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 One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.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.
I’ve been in PR for nearly ten years and was lucky enough to join the industry just as it started to become entangled with digital and social media, which enabled me to carve out a little niche for myself as a digital specialist since I happen to have a bit of experience in the online world.
Before PR I was a tech journalist for 13 years and, to be honest, it still sometimes feels strange not turning up to an editorial office every day.
When people ask me why I made the leap, I usually tell them that it seemed like the most logical progression, but the truth is that PR is a very different world to the kind of tech-magazine journalism I spent much of my life doing. I don’t feel like I made any sort of logical, smooth progression, I feel like I jumped right into the deep end of a completely new career.
The most noticeable change in your day to day life is that people stop treating you like you’re important, but I think all but the most deluded of journos would expect that, so it’s not worth dwelling on. There are other changes that I was less prepared for.
When I was a hack I lived in a little bubble that was protected from any kind of commercial reality, all I had to worry about was producing great articles and meeting deadlines (or at least, not missing them by too much). Most of the tech magazines I worked on had an atmosphere that was somewhere between a playground and a laboratory – lots of smart people in a room together, having fun and challenging each other. The suits always took care of the business side of things for us.
In a PR agency, you’re acutely aware from day one that you need to earn your keep: all that really matters is getting good results for the client and winning new business for the agency. This may seem perfectly obvious, but it can be a serious culture shock for somebody who’s only ever been judged on something as subjective as how well they can write.
When I was a journalist I was largely free to manage my own time as I pleased, so long as I showed up to the office occasionally and the work got done on time. PR agencies require their staff to fill in timesheets to account for every minute of their day because their staff’s time is, essentially, their chief commodity and they need to keep track of it closely. In all honesty, this is the one part of the PR industry I have always struggled to adjust to. I completely understand the need for it, I just hate having to do it.
Journos going into PR at a junior level are probably better equipped for the move, because they are most likely to be focusing on getting coverage and if they’ve got good contacts in their industry they’ll probably do quite well. At the more senior levels, it’s a different game entirely.
Firstly, you have to deal with clients, who can sometimes be difficult and demanding – they’ve invested significant budget in your agency, and they’re depending on you to do a good job, so they’re understandably going to want to make sure you’re doing your best to deliver on your promises, so that they can deliver on the promises they’ve made to their boss.
Secondly, you need to learn a lot more about budgeting and project management. Putting a magazine together has its own challenges, but running PR activities for major corporations requires a completely new skill set.
Finally, you have to learn to pitch and win new business – it’s a steep learning curve, and often requires the same kind of all-hands-to-the-pump attitude that magazines go through on deadline week. It’s good fun though, and the buzz you get from working on a winning pitch is one of my favourite things about the job.
One of the most interesting differences between journalism and PR is the attitude to creativity. All PR agencies strive for creativity, they hold brainstorms and run training sessions and hire consultants to help their teams be more creative, while on all of the magazines I’ve worked for, creativity just happens by itself.
I think the reasons for this are pretty much everything I’ve outlined above – it’s easier to be creative when there’s a distinct lack of pressure in your working environment. Obviously, PR agencies need that pressure, they need to get results for clients, win new business, track their staff’s time and all the rest of it, but ultimately that makes it so much harder for people to be as creative as they could be in a more relaxed atmosphere.
(Image credit: Ritesh Nayak)
For the decade that I’ve worked in PR, I can say with all honesty that my absolute favourite part of the job is, by far, working on new business pitches. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide variety of pitches, for huge global brands, exciting young start-ups and everything in between, but the challenge is always the same. You need to understand what the client wants, convince them that you’re the team to deliver results and, most of all, you absolutely have to show them that you’re going to be great people to work with.
It’s hard to say why I like working on new business pitches so much. I think it appeals to my slightly bipolar personality; there’s a lot of head-down research, creative thinking, focusing on the problem and creating a great looking presentation, which appeals to my largely introverted nature. But on the day of the pitch it’s all about putting on a brilliant performance, having the confidence to walk into a board-room, look them straight in the eye and tell them why they need to hire you.
