Improve access to legal services with search engine optimization (SEO)
By Dave Guarino
Lawyers, court staff, and government agencies can use this SEO Cookbook to understand how:
- Search engines decide what to show people when they search for help
- Your organization can improve your Rank on search results pages.
- SEO basics for Lawyers
- Crawlability by Search Engines
- Baseline Assessment
- Spotting Unmet Needs
- Technical SEO
- Backlinks linking strategy
- Additional resources
Surfing a mile in another person’s web browser
Pretend for a minute that you live in Boston, Massachusetts. You have always had problems with your landlord — like repairs going undone for weeks after you’ve asked — but in general, you and your family have lived there a while and like it.
The refrigerator breaks and so you text your landlord about it. After a day of silence, your landlord texts you, “I’m evicting you. You have a week to get your stuff out.”
It’s terrible. You’re scared, and unsure what to do.
Luckily, as many reading this document will know, there’s a legal help site called MassLegalHelp, so you go to it and see right there a link for Illegal Eviction.
You find yourself on this great page, with the reassuring headline Your Landlord Should Not Try to Evict You.
Scrolling down, you see this:
So you text back your landlord, “What you are doing is illegal. I will have to call the police or call the court if you try to lock me out or turn my utilities off.” You also get the phone number off that page for Greater Boston Legal Services with a plan to call them in the morning.
You also note to yourself about this “interactive interview” link that says it can help you get a temporary restraining order if your landlord refuses, planning to come back if that happens.
While a simple example, this scenario illustrates just how meaningful legal information websites like MassLegalHelp can be for people.
The Website Discovery Problem
One problem: the value of a site like Mass Legal Help comes after you got to the site.
The scenario we walked through is probably not what would happen for most users.
For most folks getting that text from their landlord, this is what the first step they would take would look like:
The first site there is a for-profit commercial website. Reading it, it does in fact provide helpful information for Massachusetts residents in dealing with evictions! But it also has a lot of buttons and links focused on buying guides or collecting your information to be sent to an attorney.
You see on this same search results page (sometimes called a “SERP”) that Greater Boston Legal Services and MassLegalHelp both have pages showing up.
But here’s the thing: on average, about 30% of people who get these results will end up clicking the top link on a search results page. For a 2nd result (GBLS), that number is more like 25%, and for a 4th result (MassLegalHelp) it’s more like 14%. The numbers then go way down from there: the #1 result gets about 10 times the clicks as a #10 result on the same page.
So the odds that you would have gotten to MassLegalHelp’s website, like we talked about above? It’s more like 3 out of every 20 people searching would have gotten there on average.
What sets Google’s recommendations?
Search engines’ page recommendations are not set in stone.
Let’s look at how Google’s recommendations may change over time. Returning to the eviction scenario, let’s look at that same search, a few weeks later:
Look at that!
Boston.gov now has a page in the top place.
And it’s a fairly clear and friendly-reading page:
How did this page become the top result? Understanding the answers to that question is what this guide is about.
But for now, this is the primary thing to focus on: it addresses the intent behind what the person is searching for.
When someone Googles “fight eviction boston”, and they get the above page, the title, the content, everything here hits right at what the implicit meaning behind that search was.
About this SEO Cookbook
This is an introductory guide for legal information sites to a very technical-sounding concept: “SEO”, search engine optimization.
But in fact, it is actually about how legal information sites can:
- Find People In Need: Meet people where they are when they need help online (primarily Google Search)
- Needs: Better understand what people searching for legal help need
- Content and Design: Better meet those needs through content and user experience
- Messaging: Better understand how people themselves describe their problems in order to reach more of them
Put another way: SEO may be a bit of a geeky subject, but at its core, it’s an exercise in empathy. SEO helps us see what our audience sees and meets their needs as they express them.
This guide is meant to be accessible to anyone involved in legal information sites. There are technical concepts here, but the goal is for this to be an entryway into a topic with ample resources out there. You can either read it straight through or pick out the sections that are interesting to you.
