PRWeek.com Q&A: Greg Jarboe, SEO-PR co-founder

With a strong technology and corporate communications background, Greg Jarboe is someone who has always sensed the power of using technological advances to further public relations.

With a strong technology and corporate communications background, Greg Jarboe is someone who has always sensed the power of using technological advances to further public relations.

After communications stints at Lotus and Ziff Davis, he co-founded SEO-PR, a firm that combines search engine optimization with public relations. His services target the algorithms that sort stories based on keywords on sites like Google News. SEO-PR enables companies to get their press releases to show up higher in relevant search results. He talked with PRWeek.com about getting companies over the good old days, convincing clients that proper punctuation is not always recommended, and whom he considers the biggest competition is in the SEO space. Q. What does SEO-PR do and why is the firm an important resource for people in the industry? A. We've put together a new channel for PR people. We call it 'search engine promotion' through the news search engine channels, Google News and Yahoo News, as opposed to Google or Yahoo. Two years ago, when Google launched its news site, one of the first things I noticed was that there were also press releases there, in addition to the normal media sources like stories from The New York Times or ABCNews.com. I'm an old PR guy. I've been doing this for over twenty years. I was direct of communications over at Lotus back in the '80s when it was bigger than Microsoft. I was a director of corporate communications at Ziff Davis in the '90s, before it got broken up into seven pieces. I'm familiar with press releases and how they are traditionally distributed. But, here's this new news search engine, Google News, and there's a new way to distribute news releases, if I can understand how the Google News algorithm sorts them. I've been doing that now for the last two years. In March 2004, Yahoo News changed the way it sorted news. Prior to that, it only sorted Reuters, AP and a few other sources. It now searches through 7,000 sources, including press releases. You can now do this on Google News and Yahoo News. If you go to Nielsen Net Ratings and get a list of the top 20 current events and global news destinations online, Yahoo News is 2nd behind CNN and ahead of MSNBC. Google News is 17th, behind CBS News, and ahead of BBC News. Yahoo News has 21.6 million unique people a month in the US using Yahoo News. Google News has 4.9 million unique people a month. These are huge audiences. The combination of public relations and search engine optimization is a relatively new phenomenon. Not many people are bilingual [in this respect]. There are a lot of people who understand PR, and a large group of people who understand search engine marketing. But there are very few who understand both. We've spent the last year working with PR firms to explain how they can optimize their press releases. At the same time, we've been working with search engine marketing firms to help them understand how PR works. Q. What is the primary goal for search engine optimization - getting the press release as close to the top of the list as possible? A. Yes. There's a variety of research done by independent sources that shows that anywhere from 50% to 80% of the people who do a search don't go beyond the first page of results. It's a very large group of people who either find what they're looking for or they go do a second search. Only the hardcore push beyond the first page of results to find out what the second page of results might show them. As a result, if you aren't found in the first page of results, you're generally not found. One of the reasons why you have to optimize a press release is not to just get found in a search, but to get on the first page. Q. Do you think the PR firms understand the importance of having that press release on the first page of the news aggregators? Or are they still only concerned with getting that release to the journalist? A. Some get it, and a lot don't. We've been working with everyone from Patrice Tanaka & Company in New York to Eastwick Communications and other PR firms. They get it, they're doing it, and it's working for their clients. We've presented to a lot of other PR firms who don't get it and believe their job is still to do public relations they way it was done ten years ago. Yes, there was a recession that interrupted everyone's growth in last couple of years, and they're hoping the good old days are coming back. But they're missing the fact that the economy might come back, but the good old days are gone forever. The flip side we're encountering is that the search engine marketing firms are getting it much faster and at a higher percentage. There's a real risk here that a different group of people may start optimizing press releases in large numbers before enough PR agencies do. PR agencies are at the risk of losing, to a different group of marketing firms, what could have been a natural opportunity for them. Q. How have you found PR firms' general technological knowledge? A. It's an inverse ratio. The more experience you have, the more you have an aversion to chucking everything you've been doing for ten to fifteen years for something new. I can understand that [mentality]. I was an experience PR professional in the mid '90s under the old rules. It's really hard to say, 'That was then; this is now.' I have to learn a whole new set of skills to stay on top of my game.' On the other hand, a lot of PR people literally have no choice. If they're internal, they generally report into a VP of marketing, who is under pressure to provide tangible metrics in real-ROI. The days are long-gone where PR people can come in with a clip-report and say they've done their job. The first time I took my clip report into the CEO of Lotus, I had over 700 clips for the month. I thought that we had done a good job. He looked at me and said, 'Jarboe, if I could deposit clips in a bank, they would be worth something. But they're just pieces of paper. Until you can show me the impact of all that PR on sales, don't waste my time.' The good news is we can now measure the impact of public relations, not only on publicity and the traditional target of reaching reporters who use search engines. But it also turns out that there is a consumer audience or a business-to-business audience [for press releases] that are using search engines. Since there are now multiple audiences that can read a press release, it means that it is possible for PR people to measure their success in sales, as well as in clips. We optimized a press release for Southwest Airlines in February when it announced its new service in Philadelphia. In the release, we put a unique tracking link. The only place this link existed was in the middle of this press release. It's not in any advertisement or on the website. It doesn't appear anywhere else. Through that unique link and a unique landing page on Southwest Airlines' homepage, we