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 One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.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:
- This would increase the chances of them being shared on social media and linked to from other sites, which is good for SEO
- 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.
The Big Data hype is finally at an end, according to analyst firm Gartner, which recently announced that the term has been dropped from its 2015 technology hype cycle. This means that the idea is no longer considered new and shiny, but is now just another part of the general technological landscape.
What does this mean for the PR industry? We’ve been talking about Big Data for a few years now, but it seems as though we’re still not entirely sure about how it fits into what we do. Any significantly sized business will generate a huge amount of data from across its various operations, and the task of finding actionable intelligence hidden inside it all is not to be underestimated.
Some companies are leading the way in showing what value Big Data can deliver, as Sophie Warnes, a data scientist at H+K Strategies explains: “Companies like Amazon and Netflix use data science on a daily basis. They have algorithms to determine whether you’re going to want to buy something, or what films and TV shows you might want to watch next. Giving people brilliant recommendations like this will build affinity and customer loyalty. That’s the kind of insight that could only be brought into those companies by data scientists, and as brands wise up to this, it make sense for PR agencies to pre-empt that need and start offering data science and insights as an additional service for clients.”
So is it reasonable to expect all PR people to add Data Science to their skillset? I don’t think so. Larger businesses and agencies are already investing in specialist resources, building teams that are focused on data science, which demonstrates a growing understanding that it really needs to be treated as a separate skillset.
PR consultants are already expected to master a broad selection of skills, and it seems unrealistic to expect everybody to become instant domain-experts every time there’s a new technological development which impacts the industry.
The good news is that Big Data is gradually becoming more and more accessible to a wider audience, not just data scientists. If you follow the tech press you might have noticed a growing number of stories about things like Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, technologies which have quietly been making huge leaps in recent years.
The result of these developments will be that we move from tools which help us analyse past events, to those which will assist with predicting future outcomes. For example, today’s tools can track what is being said in social media right now, and to analyse historical data to understand how people reacted to previous campaigns or events.
This is currently where data scientists can be invaluable to PR, using tools such as ours to mine for hidden meaning in the oceans of social media data. But a new generation of tools will use AI to automatically make recommendations for different campaign approaches based on the data, spotting patterns and connecting the dots in ways that humans are simply incapable of.
If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky future gazing, it is not. These technologies are already here, and the marketing-tech industry is working hard to build them into its existing platforms. What this means for the PR industry is that data scientists will be able to offer far more certainty and precision when predicting campaign outcomes. It also means that where there is no access to data science skills, the software will be able to do a lot of the hard work, making it easier for all PR consultants to make sense of big data.
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 anymore. 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 articles 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 wordcount.
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
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.
A large part of my job involves helping clients make sure their websites are well represented in search engine results, what’s usually referred to as SEO (although, truth be told, I don’t like the term because it has spammy undertones). The main problem I have with this is convincing people of how simple it really is.
To most in the PR and marketing world, SEO seems like a dark art that involves all kind of arcane technical voodoo, and that’s largely thanks to many years of the industry doing a fine job of deliberately obfuscating its practices. So now it’s easy to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about if you try to explain that most of the stuff people think they know about SEO is smoke and mirrors bullshit. Especially if other SEO ‘experts’ have done a good job of blinding the client with pseudo-science.
The simple truth is, if you want to build a website that consistently appears highly in the search engine results for the kind of search queries that are relevant to your business, you only really need to do two things:
1 – Publish great, on-topic content
Forget about flimsy 300-400 word blog posts that don’t really say anything – these have been a staple for low-rent keyword-focused SEO for too long, but they just don’t work anymore. Invest resource in producing well written, in-depth articles that offer the audience genuinely useful insight around topics that are closely related to your offering.
Written content should form the core of this, but support it liberally with infographics, imagery, video, interactive tools and any other material that you think your audience will find valuable. Forget all the crap you’ve heard about keyword density and ideal article lengths, just produce strong, well-written articles of whatever word-count is necessary to do the job.
There’s an argument that people don’t read long-form content online, which is nonsense. In the world of tablets and smartphones, people are more than happy to read lengthy articles, so long as the content is compelling. Ask yourself, what’s more valuable to the average human being: 400 words of fluff, stuffed with keywords and designed purely to appeal to search engines, or a 2,000 word, well researched, in-depth article that explains a topic properly?
As well as being what people actually want to read, a good long-form article will also give search engine spiders plenty of content to work with when they’re figuring out what topics your site is focused on.
2 – Get other websites to link to your content
If content tell the search engines what your site is about, links tell them how important your site is. The more links that point to a website, the better that website is likely to perform in search engines. A link is a vote, and the more votes a website has, the more important it is considered to be. But not all links are created equal. Links from high quality, well respected sites (like the BBC, Wikipedia, government or academic sites) will usually have a lot more value than links from small, low end sites that nobody has ever heard of.
