Google releases search engine algorithm updates frequently. Most of the time, they happen without us even knowing. However, now and then, Google releases a core update to their search engine algorithm. This is an update that brings major changes to how things work. The most recent core update in 2022 happened in May 2022 and is generally known as the Helpful Content Update. This core update addressed unique content and how genuinely helpful Search Engine Optimised (SEO) content is. The Helpful Content Update was the biggest algorithm to date, however, almost nobody knows about it.
Frighteningly, many SEO agencies don’t know about it either. The Helpful Content Update represents the utter decimation, desolation and destruction of years of SEO work. Persistent and heavy penalties have hit these SEO agencies; their malpractice is coming back to bite them. Leads are dropping and so is revenue. The same is happening for their clients.
I like to think of SEO as “Simply Educating Others”. That’s how it should be and Google agrees. But these SEO agencies go against this principle and bring their clients with them. They write content for the sake of the algorithm and not for the reader. Millions of websites do this and they are now feeling the pressure of their mistake. You could easily be one of them and not know it yet. Businesses are facing SEO penalties of 30-40%, even going as high as 80% since April 2022! This of course includes law firms, who heavily rely on SEO.
Regardless of whether you are affected or not by this core update, it has never been more important to diversify to other relevant channels. In Australia, many law firms solely depend on SEO. But SEO is far from being a haven for receiving new leads. Understandably, other major platforms can bring in core updates that upset the status quo, but by using them alongside SEO, you aren’t placing all your eggs in one basket.
Besides diversifying risk, it becomes easier for law firms to understand what works best for generating leads. Knowing this, you should be able to distinguish which agencies are doing the right thing and who are taking shortcuts and are incompetent.
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The Changes To SEO That Are Causing Lead Generation to Drop Rapidly
In short, the Helpful Content Update was rolled out to enforce the requirement that all content passing through Google Search is helpful to the reader, with an emphasis on unique content. Businesses that don’t comply (even if the content was produced by an SEO agency) face severe and endearing penalties. Whilst there is major talk of another major update in February 2023 that will correct some elements of the previous update, leading to some recovery for websites. However, Google does not owe anything to agencies and businesses that don’t play by its rules.
Here are the key takeaways you should know:
- No Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated content. AI-generated content is formulated from pre-existing content and can often incur plagiarism.
- User Experience (UX) is playing an increasingly vital role. Website design, loading speed, core web vital scores and resonant copy are of sharply increasing value and importance.
- Duplicate or unhelpful content is not favoured. Businesses need to put in more effort to develop unique, insightful and genuinely helpful content.
- Increased tracking ability by Google. The rollout of Google Analytics 4 makes tracking ability much easier and faster. This also brings more transparency to Google, which will apply more overall scrutiny to your content.
- With SEO rankings being affected, many businesses will naturally compensate with Google Ads. This means in 2023, market saturation and Cost-Per-Click (CPC) are going to skyrocket to unprecedented heights. In the already highly competitive legal industry, this problem is only going to be exacerbated.
- All law firms will need to diversify their digital channels, regardless of practice area. Although social media platforms can be just as harsh as Google, at least a single core algorithm update on any of these platforms individually is not going to shut down all operations.
- Advertising is an increasingly important source of revenue for law firms, with social media advertising being a serious consideration. For certain practice areas, there is already some investment into Facebook Ads, whilst an untapped market is waiting to be reached through LinkedIn Ads.
Why Has This Update Been Made and Is It a Mistake From Google?
Google is clamping down on “manual actions“. Although SEO is a manual manipulation pleasing the ranking algorithm to obtain a good Google Search ranking, many manual actions are considered compliant, whereas the more severe violations are effectively-known in the SEO community as “black hat techniques”. An increasing number of SEO practices previously thought to be acceptable or even “grey hat” will now be classified as black hat practices and receive penalties by Google algorithms. This is no mistake or accident from Google and you are powerless to reverse their stance or position, as they have made clear since the 2011 Panda core update, which outlines what the expectations are for website owners. There is no excuse for malpractice or taking shortcuts, with Google becoming better and better at enforcement.
Law firms using cheap or malpractising SEO agencies are going to suffer and be penalised for extended periods. We have not seen any penalised website recover their Google rankings quickly, even if they are recovering. Most conventional ranking processes are prohibited and punished by Google and the distinction between white and black hat practices is widening. Grey hat practices that purport to be middle ground are becoming polarised into white or black.
What Is Google Analytics 4 And How Is It Going To Affect SEO?
