LawyerEdge Website Underperforming? A Cautionary Tale of Duplicate Content

Having trouble figuring out why your website isn’t getting more traffic?  Its possible the content on your site has simply been cut and pasted from another site – rending your SEO impotent.

Law Firm Website Almost Invisible

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why the law firm’s site was performing so badly – the technology was fine, the content seemed fairly well written and there was a reasonable link profile.  Despite this, the site was averaging less than 2 visitors a day from unbranded natural search –  and very few of those visitors were landing on the practice area pages.  Digging deeper, I found that the actual content on the practice area pages was cut and pasted across other LawyerEdge clients.

In the example below – we can see that Google has identified 58 other pages with the exact same content as this law firm’s page for pedestrian knock down accidents.

Duplicate content

When I looked across the website’s landing pages, I found that almost all of them had content that was duplicated across the web.  In the graph below, the vertical axis shows the number of pages found on the web containing the exact same content as the law firm’s topic pages.

Duplicate content on legal websites

Of the 40 pages I reviewed, just 13 had unique content.

Understanding Duplicate Content

Search engines hate duplicate content because it can generate a really bad user experience.  Here’s why:  Using the above example, imagine I do a Google search for “determining who is negligent in Pedestrian cases”.  The first result I click to doesn’t give me what I’m looking for, so I click back to the search engine and try the second result . . . . which leads me to the exact same content on another site.  Now I’m annoyed and instead of clicking back, I load up Bing to try to find something different.

The search engines minimize this poor user experience by identifying duplicate content across different pages and trying to identify the original version of the content (search geeks refer to this as the canonical).   Google and bing hide the other pages away from searchers in what is called “supplemental results” – which is of course, where I eventually found the law firm’s pages.  Supplemental results are shown here:

Supplemental Results

This is compounded when a large portion of a site’s content looks to be simply copied and pasted from other sites across the web.  Search engines reasonably deduce that the overall site is of pretty low quality wrt to unique, interesting content.  Google’s algorithm updated to try to identify (and weed out) these sites with the Panda update.  From the Google blog:

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.”

Note that Panda is a site-wide penalty – which means that duplicate content on many pages will impact performance of the entire site – even those deliciously well written unique and insightful pages.  The bar graph above, which shows the majority of the law firm’s pages having duplicate content indicates they have most likely been hit by the Panda update.

In the pedestrian knockdown practice area example, all of the firms listed below are competing directly with each other with the exact same content:

  • Rochelle McCullough, LLP
  • Inkelaar Law
  • Eshelman Legal Group
  • Joshua D. Earwood
  • Saladino Oakes & Schaaf
  • Levenbaum Trachtenberg
  • Ellis, Ged & Bodden
  • Law Office of Bruce D. Schupp
  • Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen
  • Law Office of Kenneth G. Miller
  • The Law Firm of Kevin A. Moore, P.A.
  • Buchanan & Buchanan
  • S. Perry Penland, JR.
  • Ardoin Law Firm
  • McWard Law Office
  • LeBell Dobroski Morgan Meylink LLP
  • Cox & Associates, P.A.
  • The Gefen Law Firm
  • Echemendia Law Firm PA
  • McKinney Braswell Butler LLC
  • Law Office of Charney & Roberts
  • Johnson & Associates
  • Pistotnik Law Offices
  • Bledsoe Law Office
  • Law Offices of George A. Malliaros
  • Roberts, Miceli & Boileau, LLP
  • William E. Hymes
  • Law Office of Donald P. Edwards
  • Ferderigos & Lambe Attorneys at Law
  • The Law Offices of Fuentes & Berrio, L.L.P.
  • Robert B. French, Jr., P.C.
  • The Law Offices of Peck and Peck
  • Cherry Law Firm, P.C.
  • Dexter & Kilcoyne
  • Philip R. Cockerille
  • Brotman Nusbaum Fox
  • Stephen J. Knox Attorney at Law
  • Littman & Babiarz
  • The Law Offices of Weinstein & Scharf, P.A.
  • Friedman & Friedman
  • The Law Firm of Robert S. Windholz
  • Fahrendorf, Viloria, Oliphant & Oster L.L.P.
  • Conway Law Firm, P.L.L.C.
  • Head Thomas Webb & Willis
  • Charles B. Roberts & Associates, P.C.
  • Pistotnik Law Offices
  • Nordloh Law Office, PLLC
  • The Law Offices of Rosenberg, Kirby, Cahill & Stankowitz
  • Kerner & Kerner
  • McAdory Borg Law Firm P.C.
  • For a funny one – check out this:  The Law Offices of This is Arizona – a template, presumably available for purchase with ghost Attorneys John and Joan Smith.

(To be fair, not all of these firms are LawyerEdge clients – there is a smattering of different agencies.  This does highlight the extent to which content gets cut and pasted around the web by website developers.)

How to Tell if You Have Duplicate Content Issues

The most obvious sign of duplicate content, of course is zero to low inbound search traffic to specific pages.  You can diagnose this in Google Analtyics using the “Landing Pages” tab under content (make sure you filter for ONLY “organic search traffic”).