Practical sections that say “DIY” at the start are included throughout, and the reader is encouraged to actually do those. These are sort of like recipes in a cookbook: small things that can increase knowledge and make small improvements.
What this guide is not
It’s not a comprehensive detailing of everything SEO. There are lots of existing resources out there, and many are linked to from here. This guide is focused on helping legal information site practitioners get an on-ramp to the basic concepts and some practical first steps. From there, there is a whole wide world of well-documented strategies to be done next!
SEO is, like running any website, ultimately a long-term endeavor. But with this guide, hopefully, you will be able to start to see opportunities to improve your search placement, and thereby reach more people in need who are already looking for the information you provide.
SEO basics for Lawyers
If you can improve SEO, you can reach more people in your jurisdiction, with the problems you want to help them resolve.
So, how do you improve your site’s SEO?
Within this big term of SEO (search engine optimization), it’s worth getting more specific. What does SEO mean in practice? What does it mean to have ‘Good SEO’ for your legal website? What are the tasks your team should be tackling to get ‘good SEO’?
The SEO site Moz has an excellent (and highly-recommended) Beginner’s Guide to SEO that presents the different types of SEO improvements, from most foundational to adding competitiveness:
Lower are the foundations, and the top is the things that work great once the things below them are done. Translating a bit, this could be read (bottom-up) as:
- Google can reach your site
- The content on the site meets the needs a person searching has
- You use the right words based on people’s needs
- The site feels usable for people
- Because your content is valuable, other sites link to it
- You have “metadata” on pages that helps Google show your content most effectively on Google’s results page itself
There are lots of different things you can do under the “SEO” umbrella. So where do you start?
Crawlability by Search Engines
Make sure Google sees your whole site (especially new sites and pages)
A basic starting point is to make sure that every page on your site can be read by Google. The key thing to know here is that Google follows links. (Read more from Google about how Search works: https://www.google.com/search/howsearchworks/)
So for any pages on your site that have been linked to before, Google probably has them. But if you have a new site (or pages) and:
- Other websites don’t link to it
- Your own website doesn’t link to it, and
- You don’t have a sitemap listing it
…then Google might not see it yet.
As such, this is usually less of an issue for existing sites that have been around for some time. But making sure your site gets crawled is critical for new sites!
Let’s say you wanted to start a new help site, specifically to address the COVID-19 crisis (AtlantisCovidLegalHelp.org). A major step once you have made all of the basic content is to make sure Google is able to get to all your pages.
DIY: Use “site:” to see what Google sees
See what pages on your website that Google can access today
The easiest way to know what pages Google is able to reach is to do what’s called a “site search.”
For example, if we want to have Google return all of the pages from OregonLawHelp.org, we can search “site:oregonlawhelp.org” and see the count and results:
So we see about ~11,000 pages. Good!
You can also add words after it to look at just the pages on your domain that mention “eviction” or “Medicaid” if you are trying to make sure a specific page or set of pages is showing up.
If we had set up our new site (AtlantisCovidLegalHelp.org), but no one had linked to it yet, and we have not done a sitemap (see below) then it would look like this:
Site audits with SEO tools like SEMrush, AHrefs, or Moz have “audit” functionality that will find “orphan pages” on your site. Orphan pages are ones that are not linked to — no other site points to them. See below for more info on audits.
Setting up a sitemap and using robots.txt
This strategy is most appropriate for larger websites.
If you’re seeing significant issues with pages not being found by Google, or have lots of old pages, it’s worth making sure you use and manage a “sitemap” as well as robots.txt.
There are more in-the-weeds technical details to this than is useful to discuss here, but this page from Google provides more information: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/156184
How are people finding your site today?
As said in the introduction, the majority of people using the internet to find legal information use Google search as a part of their process.