Nevertheless, for the most part all links to your own site have some degree of value although a simple rule of thumb is that the hard it is to get a link, the more value it will have for you. There are a wide variety of tactics for persuading people to link to your site, but the simplest thing to do is publish great content and share it with people. By and large, good content attracts links and bad content does not.
Sharing your articles on social media channels is a good start. If you’ve created something truly informative, useful or entertaining, other people will soon start to share it too. You can share links to your content with webmasters of relevant websites in your sector, the media (this is how public relations can play a key role in SEO), discussion forums, and any number of places where people will see value in it.
Acquiring links to your site is not always easy – people need a good reason to link to your site. But the best way to convince people to give you a link is by building content that they’ll love.
Accepting the simple answers
Those two things are really all you need to do if you want a site to do well in search engines. Before SEO specialists start screaming for my head on a pike, I’m not discounting the importance of proper site structure and on-page factors, but we all know that strong content and inbound links are 90% of the job, everything else is just fine-tuning.
But marketing people often aren’t prepared to accept that answer and I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, although the overall principle sounds simple, it’s actually very hard and resource intensive to consistently produce high quality content and build links to it. Few businesses have the stomach for that.
Secondly, it just doesn’t sound as complicated as they want it too. When you talk about SEO to non-digital people, it’s almost as if they want it to be technical and difficult to understand – they’re often unwilling to accept a simple explanation because it doesn’t seem plausible after they’ve spent so long believing that this stuff is supposed to be a dark art.
Another reason that few people are willing to believe SEO is this simple, is that if you accept it’s all about creating great content and then promoting that content to the right audiences, then you also have to accept that it can largely be done by the public relations team. Those are precisely the kind of skills the PR specialise in. A lot of old-school SEO consultants are not happy about that and will work hard to convince clients that it’s not the case.
It’s not always easy to win them over, but for what it’s worth I find the best way to illustrate the point is to pick a few search terms that are relevant to the client’s business and then analyse the sites that perform well for those queries. Show the client what kind of content those sites have, how many backlinks they’ve got and where those backlinks come from. This usually provides a clear demonstration of what really works – whether or not the client chooses to believe it is a different question.
(Image credit: Jonathan Rolande)
To succeed at social media and content marketing brands are always being told that they need to think more like publishers in order to capture the hearts and minds of their audience. But what does that actually mean? And how can B2B brands learn be good at it?
Publishers are, of course, in the content business. Their stock in trade is editorial material that is so good that people will happily pay for it, or at least good enough to attract such a large audience that selling adverts to support it is a viable business model.
Most B2B brands are not in the business of selling content or trying to make advertising revenue. For them the purpose of publishing content is to capture the attention of an audience which might also be interested in doing business with them. It’s a simple enough proposition – this blog post itself is a piece of content marketing. My goal is to write an article that is relevant and interesting to my target audience (in this case marketing professionals at B2B companies) and hopefully, if enough of them find it and read it, at some point in the future a small number of those people might think about me when they’re looking for an agency.
But one blog post won’t cut it, I can’t expect a single piece of content to generate many leads, if any at all. I need to create a lot of content and I need to keep doing it consistently over a long period of time in order to increase my chances of attracting the attention of, and building a relationship with, potential future clients.
And that’s what publishers are traditionally good at – consistently and regularly creating great content. So that’s what we mean when we say brands need to think like publishers. But how?
Publishing is a business like any other and consequently has well-worn processes and best practices for doing what it does. Great content doesn’t just happen, it takes work.
1) Planning is everything
The most common mistake made by brands in content marketing is failure to plan. You can’t expect to come up with a great idea for a blog post or a video off the cuff every week. You need to build an editorial calendar so you know what content you’re going to produce this week, next week, and every week for the next three months at least.
Use an editorial calendar template, like this one, and spend some time with your team filling in as many content ideas as you can come up with. Work out when would be the best time to publish them, who needs to write them, which subject matter experts should be consulted and how the content should be shared on your social channels. Set deadlines and assign responsibilities.
Keep the calendar up to date. Every month have a brainstorm session to come up with another month’s worth of content ideas to add to your calendar.
2) Respect the process
Don’t expect content development to just happen by itself. Make people responsible and accountable for it, make it part of their job. All of the content should have hard deadlines, and people should understand how long it takes to create the content and when they need to get started. If there isn’t a clear process in place, your content development programme will fall by the wayside and get ignored.
