The biggest challenge of SEO

How SEO and content marketing work togetherA 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)

How I tried and failed to set up my own PR agency

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 []( 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.


Big Data and PR explained simply enough for your granny understand

big data in PR
Big Data lives here, in data centres, not on a digital-PR guru’s iPad.

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.

So what?

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.

The ultimate guide to editing Wikipedia pages for PR execs

PR editing wikipediaDon’t do it, don’t do it, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t do it.

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.


How B2B brands can think more like publishers – 4 tips

publisherTo 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.

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.


Why do people follow brands in social media? INFOGRAPHIC

Following our earlier research into what consumers dislike about brands in social media, we wanted to find out what people actually want from a brand’s social media channels. We asked 1,000 UK consumers a simple question: What would be most likely to make you want to follow a brand in a social media channel like Facebook or Twitter? We’ve compiled the survey results into the infographic below:

An infographic showing survey results on why people follow brands in social media

Unsurprisingly in these austere times, most people chose Special Offers & Discounts as the number one thing that would make them follow a brand on Facebook or Twitter, with Funny or Entertaining Posts/Content coming in second. Interestingly, women were significantly more likely to choose discounts, and they were also marginally more keen on entertaining content than men. This became much more pronounced when we focused in on the over 55 age group – women in that category were far more likely to want discounts and special offers than any of the other gender/age groups.

It was also noteworthy that young women in the 18-24 group had noticeably different priorities than all of the other groups – they were the only ones who picked funny and entertaining content as their most important incentive to follow a brand, whereas everybody else chose discounts. Girls really do just wanna have fun, at least when it comes to social media, it seems.

What surprised us is that the ability to give brands feedback consistently came out as the least important for all demographic groups. So often in social media we talk about how important it is for brands to use these channels to listen to their customers and engage them in dialogue, but this survey suggests that perhaps consumers aren’t quite as interested in talking to brands as we thought. Or, at least, they certainly don’t rate it as important as getting discounts and being entertained.


The ultimate B2B social media guide

The case for social media marketing to consumers is relatively easy to make, but B2B marketers still grapple with the problem of how to justify investing resources in these channels. In this article I’ll outline why and how B2B brands should be using social media for marketing, and I promise I’ll avoid techno-babble and agency guff as much as possible to get right to the important points.

That said, this is still quite a lengthy article, because there’s a lot to cover. You can download an easy to print PDF version of this article from here, and if you’d prefer to jump straight to the practical stuff, you should skip to section five using the contents menu below.

Continue reading The ultimate B2B social media guide

Why journalists hate getting press releases as email attachments

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.

Is Southern Rail getting Twitter wrong?

southern rail twitterI do not envy the poor souls who man Southern Rail’s Twitter account. The company runs commuter rail services in and out of London and, as a lot of regular passengers will tell you, the service is not without its problems.

You can imagine the situation, tens of thousands of frustrated commuters are running late for work, can’t get home on time, or are crammed into hot, overcrowded carriages, so a lot of them will turn to Twitter to vent their anger. (Personally I owe Southern Rail a debt of gratitude because I found the service so unreliable that I chose to cycle for two hours a day rather than using the train, and I’ve never been fitter.)

Southern Rail uses Twitter to provide service updates and respond to customer enquiries, which it does in a chatty, informal tone. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t really see much wrong with this, but the problem is that the account has to field a high volume of negative comments from people who are, quite understandably, extremely annoyed about the quality of service they receive. I can understand how people might find the chirpy tone of the account somewhat grating in the face of all that.

Sometimes the discussions get a little heated, as in this example from this morning, and it feels like Southern Rail’s approach isn’t really conducive to making customers feel better about the situation. The tone doesn’t really seem right for dealing with what is essentially a comms crisis, and the frequently poor use of English only exacerbates things.

Widespread dissatisfaction with the company and its Twitter account has been given voice through a popular parody account, which appears right next to the official account in the search engine rankings.

So what’s the answer? I think to a certain extent Southern Rail’s comms team is doing the best it can under the circumstances (i.e. they have to be the public face of an essential service that a lot of people feel is failing them) and at least they do take the trouble to engage frustrated customers on Twitter. But when you’re managing a Twitter account that’s almost permanently operating in crisis comms mode, I think it’s probably worth thinking carefully about the tone and type of language you use.  You have to earn your customers’ goodwill before you can play matey with them.