To illustrate this, here is real data from one legal information site’s Google Analytics:
This is saying that 3 out of every 4 visits to the site were from a Google search.
This has some important ramifications:
- Most visitors to individual pages are likely not getting there through the home page or navigation
- How much help you provide is fundamentally constrained by how many people can get to that help
DIY: Top Channels
Find out how much Google search makes up of your own site’s visitor traffic using Google Analytics
To get the above data for your site, in Google Analytics, on the left-hand click Acquisition and then click Overview. Look for the “Top Channels” chart.
Understand your current baseline about sources of traffic.
Is there anything unexpected here?
Are there other sites — like local libraries, schools, government agencies, nonprofits, or otherwise — that you expected to see there, but don’t?
DIY: Keyword Research
Use Google Search Console to see what keywords people are using to reach you today
Google Search Console is among the most useful tools for SEO. If you don’t already have it set up, you can learn how to do so here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/9274190?hl=en
Once set up, go to Search Console’s “Performance” feature at https://search.google.com/search-console/performance/search-analytics (or by clicking Performance on the left)
First, you get a top-level view. Here is what this means:
- Clicks: 106,000 people clicked a link on Google search to reach your site
- Impressions: ~3.9 million people saw a link to your site in their Google search results
Scrolling down, you will see a “Queries” report:
These are the Google searches that have led to the most clicks to your site.
You can see from LawHelpMN’s excellent site that they have significant strength in their divorce and eviction content areas. A lot of people reach them when they are looking for help on these topics on Google.
Clicking on “Pages” you can also see what specific pages on your site get the most clicks:
Keyword research is a really great way to get a basic sense of where your site is meeting needs out there more than other sites that cover the topic, as well as gaps:
- What topics or themes are missing here that you would have expected based on what you have on your site?
- What pages would you have expected to see here, but you don’t?
Those topics and pages (important to you, but not showing up here) may be opportunities to improve the content or create new content pages more tailored toward what people are searching for (see the content and keyword sections.)
DIY: Site Audit through an SEO tool
Virtually all the major commercial SEO tools have an “audit” feature. Signing up for one of these services (or a free trial) and running an audit is also a great way to get a starting point on how your legal information site does on the standard SEO metrics that matter.
Here is an example of site audit results from the Ahrefs tool:
The specific issues identified are discussed more later in this guide, but the point here is that even planning to do a site audit once and do a one-time pass at addressing some of the issues can be a valuable starting place.
Something to remember: there are many commercial legal information websites that use these SEO tools and site audits, because, for them, more clicks mean more revenue.
By using these same tools and remedying the identified issues, public interest legal information providers can get to an even playing ground with those commercial sites — and, once there, have an innate advantage given deep institutional strength and relationships (courts, governments) vis-a-vis commercial Our protocol consisted of four steps:
- Developing a master list of top search queries for an initial search term using Google Trends,
- Gathering information on relative search volume using Google Health Trends,
- Determining the most popular sites using Google Custom Search, and
- Calculating estimated total search volume on websites.
Question: who in my organization should be using tools like Google Analytics (or other SEO tools)?
We just suggested you open Google Analytics to get this number. So who should have access to Google Analytics? Or to tools mentioned in this guide in general?
The truth is, everyone who has a stake in helping more people inside the organization can benefit from access to any of the tools listed in this document!
Tools like Google Analytics (sometimes called ‘GA’) and the others listed in this guide fundamentally provide better situational awareness of what’s actually happening with the people using the site, or those not yet reached the site but with needs you can meet.
While these tools may seem complex, they can even be great for just generally exploring areas of curiosity. They can help anyone get closer to the people you serve in the same way that in-person hours that a clinic does, just for a different set of people and through a different lens.
Spotting Unmet Needs
Use Google keyword data to find opportunities for SEO.
“Keywords” is in some ways the most important concept in SEO: it’s the set of phrases people are putting into Google when searching for a given issue.