You might not win them all, but as long as you walk out of the room knowing did the best job you could, a knock-back won’t feel too bad.
It’s an art and a science, no two pitches are the same and if you do a half-arsed job of your preparation then you’ll lose most of the time. I put together a simple template to follow when I’m working on a new business pitch, to make sure I do a thorough job – I use the acronym BRISTOL:
- Brief – read through the client’s brief as a team, make sure you understand it, ask the client to clarify anything that doesn’t make sense. When you’ve created your pitch, work through the brief again to make sure you’ve addressed everything they asked for.
- Research – research the client’s business and market, what are they doing, what are their competitors doing, what are the big trends and future challenges. Read the relevant press, find out whatever you can, share it all with the team.
- Insight – what have you learned from all that research? Try to avoid obvious stuff that they’ll already know – look for patterns, connections and ideas that they might not have thought about.
- Strategy – how does the insight guide an overarching strategy that you will use to address the client’s challenges?
- Tactics – what are the brilliant tactical ideas that you will use to deliver on the strategy. Creativity is obviously important, but don’t ignore tried and tested tactics that you can execute brilliantly.
- OMG – what’s the Oh My God moment in your pitch that will make the client say “Wow! Why didn’t we think of this?” If your pitch doesn’t have at least one moment of blinding inspiration, think harder and try again.
- Logistics – boring but essential, demonstrate you’ve clearly thought through the nuts and bolts of how you’ll deliver everything and work with the client on a day to day basis.
Once you’ve created your pitch, it pays to rehearse a few times and test it out on some colleagues who are not involved in the process to get feedback. Don’t over-rehearse, you don’t want to sound like you’re reading a script, but make sure everybody knows which parts of the pitch they’ll be delivering and that they are comfortable talking about the topic. Be prepared to step in for colleagues if they get stage fright and forget what they’re supposed to be saying, but try not to talk over other people’s sections – let them have their moment to shine. At the same, chipping in a little on each other’s slides can really help demonstrate a positive team dynamic, showing that each of you understands the whole proposal and that you’ve worked together on it.
I tell junior colleagues not to be nervous of big pitches because at the end of the day, it’s just a conversation with some other business people. They’ve asked us to talk about some ideas, and they’re going to be genuinely interested in what you have to say. The performance element of a pitch is a lot of fun, but you’re not being judged and nobody’s going to give you a hard time if you trip over your words – showing a human side and making a connection with the client is just as important as giving them strong ideas.
Leaders should try to create a ‘no pressure’ environment for their team – it’s hard to do great work if you’re terrified of screwing up, so make everybody feel relaxed and comfortable about the pitch. They’ll do a much better job that way. You win or lose a pitch as a team.
(Image credit: Dennis Skley)
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)
After three (mostly) happy years as the head of digital at Text 100 UK I was lured away to a competing agency to do a similar job, for similar clients, for a lot more money at the beginning of 2013. For one reason or another things didn’t really work out and after four months I was politely given the boot. They were decent enough about the situation, but it was hard not to be frustrated – I thought I was good at my job, things had gone pretty well at all the other agencies I’d worked for, but this time it just didn’t click.
My confidence took a bit of a kick in the balls and for a while I wasn’t sure about what to do next, but pretty quickly I decided to have a crack at setting up my own digital PR shop:
My plan was this: I’d charge low rates and deliver great results, rather than pouring a lot of resources into conventional media relations campaigns, I’d use social media and digital technologies to help my clients make a splash without relying on mainstream media. I’d do bold, edgy work that only required creativity and brave clients to succeed.
So I did a bit of networking and landed a few clients, and that’s where it all started to go wrong. Typically clients would buy into my proposition, but once the work got started they would really just want me to deliver traditional PR activity – which wasn’t really what I wanted my business to be about. Although I will admit to a giddy rush of excitement when I landed one of my clients in the Telegraph.
