You may have heard that tapping into the potential of accelerated mobile pages (AMPs) can boost the visibility of your law firm’s website or legal directory, but is this really the case?
Google introduced AMPs back in 2015 as a way to provide properly formatted, faster-loading content to its mobile users—an audience that continues to grow. In theory, structuring your web content to fit in the AMP carousel can benefit both your readers and your site, but its inherent value to lawyers practicing SEO is more complex than that.
Let’s start with a brief overview of how AMPs work—or at least, how they’re supposed to work—for the unacquainted. In general, mobile devices take longer to load a webpage than their desktop counterparts. This is a big deal because 47 percent of visitors expect a webpage to load in 2 seconds, and 40 percent will outright leave if it takes longer than 3 seconds. Every second counts, both for website value and user experience, so Google set out to create a system where pages could load instantaneously on mobile devices.
AMP HTML, the basis for AMPs, is made free and publicly available by Google, so that any publisher or website can use it to optimize their articles to load faster on mobile devices. It takes some time to update your website in this fashion; depending on what kind of development team you’re working with and how you choose to implement it, it could take several weeks. Ongoing tweaks, especially as Google updates its protocols, are to be expected.
Now this is where things get tricky. When you convert a page into an AMP, you’ll technically be storing that page in a cache on Google’s servers. When a web user attempts to access your page, they’ll be taken to Google’s server to read your article. From there, they may choose to click a link to your domain, at which point, they’re tracked as if they’re beginning a new session on your website from a third-party link, rather than being tracked as the continuation of a session originating with an organic search.
Google strongly favors AMPs in its search engine results pages (SERPs). They’re featured in a carousel of content above the fold of traditional organic search rankings, presumably because they result in a better overall user experience compared to the traditional web page. But a more cynical interpretation would be that it uses AMPs as a way to hold publishers hostage; by introducing this carousel of high-profile links, publishers feel pressured to optimize all their pages to become AMPs, increasing the number of publishers relying on Google and allowing even more users to spend more time on Google’s servers, and therefore in Google’s control.
Let’s set that thought aside for now and explore the bottom line for how AMPs are supposed to work. Use AMP HTML and your pages will load faster, direct from Google’s cache, and assuming they’re relevant to a user’s query, they’ll be presented above the fold of conventional organic search results, granting you more visibility. At this point, it would still seem like AMPs are a good investment, since adopting these protocols would allow you to get more visibility than competing law firms—and isn’t search visibility the whole point of SEO?
There are a few ways to think about the “success” of your SEO campaign, depending on your goals, but for most lawyers, the bottom line is revenue. It’s nice to have your law firm securing the top ranking across a smattering of relevant keyword queries, but how much organic traffic are you really getting from those rankings? And from that traffic, how many new leads and conversions are you getting?
This is the critical question for the efficacy of AMPs. It seems like a given that incorporating Google’s AMP HTML protocols can give your content a boost in raw visibility, since it’s featured in an above-the-fold carousel, but that may not guarantee more traffic, nor will it guarantee that the traffic you do earn will respond to your calls-to-action (CTAs).
In fact, AMPs may present additional obstacles to your SEO strategy’s total return on investment (ROI). In the off chance that you’re relying on advertising as part of your revenue, Google will remain in full control of your ad networks while your content is hosted on their servers. Because AMP users are frequently looking for quick answers, they’re less likely to visit your main domain, resulting in fewer pages per session and higher bounce rates. And perhaps most importantly, the empirical data suggests that AMPs only result in more traffic for one-third of the publishers that implement them. So in addition to only having a 34 percent chance of increasing your total inbound traffic, the traffic you do get could be less valuable than the traffic you’d earn from conventional organic rankings. There are also reports of webmasters seeing a drop in conversion rates of as much as 70 percent (though this should be taken with a grain of salt, since some publishers have seen an increase in conversion rates), and in some cases, your bounce rates can skyrocket to more than 90 percent.
The worst possible interpretation here is that converting to Google AMP protocols will hurt both your inbound traffic and your conversion rates, resulting in lower revenue. The best possible interpretation is that there’s no guarantee of an increase in your traffic or conversion rates. Results for the average law firm, as you can imagine, will fall somewhere in the middle, and the middle of those two extremes isn’t exactly a good place to be. While you might get an artificial boost in SERP visibility, that isn’t going to yield you a higher ROI.
Your SEO ROI isn’t just about how much traffic or how many conversions you see; it’s also about how much you’re spending on your campaign. Even if a strategy is giving you more revenue, if it costs too much money to sustain it, it may not be worth the investment.
Here, we can identify another weakness of AMPs: the level of investment required to get them working and keep them working. To start, optimization isn’t super difficult. It’s more time-intensive and requires more coding expertise than, say, updating a meta description in the backend of a WordPress site, but it’s a reasonable set of protocols to execute for an experienced developer. There are some plugins and tools that you can use to aid you in this implementation, but it’s typically better to hand-code these changes for reasons that will soon be evident; if you do this, it could take several weeks of work to get your site up and running.
