In mid-2015 Google quietly rolled out algorithm changes that influenced where sites rank based on the user experience they provide their visitors. This was not one of the company’s most well-publicized releases but impactful all the same. There were actually numerous refreshes of this algorithm update but we won’t go into that here. Glenn Gabe has an excellent two-part post about it here.
The main take away from Google quality updates is that Google tended to downgrade websites that did not provide a good user experience. Sometimes offenses are blatant and obvious. Other times lawyers may be doing things wrong without even realizing it.
Here are some key areas lawyers should focus on that can be a major drain on usability (many of these you probably know very well because they have annoyed you already).
Taking Control from Users
When we use the internet to look for information, research, shop or socialize, we do not want to be steered. Whatever it is we are doing, when computers take over it can be confusing, frustrating and downright annoying. Here are some common examples of taking control from users on your website:
Auto-play music: Starting background music when people arrive on your site. Sometimes this can be done tastefully but most of the time it is irritating. Unless audio is crucial to your marketing or it adds value for visitors, leave it off.
Auto-play video: If auto-play music is annoying then auto-play video is infuriating. Lawyers may feel the need to start a video introducing their practice to their visitors or for some other reason. Keep in mind that most of the time people have very specific intentions when they come to your website. Stopping to pause a video is probably not one of them.
Disabling the back button: Some site owners will employ code or plugins that do not enable people to use the back button. Little did they know there are a half-dozen other ways to successfully leave a website. All of which a visitor is probably even more happy to use once they realize you are trying to hold them captive. If someone wants to leave your site, taking away the back button will stall them for all of 2 seconds.
Mouse movement-based popups: A popular tactic is to show a popup to visitors once their mouse movement is detected heading to the top left corner of the screen (presumably to click the back button). This is a last ditch effort to get people to sign up for something, stay on the site or just to reconsider. Not only is this tactic not very effective (again if people want to leave they will), it also aggravates those users that were not planning on clicking the back button.
The best bet for lawyers is to keep popups to a minimum and stop trying to influence user behavior by controlling their browsers. Engaging and useful content is a much better way to keep someone on your site than hacking their experience.
Content Quality and Length
No surprise here. Since its founding, Google’s mission has been to organize the world’s information and (in doing so) satisfy people’s search needs by finding the very best most relevant resources on the internet. Much of what influences that is the type of content on attorney’s sites and how they go about configuring that content.
Length: The number of words on a page in and of itself is not going to positively influence rankings. Content that is thoughtful, useful, meaningful and authoritative also happens to be long because it is difficult to achieve good content in very few words. Attorneys do not need to make content on every page of their site long for no reason but if a topic warrants it, go ahead and make it as robust as it can be. If you do not have the time, hire a JD to do it. Link out to other resources. Add imagery and other visual aids to enhance your content. Make it the best source for that topic on the internet compared to anything else you can find.
Spelling and Grammar: Professionalism and technical accuracy go a long way to enhance the authority of content. The moment you have typos and/or content that does not flow well is the same moment that users begin losing faith in the site. Make sure there are zero mistakes on your web pages when it comes to spelling and grammar.
Formatting and Font: It may not seem important but the way a blog post or a web page is laid out makes a huge difference for users. Huge blocks of text cause anxiety. If there are no paragraphs, images, or other elements to break up text people may not read it. Font that is too hard to read because it is too small causes users to skip through the page or leave.
Avoid fonts that are “pretty” and go with ones that are easy to read. Use images and bulleted lists to break up text. Employ short paragraphs that make articles easier to skim.
If you need an example of what not to do, look no further than Libertyvan.com which is in some serious need of layout and font formatting.
Trust and Consistency: Lawyers should be providing content that their audience wants and needs. The idea is not to write something that a search engine will love. The idea is to create content that the audience will find useful.
Think about questions your audience may have that need answering. What are their pain points? Why are they looking for information on legal services? Lawyers that can “be there” for their target audience are more likely to get contacted when those people are ready to sign up with an attorney.
Advertising and interstitials: Excessive advertising can drag a browser down and creates a horrible user experience. There are few things worse than coming to a web page and having to wait for text to jump around as ads find their places. Google has targeted ad related layouts with algorithm updates before.
It is difficult to blame them. Websites with excessive amounts of ads make you regret ever clicking on their links. Some are so obnoxious that users have to wait almost half a minute before all elements have finally found their place and reading can commence. Lawyers are not typically advertising the way that media providers do but if you do start showing ads on your site be careful how aggressive you are.
Forbes is notorious for doing this one. In fact they will not even let you past the splash page if you have an ad blocker enabled on your browser.
Whether it is advertising for the firm or doing it to bring in extra cash, users hate to be redirected to content they were not expecting. For some content-centered sites that model may work but not for the legal industry.
Follow Google’s Quality Guidelines
Overall attorneys will have a much easier go of marketing their sites in search if they follow Google’s quality guidelines. The guidelines are pretty extensive but in general lawyers should not:
• Deceive their visitors
• Use tricks to improve search rankings
• Design their sites for search engines instead of making a quality web experience for their potential clients
• Sacrifice quality for short term gains
Blocking Elements with Other Elements
Visitors to your web page need to be able to click on links, drag scroll bars, and basically interact with everything to have a good experience. Sometimes elements on a page like modules or widgets get in the way of that experience. For example there are all kinds of social sharing plugins for WordPress out there.
Lawyers may install them on pages without realizing that they are blocking other important functionality on the page.
Content Rendering Issues
Even though lawyers should be writing for their audience and not search engines, making sure search engines can see the content is still important. If a page looks like it is blank to a search bot, chances are it isn’t going to perform very well in search even though it might have a host of other positive signals (i.e. low bounce rates, high time on site, fast load time, etc.)
Misleading Ads in Text
Having ads or affiliate links on your site is not bad but you have to be clear about it. Hiding an affiliate link in your text or ads as text can have negative effects. It creates a poor user experience to have hyperlinked text that people think will lead to other relevant content when in actuality they are being sent to an advertiser’s website.