Google didn’t kill PR, but it just shot SEO right in the face

A man pointing a gunThere 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 circlejerk industry debate .

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.


One thought on “Google didn’t kill PR, but it just shot SEO right in the face”

  1. Lance, I thought this was a great blog. I am in New Zealand, and about 6 years ago ended up working for an “SEO” agency. To cut a long story short, it’s been a nightmare trying to compete with all the ‘black-hat’ spammers out there, because whatever we did we could not get our clients ranking as high as some of their competitors. I have a marketing background, not a web development background, so it was getting increasingly frustrating when some ‘geek’ in their bedroom was able to ‘out rank’ other sites simply by creating nonsense articles and ‘spinning’ them (what is that all about?), creating meaningless blog rolls, thousands of automated links, “buffer sites’, “link wheels”, god how do you keep up? Anyway it’s been frustrating, and quite frankly the direction Google have finally taken is a breath of fresh air. Now all the techos can stick to just that, developing websites, apps, software etc and the marketers and PR professionals can get back to doing what they do best, but now actually being rewarded for it. Good on you Google.
    Regards, Steve

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