Why you don’t need an SEO agency

If you’re just getting started with your business, don’t be fooled into thinking you need to pay for a costly SEO agency before your website starts showing up on Google. When you’re working with a limited (or even non-existent) marketing budget, there’s a lot of stuff you can do with your own two hands to improve your organic traffic.

Here’s what SEO agencies won’t tell you

The easiest way to get to the top of the search results is to publish a lot of great quality content, and most SEO agencies can’t do that. They’ve probably got a bunch of SEO copywriters who can churn out low-quality blog posts stuffed with all the right keywords for your industry, but that’s not going to help you when all your competitors are doing the exact same thing.

I’ll try to make this as simple as possible. For a website to perform well in search engine results, you need two things:

  • Content (blog posts, landing pages, video, images) that’s highly relevant to what your business does, so that when Google looks at your website it can form a clear picture of what your business is all about.
  • Links from other websites pointing to yours, and ideally those websites should also be highly relevant to what your business does, so that Google knows your website contains useful information (every link to your site from a third party is a vote of confidence).

If your site is full of shitty, low-quality content that doesn’t provide people with anything useful, nobody is going to link to it.

On the other hand, if your website is full of really great quality articles and resources that people find helpful, they’re going to share it on social media and link to it from their own websites. And that creates a snowball effect, because the more your content gets shared, the more it gets seen, the more it gets shared.

So this is my mantra; the number one thing you should do to get your online business noticed is to create as much genuinely helpful content as you can, and never stop. Think about what problems your customers have, what questions are they asking, what advice are they looking for, what resources would be helpful to them, and give them answers.

Get that first part right, and the links will soon follow. At the very beginning you’ll need to do some work to get your content seen in the first place, but once your site starts to become established as a source of useful information, people will be able to find it much more easily.

But what about ‘technical SEO’?

When people talk about ‘technical SEO’ they generally mean ensuring that your website is properly structured so that it doesn’t have any technical problems that might stop it from performing well in search engines. These could be things like broken links, missing sitemaps, incorrect use of title tags, missing alt-text on images – and if all this stuff sounds complicated, it’s not, they can usually be fixed very easily.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of getting this right, but as far as I’m concerned technical SEO is a distant second to great quality content in terms of how you should prioritise your time. Good content will outweigh poor optimisation. That’s not to say you shouldn’t worry about it, but focus on the content first and try to fix technical issues whenever you can.

And the good news is that technical SEO doesn’t have to cost you anything – there are free tools that will help you spot any problems and tell you how to fix them. So long as your website is sensibly built and follows widely accepted standards and best practices, there’s not going to be much wrong with it from a technical perspective.

If you’re using WordPress as your blogging platform, just install the Yoast SEO plugin, and it will flag any problems with your blog, along with specific guidance for solving them right there in your WP dashboard. The basic plugin is free, and while premium features are available for more advanced users, the free version will make a big difference.

You should set up Google Search Console for your site, because this gives you clear information right from the horse’s mouth. As well as showing you exactly how your site is performing in Google, the Search Console will identify any major problems which are holding you back. I would trust Google’s advice above an SEO consultant every single time.

Also set up a free Ahrefs account for your site. This is a great SEO tool which also provides information about your site performance as well as highlighting any technical problems. Like Yoast, it’s a freemium product, the basic version provides everything you need to get started and there are more advanced options available when you need them.

The good news about technical SEO is that once you start using these tools and get used to seeing the kind of issues they flag up, you’ll learn very quickly what’s important to get right. Soon you won’t need to think about SEO at all because you’ll just bake it into your regular process when adding new content to your site.

Time is on your side

Earlier I said there are two things a site needs to perform well in search engines, good content and plenty of backlinks, but I missed one other important thing, time. It takes a while to build organic traffic, especially for brand new sites. It can take months for your content to start showing up in search results.

Anybody who tries to tell you they can give you fast SEO results is a liar. If you need quick results, the best thing you can do is invest money in Google Ads – then you’ll start getting traffic to your site almost immediately. But we’re focused on long term organic growth. This doesn’t cost you money, but it does cost you time and effort.

And the beauty of organic is that it keeps providing an ongoing return on investment. All that content you create, all the work you put into technical optimisation, and all the links that you earn with your content, that stuff will keep giving you web traffic for years to come.

What is Digital PR – My No-Bullshit Guide

The Quick Version

Digital PR means persuading online media to publish articles about your business that include links to your website. This has two main benefits:

  1. It raises the public profile of your business, improves your reputation and helps build your brand.
  2. Every time your website gets a ‘good quality’ link from respected media website, that helps improve your site’s performance in search engines, so you get more traffic and sell more stuff.

