You’ve undoubtedly received some mixed messaging about link building.
On one hand, you’ve probably been told that it’s critical for improving search engine optimization (SEO) and drawing prospective clients to your law firm website. On the other, you’ve likely been warned that link building can be dangerous—that if you use some of the commonly-suggested techniques to build links, you’ll risk being penalized by Google. Your site could even be de-indexed, meaning it wouldn’t show up at all.
And that is all true.
Link building can boost search engine rankings, increase organic traffic from Google and other search engines, and draw traffic from other websites. But, if you engage in “black hat” link building activities, you could pay a heavy price. So, it’s important to understand exactly how link building helps increase traffic to your website, and how to tell good links from bad.
What is Link Building?
In the most general terms, link building is simply taking action to increase the number of inbound links to your website. In the most explanation, inbound links can boost your search engine rankings because Google and other search engines interpret a link as a recommendation for your site. Links to your content suggest that others find your content valuable and relevant, which increases the likelihood that people searching for that type of content will also be interested in what you’ve posted.
But, as you’ll see in the more detailed discussion of link building strategies below, not all recommendations are good recommendations.
Inbound links are more likely to have a positive impact on your search rankings when they come from reputable sites, and carry more weight if those sites are relevant to yours. Links from “bad neighborhoods” can actually hurt your rankings, because search engines (and Google) judge you in part by the company you keep.
In short, link building is an effective means of increasing your search rankings, but must be handled with care.
The Other Benefits of Link Building
Since it became clear that inbound links from credible sites could improve search rankings, most marketing experts talk about link building almost exclusively in terms of SEO.
But, it’s worth remembering why websites started linking to one another in the first place. When a reputable site posts a link to your content, that doesn’t just tell Google someone thinks your content is worthwhile—it also tells visitors to that others view your content as valuable as well.
Well-placed links don’t just increase organic traffic by helping you get your pages ranked; they also help because people who are interested in the type of content you’re offering click those links and visit your website. And, depending on the referring site and the visitor’s impression of that site, you may get a boost in credibility based on that recommendation.
Good and Bad Links
What Color is Your Link Building Hat?
You’ve probably heard link building and other SEO tactics described as “white hat” or “black hat.” It’s pretty clear that “white hat” is meant to suggest good strategies and “black hat” the shady ones.
But, you may not know exactly which techniques fall into each category or why.
In a nutshell, white hat strategies optimize (and stay true to the) variables Google and other search engines consider, while black hat techniques try to trick the system.
For example, earning links from reputable sites relevant to your own by creating top-notch content that others will be interested in sharing is a white hat tactic. Whether you’ve created great content to show your expertise, to share information with the public, or just to draw links, the end result is the same. If your content gets ranked and searchers click through, they’ll have the great experience the search engine algorithm predicted.
In contrast, purchasing links is a black hat strategy. If you’re able to buy enough links on reputable sites that Google thinks you’re drawing a lot of natural links, you may end up ranking high without solid content. In other words, you may have tricked the search engine into sending visitors to a page that doesn’t meet its standards.
That’s why, if you get caught using black hat strategies, your website may be penalized, or even removed from search listings. And, even if you’re not breaking the rules yourself, you may suffer for your association with the wrong sites.
Assessing Sites before Seeking Links
Of course, some websites will link to you naturally. You may not know they’re linking to you until you see referrals in your analytics or use an SEO tool to check your backlinks. Some more general link building strategies, such as sharing catchy content through social media, may also draw links from sites you haven’t specifically targeted.
But, many link building tactics involve choosing the sites where you’ll place or seek out links. Before you take that step, make sure the site is one you want linking to your content.
Sometimes, factors that make a site an undesirable place for a link are readily apparent. For example, if a site is poorly maintained, with broken links, missing images, display problems and other obvious issues, you’ll probably want to steer clear. Similarly, if you can see that the site features a large number of links, especially links to irrelevant sites, you can usually assume that search engines won’t weigh a recommendation from that site positively. Additionally, if you see a lot of irrelevant linking out, you can safely assume the site is selling links.
You can also easily tell when a site is focused in an arena that might be considered “seedy,” such as pornography, pharmaceutical, or gambling, and when a site is flooded with advertising.