On top of that, Google is strict about how you optimize your AMPs. For example, Google requires that the AMP versions of your individual pages match your canonical pages with “close parity.” In other words, your regular page and AMP should be nearly identical. In the process of tweaking and optimizing your AMP, it’s not unusual to lose or move certain design elements; if this happens, Google could mandate you to make a change, or remove your AMP from its servers until you correct the issue.
For many law firms, this is a lot to ask for an online visibility strategy that’s not even guaranteed to earn you more traffic or revenue.
Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve been able to affordably develop AMPs for your site and you’re eager to see whether those pages are generating more traffic, pageviews, conversions, and other metrics that matter. In theory, you should be able to peek into Google Analytics at any time and see if this is the case. Alas, this would be too easy.
AMPs actually operate using a different analytics tag. While Google does make it fairly easy to integrate this HTML tag in your AMPs, the bottom line here is that you’ll need to track your traffic using two different analytics platforms: one for your AMPs and one for your conventional webpages.
Plus, remember that the AMP version of your website isn’t hosted on your servers. It’s hosted on Google’s, which can lead to some buggy reporting. In the early days of AMP, bugs were rampant, sometimes erroneously reporting a unique visitor with a single visit as four independent pageviews.
Even if you spend time ironing out these discrepancies, there’s no way to tell whether the data you’re getting is entirely accurate. Beyond that, it’s hard to trace where your main site visitors are actually coming from; were these truly referral visits from Google’s servers, or should they count as organic visitors? What did they do on your site, and was their behavior influenced by the fact that they started out on an AMP?
There are some crafty ways around this. For example, you can stitch together initial data from AMP analytics with the resulting behavioral trends in Google Analytics to form a single session. But like with everything else, this takes a serious investment of time and money, and may not be worth it for the questionable benefits AMPs would bring your site in the first place.
At this point, you’re probably thinking it’s better to stick with the traditional law firm SEO strategies that have worked for your firm in the past. Perhaps you’ll ignore AMPs entirely and stick to more typical mobile SEO strategies that earn you a higher position in the conventional section of the SERPs. If you do this, there’s a chance you may see lower rates of organic traffic overall; if you’re organically ranking in an SERP where the AMP carousel is prominent, it may siphon a major stream of traffic from you, preventing those visitors from even seeing your law firm’s name.
However, the organic traffic you do receive will still be significant, and may be of higher overall value. You’ll invest less time, money, and effort into your pages (since SEO will be more straightforward), and the visitors you do get may be less likely to bounce, more likely to visit more pages on your site, and ultimately more likely to convert. In other words, even if you get fewer visitors, there’s a good chance the visitors you do get will yield more value.
Let’s take a moment to talk about featured snippets, an unrelated feature of Google SERPs that bears some similarities to the intentions and complexities of AMPs. If you aren’t familiar, “featured snippets” are the concise answers you’ll sometimes see above the fold when typing a specific question into Google. For example, if you type in “what killed the dinosaurs?”, you’ll likely see a paragraph-long block of text briefly explaining the mass extinction, above the fold of conventional organic rankings.
This featured snippet, sometimes called a “rich answer,” is taken directly from a webpage that Google believes to be authoritative. Its ranking algorithms and semantic search capabilities have analyzed your question and selected this one among its potential candidates as the “best” for the query. The original source of this quote is cited at the bottom, with a typical link, meta title, and URL.
Like with AMPs, many search optimizers view this as an opportunity for more visibility; if you can get your content and your site listed above the fold like this, your brand will take precedence over others. People will be reading your answer instead of clicking through to a competitor’s site. And indeed, many law firms have taken to answering legal questions succinctly, both on their sites and on public question-answering services like Quora to capitalize on this.
However, we see problems with this strategy. For starters, for your answer to be considered a candidate for this kind of presentation, it needs to adhere to some strict formatting standards. It doesn’t take weeks of time to implement, but it does restrict what you’re able to do with the back end of your site. More notably, a quick answer isn’t exactly a good thing for your site or your brand; many users, after getting a concise answer to their question, will move on rather than clicking through. In other words, Google gets exactly what it wants, and your site scarcely benefits.
This is, on some level, Google’s intention. They’re the top dogs in the search world, so when they open the door to the possibility of above-the-fold visibility in the SERPs, most publishers and major websites will quickly comply with whatever standards Google demands in return. In these cases, the demanded standards are structural, applying to the back end of your site so that Google can parse and index your content faster. This isn’t malicious; in fact, Google only does this to make its product better for end users. But it does bring up some interesting and complicated dilemmas, which make it harder to tell exactly what the “right” SEO strategy for your law firm is.
So should your law firm be pursuing AMPs or rich answers in the form of featured snippets? It depends on your goals, but in many cases, these attempts to get above-the-fold visibility in search engines won’t bring you as much revenue as conventional organic rankings or traditional SEO strategies. Focus on strategies like link building and basic SEO tactics designed to help you gain a competitive advantage, and of course, don’t forget about onsite conversion optimization so all your organic traffic can turn into measurable revenue for your firm.
If you’re feeling stuck and aren’t sure what to do next, or if your law firm’s current SEO strategy is in need of an overhaul, contact us today! We’ll provide you with a free analysis of your current link building and SEO efforts, and help you determine the best ways to improve your campaign in terms of real ROI—not just superficial visibility.