The Long Version

The term “digital PR” is appearing more frequently these days, but what is digital PR and how is it different from conventional PR? For that matter, WTF even is PR at all?

PR or ‘Public Relations’ is a piece of the marketing mix that focuses on how the public views your business, and protecting its reputation. It’s all part of building a brand.

If your business has a good reputation, people know and trust your brand, then you’re going to sell more, it’s that simple. And the way PR does that is mostly through getting journalists to say nice things about your business in the media – although in practice getting journalists to say anything at all about your business is usually challenging enough.

So, conventional PR is all about getting your business featured in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, or pretty much any media channel where there’s an audience who might pay attention. It involves building relationships with journalists and coming up with creative ideas to convince them to mention your business.

That could be anything from including a comment from one of your executives in a news report that’s relevant to your industry, to a whole feature reviewing your latest product.

Of course, you can always pay to advertise your business in the media, but that costs a lot of money and people don’t trust adverts. PR is better than advertising because you don’t have to pay for it, and people generally trust independent editorial coverage a lot more than ads; if the editor of Big Fast Cars Monthly magazine tells you that the newest Range Rover is the best car he’s ever driven, that’s a lot more persuasive than a paid advert telling you the same thing.

Remember, the whole point of PR is to increase the visibility of your business in the public eye, and to convince consumers that your brand is trustworthy.

OK, got it, but what is Digital PR?

As the web took off and became the most important channel for many businesses, PR became more valuable in a surprising way.

These days, getting people to visit your website is one of the most important marketing objectives, and the best way to do that is if they can find your site easily when they’re searching on Google for the kind of things you sell. If you sell cat food, and your website is the very first result when somebody searches for “cat food” on Google, you’re going to sell a lot of cat food.

But there are a ton of people who sell cat food, so how does Google decide which website to display at the top of those search results? That’s a big, complicated topic, but all you need to understand right now is that if you have a lot of other websites linking to your site, telling people “hey, these guys make awesome cat food” that’s going to help you a lot.

Even better if those links are coming from highly respected websites, like big media channels with huge audiences. If CNN published an investigation into the best cat foods on the market, and linked to your website, that’s a lot more valuable than a link from your sister-in-law’s cat blog, and not just because more people will read the CNN article (although that’s useful in its own right) but because it’s a trusted, authoritative site, and that link will give Google a clue that your site can also be trusted.

So what is digital PR’s point? The goal is still to secure coverage for your business in the media, but the focus is more specifically on online media, for the purpose of getting them to link to your website to improve your position in the Google search rankings.

If the BBC broadcast a report about how wonderful your business is, that would of course be fantastic, but it doesn’t really help your website perform better in Google searches. It’s much more valuable if the BBC publishes a report on its website, with a link to your website.

Why is Digital PR a big deal?

You’re reading this blog because you’re trying to build a business with zero marketing budget, right? (I hope so, at least, because that’s the whole point of this site.)

Digital PR is one of the most powerful marketing activities you can do with no money.

A good way to think about marketing activity is like a balance sheet; what do you put in, what do you get out? So let’s look at that balance sheet for digital PR:

What you put in: time and creativity, but not money. You need to come up with ideas for how you can convince the media to write about your business (i.e. what’s the story), and then you need to do the leg-work of selling-in that story. That means emailing as many journalists and writers as you can find, or even getting on the phone, tailoring the story for each of them so that it’s specifically relevant to their audience, and doing a good job of explaining why it matters to them.

What you get out: links to your website, better performance in Google, more visitors to your site, more sales. Plus, there’s all the increased visibility of your brand that simply comes from the media talking about it.

Maybe a little bit, but not really. Old school SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) does link-building in a very unsophisticated way, and it’s starting to fail. These guys just try their best to get links to your website wherever and however they can, often by paying people to add links to their sites, going for quantity over quality because for a long time that’s what worked.

With an SEO specialist, you would often find that you get a lot of links to your site from places that make no sense – like a construction company for some reason linking to your cat food site, with no context or explanation.

Google is smarter now, and it can tell when SEO people are trying to fool it into thinking that a website is more popular and trustworthy than it really is. It understands context a lot better. If you’ve got a link pointing to your site from an article that’s talking about stuff that’s relevant to what your business does, that’s more valuable than a random link from a site that has absolutely nothing in common with yours.

With Digital PR, you get that all important context – the link to your site will usually be on a page that contains an article that’s relevant to your business, and often from a reputable, trustworthy website.

Can I do Digital PR myself?