Keywords have an intent behind them, and understanding the varieties of intent that the different related searches have can aid in better understanding how people are construing their own needs related to that topic.
And that’s the main point here: keyword data can often be a view into peoples’ needs. Using that data can better inform what new pages you might consider adding, or changes to existing content.
DIY: Use keyword tools
There are many different keyword tools online, and most of them provide similar functionality.
To take one example, let’s look at keyword data for “eviction” in one tool, Ahrefs:
Looking at the data, we can see fairly different implied intents behind different related searches. “Eviction notice” and “eviction notice template” are quite similar, but the latter will be dominated by landlords searching as the former more likely includes a lot more tenants. “Eviction moratorium California” has a clear geographic-specific factor.
This DIY example also illustrates an important concept: “the long tail” of search keywords. There are very, very many different keywords used for different topics. While the results page for “eviction” may be hard to get a high ranking on, achieving that for “eviction louisville” or “eviction notice response template” may be much easier — and likely easier to meet the implied need in the search intent.
Try a search like this on topics your site covers, and try comparing:
- The different intents implied by the keywords vs. the implied intent behind your own page content
- The words used in keywords vs. the words used on your pages
This often yields easy takeaways. Using one such tool with a legal information site partner we recently added “risk of eviction” to a related page based on keyword data, and started to see a moderate increase in visitors reaching it.
DIY: Scout related topics
“Question” keywords (when someone phrases their search like a question) are also a useful area to research topics you have content about. These questions often have fairly clear intent, and may even signal that you could create a new page specific to that question, or make a section answering that question on a more general page.
One simple way to get at this is to look for the “People also ask” section in search results for topics you cover:
SEO tools again also provide useful data across many different searches (Ahrefs):
A simple but very useful exercise using these keywords is to:
- Look at the search results for a keyword phrase you think your site should show up in, but where your content page’s rank is lower (or not present at all)
- Open up the first 3 results’ pages
- Compare what those top 3 pages contain with what your page covering that topic contains
Rank higher by improving the tech, feel, and experience of your pages.
There are a number of technical changes that you can make to improve your search engine placement.
DIY: Find Technical Improvements through an Audit
As mentioned previously, most major SEO tools have “site audit” functionality. This is a great starting place to identify opportunities for technical improvements, as it is easy for these tools to catch and identify them.
Here are some example audit findings from the Ahrefs tool ( https://ahrefs.com/site-audit/ ):
It then breaks down the identified issues specifically:
DIY: Use Google PageSpeed to Get Fixes
Use this to find specific changes that would improve the feel and experience of your pages for people.
Google PageSpeed Insights is a very helpful tool for identifying ways to improve the experience of your site: https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/
You put in a URL, and it will give you a “performance score” for both mobile…
Even more useful than scoring, however, is that if you scroll down further, PageSpeed Insights provides specific recommendations on changes you can make to improve the speed of your site for visitors:
Clicking on any of the opportunities also gives you the specific files to work on, and by clicking “Learn more” it will give you instructions on how to implement the change:
Two notes are worth mentioning on technical updates for SEO.
First, one big benefit of making the recommended changes is that, often, it will improve the speed and performance across your whole site, not just individual pages.
Second, these scores are not the be-all-end-all of things (far from it.) In fact, newer sites that have some improved design may end up with lower scores just by virtue of using more recent tooling, which unfortunately has at times encouraged slower sites.
So it is worth considering these as “opportunities”: they are worth doing but still lower on the priority list than having content that meets people’s needs.
DIY: Improve meta description tags for better visibility
“Meta description tags” are the code on a page that affects what description text shows up in Google for your page. If you don’t add these tags, Google simply takes text from the page to display. Unfortunately, that sometimes doesn’t convey the page particularly well.
