What Does Your SEO or Web Marketing Company’s ‘First Page Guarantee’ Mean?

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking at the Missouri Bar Solo & Small Firm Conference on the topic of marketing on the cheap. And as I often do, I trolled the vendor tables for free swag and to scout out old friends and fellow marketers. The usual people were there: The Bar Plan (insurance), Clio and MyCase (cloud practice management) and on the marketing front: Thomson Reuters, a couple of local vendors, and of course, a small shop that promised “FIRST PAGE RESULTS OR YOUR MONEY BACK!”

Now, I’ve already lost that company’s card, so I can’t comment on their effectiveness publicly or intelligently. However, I have seen the “FIRST PAGE RESULTS!” guarantees before (and have received more cold-calls than I can count promising the same). What are these first page results, why do you want them, and can anyone really guarantee such visibility?

Why the First Page of Google is the Only Page of Google

Google Stock PhotoThe quick definition of first page results is exactly what it sounds like: your firm will show up on the first page of Google’s search results. This is vital — the second page is a barren wasteland that no human has set eyes on since the ancient days of dial-up and Lycos. Two stats will drive this point home:

  • First page search results get 91.5% of clicks per a slightly old study.
  • A more recent study showed that 71.33% of clicks went to page one, unpaid search results.
    • The first five results alone snatched 67.60% of clicks
    • 31.24% of those clicks went to the first result.
    • The remainder presumably goes to ads, Google Maps/Local listings, page 2, and beyond.

What’s the takeaway?

  • An unpaid, first-page presence is very valuable in legal search queries, as you’ll garner more clicks than you will through paid ads (without paying per click).
  • Ranking highly is also important — first page gets 71 percent of clicks, but the top five of those results alone account for 68 percent.
  • Page 2 and beyond is a graveyard.

What They Really Mean When They Say ‘First Page!’

First page can mean a lot of things: first page paid ad, first page for a branded query, first page for an obscure query, or the holy grail: first page for a high-traffic, relevant search in your geographic area.

Let’s address all of those, in plain English:

First Page Paid Placement (Adwords PPC)

This is not hard to do: bid a lot of money. The cost of a Google Pay Per Click (PPC) Adwords ad varies by search term, geographic area, and the quality of where you point the link. (Google assesses each ad with a “quality score” that reflects, amongst other things, how relevant the page that the link points to is to the ad copy and search term. A low quality score will require you to pay more for the same spot as someone with a higher score.)

Common Family Law keywords, for example, can run between $20 and $60 per click in a competitive market like Los Angeles, while the real battle is apparently between personal injury lawyers in San Antonio, where the cost per click can eclipse $600. Note that a click is just that — a click to your website. The person still may or may not decide to call or email (or may just be a competitor snooping on your site and running up your bill).

Adwords is an undesirable long-term strategy for many reasons: the escalating cost is an obvious one, while the rise of ad blockers (which could mean the demise of most online ad channels) also reduces the amount of eyes (supply) looking at those eyes, creating rising demand. It’s also become trendy for lawyers to hop on the PPC bandwagon, which will only ad to the demand. Finally, a recent change in the layout of Google’s search results page, which removed the ads from the right side and decreased the available paid slots overall, may also increase the cost of running consistent Adwords campaigns in competitive markets and practice areas.

First Page Branded Results: Easy Unless You’re a Smith/Anderson

If someone searches for you by name, you should  show up. In fact, unless you have the most generic name possible, a search for “[your name] attorney” really should bring up your website and a few third-party listings, like Avvo. If it doesn’t, your website or SEO vendor is either doing nothing — or worse, has engaged in sufficient “black hat” tactics (dishonest tactics frowned upon by Google) to get you blacklisted.

For example: if someone searches for “William Peacock,” the results vary by where the search originates, but after checking from virtual servers in Delaware, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there is a consistent pattern: some Cleveland doctor, a designer, and a few of my results. If you add in “attorney,” I’m the entire page.

This is a harder feat to accomplish for Joe Anderson, a personal injury attorney in New York. (I made that up. I’m sure he exists, however. I’m sure there are six just like him.) Even for him though, there’s room on the first page of a branded query.

The Obscure and Long-Tail Queries

 Which of these do you suppose is harder to rank highly for on Google?

  • Divorce
  • Divorce Lawyer in Kansas City
  • High Asset Divorce Lawyer in Mexico Missouri

The first, right? It’s what we geeks call a “head term.” It’s broad as hell — and competitive as hell as well. And you can imagine what gets first place placement for “divorce”: Wikis and other informational sources, tales of celebrity divorces, and a few Google Maps listings for local lawyers. Landing in the top here is nearly impossible — and may not even be desirable. Think about who is searching for “divorce:” information seekers, self-represented parties, students doing research, and of course, your clients. This is a net cast far too wide to be worth the extreme amount of effort required to snatch a top spot.

The second one is almost as bad — imagine how many divorce lawyers there are in Kansas City. But it’s not impossible to rank highly for that term — you’d just need excellent content, good SEO, other websites linking to you and vouching for you, etc. This is the holy grail — if your SEO guru can get you here, and keep you here, he or she is a true master. (Short-term skyrocketing in search rankings is often a sign of shortcuts that Google will figure out eventually — this most often results in you “disappearing” from the results after Google penalizes your site for black hat tactics. If you stick, your SEO person probably did it the right way: through hard work, lots of great content, and generating quality links from authoritative third-party sites.)

And then there’s that last category: the obscure (nerdism: “long-tail”) search. You may rank #1 for that term! But you’re ranking #1 for a term that may only pull a few dozen searches in your area per month. Chasing the long-tail can be affective, but in order to do so, you need to target thousands of obscure keywords that, on their own have very little competition, and in the aggregate, add up to enough traffic to generate potential client leads. This is trying to be a big fish in 10,000 lakes at once: it’s a ton of work and staying there will take even more effort.

Ask Educated Questions

What do you say when your vendor comes to you and says, “You have 873 first page rankings!”

What am I ranking for? Are they branded keywords, informational searches, or the holy grail (intent-based searches for the right practice area)? What’s the search volume? Where on the first page am I landing?

I don’t say all this to establish unrealistic expectations — no SEO vendor is going to get you to #1 on high-volume, high-intent searches overnight or even within a few months in most cases. But I’ve seen a number of lawyers pay thousands per month, convinced that their SEO strategy was working magic, only to find that they were only ranking for branded terms and ultra-low volume queries (at best). And if your SEO vendor promises “FIRST PAGE RESULTS MAGIC!,” he or she is selling you snake oil.

There are also tools to measure the end result of SEO efforts, which I’ll go over in a follow-up post or two later this month, which include counting stats (the number of rankings) and a way to put a dollar value on those SEO results (the quality of rankings). Stay tuned, and if you have questions, feel free to tweet me or use the handy live chat plugin I’m trying out below.

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