How SEO Let’s You Talk to Readers and Robots

When you are writing web content for your website or blog, you are actually writing for two audiences: readers and robots. It’s important to keep your content readable, but not at the expense of good search engine optimization. Too often, lawyers and other professionals make their web content sound like their professional writing. But can we talk about what that does to the SEO in your web content?

Legalese Habits Are Hard to Break

When I write web content for lawyers, there usually comes a time when I have to have a talk with them about legalese. Usually, this comes when what the legal community calls a thing isn’t the same as what society calls a thing. For example:

  • Car accident vs motor vehicle collision
  • Expungement vs setting aside a conviction
  • Corporate litigation vs business lawsuit

And I get it. As lawyers, we are trained to pay special attention to the definitions of words. So a car isn’t the same thing as a motor vehicle in our minds. We get paid to debate these linguistic technicalities all the time.

But potential clients using search engines don’t know the legal terms for the things they are looking for. They use imperfect descriptors all the time. They may search for “custody” when they actually mean “visitation”, or “traffic tickets” when they are facing a “civil infraction”. When you are preparing content online, you must write for your dual audience, even if it is technically imprecise.

SEO vs. Natural Language

How do you choose between reader and the search engine? The good news is that a search engine uses whatever language your reader gives it. So there’s a lot of overlap. But you still need to find a balance between SEO and natural language in your web content.

Early web content was written almost exclusively for search engines to find it. This resulted in strings of keywords that read like legalese. This is because the software behind those search engines didn’t know that men was the pluralization of man. The search engines required character-for-character matches to know your web content would answer the user’s question.

As the search engine algorithms have evolved, the robots have gotten better at understanding natural language. Keywords become key phrases. Programmers have baked conjugation rules into the code so that search engines are no longer confused by differences in grammar or tense. But the robots still aren’t native speakers, so you do need to find the balance to write for both audiences.

Keep Keyphrases Together

The search engines are getting smarter about natural language, but they still aren’t very good at context. Your readers may be able to piece together ideas across sentences, or even paragraphs, Google can’t. As smart as the algorithms have become, they still base search results on signals from you – the writer – that the keywords are important. So even though we might not naturally call ourselves “auto accident attorneys in Southeast Michigan”, for example, online we want to string those keyphrases together to improve the SEO for those search terms.

Signal SEO With Headings and Cross-Links

Search engines are programmed to pay special attention to particular parts of your blog or website:

  • Headings
  • Links
  • First paragraphs
  • Title

If you take an especially narrative tone in your writing, favoring your reader over the robots, you can make up for that by signalling SEO in these high-value signpost parts of the page.

To do this, boil your topic down to one keyphrase you believe your readers will use to try to find you (again, use the socially common terms, not the legalese). Use that exact, word-for-word phrase at least once in each of the signpost areas, even if it doesn’t exactly flow the way you want it to. Then you can be as narrative, and as technically specific, as you need to be in the rest of the page.

Use Meta-Data and Meta-Descriptions to Talk to the Robots

There are also parts of your webpage that only talk to robots, called meta-data. This includes:

  • URL
  • Alternate Text on photos
  • Tags or Keywords in your content management software
  • Meta descriptions

Depending on your content management software (WordPress, Google Blogger, or Wix for example), you can modify some or all of these meta-data to talk directly to the search engines without distracting or confusing your readers. Plug that same keyphrase in there and tell them what your web content is about.

One note: Google and other search engines have begun to display meta descriptions as part of their search results. Because of this, it’s a good idea to write these in sentences, even if they are keyword heavy and targeted specifically at the algorithms. 

Your website isn’t a legal brief, or a program. As a professional, you have to carefully balance professional specificity with readability and SEO. But once you break the habit of defaulting to legalese, there are tricks you can use to talk to your readers and the search engine robots at the same time.

Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She writes blogs and websites for lawyers and small businesses. If you need help tailoring your writing to online readers, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.


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