If you are serious about content marketing, put your money where your mouth is and dedicate resources to it, don’t expect people to do it as a sideline to their main job. Creating great content that people want to read and share takes time and talent, if you don’t respect that you won’t succeed at it.
3) Exercise quality control
Publishers invest a lot of resources into quality control, and so should you. Firstly, pay a lot of attention to the actual content, regardless of what format it takes (blog post, bylined article, video) – does it stack up, is it something you’d be proud for people to see? Or is it just a piece of tat that’s been hastily cobbled together under a looming deadline. Content is only content if it’s something that people would willing spend time consuming and recommend to their peers, otherwise it’s just marketing guff.
Once you’re happy with the actual content, then make sure it’s properly checked for spelling errors, typos, and factual inaccuracies. Again, implement a process for quality control. Nothing should be published unless it’s been rigorously sense checked and proof-read.
4) Make your content work hard for you
Publishers know that content is their main asset, so they find as many different ways to get value from it as possible. Running a round-table event? Think about how you can get as much content out of it as possible – can you write up a white paper from the event, spin that out into a few blog posts, create different versions of those posts to use as contributed articles for the trade media? Is there any opportunity to create video content at the event? How can you use Twitter and your other social channels?
Every original content idea can be extended into different formats and used in different ways across your channels. Once you’ve got a strong topic, think about how to get the most value from it. Even a simply blog post can easily be made into a piece of video content by asking the author to talk around a few key bullet points in front of a camera.
There was a lot of industry navel gazing recently about the idea that Google had somehow made the entire PR industry irrelevant. It was a spectacular leap of reasoning made off the back of a widely read article in which the writer somehow arrived at the conclusion that two plus two equals banana. Nevertheless, the PR industry loves a good excuse to talk about itself, so this slightly wide of the mark piece of speculation ballooned into a big PR
But here’s the truth – Google is not killing PR, it simply has no reason to, but if you look at the company’s recent behaviour it seems pretty clear that Google is intent on putting a couple of bullets in the back of SEO’s head and burying it in the desert.*
Google wants to give its users the best quality search results it possibly can. If the search engine stops being able to provide highly relevant results for users’ queries, it no longer has a good product and leaves the door open for a competitor to better meet their needs – if word got out that Bing, Yahoo or some upstart delivered better, more relevant results, people would switch in a heartbeat. Don’t believe for a minute that it’s not possible, all it takes is some smart young MIT students with a clever new algorithm.
SEO wants the complete opposite of that. SEO just wants its clients’ websites at the top of the search results, regardless of whether that’s really what would best answer the users’ query. So when SEO people game Google’s system, you’re no longer getting the best quality search results, you’re being marketed at.
Consequently Google and SEO have been at war for fifteen years. The company regularly updates its software algorithm to combat whatever tactics people use to manipulate the system, while SEO is always looking for new shortcuts to the top of the search results. You can talk about white hat vs black hat tactics, but, realistically, Google would be far happier if SEO didn’t exist at all. And if you don’t think that’s a good enough motive, think about this – if it became impossible to game the organic search rankings using SEO tactics, the best alternative for a lot of businesses would be to invest money in search advertising instead and the only game in town is Google AdWords. So budgets which previously went to SEO agencies would end up in Google’s pockets instead.
Over recent years Google has been winning the war. Major updates to its search algorithm (code named Panda and Penguin) put a heavy emphasis on the need for sites to publish high quality content above all other considerations. The bag of tricks SEO could use to push sites up the search rankings got a lot smaller, and suddenly everybody started talking about how important Content Marketing is.
With some new moves over the past couple of weeks, Google appears to have not just completely emptied the SEO bag of tricks but thrown the bag onto the fire for good measure. The ability, using web analytics, to see which search terms brought visitors to which pages on your website has always been a critical tool for SEO, but Google is now withholding that information. Where once you would have seen a helpful list of search keywords in your web analytics software, you’re now likely to see the phrase ‘not provided‘ with increasing frequency.
And then there’s the latest algorithm update (code named Hummingbird), which attempts to more accurately match web content to users’ search queries based on a range of factors rather than simple keyword matching, which again makes keyword optimisation less useful if not outright redundant.
So that pretty much castrates conventional SEO. There doesn’t seem to be much else it can bring to the marketing table that can’t already be done by a competent webmaster and creative PR team in terms of driving relevant traffic to your company website:
- Build a standards compliant, easy to navigate website
- Fill it with plenty of professionally produced content that’s highly relevant to your target audience
- Encourage people to share that content through social channels and other websites
- Persuade authoritative, respected online media to write about your business, and link to, your website
Bottom line, expect to see a lot of SEO agencies repositioning themselves as PR and content marketing specialists in the coming months.
*Sorry, too much Breaking Bad.