Does the Trifecta Approach to Law Firm Search Engine Optimization Still Work?

Attorney with questionI’ve received this question a few times now by email, so rather than providing the same response each time, I thought I’d respond with an article.

I published my book How to Create a Big, Fat Pipeline of New Clients for Your Law Firm in Just 10 Days (hereinafter, “Pipeline”) in 2013. It shot to and remains the number one ebook on Amazon on the topic of law firm marketing, thank you very much.* After reading the book, most enthusiastically apply the techniques I teach to get their web pages ranked on page one of the search engines, but some have heard about Google’s constantly changing search algorithm, and are concerned that my Trifecta approach might be stale after a couple of years. Here is the specific question I received in today’s email:

I read and enjoyed your book “How to Create a Pipeline of New Clients” but I am wondering if the advice, particularly the advice concerning the Trifecta, still works in light of the changes in Google since your book was written in 2013. I am hopeful that it is, but I don’t want to invest the time and money in additional websites if it is no longer useful in 2015.

Before answering the question, let me provide a little background about the two Google filters that give people the most concern – Panda and Penguin – and then I’ll discuss Google’s use of meta tags.

Here is Wikipedia’s** explanation of Google’s Panda and Penguin:

Google Panda is a filter that prevents low quality sites and/or pages from ranking well in the search engine results page. The filter’s threshold is influenced by Google Quality Raters. Quality Raters answer questions such as “would I trust this site with my credit card?” so that Google can distinguish the difference between high and low quality sites.

The Google Panda patent, filed on September 28, 2012, was granted on March 25, 2014. The patent states that Google Panda creates a ratio with a site’s inbound links and reference queries, search queries for the site’s brand. That ratio is then used to create a sitewide modification factor. The sitewide modification factor is then used to create a modification factor for a page based upon a search query. If the page fails to meet a certain threshold, the modification factor is applied and, therefore, the page would rank lower in the search engine results page.

Google Panda affects the ranking of an entire site or a specific section rather than just the individual pages on a site. Google says it only takes a few pages of poor quality or duplicated content to hold down traffic on an otherwise solid site, and recommends such pages be removed, blocked from being indexed by the search engine, or rewritten. However, Matt Cutts, head of webspam at Google, warns that rewriting duplicate content so that it is original may not be enough to recover from Panda, the rewrites must be of sufficiently high quality, as such content brings “additional value” to the web. Content that is general, non-specific, and not substantially different from what is already out there should not be expected to rank well: “Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table.”

Google Penguin is a codename for a Google algorithm update that was first announced on April 24, 2012. The update is aimed at decreasing search engine rankings of websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by using now declared black-hat SEO techniques involved in increasing artificially the ranking of a web page by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page. Such tactics are commonly described as link schemes.

In a very condensed nutshell, you can think of Panda as a filter for “thin” sites without much content, and Penguin as a filter for websites that are clearly trying to fool Google, with black hat techniques such as manufactured incoming links.

Now here is what I find very interesting. Like the Y2K wackos that thought the year 2000 would be the end of everything, some thought and others still claim that Panda and Penguin wiped out all the usual SEO techniques that preceded their release. But note the small impact Panda and Penguin had on search results:

By Google’s estimates, Penguin affects approximately 3.1% of search queries in English. On May 25, 2012, Google unveiled another Penguin update, called Penguin 1.1. This update, according to Matt Cutts, was supposed to affect less than one-tenth of a percent of English searches. The guiding principle for the update was to penalize websites using manipulative techniques to achieve high rankings. The purpose per Google was to catch excessive spammers. Allegedly, few websites lost search rankings on Google for specific keywords during the Panda and Penguin roll-outs. Google specifically mentions that doorway pages, which are only built to attract search engine traffic, are against their webmaster guidelines.

What is the Trifecta approach, and is it impacted by Panda or Penguin?

As I explain in detail in Pipeline, the content of your website is important, incoming links are great, but the three things Google, Yahoo and Bing are sure to look at are: (1) the web page addressPanda sits on the ground and eats bamboo (URL), (2) the meta tag title of your web page, and (3) the meta tag description of your web page. If you score the Trifecta of SEO with these three items, the search engines cannot ignore you.

Panda and Penguin are completely unrelated to my Trifecta approach. As you may have noted by the dates, Panda and Penguin were both released before I published Pipeline, so everything I told you already took those filters into account.

