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 One of the projects I worked on there was revamping the agency’s website, which was sorely out of date and failing to generate any inbound sales enquiries because it was not appearing in search engine results for any relevant terms.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.
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)