Another more accurate approach is to take a unique looking, sentence from your page and doing a search for it with quotations around the phrase:

Duplicate Content IV

If your search returns a ton of results . . . its time to start writing.

 

Are You Sending the Wrong Signals to Search Engines?

Looking at the screenshot below, it is very clear to any human that this is a blog post covering Drug Sniffing Dogs and Search Warrants.  Unfortunately, the underlying code does a very poor job of telling computers what the article is about – leading to this page (and all the other pages on this site) performing extremely poorly in search.  Here’s why . . .

At a very high level, search engines scan web page code for indicators to deduce the subject matter of content on a page (reminds me of the old California Achievement Tests in 5th grade.) We’ll review three of the primary indicators:  Title Tags, URL, and Headers (H1s etc.).  Why are these so important?  Content contained within these indicators are intended to describe what the page is about – i.e. if a page is titled “Fuzzy Bunny Slippers” and has a similar heading – it is most likely a page about fuzzy bunny slippers.”

Justice Florida

Key On-Page Elements

Title Tag

The title tag defines the title of the page, shows up at the top of a browser and also is the link that appears in search result pages.  In this case, the page is done correctly.  “Drug-Sniffing Dogs and Search Warrants : West Palm Beach Criminal Lawyer Blog”

URL

Unfortunately, when this page was created, the URL ends with “drugsniffing-dogs-and-search-warrants”. The failure to separate “drug” and “sniffing” in the URL optimizes the page for the never searched for word “drugsniffing”.

Heading

Heading tags define the heading of the page.  The primary heading is the H1, with subheadings H2, H3 etc. To a human, the heading of this page is pretty clear “Drug-Sniffing Dogs and Search Warrants”, but when we look into the code, we find that that heading is not identified with an H1 tag:

Justice Florida Code

In fact, the primary heading, H1, tells search engines that this page is about:  “Palm Beach County Criminal & DUI Lawyer : Criminal & DUI Defense Attorney in West Palm Beach & Palm Beach | Criminal Attorney: DUI, Assault & Battery, Felonies”.  What a mouthful – that’s some ugly keyword stuffing and is only very tangentially related to drug sniffing dogs and search warrants.  Note above that the H2 and H3 above contain generic, templated content as well..  Predictably, we find that every single page on this website uses the exact same, keyword stuffed, H1 – sending a strong signal to the search engines that every page on the site is about the exact same subject matter.

Why This All Matters

Not surprisingly, even with an exact search for the page title including the misspelling, the attorney’s content fails to surface.  I’ll bet dinner that his analytics also show zero inbound search traffic to this page.

Justice Florida Results

Why This Happens

Generally, modern website and blogging platforms have most of these technical problems ironed out.  You should never have to get your hands dirty in the code.  But this example highlights the importance of having a modern, up to date platform.  The justiceflorida.com site in this example is built on an outdated version of Movable Type.  The simple obvious solution:  a recent version of WordPress.

How to Diagnose your Own Pages

You know where to look for the URL and the Title Tag – heading tags are a little more hidden, but not too hard to find in the source code.  You can access the source code on a website by using the “view source” function in your web browser (usually under “view” or simply by right clicking on the page).  Then search the page for “H1” and see if you have a unique description of the content of the page.  These tags show up in pairs – so you should only have two H1s (as there should really only be one primary heading for a page); multiple H2s, H3s etc. are fine.

You are Foolish if you run Google Adwords but not Bing Ads

Bing vs. Adwords
Out with Captain Dan.

I went striped bass fishing in Cape Cod last week aboard the Salt Shaker.  Captain Dan, who has been fishing there for about 30 years, has intimate experience with fish, tackle, currents, temperatures and the bay; which means that I’ve pulled in some big stripers each of the last 6 years I’ve been out with him.

It turns out Dan is an experienced, savvy online marketer as well.  On the 45 minute ride back from the fishing area, I asked him about how he markets his one man charter business. What follows is a rough recollection of his comments about PPC advertising.

“I used to spend a lot of money on Google – but that stuff is expensive.”

“A lot of what I paid for were marketers clicking through and trying to sell me stuff – I know that b/c I used a different email.”

“With Bing, I’m paying about a quarter of what I did on Google.”

And he’s right – the economics of pay per click advertising mean that the return on investment for Bing will outperform Google.  Here’s why: In the PPC bidding system price impacts not only who wins, but also how much they win. Simply put – because web searchers tend to click on things higher up on the page, buying your way to the top means you’ll get more clicks.  This means that PPC traffic is one of the few items with negative economies of scale – where the more you buy, the higher the per item costs.  And the more bidders there are in the system, the higher that price goes. This is exacerbated by attorneys who have translated 3 years of get-to-the-top-of-the-class education to ridiculous, irrational PPC bidding wars.

Because Google is the dominant search engine, most small businesses dip their toe in the  PPC waters with Adwords, not Bing Ads. At the risk of stretching the metaphor too far – they are fishing where the fish are.  And this seems to make sense – but because the market is so crowded with all the other small businesses doing the same, the economics don’t pan out as well.  Essentially, while there is more volume of searchers at Google, the crowded marketplace makes each of these searchers more expensive to buy.

