SEO and PR

Public Relations Jun 11, 2006

With HitTail, Connors Communications claims that the field of search engine optimization (SEO) is a subset of public relations. I know that’s going to be fighting words for some readers. But I believe this, because the technical matters of search engine optimization are becoming best practice, and fading into the background of the discussion. They are simply things you need to take care of first. Beyond the technical projects that almost always must be carried out with a new engagement with a search client, the process starts to look a lot like traditional public relations.

And I must address it before I get too deep into this article. There’s a brand of SEO for PR that’s being practiced that mostly involves propagating “optimized” press releases, articles and white papers that use links back to your site, making PR uniquely measurable. While this is an important component in the connection between PR and SEO, the Connors approach goes far beyond this in both philosophy and methodology. We lump the practice of optimizing press releases and measuring ROI along with the technical matters into the background discussion. Neither are sufficient philosophical or strategic shifts to really change the game. What philosophy and the strategy am I talking about?

PR focuses on publicity generated through means other than paid advertising—that is to say non-paid. Sometimes it’s a fantastic attention-grabbing stunt. But more often, it’s communicating a company’s news to professional journalists, so they can choose whether or not to include it in their editorial coverage. This applies with all media, and the editorial coverage may also be in television, such as a spot on the Today Show. Point being, such publicity is distinctly different from paid advertisements, because it lives in the TV program or the column, and not in the commercials and the ads. In our age of media-savvy consumers who filter out the ads, PR tends to be so effective, because your message is delivered where attention is most focused and trust is at its highest.

This is the exact goal of search engine optimization, and all too often we forget that the main search listings are editorial in nature—just like a TV program or magazine column. The natural results of search in Yahoo, Google or MSN are those sites’ opinions of who should appear on what words. Conversely, listings that are put in the margins are the exact equivalent of ads or commercials. They’re there because the client paid for it to be there. It’s a clear deal—unlike PR or SEO, where it’s a less clear deal, but the wins can be much larger than with advertising, at a much lower cost. PR and SEO are philosophically identical methods, applied to different media.

Meanwhile, the mechanical aspects of SEO are being reduced to a playbook. Connors boiled it down to a one-pager that we give to new SEO clients. If you don’t do these things, you haven’t leveled the playing field for your site, and the bloggers in your space will continue to have more influence than you, decreasing your reach to new customers, and increasing your risk and susceptibility to angry, disgruntled bloggers. Clients must accept this reality, and work with us from an IT-perspective to get their Web publishing infrastructure adhering to best practices at least as well as it is accomplished by blog software. We’ve worked through this with some difficult-to-change infrastructures. It must be done, or all the rest of your efforts will be for naught. And if it simply can’t be done, then we ask for a subdirectory of their site where we can set up a blog, or use our own content management system to publish into.

So, after you take care of the mechanics, how does SEO look like PR? And more specifically, where does a public relations firm get off saying SEO is just a facet of its own industry? Easy! The connection is communicating effectively—often through writing. Video plays in, and I have so much to say about that, that I’ll have to make it the subject of another post, and refrain myself to talking about text-based content for now.

Now, there are many reasons adding just the right text to your website helps both your public relations and search optimization goals. I must also refrain from delving into all the factors that spring into play, or else this will be a very long article, indeed. Suffice to say that more content adds more “surface area” to your site, making it into a larger piece of the total Internet, and thereby proportionately increasing your odds of being found. You can tell that through common-sense alone. The odds work in your favor with a larger site. You can throw a few more factors into the mix and still avoid the long discussion by noting that Google’s patent from March of last year revealed that they take new content and site growth into account as a factor. And with blog software, each time you add content, the entire world is notified through a pinging system. Adding content on a regular basis is advantageous.

