Darkening Doorway Pages in the Legal SERPs

Google recently announced an impending algorithm update that seeks to minimize the impact of “doorway pages” in search results. Will your firm’s website be affected?

Here’s what you need to know.

Defining a doorway page

First, Google’s definition of doorway pages is far from clear. I believe most SEOs writing about the update are falling short of offering an independent definition for this reason. According to Google doorway pages often have the following characteristics:

  • Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page

  • Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)

  • Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browseable hierarchy

The word funnel is a point of emphasis, but most websites have a defined “conversion funnel,” which is the path they want users to take when they visit their website. Surely, a conversion funnel, in which you guide website visitors to a contact or e-book page doesn’t constitute a doorway page. So, what does?

Wikipedia has the best definition I’ve seen:

Doorway pages are web pages that are created for spamdexing. This is for spamming the index of a search engine by inserting results for particular phrases with the purpose of sending visitors to a different page. They are also known as bridge pages, portal pages, jump pages, gateway pages, entry pages and by other names. Doorway pages that redirect visitors without their knowledge use some form of cloaking. This usually falls under Black Hat SEO.

Spamdexing

The word “spamdexing” gets to the heart of what Google is trying to prevent. They want to minimize visibility for sites/pages created solely for the purpose of pulling a visitor from the search results, and then pushing them to another page. When Google says they are going after doorway pages, what they mean is they are targeting superfluous pages. Superfluous pages are shells that use keywords and HTML to target search volume, but add no value with substantive content (Google’s Panda algorithm already punishes thin pages like these). In really bad cases, these doorway pages will redirect a visitor to another page once they arrive. However, this isn’t what you typically see in the legal SERPs. Instead, you see what Wikipedia calls “Content Rich Doorways.”

Content rich doorways are designed to gain high placement in search results without using redirection. They incorporate at least a minimum amount of design and navigation similar to the rest of the site to provide a more human-friendly and natural appearance. Visitors are offered standard links as calls to action.

Law firm micro sites

Many law firm micro sites could qualify as content rich doorways because they use multiple domains, template heavy designs, spun content, and heavy keyword targeting to gain real estate in the search results. When law firms use this tactic, the micro sites are often linked to one other extensively.

Google lists a series of questions site owners can ask to determine whether a page is a doorway page. Two in particular stand out for lawyers:

  • Do the pages duplicate useful aggregations of items (locations, products, etc.) that already exist on the site for the purpose of capturing more search traffic?
  • Do these pages exist as an “island?” Are they difficult or impossible to navigate to from other parts of your site? Are links to such pages from other pages within the site or network of sites created just for search engines?

Micro sites that duplicate existing practice area, or location information, appear to fall under Google’s definition of a doorway page. For example, let’s say the Smith Law Firm in New York City has a main firm site at smithlawnyc.com. The main site has information about the firm’s various practice areas and locations. The Smith Firm also has a series of micro sites for each of their 5 office locations where the content from the main site location pages has been partially rewritten. These low value micro sites “duplicate useful aggregations of items” that already exist on the main site. In the typical scenario, Smith Law would have also heavily interlinked all of its micro sites. I see this tactic employed frequently by Findlaw clients with large budgets. Superfluous additions to the search index from the same firm = spamdexing.

Doorway pages on your law firm’s main site

Although law firm micro sites are a more obvious choice for doorway page status, don’t assume your main site is safe. I’ve seen firms use interior landing pages to target locations in such a way that they could be considered doorways. For example, let’s say the Smith Law Firm wants to target defective drug cases nationwide. Rather than building micro sites, they create 50 pages all with the following page title: “<TARGET CITY DEFECTIVE DRUG LAWYER/>. Each defective drug page has similar sounding content, but the pages are modified slightly for each targeted city/state. The Smith Firm’s main location pages are navigable from the header throughout the site, but visitors cannot find these defective drug pages through the site’s natural architecture.

This type of strategy has been outdated for years, but now Google is getting ready to slam the door. Referencing the questions above, here are the possible issues:

  • The pages likely duplicate practice area information that already exists on the main site.
  • The pages aren’t navigable from the main part of the site, which means that any links would be for search engines, not visitors. The pages are “closer to search results, than a clearly defined browsable hierarchy.”
  • The pages lack original content and were created only for search engines

The location pages I’ve described above are not navigable from the architecture of the firm’s main site, making them “closer to search results, than a clearly defined browsable hierarchy.” They were undoubtedly created just for search engines. Bottom line is they are likely doorway pages under Google’s new algorithm.

The bottom line

Some law firm websites will likely be considered doorways even though they don’t meet every prong of the definition offered by Google. In most cases I see, questionable law firm sites “spamdex,” but rarely employ redirects to funnel a visitor to another page. Even the spamdex pages invite users to convert from that page, rather than attempt to funnel them to another more “relevant” part of the site. These “Content Rich Doorways” don’t neatly fit within Google’s offered doorway framework. It’s likely these types of pages will be legislated off the first page, but we don’t know yet exactly how this algorithm will impact the SERPs. However, the impact of an individual algorithm is not the point. The point should be to adapt your marketing. SEO isn’t about tricking search engines, it’s about giving users what they want. That’s what Google is trying to do, that’s what your law firm should do.

A long term focus on quality marketing is the best cure for algorithm anxiety of all stripes. Build a brand, not a micro site.

About John O'Connor

John O'Connor is a practicing lawyer and president of JSO Digital, Inc., a New York City based online marketing company specializing in inbound marketing and local search. JSO digital helps law firms, B2B and B2C businesses use the web as a business development tool, leveraging client expertise into greater exposure online.