Variously viewed as a dark art or the preserve of the digital equivalent of a used car salesman, search engine optimisation (SEO) is something traditional PR agencies are widely accused of ignoring.
Google upped the ante last year with a series of changes to the complicated algorithms that govern how it ranks information. No longer can brands simply buy back-links to its website from ‘link farms’ largely based overseas, stuffing keywords into press releases, online advertorials and poor-quality blogs, which means PRs must embrace and master SEO.
Google said its Penguin update in October (they’re all named after animals – see panel top right) was designed to "decrease rankings for sites violating its existing quality guidelines", adding: "Our advice for webmasters is to focus on creating high quality sites that create a good user experience."
The search engine was not alone in tightening up the rules. Last summer Facebook also said it had made changes to recognise "timely and relevant content" from sources users could trust and would want to see in their newsfeeds.
However, even before the most recent Google updates, big organisations with plenty of budget to throw at SEO and PR were not immune to falling foul of the rules.
Take the Interflora debacle at the start of 2013 as an example of how a brand can get its SEO so very wrong.
The UK’s best-known flower seller disappeared from Google’s rankings, even when searched for by name, after placing upwards of 150 local, online media advertorials making heavy use of back-links for terms such as Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day embedded in the copy. Google does not take kindly to companies effectively buying page rankings and punished Interflora by dropping it from search results. It also penalised the regional newspaper sites that had carried the advertorials by dropping them from searches too.
Google refused to discuss this, and the wider issue of SEO. However, it does make available an extremely user-friendly SEO guide, which has this to say: "Even though this guide’s title contains the words ‘search engine’, we’d like to say that you should base your optimisation decisions first and foremost on what’s best for the visitors of your site… Focusing too hard on specific tweaks to gain ranking in the organic results of search engines may not deliver the desired results." Of course, while these latest algorithm changes might be a headache for brands trying to maintain their page one Google rank, agencies that have digital know-how alongside traditional PR should be well placed to benefit.
Optimising website traffic
Farhad Koodoruth is co-founder at Threepipe, which merged with Blowfish Digital last year to create an integrated PR, social media and digital marketing agency.
He stresses the importance of helping clients get the basics right: "If a site does not work from a technical point of view then this will impact on how much web traffic finds you." This means making sure the site is organised logically, indexed correctly and downloads quickly. Then the content can do the rest.
He agrees SEO practices such as keyword stuffing are dead: "It’s much better to get one good piece in The Guardian and to use images and infographics across different social media sites. The real powerhouses are still using good feature content."
This all points to the fact that any good excuses PR professionals had for not putting SEO on the menu have now gone. Heather Healy, creative comms director at digital marketing and SEO agency Stickyeyes, says that without an understanding of SEO agencies are selling themselves short to clients: "Getting coverage in a top publication is excellent; understanding the worth of that coverage from an SEO perspective is even more valuable for clients looking for a pounds and pence return."
But Healy believes many PR people have some way to go really to understand the importance of SEO. She agrees with Koodoruth that it still requires a detailed technical understanding of website limitations, content requirements, authority gaps and link profiles – a skill set not suited to traditional PR professionals: "An important component of SEO is getting people talking about a brand and building authority – this is certainly within a traditional PR’s skill set, but the challenge often comes when the focus has to be on creating digital noise around a brand. Traditional PRs are used to dealing with traditional publications, which is where this limitation often shows."
Rebecca Scully, MD at Smarts, adds: "PR has always been the gatekeeper of good content and now, if agencies are doing their job effectively, they will not only be doing what they have always done in creating great stories about their brands for the media, but also enhancing their client’s reputation."
However, she points out that the major barrier to integrating PR and SEO is that clients still segregate budgets between the different disciplines. She recommends that clients bring PR, marketing and digital budgets together to create a coherent overarching strategy.
Bill Penn, global group director of Aspectus PR, says PR finally has the opportunity to demonstrate its true worth as a sales driver for brands: "Agencies have often struggled to demonstrate real value to sceptical finance directors. Coverage by the column inch has never really cut it as a serious form of measurement because too many questions remain unanswered."
He adds that PR has tended to lay dubious claim to "misty" areas such as brand building, profile raising and long-term attitudinal or behavioural change. "The problem has always been that, at best, PR can only really claim a partial role in any of these," he says. "There is also no reliable way of attaching any kind of measurement of PR’s precise contribution to them."
Aspectus has developed a new model it says incorporates best practice SEO and PR – Search Integrated Communications (SINCOM), which relies on creating a direct link between PR content and lead generation – and hence an increase in sales – measurable results from which clients can see true ROI.
Smarts’ Scully says: "These changes are going to be the biggest thing for the industry. It’s time to put aside the idea of PR coverage and instead talk about ‘external communications’ – to really focus on the client’s business objectives."
Changing the rules in favour of end users
Of course Google isn’t the only search engine, but as it handles upwards of 80 per cent of search traffic, it is by far the most important. Heather Healy of Stickyeyes says: "Some other search engines respond to outdated practices of SEO and the rules vary, but we’d advocate a natural approach because you can jeopardise results in Google by focusing on another search engine."
The most important Google updates of recent times, Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird, all seek to ensure that results are as accurate as they can be and those that rank positively in organic search are those that have a natural profile and add value to the people who are searching. Google’s job is simply to provide the most relevant results for the query asked of it.
Panda focused on ensuring content on websites is of good quality and not keyword-stuffed. Penguin concentrated on links to sites from other domains – rewarding those with a ‘natural’ link profile and punishing those with an ‘unnatural’ profile. Says Healy: "The days of having thousands or millions of links as a suggestion to Google that you’re an authority are well and truly gone."
The most recent update, Hummingbird, aims to provide the most superior results and looks to the future by understanding how voice-activated search works and learning from the context of previous searches.
Managing bad news
What happens if your client wants to take something off Google’s front page? Igniyte is an agency working with global clients to help them maintain a positive digital profile. It uses techniques not only to help clients boost their Google rankings but also to lower or erase them.
Igniyte director Caroline Skipsey says negative search engine results can often be ‘cleaned up’ by tactics ranging from using Google’s own webmaster tools to creating new, positive content.
Clients include a global travel company with which Igniyte works to mitigate negative reviews and a rich individual targeted by blogs branding him a fraudster and social media profiles created to post defamatory comments about him.
"Positive news quickly gets on to page one, so we encourage clients to talk about something related to their industry and comment on related issues in the news," says Skipsey. "Positive snippets on page one push the negative information down the rankings."