Google Analytics is a free software that measures website performance. Google Analytics is the most installed Analytics software, far surpassing the Facebook Pixel. We predict Google Analytics 4 is going to make the presence and impact of Google updates felt deeper and quicker. As greater emphasis is placed on quality content, helpful content and unique content from experts, because Google Analytics 4 simplifies many tracking elements previously requiring an agency to set up, Google will soon have unrivalled and quick monitoring of engagement in more websites than ever before. This wide availability of accurate data and tracking that will roll out is going to make the divide between winners and losers of SEO wider and deeper.
What Is White, Grey And Black Hat SEO And Why Should Law Firms Care?
White, grey and black are colours. Google has voluminous guidelines on best practices and details a lot of what they favour and disapprove of. In recent times, this has never been more transparent with developments such as the release of the Search Evaluator Guidelines or Search Quality Rater Guidelines. Yes, Google has an army of actual human people going through as many websites as possible and scoring them. White hat SEO represents practices that are recommended and compliant with policy. Black hat SEO is the complete opposite, they are clear violations of Google policy and guidelines, whilst grey hat practices are uncertain. Some do indeed break the spirit of Google policy, some merely tread what has not been clearly defined or prohibited. From 2023, the division between white and black hat SEO will become clearer. More definitions will be released and there will be decreasing practices that can be properly classified as Grey Hat. Here are some Grey Hat practices that have already been reclassified as Black Hat, or that we predict will become Black Hat in the near future:
- Private Blog Networks. These are a network of websites referring to each other to artificially boost domain authority and seek to increase the preference of client websites during ranking updates. Sometimes, the websites in the Private Blog Network have zero inherent value and occasionally they are a reconstruction of expired domains recreated purely to climb the ranks in Google Search. The effectiveness of this SEO strategy is rapidly declining
- Paying for links and not disclosing. Pure Google policy prohibits the buying of backlinks. However, in recent times, there was a redefinition of link attributes that now allows for “Sponsored Links” to be formally disclosed. Sponsored links are almost completely disqualified for Domain Authority, but can still be a valid traffic referral source and have value.
- Hiding voluminous keywords with “clever” web design. SEO requires content. To trick the algorithm, some SEO agencies will hide large blocks of text in an inconspicuous place, like somewhere at the bottom of the page, leaving only relevant text easily visible on the page. There is a valid way of doing this that does not violate policy, such as accordions or FAQs, but these must never be fluff and provide actual value, written coherently.
- AI-generated content is a no-go. This practice was formally a Grey Hat practice but has now been reclassified as a Black Hat practice.
- Close duplication of content. Many SEO content writers base their articles on existing content and research. Frequently the combined article produces no new information or insight, lacking input from the author. Google’s machine learning system is picking up content duplication faster than ever before, with penalties to follow.
The Severity And Widespread Incidence Of Problems From This Broad Core Algorithm Update
As discussed earlier, the penalties are severe and extremely widespread, with many websites simply disappearing from the search engine results page (SERP). These recent core updates have caused the biggest and most drastic shifts seen in a long time.
Here is our major competitor, and SEO specialist agency:
At their height, they had 1,000 visits a month detectable, with a sharp and persistent drop since April. They have lost over 80% of their former traffic, the most severe penalty we have seen.
Another competitor is doing no better:
Their sharp fall occurred sometime in May, and although they are recovering, it is clear the rate of recovery is slow.
This competitor handles complex, high-end clients and is facing another penalty:
Some recovery is occurring here as well, but it is inconsistent and not very fast.
If these things are happening to SEO agencies’ websites, then we can anticipate the major upset their clients are experiencing. This is the busiest year for SEO agencies as they struggle to adapt to what is purely enforcement of policy from Google. The grace period is over for bad SEO practices.
Let us demonstrate how common and severe this problem is. Looking outside SEO agencies, we picked a random former client:
As you can see, they are experiencing a persistent, sharp fall since April 2022 as we explained earlier. This fall in traffic from this core update is as large as 50%, amounting to at least a constant loss of 3-4,000 visitors a month. At this client’s height, they were one of the national leaders for migration agency and law practice. Since Google rolled out these changes, they are suffering deeply and their current SEO provider is shown to be using short-term, non-compliant practices.
The ranking algorithm is so frequently updated, we do not foresee stabilisation, but further turmoil and division since Google announced the 2011 Panda Update. This is purely a manifestation and realisation of the actual ability to enforce the true intent and purpose of Google Search with their rapidly improving machine learning system. Search index changes are going to have far more extreme effects and corrections. This is truly a great time of instability for SEO.