Here’s an example from LawHelpMN.org:
Adding or improving meta description tags can have a one-two effect:
- The person using Google has a better sense of what the page has, increasing the likelihood they click on it
- Because of more clicks, the page moves up in search results rank
We ran an experiment with LawHelpMN based on audit results to add meta description tags to a subset of pages that were missing them. While the results were more suggestive than conclusive, even over a relatively short time period those pages saw an increase in visitors from Google.
Backlinks linking strategy
Other sites linking to your site will increase your Google rank
A big topic in SEO is backlinks and link building. The basic concept is that Google will tend to move up in Google search results specific pages and domains that are linked to by other sites considered authoritative or high-quality by Google.
DIY: Understand your “domain authority”
Moz has a nifty free analysis tool to understand your sites’ domain authority here: https://moz.com/domain-analysis
Here are example results:
Overall, PTLA.org has a domain authority of 53 (out of 100), which is solid but also means there is an opportunity for improvement.
Notice the websites under Top Linking Domains: as discussed, having links from domains with high “authority” increases your own authority score, which in turn increases your rank in Google results.
The takeaway here: getting high-authority sites to link to your own pages is a good thing for your own site. Notice the number of .gov domains there: government websites are
Another thing to note: under Top Pages by Links you can also see a Page Authority score for individual pages. That comes back to a common concept in SEO, which is that you have both website-level measures and also page-level measures. Website-level improvements will “float all boats” (improve all pages) but also at the end of the day individual content pages are what users want and need. Balancing where you choose to make improvements is important.
Strategies for increasing inbound links
1. Collaborate with partners to figure out where linking to your site/pages may make sense
Most organizations operating legal information sites (legal aid/services providers) have a variety of partners, many of whom operate their own high-authority sites! .gov domains in particular (courts, cities, state governments) can be very helpful.
Doing some proactive research to identify opportunities on those partners’ sites where a link to a page of yours might make sense, and reaching out to them, can be effective and fruitful for getting more people the help they need.
For example, the Boston.gov eviction site in the introduction proactively links to relevant legal help organizations’ websites:
Making the request as low-effort as possible (e.g. including a logo image file they could place on their site) is good for everyone.
A note: the best approach here is to be genuine, and look looking for opportunities where a link to a page of yours makes sense for the users on that page. If you are finding you don’t have a great page to recommend for a specific topic, maybe that is an opportunity to create that content page before reaching out to the partner.
2. Include links in engagements with media
It is common for legal services organizations to provide comments to media like newspapers and television stations on topics with big current relevance, such as eviction moratoria or unemployment issues that the media have been covering in 2020.
Making it a standard practice that when working with media, you provide a relevant link for a page that they can include in their article online is a good strategy for increasing links presence.
More to the point, though: this is also helping the readers of the article who may need your help! If an article is being written explaining an eviction moratorium, being able to provide an excellent content page link makes it that much easier for readers to get the information they need.
(And if you are finding you don’t have quite an on-point page that makes sense given what the article is about, that may be an opportunity to quickly create that page: what is making its way to the news is often a good indicator of a need many people are experiencing.)
DIY: Use Google Search Console
See what sites link to you now (and missing partners).
You can use Google Search Console to find out what sites are linking to you here: https://search.google.com/search-console/links/drilldown
Here is an example of what you will see:
Review this list and think about any strong partners whose sites missing from here. They may be good candidates to reach out to.
In general, how pro bono legal information sites can collaborate effectively on linking is an area worthy of more experimentation.
See this Legal Services Corporation ITC 2020 presentation on this where Upsolve and Ohio Legal Help describe their excellent strategies to increasing their link bases, which influenced this section: https://lsc-live.app.box.com/v/2020-LSCITC-Materials/file/599173500391
The Legal Help Online Dashboard has analyzed US legal aid and court websites to identify technical strategies for them to improve SEO and site performance. Find your local analysis here: https://rankings.legalhelpdashboard.org/
Want more guidance or support? Join our Legal Help Online Cohort to get technical assistance and make progress on your site’s SEO.