But, the issues aren’t always so visible. To make sure you’re choosing sites that will benefit you—and, even more importantly—won’t hurt you, research the domain.
Depending on the type of analytics you’re using for your website, you may already have a tool for measuring the power of someone else’s domain. But, if you don’t, here are a couple of free options:
These two tools provide slightly different information, and there are some discrepancies between their results.
Ahrefs shows a domain rating between 1 and 100, along with the number of backlinks that site has and the number of unique domains those links come from. Moz shows the number of domains linking to the site (but not the total number of links), the number of keywords the site is ranked for, and adds a “spam score.” But, both are useful to gain a high-level sense of the authority and reputability of a domain.
Creating Effective Links
Strategic link building for your law firm involves more than just connecting with the right sites.
Some links are more valuable than others, depending on where they appear and how they’re structured. Generally, links coming from within the body of the post and using relevant anchor text are more valuable than those appearing in bylines and bios. These are also called ‘editorial’ links.
Once upon a time, the gold standard was to get anyone linking to you to use a particular keyword phrase to point to a page, so Google would notice that a lot of people were sending “car accident attorneys” traffic to your site. The truth, though, is that it’s very unlikely that dozens or hundreds of sites will naturally link to you using exactly the same language, and Google knows it. Thus, you’ll want to vary the language you use in text links.
Law Firm Link Building Tactics
The possibilities are nearly endless when it comes to attracting or securing links to your website. Here are some of the most common tried-and-true methods to help you get started:
Create or Update Directory Listings
The web is a sea of opportunities for directly listings, some legal specific and some general, some free and some paid. There’s another factor not everyone is aware of: some with “nofollow” links and some with “dofollow” links.
For SEO purposes, that distinction matters–nofollow links don’t pass authority for search ranking purposes. But, don’t disregard those listings out of hand. A listing in a popular directory may still pass targeted traffic to your site, and adding your name, address and phone number to a directory in a format consistent with your website and other directories will help establish credibility in Google’s eyes.
There are far more legal directories on the internet than most attorneys are aware of (some good placements and some not so much), and finding them through search is a good starting point. Though you’ll want to do more research into each domain you’re considering, appearing near the top of Google’s listing of attorney directories is a solid hint that search engine sees the site as credible.
Here are a few of the better-known and ranked legal directories. Most offer both free and paid listings. Not all offer dofollow links, but those that don’t are still valuable citations.
There are also many specialized or award-based directories, where you’ll have to qualify for listings. Perhaps the best known of these is SuperLawyers, but there are many others based on practice area, geography, and achievement. More niche sites will generally have lower traffic, but strong relevance, both for SEO purposes and for purposes of drawing targeted traffic to your site. Just remember to check out the “neighborhood” before you choose.
A great side benefit of these legal directories is some of them often show up in “…lawyer near me” type searches with a top X list. If you’re in that list it is a sort of secondary website for potential clients to find you.
You’ll also want to explore non-legal-specific directory listings that can carry significant weight. Some examples include Yelp and YP.com. The most important of these is Google My Business, which has a direct impact on a site’s ability to rank in that all-important local pack of search results.
Guest Posting on Relevant Websites
Like link building generally, guest posting gets mixed reviews. That’s because, like many SEO strategies, guest posting has been abused to the point where guest posts can be classified as spam links.
Still, law firms can use guest posting effectively by ensuring that any guest posts submitted:
- Are substantive and contain valuable information and insights, rather than being quickly knocked off or “spun” to create linking opportunities
- Are placed on sites that are relevant to your law firm, either through subject matter or based on geography/local to the community a firm serves
- Are created and placed judiciously, rather than as a blanket effort to get a large number of guest postings out in a short period of time
- Include only one or two links to your website, and incorporate them naturally–generally, that means from the body of the post and using keywords that are relevant but not contrived and not repeated from linking opportunity to linking opportunity
Be sure that the site you’re contributing to has a good reputation, and that your content adds value for the site’s regular audience. Content placed for the sole purpose of getting a backlink is usually easy to identify, meaning you won’t get an SEO boost or traffic from the site. And, if you do too much of it, your site may be penalized by Google.
