more than the hourly consultant getting paid to prove to clients that work is being done.
The experienced SEO professional who knows what to look for when something negative happens, has the proper tools in place to monitor search engine visibility over time to identify any potential issues, including keyword ranking reports, tools like SEMRush or AHREFS to examine lost backlinks, Google Search Console to monitor drops in search engine impressions. Even the fact that you have an experienced SEO professional who stays up-to-date on Google updates, modern SEO tactics and techniques, and has his or her finger on the pulse as it relates to your website’s full-scale SEO efforts is worth a lot more than you think.
When in-house SEO’s are able to communicate to client project managers and show them that Google is an unpredictable girl or boyfriend ready to throw all your stuff out in the street and light it on fire at any given moment, versus being responsible for every peak and valley and being forced to explain to clients every time something drops off, that’s when things will improve,
When individual SEO consultants have such a strong working relationship with their clients every month that they’re not forced to explain to clients every time something negative happens that they don’t actually have a direct phone line to Google to find out what happened, but are qualified and knowledgeable enough to attempt to identify the cause of the problem, that’s when things will improve.
But the problem right now for SEO, and the problem moving forward into 2020, is that those expectations aren’t being set. SEO isn’t being sold as a long-term strategy. SEO campaigns aren’t being managed by those familiar and experienced in how SEO works. And as a result, SEO is looked at by everyone with a negative stereotype, all because it’s been transformed into Something Everyone’s Offering.
A case study: ranking improvements for websites with keywords in website domain.
Following the launch of Google’s latest June Core update yesterday, I did some spot-checking of Google rankings this morning. One thing stood out when I analyzed ranking results. Websites with keywords in the domain- either a city or state, or the service that I was searching for- seemed to appear in the top 10 results, along with popular directory sites like Yelp.com, expertise.com, thumbtack.com, Justia, etc.
I actually visited the websites themselves when analyzing the results, and some of the sites I visited didn’t appear to spend a ton of time or money in SEO- there wasn’t a web developer logo or link in the footer (which is very common in the legal field, and a sign that they’re working with, and paying, a “professional” legal SEO company to improve rankings), the WordPress theme in some cases was basically a stock template, not a ton of content, limited backlinks, not a lot of on-page SEO, etc.
So is it possible that, following the latest search algorithm update, Google has reverted to the “good ol’ days” when keyword-rich URL’s had an upper hand in organic search results?
After looking at the data presented below, I don’t think there’s much doubt that the answer is “probably”.
Step 1: Identify websites
What I decided to do was perform some additional Google search queries, and come up with a list of domains that 1) ranked well for the random search query I was performing, and 2) included the city or state, and/or service that I was searching for.
The 10 random websites that I came up with when analyzing data are:
Step 2: Populate ranking data
Next, I put each website into SEMRush’s organic research tool, which monitors and tracks Google rankings for websites over time. With the launch of the Google June Core Update being so recent (yesterday), it’s easy to assume that data would be limited, but I was very pleasantly surprised to find a number of keyword movements since June 4, 2019.
A few things worth noting:
The update clearly launched yesterday. For each of the 10 websites I analyzed, I also analyzed a competing website without a keyword in the domain. Across the board, going back to early May, the most keyword movements came on June 4th and June 5th.
The websites with a keyword in the website domain had the most movements, by far.
The majority of movements occurred when it was a Google search that included a city or state.
Step 3: Format and analyze ranking data
I exported ranking changes for each website into a .csv, and created a Google Sheet which is embedded below. For each website, the following metrics were included:
Current position (anything prior to June 4 was deleted)
Difference (for each website, I created a Google Sheets formula to calculate difference in ranking. For websites that weren’t ranking before, I assigned a value of ‘100’)
URL of page that ranked
As I started analyzing all of the data that was populated in the Google Sheet, it became clear to me that part of this latest update is related to local rankings.
Here are a few examples of what I found:
What stood out to me was the overall number of positive movements, and average number of spots that each keyword improved by. I did some spot checks for keyword searches like “Maryland DWI lawyers”, “Baltimore DWI lawyers”, etc. and this site was in the top organic results consistently.
Out of 141 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 96 occasions.
Rankings dropped for this website on 46 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 9.83
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 21.98
Out of 485 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 248 occasions.
Rankings dropped for this website on 237 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 9.82
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 24.36
Keyword: bankruptcy lawyers in Maryland (ranks top 10 for Maryland bankruptcy lawyers, a number of other terms I spot-checked, this data is all according to most recent SEMRush rankings)
As of 6/4: Number 16 on Google
Prior- Not in top 100.
This website improved dramatically for a number of extremely competitive local search terms, many of which it didn’t rank in the top 100 for prior.
Out of 122 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 106 occasions.
Rankings dropped for this website on 16 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 11
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 21.4
Out of 51 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 34 occasions.
Rankings dropped on 17 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 13
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 28.39
Out of 95 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 64 occasions.
Rankings dropped on 31 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 11.09
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 19.63
For anyone who has worked on a Houston legal website when it comes to SEO, you know how extremely ridiculously competitive it can be. And the number of keywords that this website has improved rankings for, especially for EXTREMELY competitive search terms, is absolutely mind boggling.
If you take a look at the CPC for each of the keywords that have improved, you’ll have a better idea of what I’m talking about. For a website to not be in the top 100 for some of these extremely competitive, nationwide search terms like “maritime law” and “personal injury law firm”, and then to seemingly overnight break into the top couple of pages is pretty spectacular. This is in addition to the ranking increases for practically every Houston-related personal injury search term, which, once again, are possibly among the most competitive search terms in the country. This is what really stood out to me.
Out of 191 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 172 occasions.
Rankings dropped on 19 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 7.47
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 33.5
This is a website that didn’t see a TON of positive movement, but I wanted to include a domain which ranked well for a nationwide term like “wrongful death attorneys” and “wrongful death settlements”. Below is the data:
Once again, another case of being blown away by the number of “money” keywords that this website obtained top rankings for seemingly overnight.
Before June 4th, the website wasn’t in the top 100 of Google for “Houston cosmetic dentist”, “cosmetic dentists of Houston”,and obtains #1 ranking on Google. Wasn’t in top 100 for “Dentist Houston TX” and is now #3.
Out of 87 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 56 occasions.
Rankings dropped on 31 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 8.48
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 21.11
The last website of our case study, and once again a website with the city keyword in the domain, and some pretty noticeable movements.
Out of 116 total movements (both positive and negative) since June 4, this website’s rankings improved or stayed the same on 77 occasions.
Rankings dropped on 39 occasions.
Average spots when keyword rankings dropped: 14.46
Average spots when keyword rankings improved: 22.39
While these 10 websites help to prove the theory that having a city/state and keyword in your website domain could possibly play a part in SEO after the latest Google June update has rolled out, it’s also important to pay attention to the individual page URL’s that rank. Many of the pages that rank aren’t necessarily the home pages themselves, yet website URL’s that include the keywords and topics that the searcher is looking for.
That being said, like I mentioned at the beginning…I compared these 10 websites to competing websites with website domains that didn’t include keywords, and the most noticeable movements were clearly from these 10 websites.
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