Yes! Big companies with big budgets pay agencies to do this kind of work for them, but if you’re time rich and cash poor there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself. Journalists don’t care if an email comes from a professional PR executive at an expensive consultancy, or just somebody running their own small business – all they care about is a getting a good story that their readers will love.

If you’re a small, brand new business then even one or two pieces of online media coverage linking to your website will make a big difference. But if the stars are aligned, you come up with a great pitch, and everything falls into place, the best case scenario is that a story you sell into the media goes viral, gets picked up by dozens or even hundreds of online media sources, and suddenly you’ve got a huge volume of high quality links pointing to your website.

What you need to get good at is understanding what kind of stories and content media websites want, and figuring out ways to offer them that stuff in a way that includes your brand. I’ve got two pieces of advice to help you with that:

  • Constantly read the media that you want your business to be featured in – this will give you a good feel for the kind of things they publish.
  • Be persistent but polite. Most of the stuff you try to pitch to the media won’t be of interest, that’s just the nature of the game. Be polite, don’t waste their time, and go back a month later with a different pitch. Sooner or later something will hit.

How I got a PR agency to the top of Google’s search results

In January 2014 I started work at the financial and corporate PR agency, Hudson Sandler, as head of digital. One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.

I started work on this project in autumn of 2014 and by the time I left the agency in summer 2015, the website was on the front page of Google for many relevant search terms, and right at the top of the results for key terms such as ‘financial PR agency’ and ‘corporate PR agency’. During that period the monthly traffic increased exponentially and the site began generating lucrative sales leads for the agency.

My budget for this project was £0, and there are dozens of much larger UK agencies competing for those search terms.

So how did I do it?

The first step was to move the site from static HTML pages to a content management system that would make it easy for us to add and edit content, so we migrated the old site to WordPress with a modified off-the-peg template to match the agency’s branding. I also installed an SEO plugin which automatically generated sitemaps and allowed me to manually edit page titles and meta-descriptions.

Next I overhauled the site’s static content. PR agencies tend to favour fluffy, strategic sounding language which is absolutely no use for SEO purposes – search engine algorithms aren’t good at deciphering marketing doublespeak. So I rewrote as much of the content as possible with clear, descriptive copy about the agency and the services it offered. I also made sure that the site had plenty of internal links with descriptive anchor text.

In addition to the static content I introduced a blog to the site so we could regularly post updates about the agency and thought leadership pieces, this was central to the whole approach. Over several months we wrote a lot of blog posts that were tightly focused on our key subject areas of financial and corporate PR. This doesn’t mean churning out copy stuffed with keywords, but simply that the articles were all specifically about different aspects of the topic at hand.

This meant that when Google’s algorithm looked at our site, it would find lots of content and language that is highly relevant to that topic. It was also important that the blog posts were genuinely useful and interesting for the target audience for a couple of reasons:

  1. This would increase the chances of them being shared on social media and linked to from other sites, which is good for SEO
  2. If the articles are of poor quality visitors will not spend very long on the page, and this can have a damaging effect on the site’s performance in search engines

I also made a point of writing lengthy blog posts of around 1,000 words or more where possible, because most SEO experts believe that longer articles are better than 400/500 word blogspam. Writing a lot of good quality, on-topic, long-form blog posts is hard work, but there are no shortcuts here, your site’s search engine rankings depend on great content, so you need to put the effort in. The results we achieved prove the value of that.

Having fixed the site’s structure and greatly improved the quality of content, there was one final piece of the puzzle to solve; backlinks. Your site’s SEO is highly dependent on both the number and quality of links pointing to it from third party sites. In short, you need as many links as possible from high authority sites (i.e. websites belonging to established media, big corporations, government, academia and other respected sources) and this is very hard to achieve.

This is where we relied on good old fashioned PR skills to charm and persuade people to link to our site. We asked clients to link to us from their online press centres, we created stories which gave the trade media good reasons to write about us, and we came up with a few other creative ways of getting links from authoritative third party sites. As with the content, there are no shortcuts here any more; if you want good quality links to your site, doing the legwork is the only way to make it happen.

And that’s pretty much the long and short of it. Using Google Search Console we were able to track how our site was appearing in search results and we noticed an almost immediate improvement, but it took a couple of months before we started to see our site at the top of the results for relevant search terms. Over time, as we added more content and secured more links, the results got better and we began to inch out major competitors for our most important search terms.

If you take away anything from this story it should be this – everything I did was relatively simple. Sure, it’s hard work to create a pipeline of good content and to get lots of quality backlinks but there’s no dark art to any of it, you just have to put the hours in.