I had hoped to do alternative, edgy work to get clients noticed, but that’s asking them to take risks they might not be ready for. One of my first clients was a datacentre and cloud services business – we agreed that churning out the same old dry thought leadership pieces wouldn’t be particularly useful, because companies with bigger budgets would win every time. So I agreed with the marketing manager that we’d try a different angle, and I wrote a bunch of articles about how a decent cloud-based backup strategy could have saved the Death Star, or what Breaking Bad can teach you about rolling out new IT infrastructure projects
I felt confident that the IT press would lap this stuff up because it was different and it was funny, and the client told me that it was the first time she’d laughed while reading about enterprise backup – so clearly it was going to be a winner. Only, once the client took this stuff to her boss for approval, it immediately got shot down, because this isn’t the kind of tone that serious IT companies should use.
So it wasn’t as easy to convince clients to take creative risks as I’d hoped. The other big problem was that my plan needed clients to understand that while they paid low rates, they would get a limited amount of my time. That would be fine if I was doing the kind of agile, guerrilla style work that I wanted to deliver – but since I was being forced into doing more conventional comms activity, it was taking up more time than it should.
I was losing motivation, the clients I had were eating up all of my time but barely paying enough to keep the wolf from the door. I couldn’t find time to win any new business, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time to service any new clients.
At the same time I got a little distracted by learning how to code so I could build apps myself – I found this much more interesting than my day job, so I’d make excuses to spend more time coding than working on my business. I started building [http://www.influential-blogs.co.uk](http://www.influential-blogs.co.uk/) and convinced myself I could turn it into a profitable service if I spent enough time developing it.
By the end of 2013 I’d all but lost interest in running my own agency, and my bank balance started to look a bit grim, so I decided to throw in the towel and go back to full time employment. Fortunately for me, my old Text 100 colleague, Kirsty Leighton, invited me to join her at Hudson Sandler almost as soon as I put myself back on the market, and four months in that move looks to be working out beautifully, so everything’s turned out fairly well.
While I’m a little embarrassed that I couldn’t make a success of my business, there are a few positives:
- I got to spend the best part of a year working at home and that meant I was able to see much more of my two young boys during the early part of their lives, which I wouldn’t otherwise have done.
- I pretty much broke even financially, so I didn’t lose anything.
- I learned to code, which I’ve wanted to do for years but never found the time.
- For the first time in my life I felt like a proper grown up every time I wrote an email to my accountant.
- I’m really enjoying Hudson Sandler, and I wouldn’t have ended up working there if none of this had happened.
So I’m in the process of wrapping up Disruptive Communications, but I’ll keep it as a dormant company, just in case inspiration strikes in the future, and for now I’ll use this domain as my personal blog because I quite like the name.
Almost everything that happens in the developed world is tracked by computers these days.
Businesses record very detailed information about how, what, where and when their customers buy from them, how well their staff perform, how their supply chain works, what products get returned the most, which special offers work best on different days of the week, and so on. Everything that happens in that business, no matter how trivial, gets recorded on a computer somewhere.
The same is true of the public sector: national government, local government, law enforcement, military, healthcare, education – everything that happens within those organisations is tracked digitally.*
All of this tracking, monitoring and measuring creates a vast ocean of information, which is what we call Big Data.
Most of the Big Data in the world doesn’t even come from tracking human behaviour in this way, it’s ‘machine generated’. Think about smart-meters used to monitor your energy or water consumption sending data to the utility provider’s computers, or all of the machines in a factory reporting their performance data to a central computer. There are thousands of different situations in which machines generate and record data about their activities.
Because we now have so much data about the many different ways the world around us works, we can analyse that data to look for interesting patterns. Businesses can find hidden patterns which will help them spot opportunities to save money or sell more; the data might reveal previously unnoticed patterns in the way people buy certain products, or inefficiencies in the way the rest of the business operates.