Create and Promote Your Own Great Content
One of the most straightforward ways to gain links to your website is to create great content.
We’ve already talked about what makes valuable content in terms of guest posting. When you’re creating content for your own site, add one ingredient: make sure that you’re providing content people will want to share.
That means thinking about headlines, using eye-catching graphics in postings, and creating content in a format that’s inviting. It also means making it easy to share, with a social media plug-in that lets visitors share to their own social media accounts with a single click.
Don’t limit yourself to blog posting, either. Videos and infographics can also draw links and traffic to your site, and give you an opportunity to incorporate personality and perhaps humor into your content, making it easier for prospective clients to connect with you.
Of course, not every blog post will get a burst of social shares or inspire links on other blogs and websites. In fact, most will not. But, investing in the occasional piece of content with widespread appeal can pay off, especially if you give it a boost by sharing through your firm’s social media accounts and the personal accounts of attorneys and staff.
Sponsoring Local Events or Events in Your Niche
Sponsoring a local non-profit fundraiser, an educational event, a conference relevant to your practice area or even a youth sports team in your community has obvious benefits beyond the possibility of obtaining a relevant link. In addition to the value you add to the community, you’ll be getting your name out in a positive way and establishing yourself as someone who is there to help.
As an added bonus, though, this type of sponsorship often means an opportunity to obtain one or more quality links, as the organization may list sponsors on its website, and may even post thank yous or sponsor lists in social media or share in a local news outlet.
Of course, if your sponsorship is motivated in part by the linking opportunity, you’ll want to apply the same standards you would when considering a guest post or directory linking. Remember, though, that a smaller local organization is by nature very unlikely to have the type of domain authority you’ll see with a reputable national directory. That’s because the site will be relevant to a smaller sector, and so won’t draw thousands of backlinks. As long as the site is reputable, that link can still add value.
Contribute to Relevant Publications
Here, again, relevant may mean within your industry or may mean local.
In the legal industry, for example, contributing an article in your practice area to a respected legal directory site might yield a valuable backlink. Similarly, writing a legal column for your local newspaper that is posted publicly on the paper’s website could offer a relevant link.
Do your homework, though. While many legal directories accept contributions from attorneys, not all allow dofollow links in the body of the article or the attorney’s byline or bio. And, many newspapers keep content behind a paywall, meaning that search engines won’t crawl those links and you won’t see SEO benefits from the links.
When considering this strategy, consider other benefits as well. Getting quality links to your website is a valuable undertaking, but this particular strategy–like many others on this list–has advantages that go beyond the value of the link, such as building credibility in your industry, cultivating referrals from other attorneys who read the industry publication you’ve contributed to, and establishing yourself as a legal authority in your local community.
When you get an award from your local bar association, your practice-area sector of the state bar, a non-profit you’ve gone above and beyond for, your local Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Club, or any number of other local and industry-centric organizations, you get publicity.
Of course, that’s valuable in its own right, but in 2020 it also often means links from the organization’s website, industry publications, local media and others.
You may be thinking that the benefits are obvious, but securing this type of honor isn’t really within your control. But, that’s not entirely true.
While you have to qualify for the award and you can’t control the final decision, a great many awards start with a nomination from someone you know. Examples include inclusion in the SuperLawyers directory, alumnae awards, community-based “person of the year” type awards, and round-ups like the 40 Under 40 lists assembled by many respected business publications.
Your law firm’s marketing team should always be on the alert for this type of opportunity.
The Bottom Line on Law Firm Link Building
Everything you’ve heard about link building is true: it’s an important part of SEO for lawyers, and it can be risky if not executed carefully. But the “rules” for quality white-hat link building are simple and mostly involve common sense and good judgment.
Choose sites to place or cultivate links from based on their reputation and authority, just as you would choose any other type of endorsement. When contributing content, make sure you’re adding the same type of value you must ensure you’re adding with the content you publish on your own site. And, don’t look for shortcuts. Any system or provider that promises you a large number of links in a short period of time is almost certainly advocating or employing black-hat strategies that will hurt your rankings, or even get you blacklisted from search.
Take a multi-pronged approach to link building, and be prepared to build up your backlinks incrementally, not overnight.