Semantic Search for Lawyers

| August 26, 2013

By one report, Google has invested over 1,000 person hours into perfecting its search algorithm.  All that effort has gone toward making search results more “human” for users.  Instead of receiving a list of websites that have keywords similar to what you typed in, you also get information that is connected to the concepts that you searched for.  Search for the phrase Lake Tahoe and not only do you get content with those keywords but information about the lake itself including location, elevation, types of wildlife and other data that isn’t necessary in the query you used.  This semantic behavior can be used to a lawyer’s advantage when marketing a site in search.

What Is Semantic Search?

First a brief description of what semantic search really is. If you dig into the matter, you will find it difficult to see consistent agreement on what the definition is or even what term should be used. In general though this concept refers to a search that produces meaningful results for the user regardless of whether or not those results contain the query term or terms.

Semantics is the study of the relationship between or among things especially as it relates to language. In search, Google is delivering results based on the fact that information is related to the query on some other level and not necessarily because the keyword phrase was found on a page.

Here is an example. I type in the search term “Lake Michigan”. Before semantic search all I would get is a list of websites that contain lake and Michigan or the two words together. Today however, Google delivers other information from the Knowledge Graph that is related to that query such as the area of the lake, the types of fish that live in it, islands, the cities that sit along its shores, and other information.

An Example of a semantic search result



Taking Advantage of Semantic Search

Lawyers can take advantage of semantic search as a part of their content strategy1.  Knowing how search works helps make that process a little easier.

User Intent and Semantic Search

Many times you’ll see results based on what a user might be searching for.  My earlier example of searching for Lake Michigan was broad however Google still tries to determine my intent.  The algorithm knows I’m looking for documents related to the great lake.  Because the phrase is broad and landmarks are often the subject of research, it could be argued that the results presented were an attempt to provide information for that purpose.

With that in mind, users searching for legal related phrases generally have a limited range of goals they are trying to accomplish.  They may be in need of legal representation, looking for information on a particular legal situation to determine what options they or someone else may have (research), or perhaps curious about a career in the field.

For users looking for legal services, lawyers can optimize their content for user intent by making location and practice area specific pages.  The example below features an example known to users as predictive search but (as one of Google’s many patents) — Interactive Query Completion Templates2.

The interactive query template in action

Schema Markup

This tactic is one of the best ways to ensure semantic search works best for you. Most lawyers serve a local geographic region. So when someone within that region searches for terms related to that attorney, marking up content with Microdata or one of the other schema tagging standards makes it easier for Google to draw those relationships.

Attorneys should markup the following information on their site so it can be related to relevant queries entered by people in the area:

• Addresses
• Phone numbers
• Your name
• Your firm’s name
• Emails that you want public
• Testimonials
• Reviews
• Website URLs

You should also optimize your pages for target keyword phrases however if you make it easier for Google to digest your content, it is more likely to display that for users when there is a relationship between your content and a user’s query. Below is an example of address and name content marked up with Microdata.

An example of semantic markup

There are some excellent resources online for attorneys to mark up their content with microdata. Google has resources on creating rich snippets and you can view a complete reference of schema tags on schema.org3.


Semantic search aims to deliver results to users that are related to their query but not necessarily to the words in their query. As such, it makes the system much more difficult (if not impossible) to game. Because of this, high value content becomes that much more important for your website.

For attorneys, this couldn’t be easier because the law effects everyone and everyone knows it is expensive and time consuming to hire an attorney. This makes the Internet a great tool to go and search for information so we don’t have to pay to understand it from an attorney. As a lawyer, you can leverage this by providing content that is valuable to people. The more valuable content you provide, the more it will be shared and linked to.

Semantic search definitely makes strategies for attorneys and anyone else more challenging to come up with when it comes to search but not impossible.  Lawyers should have a sound content strategy in place above all else.  The more useful and informative information you can push out to your audience the better a site will perform in search.