Likewise, in the public sector Big Data can be used to find better ways to manage traffic, cut crime or allocate healthcare resources by spotting hidden patterns in the information that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious.
Big data can mean big money, businesses are investing a lot in the technology and skills required to store and analyse their ever increasing data-sets, to discover the potentially valuable hidden patterns. But it’s not easy, Big Data requires high end hardware and software, so you need people who have the skills to manage that side of things, but you also need people who understand how to properly analyse it all, and these ‘data scientists’ are in high demand.
How does PR fit into all of this?
It kind of doesn’t. In PR circles “Big Data” isn’t really much more than a buzzword that a lot of agencies are using to make themselves sound more innovative. But in truth, very few PR people have access to their client’s Big Data sets, much less have the ability to do anything with them – we’re talking about a highly specialised and quite expensive area that is beyond the reach of most PR people.
Within large businesses that are investing in Big Data, it’s usually going to be happening quite far up the marketing food-chain, and PR involvement is likely to be minimal at this stage.
There is, potentially, some mileage in using Big Data insights to inform PR campaigns, but the cost involved in obtaining those insights would far outweigh the kind of budgets typically found in the PR world. More likely that the high-level marketing function will develop strategies based on Big Data insights, and call upon PR to execute elements of those strategies.
For now, at least, the simple truth is that PR has no real claim on Big Data, and most of the claims floating around the industry are little more than smoke and mirrors.
*Many western governments now make a lot of that information public – this is called Open Data.
Wikipedia is not a place for brand messages, it is a fact-based encyclopedia. PR has no business messing with it.
But, I just wanted to…
No! No! No! What the hell is wrong with you? Just leave Wikipedia alone – write a blog post or something instead.
NO! Wikipedia has very clear guidelines about this – as a PR person you have a conflict of interest, you are not allowed to edit pages on behalf of a client. Even if you’re smart enough to do it in secret and mask your IP behind a proxy server (which, let’s face it, you’re not) you still shouldn’t be doing it – there are plenty of channels for you to pimp your client’s brand, but Wikipedia is not one of them.
Not even if…
Look, the rules are very clear. You are allowed to correct factual errors and to provide links to reputable independent sources which support the facts presented in a page, but let’s be honest, you can’t do that because you’ve been indoctrinated into the PR machine and it’s now impossible for you to objectively write anything that isn’t on message, you just can’t help putting a spin on things.
Yes, oh. Your best bet, if you really, really truly believe that you’ve got an objective, salient fact that will genuinely improve the quality of a particular Wikipedia page (and we all know you haven’t, but let’s just roll with this for the sake of argument) is to create an account and add a comment to the ‘talk page’ of the article – be transparent about who you are and lay the facts out with supporting citations. If the Wikipedia things you have a good point, an independent editor will eventually update the page. But probably not, because you’re really just looking for an excuse to add a link to that positive piece of coverage you got.
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.
I couldn’t help but titter when I saw the following tweet from tech journalist, Mike Butcher, earlier today:
The reason I found it funny is that I remember journalists complaining about exactly the same thing when I was a hack as far back as the late nineties. It seems that fifteen years later, some PR people still haven’t learned that journalists hate it when you send your press release as a PDF or Word attachment.
Try to understand things from the journalist’s perspective: every day you’re likely to receive dozens, maybe hundreds of emails begging for your attention. At best you can skim through them all, picking out the ones which might be interesting to you. But if the important detail is hidden in an attachment, you have to interrupt your flow and wait for the document to open, which could take anything from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Doing this once or twice might seem like a minor inconvenience, but those minor inconveniences pile up pretty quickly when you’re dealing with dozens of them every day.
And imagine if they’re reading emails on a mobile device, do you really think they’re going to open attachments then? Life is simply too short.
When you email your press release to a journalist, you’re asking them to take time out from what they’re doing to pay attention to your pitch. That’s always going to be a hard sell so, if you want to improve your chances of getting through to them, the very least you can do is make life easier for the journalist by including the release as plain text within the email.