This closely parallels the need in the field of public relations to keep yourself in the news. Especially in high tech, you are most relevant if you have the most to say from a leadership position in the industry. Nowhere is this clearer than in the big tech companies that have “dreamlands” that incubate both pure research, and its application in business. IBM comes to mind, and the constant advances in manipulating atoms, and how this is gradually leading to nano-fabrication. Every little advance is truly news. While not as striking, almost every industry and company that has newsworthy events to report, is well served by doing so on a semi-regular basis to keep them top-of-mind with their prospective customers. When the time comes to make a purchasing decision, the repeated exposure through the news definitely plays in. In marketing terms, this is called cognitive resonance, and it is just as true with PR… and SEO!

So many in the field of search are concerned with that first search hit and getting the conversion on that first visit. But the truth is that most industries are ruled by the Rule of 5, or the Rule of 7 (varies based on the difficulty of the market). This states that a customer doesn’t usually make their decision until there have been at least 5 (or 7) separate communications with the company. And re-discovering the company through a search hit counts as a touch! So, search optimization does not merely carry the responsibility of generating that first hit. It also must coral the prospect back again and again, no matter how their search terms evolve and change over time.

And HERE is where it shifts from philosophy to strategy. Philosophically, SEO belongs to the field of PR because of identical missions. Strategically, SEO belongs to PR because of the need to write content for these continually shifting and changing, but still relevant terms — the need to write for the long tail of search.

I’ve talked about writing for the long tail of search et nauseum in other posts. So, I’ll jump right to how the challenge is so similar to the PR task of positioning and messaging. Positioning is something the PR industry does to figure out how you fit into the entire spectrum of products in your industry, and what makes yours special and different. Messaging is how this is packaged and delivered to different audiences. But always, it’s spot-on, delivering the desired controlled message, bringing your audience to the same conclusion: many paths, one destination.

Writing for the long tail of search has the exact same parameters. When HitTail suggests new search terms, it is literally the same as a journalist asking you “well, what about…” In fact, some journalists take great pride in coming up with the unanticipated questions to see if the story holds water (as well, they should). A skilled practitioner of public relations has such a thorough understanding of the big picture, that every answer is spot-on, and brings the audience back to the exact same (predetermined) conclusion. This is a skill of public relations.

Compare that to the practices of black hat search engine spammers who write for the long tail of search by harvesting related content (effectively plagiarizing), and spinning out 10,000 derivative pages. Sometimes, this is called search scraping, because they had to perform searches on terms to get the content from Google. Today, their job is greatly simplified with RSS feeds, bringing content aggregation pirating to new levels. We can only hope that the brilliant minds in search will be able to identify original-sources and filter the rest. Because what we’re talking about here is original writing, and real writing craft.

So, now compare the public relations approach to writing for the long tail of search to merely blogging in order to engage and lead the discussions in your industry. Many have jumped on this particular blogging bandwagon. While this has merit, we still view it as incomplete. Yes, you will be opening a dialogue with your already existing audience, making it a workable strategy for large companies. But it does very little to strategically EXPAND the size of your sales pipeline funnel. Here too is subject matter for another post, because I could talk forever about the sales pipeline. Suffice to say, that as you blog, you are very deliberately expanding your reach to prospective customers, because those same said prospects VOLUNTEERED competitive intelligence directly to you in the form of what keywords they just searched on. No one else has this data (except, maybe your ISP). Not your competitors, not WordTracker, not the keyword suggestion tools in AdSense and Yahoo. Only you. It’s buried deep in your log files, and the process of HitTailing easily brings them to your attention at a steady flow, in real-time, and sorted by potential, so you can literally answer those prospects as quickly as they drop the suggestions into the box.

So to put a fine point on it, growing your site is good. Blogging is better. Blogging with the competitive intelligence provided by the HitTailing process is best. The mission of any company is to get and keep customers. The mission of public relations is to do this at a lower cost than advertising, through channel that are more trusted. The mission of search engine optimization is the same. And when you get past all the technical matters of SEO, what you’re left with is the need to write about exactly the right things in exactly the right way to capture new customers. And THAT is a long-established skill set within the PR industry. The PR industry is therefore staking its claim to the whole field of SEO, and the HitTail site is one of the first indicators that they have the technical chops to do exactly that. And at the same time, we will happily help those who wish to do it in-house by providing the HitTail service for free—and change the very shape of marketing in the process.

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