How to write brilliant long-form blog posts

Image credit: JM3/Flickr
Image credit: JM3/Flickr

If you work in PR or any kind of social media marketing, you probably need to write a lot of blog posts and I’ll bet that most of them are no longer than about 400-500 words. Conventional wisdom is that people don’t read long articles online and this kind of length is ideal for SEO purposes.

That’s not really true any more. SEO experts largely agree that long-form articles perform better in search engines and, while there are no hard and fast rules, broadly speaking you should be writing at least 1,000 words per blog post to get better results. For more serious, in depth reports, you should be thinking about word counts closer to the order of 3,000.

The idea that people don’t read long-form articles online is also outdated. This thinking harks back to a time long before smartphones and tablets, when people only accessed the web on their PCs. It made sense that nobody wanted to read long articles on their PC screen, but these days people are much more likely to read a long article on a tablet or phone, away from their desk.

The truth is that any idiot can churn out 400 words on almost any topic (although plenty of people still do a terrible job of it). That’s why the internet is full of low-value, spammy content, and the public relations industry is especially guilty of this. We charge by the hour, and good quality content takes time. We give junior execs tight deadlines to write about complex topics which they don’t understand in order to meet targets, and the end results are flimsy blog posts that nobody wants to read.

Writing good quality articles of any reasonable length is a lot harder, you’ll need to go into a lot more detail about the topic and any gaps in your knowledge will become painfully obvious. And that’s really the point here; long form articles tend to be higher quality, not just because they have more words, but by virtue of the fact that in order to write those extra words the author has probably had to do a lot more research, has a better knowledge of the topic, and is most likely simply a better writer.

How PR people get long form blogs wrong

Most public relations people approach blog posts in the same way as press releases, which follow the time honoured ‘news pyramid’ format. This starts with a concise, pithy headline, then all of the most important facts about the story in the first paragraph or two, followed by an increasing amount of supporting information, quotes and extra context as we get further into the article.

The problem with this style of writing is that while it works well for news stories, it’s not so good for long form articles. When you get most of the ‘story’ across in the first few lines, it’s easy to run out of things to say and you’ll find yourself padding out the article with pointless filler, desperately trying to hit the word count.

A good way to approach long form articles is to turn the news pyramid on its head. Start by outlining the topic, what are the major issues, what’s the background, who does it impact, how is it likely to be relevant to the reader? Flesh out your main points with plenty of context – is there any independent research with statistics and facts you can cite to support your arguments? What have other people said about the same issue? Add in relevant quotes from prominent commentators, experts, and journalists, and consider how their viewpoints could be used to add additional detail to your article. Alternative, conflicting opinions are great sources of additional material and will add balance to your article.

The important point about all of this is that nothing you add to your article needs to be padding – you can always find something else to add value, a little extra information that helps paint a picture or make a point without resorting to unnecessary verbiage. But think again about that inverted news pyramid. As you construct your article you should be moving down from the broad scene-setting and context-adding towards the fundamental point that you want to make.

Planning is essential for writing long form blogs

When you’re writing longer articles it’s not enough to simply brain dump your thoughts onto the page and then tidy the copy up afterwards, you need to plan the piece out. People in the PR industry talk a lot about ‘storytelling’ and this is where you really need to put that skill into practice.

To start with write down bullet point versions of all the areas you want to cover, then try to arrange them into a logical structure. Does each point flow naturally onto the next, towards the articles ultimate conclusion? Are there any glaring gaps in the flow? If there are any areas where one part of the discussion does not seem to move seamlessly from one point to the next, this is a good sign that there are some missing pieces in your story which need to be filled in, and this will help you add more to it.

Next take a look at all those bullet points and flesh them out with supporting notes. Think about what you’ll need to cover in each of those sections to tell the full story and explain each point clearly. Again, during this process you’re likely to notice things that are missing or don’t entirely make sense, and this will help you to not only get your word count up, but also write a better blog post.

Now that you’ve done the hard work of thinking out the structure and overall content of your post, actually writing the copy should be relatively straight forward. It’s always harder to start with a blank page, after all.

Once the first draft is complete, hopefully you’ll find that you’ve got both a well written article that flows well, and also a high enough word count without the need for any pointless filler material. Read it through, check again if anything’s missing, fill in the gaps. But it’s equally important to remove any fluff that doesn’t need to be there – you might not want to reduce the word count, but let’s not lose sight of the aim, to produce a great article. A higher word count might help with SEO, but consistent writing great articles that are a pleasure to read will help even more. If you have to choose between quality and quantity, the former should win every time.