The Good News Is That Determining Effective SEO Agencies Has Never Been Easier
Despite all the doom and gloom, we are describing, there is a silver lining. Not all SEO agencies were penalised. Some have come out unscathed and a few have even benefitted from this algorithm update Google is rolling out. As the distinction between white and black hat practices become clearer and more defined, grey hat practices will disappear, with the quality and sophistication of SEO agencies bound to follow. They must adapt or be relegated to gnashing of teeth as the search-engine algorithm detects them and punishes them. This time, much more severe and quicker than ever before.
It is still a complex and nuanced subject to assess any SEO agency’s practices, so we will not go into any detail on how to assess or what to look out for, but understand we have a good understanding of what white and black hat practices are and can easily assess the quality of work of any SEO agency.
How You Can Prevent These Penalties And What Should You Do As A Law Firm To Comply With Google?
As explained, the key here is to have a good strategy. The 2011 Panda Update provides a brilliant, easy summary of what you should do. Always remember that what is happening is enforcement of policy and Google as the lord and master of themselves, makes all the rules. Other updates, such as the page speed update require fast websites. The core web vitals update, which defines what is a technically sound website also affects your appearance on the search result page, in addition to having genuinely helpful web page content.
Google’s spam detection system is the most advanced and quickest in the world, there is no fighting or winning against any breach of policy. This is a helpful article from Search Engine Journal that tells you how to access a core web vitals report. Search ranking algorithms are one of the oldest, most complex and most efficient online systems in existence and their capabilities are ever increasing, rapidly.
Here is a summary of easy-to-follow steps we would recommend when making SEO content that will comply and please Google:
- No keyword stuffing. You want to rank for a certain keyword. Never repeat it too much in an unnatural manner to rank higher. It is never that simple to manipulate Google algorithms. Please understand keyword stuffing is completely different from properly using a Natural Language Processing (NLP) writing tool.
- Have a target audience. This is one of the key steps to succeeding in SEO and has been foreshadowed as long ago as the 2011 Panda Update.
- Be genuinely helpful. Simply educating others is such a key paradigm in SEO that these recent updates are named the Helpful Content Update.
- Avoid duplicate or unoriginal content. Blindly copying someone else’s work is no longer going to cut it. You must now demonstrate true expertise and express real, unique opinions. Anything less is not going to perform as well.
- Pay for a decent web server. Never settle for simplistic shared hosting. There isn’t much power in those servers and you will never satisfy the core web vitals update with inadequate infrastructure. These days, you have plenty of good options, and you do not necessarily need a Virtual Private Server (VPS). We prefer using modern Docker systems that emulate a VPS without the added complexity and cost.
- Care about the user experience. Write for people not a machine learning system. This also means you need to have at least images to break up and improve your content. If you do not have these, at the very least write clearly and effectively.
- Do not pay any attention to backlinks. Backlinks are a secondary factor for Google Search. The spam detection system is heavily focused on backlinks, so leave it to a competent SEO agency to worry about, never attempt to understand it yourself.
- If you can afford to, have a good SEO partner and pay them enough. In Australia, you cannot get away with SEO that costs less than $1,000/month and for a law firm, you usually must spend at least $1,500/month to receive an adequate quality of work and output. Any SEO agency giving you ridiculous figures like $300/month is going to sabotage all your efforts. Nevertheless, this by no means justifies extremely high expenditures, such as $5,000/month without solid reasoning and justification.
Why Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) Is Such An Opportunity
Google Search is the biggest website in existence. It is much bigger than Facebook and YouTube. Every website owner benefits from SEO and ranks higher on the search engine results page. You do not have to be afraid of any algorithm update if you take the time to understand and play by the rules and regulations. Luckily, lawyers are some of the best people to comply with rules and regulations. Clarence Ling as a lawyer-marketer who is more a digital marketer than a lawyer can help you demystify the rules and regulations surrounding digital marketing and give you an understanding of the factors of success. We are a small agency with distinct specialisations and understand the importance of matching the size and specialisation of an agency to your requirements. We have both client and service niches, and the quality of our delivery is highly controlled and ensured. Never trust a single consultant or small, full-service agency. It is simply impossible to maintain quality and consistency when an agency is spread too thin.
Many of your competitors are now penalised for an extended time. 2023 will be a state of flux for many, and it is unclear how the stability of ranking updates will correlate with 2023’s Google algorithm updates. The broad core algorithm has changed forever, and it will take a learning curve before SEO agencies are less affected by core updates. It will be interesting to see the result of the predicted February core update. Will it correct penalties, or will the divide widen? Seeing as 2022’s core updates have consistently and persistently punished so many, no one can have a crystal ball.
