A few years ago, we did a post on this topic; i.e., the relative popularity of the word ‘attorney’ vs. ‘lawyer’ in Google searches related to legal services. Even though outdated, it is still one of our most popular posts. Obviously, a lot has changed since 2013 in terms of how users interact with Google search. Google search itself continues to adapt to changes in how users search, with updates like mobile-first rankings, advancements in Google’s machine learning (aka RankBrain), Knowledge Graphs, Answer Boxes, and the list goes on.
How Does that Affect the Usage of ‘Lawyer’ vs. ‘Attorney’?
Let’s take a data-driven look into how search trends changed in law firm SEO. A few years ago, the data broadly supported the widely held belief the word ‘lawyer’ was much more commonly used when referencing consumer-facing practice areas such as criminal defense or personal injury. It also seemed that consumer-practices’ websites which used the word ‘lawyer’ were seen to have improved conversion rates. We also found that for some practice areas, the word ‘attorney’ generally had a higher search volume then ‘lawyer’, but that the gap between them could narrow quite a bit depending on location and additional practice area search terms.
In 2017, even if many of the principles we discussed in our last article hold true, Google’s advancements allow us to look past the one-stop search volume check to understand what people are searching for.
‘Lawyer’ vs. ‘Attorney’ in Terms of Keyword Search Volume: Revisited
Let’s take a brief look at how search volumes for ‘lawyer’ vs ‘attorney’ have progressed recently.
As you can imagine, these two keywords don’t tell us much about the people searching for them. They’re not actionable keywords for a law firm looking to attract customers, and in this case a search for simply ‘attorney’ could include people looking for legal jobs, salary information, news about the Attorney General and so on. Let’s try a few practice areas:
In most cases you can determine a clear leader, but it’s pretty close. Plus, narrowing the focus from one state to another could cause quite a flux in the results.
A few years ago we generally supported the theory that searches containing the word ‘lawyer’ were mostly performed by consumers seeking legal services, while ‘attorney’ searches would be performed by businesses seeking legal services or other attorneys themselves. Looking at it today, the term ‘divorce attorney’ (nationwide) is slightly higher than ‘divorce lawyer’.
We suspect that the answer has a lot to do with language semantics and the way people are used to hearing things as well as the way they naturally phrase things. Word usage also changes depending on where you are. The preferred term could easily vary by by state.
But there is also an influence coming from Google itself. For a free and easy way to understand the type of language people use in search, look no further than Google Autocomplete.
The Effects of Google Autocomplete
Many people (and many SEOs) underestimate using Google autocomplete as an SEO phrasing/correlation tool.
But what autocomplete allows marketers to see are the phrases people are actually searching for, related to the typed search query. Simply typing the word ‘divorce’ could show you which variation of ‘divorce lawyer’ is more commonly searched, without having to look at any search volume numbers in a service like Google Search Console or Google Trends.
Certain practice areas might defy the conventional logic that ‘lawyer’ is for consumers and ‘attorney’ is for other attorneys and businesses. ‘Divorce attorney’ is a good example of this. Theoretically, everyone searching for this is a typical consumer, so it may seem odd that ‘divorce attorney’ is the primary term.
But when I started thinking about this from a less SEO-minded perspective and more in terms of everyday life and the real world, it made complete sense. Sitting in a major market on the East Coast, ‘divorce attorney’ is typically the term I have heard in conversation for most of my life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have had the same experience.
Take this business-facing practice areas as well:
Though this is generally ‘business facing’, I suspect that the majority of the people searching for this term might be students and or looking to go into the field, since business owners might be omitted from this generalized term because they are much more likely to search including a more specific phrase such as “failure to perform” or “breach of fiduciary duty”, etc. This would omit some target clients from being included the pool generating a significant amount of search volume relative to the term ‘corporate lawyer’.
This is evident by finishing the phrase in Autocomplete:
Compare the ‘corporate lawyer’ results above to something like ‘personal injury lawyer’. This screenshot would demonstrate that the term “personal injury lawyer’ is a phrasing variation that people search for very often and would be considered an acceptably broad term for a potential client to use in order for them to find a suitable attorney. The corporate client might have deeper knowledge of the applicable legal issue at hand and include the specific terminology.
Verifying This ‘Attorney’ vs. ‘Lawyer’ Theory in Google Search Console
Taking a quick look at the actual results some of our clients have gotten from these terms, it became more apparent that the autocomplete-suggested term played a big role in getting actual site traffic from Google results.
Here are the site impressions terms that include the word ‘lawyer’ vs. the word ‘attorney’ for two of our client sites, one a personal injury attorney (top) and the other a tax attorney (bottom).
You can see that both follow what we outlined and what you would generally expect – mainly that personal injury clients use the word ‘lawyer’ more frequently and corporate/financial clients use the word “attorney” more frequently. Similarly, you can see that one of our tax clients also had search console results reflective of the search volume and autocomplete trends for the practice area (which means they are doing well for those terms).
So, Should You Use ‘Attorney’ or ‘Lawyer’ for Better Law Firm SEO?
From a search volume perspective, the preferred term really depends on the specific practice area and location.
There are plenty of exceptions to the ‘lawyer’ = consumer focus and ‘attorney’ = business/lawyer focus rule of thumb that you should consider when writing content. This is why proper keyword research is so important and why you should research the specific practice area within any given geographic market before getting started with on an SEO or content strategy.
It should also be noted that when we write page content—say, a page called ‘Houston Motorcycle Accident Injury Lawyers’ – just because the word ‘lawyer’ is in the page title we wouldn’t want to exclude the word ‘attorney’ entirely.
This is especially true if the search volume between the two is close. The biggest decision to use one term other the other applies the most to page title tags and H2 headers. In the body content itself, using the other variation here and there can help cover the other keyword term, and also avoids frequent repetition from a readability standpoint.
It should also be said that we have noticed that Google does not correlate the words ‘attorney’ and ‘lawyer’ similarly in all geographies – meaning that some geographic and practice area SERPs would have the same search results for a term regardless if ‘lawyer’ or ‘attorney’ is used and some would not.
If you are interested in learning more about our data-driven approach to SEO for law firms and legal content marketing, give us a call. We work with attorneys from a variety of practice areas across the country to improve search rankings, drive website traffic traffic — and increase lead generation.