What are meta tags?

A reviewer on Amazon gave my book four stars, docking me one star for failing to explain meta tags in sufficient detail. Allow me to make amends with a quick discussion of meta tags, before turning to whether Google considers them.

Again, from Wikipedia: Meta elements are tags used in HTML or XHTML documents to provide structured metadata about a Web page. They are part of a web page’s head section. Multiple Meta elements with different attributes can be used on the same page. Meta elements can be used to specify page description, keywords and any other metadata not provided through the other head elements and attributes.

Stated simply, meta tags are basic HTML codes that provide information to the web browser, letting it know the title, language, and description of the website, to name a few. The title and description tags look like this:

<title>Page Title</title>
<meta name=”description” content=”A blurb to describe the content of the page appears here” >

It’s that simple. You don’t need to be a programmer to use meta tags. The only difficulty sometimes is getting to the HTML in order to insert the language. If you use your web host’s website builder, sometimes they make it a little confusing on how and where you insert the meta tags, but I explain how to deal with that in Pipeline.

The page title can be whatever you want it to be. If you are using a browser that creates a tab for each open web page, what you type in the title tag is what will appear in the tab. On Chrome, for example, the title will be truncated to about the first 20 characters or less, depending on how many tabs you have. But all the information is still there and being used by the browser and the search engine. To see what I mean, move your mouse pointer up to the tab, and hover over it. Unless you have some odd setting on your browser, you should see the entire title name appear. The page title is also what most browsers will display in the search results. The title is thus essential, both from an SEO standpoint, and in terms of getting the user to click through to your page. The sweet spot for title length is about 55 characters. It can be longer, but then it will be truncated in the search results and can yield unexpected titles.

The description tag is the summary of the page. This is the text that most search engines will grab and display, in order to let users know what your page is about.

Both of these tags are essential for SEO, because they are the means by which you tell the search engines what your web page is about. You should view each web page you create as its own entity, and each page should be keyword optimized by way of content, title and description. Now read this very carefully, because some never understand that keyword optimization is not gaming the system. Google WANTS you to keyword optimize your site, because that is the only way Google can know when to return your web page in a search result.

If you write the definitive article about the Rule Against Perpetuities, but you somehow manage to do so without ever using that term, Google will have no way to know to deliver your article when someone searches for information on that topic. That is why Google offers articles and videos to assist you with your keyword optimization efforts.

What Google does not like is what is called keyword stuffing, where you use terms an unnatural number of times, hoping it will increase your site’s ranking. But Google will thank you wholeheartedly if you include the appropriate keywords in your title, description and post, because that makes its job that much easier.

But doesn’t Google ignore meta tags?

The myth that Google ignores meta tags came about because Google announced in 2009 that it was no longer going to consider the keywords meta tag. That somehow morphed into the myth that Google ignores all meta tags.

Just as you use the descriptions meta tag to tell the search engines what your site is about, back in the day you would use a keywords meta tag to list all the terms that you wanted the search engines to equate with your website. But that was too easy to game. A website creator is kept somewhat honest with the title and description, because those will be displayed in the search results. If you create a false title and description just to drive traffic to your website, your visitors will not be very happy. But the keywords meta tag was unseen by the user. JCPenney could put the words “Sears” and “K-Mart” in the keywords list, hoping that the search engines would send people looking for those stores to the JCPenney website instead. (Just a hypothetical; I’m not saying JCPenney ever did that.)

So it is absolutely true that Google does not use the keywords meta tag. Google does, however, use the title and description meta tag elements. And it is still absolutely true today that if nail the Trifecta – keywords in the title, description and URL – you are about 90% of the way to getting your website onto the first page of Google search results. The remaining 10% comes from keywords in the quality content that you provide on your site. Genuine incoming links are a plus, but they are not a major factor on law firm websites, where organic incoming links are relatively rare.

A case study to illustrate the point.

When I was writing Pipeline, I had a number of my websites that I could have used as examples, but I decided to use, because it was a common practice area. If you do antenna zoning law, it won’t be tough to get your website on page one of Google, because there are not a lot of attorneys specializing in that practice area. But just about every firm handles breachNUMBER ONE of contract cases, so I thought that would be a good example.

