SEO for lawyers is complex; the requirements for success are always changing. Every few years, Google introduces a potentially game-changing update that has the potential to reshape the way we think about SEO.
Google launched its “Helpful Content” update in late August to refine search results for all of its users. It’s too early to estimate exactly the impact this new algorithm will have on search results. But SEO experts believe it could be profound.
So, what does it actually mean? How will the “Helpful Content” impact your law firm website? In this guide, we’ll cover the update itself and how law firms can adjust their SEO strategy to enjoy consistent traffic from search engines.
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What is Google’s New Helpful Content Update?
Google’s new update is specifically designed to reward content that helps readers while punishing websites designed to ‘game’ SEO and satisfy search engine requirements above all.
Google Executive Danny Sullivan noted in Google’s official announcement:
The update will “tackle content that seems to have been primarily created for ranking well in search engines rather than to help or inform people. This ranking update will help make sure that unoriginal, low-quality content doesn’t rank highly in Search.”
The roll-out for the Helpful Content update began on August 25 and will continue for approximately two weeks. It’s a sitewide update, meaning it doesn’t just judge individual pages by the helpfulness of the content; Google will assess the entire website to determine the helpfulness of its content to the average user. It will then adjust rankings based on its analysis.
As Google notes in its developer blog, the update is based on an entirely automated machine-learning model. Accordingly, it will become a central part of the ranking signals Google uses to evaluate whether or not a page is relevant enough to appear prominently in search results.
Why Did Google Implement the Update?
Google has received considerable feedback through Google Search, social media, and other internet channels that searchers are not happy with the quality of much of the content they find on the search engine.
Despite past updates, too many websites are still gaming the SEO system to place their website as prominently as possible. These websites are focused more on search engine rankings than making their content useful and relevant to users.
Google has long been concerned with improving its search engine results’ credibility and user experience. Therefore, it needs to eliminate this issue to maintain high traffic value. The Helpful Content update is Google’s way of improving quality issues in search results.
What Does Google Consider Helpful Content?
Google hasn’t addressed what signals it will use to determine whether a page or website is “helpful.” However, Google has released a number of questions that website owners should ask themselves to ensure their content is helpful.
We’ve tweaked these questions to make them more applicable to the legal profession:
- Do you build content specifically to attract people from search engines or because it’s relevant for potential legal clients?
- Are you producing a high volume of content on a variety of keywords, including potentially using automation, just because you want some of it to “catch on” in search results?
- Do you use your content to summarize what others say, or are you trying to add unique value to it?
- Do you choose topics just because they seem to be popular at the time and not because your audience would find them relevant?
- When your audience finds your content, do they get the answers they were looking for, or will they need to keep looking after leaving your page?
- Do you follow some technical criteria when creating content, like hitting a certain word count, just because best practices suggest that Google prefers it?
- Does your content hold promises it can’t keep, like promising to answer a question that doesn’t have a definite answer?
Each of these questions has a clear “either/or” proposition. If you land on the wrong side of the equation, you might find yourself penalized by this update. If you land on the right side, your search engine rankings may actually increase.
The Update’s Potential Impact on Law Firm Websites
Google has been clear that the Helpful Content update will have a notable impact on websites across all industries. However, the update could be even more relevant for industries whose content affects a user’s financial stability, health, and/or well-being. Google calls this content “Your Money or Your Life (YMYL).”
It should come as no surprise that legal content is YMYL. Users searching for a lawyer may need help defending criminal charges, petitioning for a divorce, or recovering compensation after an accident. The content they find on your site or another legal website could mean their money or their life.
The Helpful Content update could heavily target content that purports to be helpful to those with “money and life” at stake. Google has also stated that websites involved in online education will be a clear priority for the update. Legal content may fall into this category.
To be sure, law firm websites must pay special attention to their content to ensure they comply with one of Google’s most significant recent updates.
How to Ensure Your Website’s Content is Actually Helpful
Here are some steps to ensure that your law firm’s online presence can benefit from this update rather than suffer ranking penalties.
1. Audit Your Major Content Pages Using Google’s Qualifying Questions.
The first step is to take stock of your website. Start with the pages receiving the most organic search traffic. Answer the questions posed by Google (outlined above) for every significant content page on your website.
You can also use secondary content quality indicators, like bounce rates and average session times. Chances are that pages with lower bounce rates and longer dwell time have successfully helped readers.
2. Remove Any Content that is Clearly Unhelpful.
On the other hand, you will likely come across at least some pages that fail to meet these guidelines. It might be a keyword-stuffed post from a few years ago or maybe just a short update that regurgitates a common topic addressed by thousands of law firms.
Now, you’re faced with a choice: remove or adjust. If adjustments cannot be made easily, Google actually recommends removing the content; it might take a few months for the signal to catch up with any adjustments of this nature.
3. Focus on Your Content’s “E-A-T.”
We’ve written extensively about E-A-T, which is short for “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness.” Since legal content is YMYL, Google will scrutinize your web pages’ E-A-T.
- Expertise – Google wants to know that your content matches a searcher’s intent when they enter their keyword search term or query. But expertise is about more than the keyword or query alone; Google is also concerned with why a user might have conducted the search. It uses time-on-page and site engagement to evaluate expertise.
- Authority – Authority means more than demonstrating expertise on a subject. Authority means that others recognize your expertise on a subject. Backlinks to your content from high-quality websites increase your authority in the eyes of Google. Incidentally, a link from another website suggests that others have found your content helpful.
- Trustworthiness – Trustworthiness means that your users have a reliable and positive experience on your web pages. In other words, your content is navigable, accessible, and secure. Things like negative reviews, an insecure HTTP domain, and a poor user experience can decrease your website’s trustworthiness.
If your content has E-A-T, it is more likely to be helpful — and less likely to be dinged by the Helpful Content update. There are many tried-and-true approaches to incorporating more E-A-T across your web pages. But they, like the Helpful Content update, all go back to one thing: whether your content addresses a user’s keyword or search query in a meaningful way.
4. Add Value for Every New Piece of Content.
One of the core metrics Google could consider when evaluating a page’s helpfulness is whether or not it adds enough unique value to a user. If you say what every other law firm says in response to the same keyword or query, the search engine has little reason to rank you higher.
But if you can add a unique angle to the content or address issues that other online content misses, your audience will be more likely to value your content over other legal websites.
5. Consider Partnering With Legal SEO Experts for Auditing and Adjustments.
The Helpful Content update will likely not be a search ranking doomsday for most legal websites. However, it should make you take note of the quality of your content. This update is poised to hit AI-generated content and low-quality content hard. And it’s a matter of when — not if — poor quality content will dip in search engine rankings.
To be sure, it’s hard to write helpful content when you are practicing law full-time and devoting yourself to client cases. In fact, it can be hard to find time for marketing at all. But you can have the best of both worlds by hiring an SEO agency to handle all aspects of your legal marketing.
LawRank is a leading SEO agency for lawyers. We have a demonstrated track record of putting law firm websites on the first page of Google — for competitive keywords in competitive geographic areas. SEO is always changing. Therefore, we constantly monitor our client sites to improve quality, so we’re always ready to respond when Google rolls out a new update.