Hence, now is the best time to invest in SEO, so long as you hire an agency of sufficient competence and experience. The flux will give plenty of opportunity for you to climb the ranks, and if you do it right, 2023’s core updates will reward you greatly.
Since the distinction between white and black hat practices is clarifying constantly, those who use them correctly will be cemented harder than their non-compliant counterparts, and there should be less fear surrounding any broad core algorithm update taking place in the future.
SEO will become more stable and predictable with every core update that passes unless some major grey hat development occurs, such as the recent AI content debacle. Remember that these core updates have the sole purpose of catching up with technology, and punishing bad practices. But for now, a core algorithm update in the near future will cause quite a state of disarray.
Why You Need To Diversify Channels
Every online platform regardless of whether it is a search engine or social media has a broad core algorithm. Core updates Google makes do not happen just with Google Search. Core updates happen to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and even Tik Tok. However, in the case of SEO, Google has the most well-documented release history page, whereas changes in social media are more hidden and hence you have to rely on platform experts to demystify core updates on various social media platforms.
Seeing the complete disarray happening before you, you must understand you cannot control or have any say in any major platform’s algorithm update. It has never been more important for law firms to distribute risk and advertise on relevant channels. Google Search is not the only platform in existence, and Google Ads is going to face the highest point of saturation that has ever existed for law firms in 2023. Transactional law firms receive great benefits from Facebook and LinkedIn. The writing on the wall for an over-reliance on Google Search has been developing rapidly since Google rolled out the Panda broad core algorithm update in 2011. Maintaining Google ranking has never been more uncertain because digital marketing is a field that has no real certifications of substance, has such a low barrier to entry and is overplayed by newcomers with inadequate training and experience. However, once you find an effective agency, any ranking algorithm, regardless of organic and paid platforms, will allow you to receive amplification and reward for your marketing efforts.
It pays dividends to have multiple performing platforms that not only distribute risk but also feed into each other and magnify your law firm’s best qualities.
Why It Is So Hard To Find An Effective Advertiser And Why You Should Choose A Specialist Agency
So we’ve already made our case for why you need to diversify channels besides Google Search. The issue is that advertising has met its fair share of adversity, with GDPR, Apple’s iOS14 update, and so on. Advertising costs have never been higher and good agencies are increasingly hard to find and distinguish for website owners. Marketlytics was founded by Clarence Ling, an Australian generalist lawyer who is a digital marketer in his own right. We are mentored and trained by the best Analytics and Advertising experts globally. We are advertising and Outreach specialists, with a small elite team. We do not deliver SEO services internally, but partner with the best SEO agencies who keep up to date with every algorithm update Google announces. We have been following this broad core algorithm update closely since we realised Google announced it and have been using this information and our sensors to determine who is coping with these core updates and who is not. This broad-core algorithm update has given us even more clarity on who should be on our panel. We know how to assess the true white hat SEO agencies.
To see how effective our advertising is, just look at our Case Studies. We are relatively unaffected by iOS14 and 14.5 and continue to deliver a return on investment with our superior strategies. We are also heavily promoting social media advertising for law firms, as we feel the industry is not delivering the best outcomes.
Remember this broad core algorithm update is widely known as the Helpful Content Update. If you haven’t read the 2011 Panda update summary or any other guideline from Google, let these few words educate your understanding of what you need to do to please Google and the true standards required to profit from SEO. The house always wins and you must obey the rules of the lord of this realm. Do not take shortcuts and build solid foundations. Lastly, please consider using our specialist agency, Marketlytics as we have the right mix of specialisations and partnerships to deliver not only greater revenue, but greater profit for your law firm.
Clarence Ling is the Founder of Marketlytics, and a guerilla marketer. Initially a trained Lawyer and Practice Development Manager, he contributed to the growth of his firm, including implementing software.
Clarence Ling is a Digital Advertising and Analytics Expert. Having a wide range of advertising experience ranging from international real estate, to legal and previously worked in full service marketing agencies, Clarence is a diligent marketer with an eye for detail and a talent for numbers.
Clarence can carefully plan out the best budget levels for the desired outcomes with projections that are more accurate than most.
His background in Analytics enables a clear, big picture assessment of both organic and paid campaigns, enabling maximum efficiency of those digital campaigns. His analytical background brings precise clarity of client or customer interaction and behaviour on online assets.
Clarence’s four fields of practice are Search Engine Marketing (SEM), Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), Social Media Marketing (SMM) and Email Marketing (EDM). He is best as an Advertiser and is an avid collector of Software As A Service (SaaS) Products, avidly investing in both technology and human capital of Marketlytics.