So, if you are running Adwords and not Bing Ads, you are flushing money down the toilet. You will get less volume at Bing – but it will cost much less per click – in Captain Dan’s case, about 75% less.  And this is the key to ROI. To make things even easier – Bizible has just launched a free tool that will auto-tag a Bing advertising account with Google Analytics tracking code. Get started.

Your Ranking Report is a Dangerous Waste of Time

Lawyer:  “We’re ranking really well, but our phone just isn’t ringing.”

Me:  “Well, how much traffic are you getting?”

Lawyer:  “I don’t know”

You are wasting your time if you are looking at Ranking Reports to assess the success of your SEO campaign.  Worse – if you agency sends you a regular ranking report (and no traffic report), they are probably deliberately trying to hide their poor performance.

Ranking reports are often used by agencies to suggest success while they are delivering very little in value (i.e. more traffic.)  They distract from business goals and focus your search campaign on the wrong tactics.  They are used to rationalize exorbitant retainers that deliver little in the way of new business.

I recently talked to a lawyer who forwarded me her agency’s two most recent ranking report showing 172 different terms that “ranked” between 1-3. When we dug into the Google Analytics data, there were very few visits referenced for those terms.   Additionally, each ranking report had a different set of terms. I suspect her agency was simply using a third party rank checking tool, cherry picking the “good” results and sending her a rosy picture every month along with her bill.   I drew her the following graph cross referencing the ranking reports with her Google Analytics data to demonstrate why her agency’s glowing ranking reports weren’t driving inbound phone calls from prospective clients:

Ranking Reports for Lawyers

Why Good Ranking Reports Don’t Result in Traffic

So, how can a site rank for a term, yet fail to generate traffic?

Local

Remember that little thing called Google Local Maps Places that dominates the screen area for most localized searches (including legal searches)?  Ranking Reports completely ignore Places results.  Legal SERPs very frequently integrate Places – so your glowing Ranking Report displays a very misleading picture of your site’s ability to generate traffic.

Personalization

Search engines are increasingly delivering personalized results based on the individual searcher’s geography, previous search history and social graph.

Geography

A “divorce lawyer” search from my office will generate a results page with Seattle area divorce lawyers).

Previous Search History

My news related searches disproportionally return CNN.com because they know I visit that site on a daily basis; whereas my father may return Fox news results.  Attorneys will frequently sit in their office, run a ranking check for a specific term they want business for, be pleased when their site shows up #1, yet puzzled that their phone isn’t ringing with a flood of incoming prospects. What they don’t realize is that the search engines are personalizing their results based on previous surfing history. The Ranking Report is delivering a false positive because the single most frequented site by any attorney is their own site.

The big picture: With the exception of the false positives from previous search behavior, personalization isn’t taken into account by ranking reports.

Social Graph

My searches include results from people with whom I connected via the social graph.  Google calls this Search Plus your World.  (Bing functions in a similar fashion.)  Depending on the searcher and the subject matter, research has shown up to 60% of results can be influenced by the social graph.

Long Tail Terms

Searches are increasingly specific – think “trial for my third DUI arrest” instead of “DUI Lawyer”.  This is known as the long tail.  Focusing on ranking reports misses all of the traffic within the long tail.  To get a feel for how the long tail works – look at all of the different terms that bring traffic to the profile page on your website.  If you are like most attorneys you’ll see something like:  “William O’Smith”, “Billy osmith”, “Bill O. Smyth”, “Bill Smyth Avvo Rating.” “Bill Smith Lawyer”  “Bill Smyth phone number” etc.

Additionally, its very easy to generate a positive rank for an obscure term.  Think “fuzzy bunny slipper lawyer”.  As more and more consumers are accustomed to search engines automatically geographically targeting their query, (think “personal injury lawyer” instead of “Poughkeepsie personal injury lawyer” they are frequently dropping the geographic component of their search.  A lot of erroneous ranking reports I’ve seen have obscure geographic references in them that are never searched by anyone (zip codes, townships etc.).

 

The Alternative To Ranking Reports

Instead of monitoring the search engines for how your site ranks for a finite set of terms, use metrics that really drive your business. Look at the inbound traffic to a page or group of pages within a practice area.  This can be done easily in Google Analytics with the “landing page” report.  Alternatively, use a keyword or a group of similar keywords to track inbound search traffic for a specific practice area – “divorce”, “implant”.  Changes in traffic that include these keywords demonstrates progress (or decline) in your site’s ability to generate business – not just ranking.

The Final Word

I wrote a version of this post two and a half years ago for Search Engine Land – Excuse Me While I have a Ranking Report Rant.  In the ensuing comments, there were a number of defensive agencies insisting that clients still demanded ranking reports.  Matt McGee, one of the best SEOs I know responded to the anger:

I made a decision 3-4 years ago to never again provide a ranking report to clients. I tell prospects this before they commit to working with me and invite them to find another consultant if they want to track rankings, or to do it themselves. Best SEO decision I ever made . . . My clients hire me to help them make more money. The ones who seem more concerned with rankings than money get referred to other SEO consultants.