I walk you through the creation of that site in Pipeline, and show that it ranked number one on Google for the search “breach of contract attorney” and my county.

Then, shortly after the book came out, I was embarrassed to see that had dropped out of the number one position. Indeed, it was no longer on the first page. I surmised that it was a victim of Panda, because it was very thin on content, consisting of just five pages. Google was apparently placing more importance on the amount of content than on the keyword Trifecta.

But at about the same time, I noticed something about Google from my searches having nothing to do with legal topics. When I would search for my one of my favorite restaurants to get the hours or telephone number for reservations, they were nowhere to be found in the Google search results.

I like a restaurant called Oggi’s, but when I would search for “Oggis”, I would get Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews, a couple of Twitter references, maybe even some YouTube videos, but Oggi’s own website was nowhere to be seen. It was very frustrating, as I would have to go to these other sites, hoping they would provide a link to Oggi’s website (or do the search on Bing or Yahoo).

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now know what was going on. Google had cranked up its algorithm to give weight to the site’s content and to pay less attention to the Trifecta, but that resulted in the strange results I was experiencing with my business searches. You see, the Oggi’s site might have very little content (perhaps the menu, hours, address, and any special events), and may actually make very little use of the word “Oggi’s”. Whereas Yelp’s page may contain hundreds of reviews about Oggi’s, thereby packing the site with that keyword. Returning reviews might be a perfectly valid search result, but it should not be at the exclusion of the restaurant’s own website. An Internet search for a restaurant that fails to return the restaurant’s own site is a bad search result.

And what is the best way to figure out which website is most likely specifically devoted to Oggi’s? Well, if the title, description and URL all contain “Oggi’s”, then that is a website that should probably be returned in a search for Oggi’s.

In very short order, I found that had returned to number one, and a search for Oggi’s returned results with that restaurant’s website in the number one position. Google, based on this evidence, had realized that the Trifecta cannot be ignored, and had once again returned to placing great weight on the Trifecta.

As further evidence of this fact, when does not appear in the number one position, it is because it is bumped to number two by another of my sites. That site is my firm’s primary website, and it contains a ton of content. Thus, even though it does not nail the Trifecta as well as, because it is a more generalized site devoted to multiple practice areas, it is pushing out the competition with its shear bulk. Google is thus tipping between the two sites, depending on its daily preference for the Trifecta or greater content.

So the answer to the question, “Does the Trifecta still work in light of the changes in Google’s algorithm?”, the answer is a resounding yes.

Remember also that Google is the big dog, but it is not the only dog. The Trifecta works exceedingly well on Bing and Yahoo, which account for about 40% of searches. Bing is the default search engine on all iPhones. With Google, it is a numbers game. I will sometimes create a really nice, informative niche site with a well-executed Trifecta, and it doesn’t gain any traction on Google. But that’s OK, because most of the time it works, and the sites that do not do well on Google still rank number one on Bing and Yahoo.

One final point. Please do not lose site of the fact that this is all based on niche websites. As I explain in detail in this article on niche websites, if you create a Trifecta for the keywords “personal injury attorney”, you probably won’t end up on page one. You need to niche it down to a narrower practice area within personal injury claims.

[UPDATE:] Two days after I posted this article, I received the following email, providing further proof that the Trifecta system is alive and well. I know this attorney, and she had been brainstorming some trial strategies with me over the prior few days. After her trial concluded, here is what she sent (which she gave me permission to share):

The Trial that I just finished was for an individual who found my name on the website I created, following your book. I am getting so many calls from the website, I don’t even know what to do anymore. So, I guess, I want to say, “THANK YOU”.

Making this even more encouraging, she really did not niche down her practice area as much as I normally recommend. She still promotes a broad practice area, but she speaks Spanish, so she created the Trifecta around that fact. Attorneys often add “Se habla español” to their websites, but she went far beyond that and created a URL, title and description, all with the keywords “Spanish speaking attorney” in front of her practice area. As you can see, the strategy worked very well.

* Oddly, if I check on my book in the morning, it is ranked number one in sales on Amazon in its category, but by late afternoon it is number two or three. It’s as though attorneys wake up all motivated to take their law practice to the next level, but by the afternoon the feeling has passed.

** Wikipedia permits use of its content so long as it is attributed. Go to this link for an explanation of creative commons licenses.

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