were able to trace not only people who read the release, but those who click on the link and purchased tickets at Southwest.com. We were able to trace $80,000 in ticket sales from people who had read the press release. Southwest also got in the New York Times, Washington Post, and a lot of large media. Q. Would you say, in general, that Internet technology like monitoring search engines has made it easier or more difficult to prove a campaign has worked? A. PR people's jobs were going to get more difficult, whether they liked it or not, when mass media peaked a long time ago. As a data point, network TV, peaked in audience in 1978. It's been losing market share to cable news channels ever since. The same is true with print media. The PR person's job was always going to get more challenging as media fragmented. In the last four years alone, 70,000 people in the media have lost their jobs. It means that there are fewer people left to pitch stories to at the media outlets. The news search engines have offered an alternative when the old mainstream choices were imploding. It was something to seize a hold off when more traditional PR tactics seemed harder to [accomplish]. The good news that whoever developed the algorithm for Yahoo News and Google News somewhere, somehow seemed to learn the inverted pyramid format. Headlines seem to weigh more than body copy, and the first paragraph seems to be more heavily weighed than the fourth paragraph of copy. So you don't have to be write backwards or learn how to optimize in Martian. You can continue to use the best practices that most PR people have learned. All you have to do is revise what you're doing to be a little more sensitive to the how real people, not just search algorithms, use search engines. Q. Does the press release placement start with how the press release is written? A. There are several tools we use that can tell us how many people searched for a particular term in the past month or ninety days, depending on what tool we're using. We then use that to provide the client with feedback in the drafting process. All of this has to be done on the fly. No one can put his or her press release through an extra day of editing. No one has that luxury. Our experience in public relations has allowed us to include the optimization in the normal editing and polishing phase, so we don't add additional time to getting the release out the door. Keywords play an important role, but it's not any keyword or random keywords. It's relevant keywords. I'll go back to Southwest as an example. It was using 'Southwest today announces' in their headlines. When you do a search for 'Southwest,' you can come up with Arizona, New Mexico, or a lot of different 'Southwest's' that aren't necessarily referring to the company. 'Southwest Airlines' is the two-word term that people use when they wanted to find the company. One of the edits we recommended to them was saying, "Southwest Airlines announces," instead of "Southwest announces." That minor addition is the difference for getting found or not getting found for relevant searches. Q. What about punctuation? A. Most people usually type in the words without punctuation of any sort. We worked with a law school that was offering a degree called a LL.M. degree. Well, people don't search with the periods. We had to tell them, 'When you're talking about your master of law degree; you have to spell it LLM without the periods.' They said, 'But it's official with the period.' But we said, 'Ph.D. is the official way to do that, but when people search for that, they type 'PhD.'' It may be 'M.B.A.,' but people search for 'MBA' without the periods. When people are searching, they'll rarely put in punctuation or quotation marks. Q. There's a lot of talk about 'Google bombing' and the manipulation of search engines. Is that more difficult when you're dealing with news searches? A. It is. It's partially because the press releases and articles only stay in Google News or Yahoo News for less than thirty days. Most of the 'Google bombing' tactics are ones that people have set up over time. You just don't have the time to pull that link-building stunt. Most of the results are legit. Q. Do you advocate a combination of paid search ads and search engine optimization? A. We recommend that people continue to use as much of the marketing mix as makes sense. We're not narrowly focused on one thing. Some organizations want to do it in-house, and they're looking for a workshop to train their employees. We've provided that to large clients. There are some who want to outsource it. We certainly offer that service as well. Every organization needs to add something to its mix because the old traditional media are offering them less and less bang for their buck. Out of sheer necessity in order to stay relevant, people are going to have to add [additional functions] to what they're doing. Q. You've done a lot of seminars. Have you found these potential clients willing to embrace a new form of media outreach? A. A percentage of the participants - maybe one in six - take what they've learned at the seminar and can begin applying it. The other five say, 'That was fascinating. I'll have to think about this someday.' When we contact them somewhere down the road, they haven't changed habits. We know that changing a habit is a hard thing to do. They've got a day job with deadlines and they're being told they need to think about something different and new that they've never done before. Like any Bell Curve of new innovation adoption, there are a percentage of early adopters who are more prone to trying things out, finding out it works for them, and telling their colleagues to check it out. We're finding word of mouth is as important to the success formula as actual seminar work. Q. Have you had any potential clients say, after the seminar, 'I can do this on my own?' A. It is a very popular response. We encourage them to try it on a couple of sites where it's a low cost and a low risk of failure. One [client] of ours in New York owns an agency. We explained it to him at a conference. He tried it on a press release for his wife's business. He got good enough results that he came back to us and said, 'Ok. In my own amateur way, I got results for my wife. Now show me how to take it to the next level.' It's a lot easier to teach someone the advanced tactics once they've seen that the basics work. Q. What's the key differentiator between SEO-PR and other potential service providers? A. When we first announced this, we got phone calls from people who said, 'We already do this.' Yes, there were people who were out doing this before we did to a greater or less degree of success, depending on whether they're rich and retired yet. Frankly, however, the early adopters of these tactics were people on the fringe. To have done this a couple of years, you would have to have been quite a risk taker. Over the last couple of years, we've convinced several large organizations to test it. After their tests were successful, they rolled it out throughout the organization. Now we've had a couple of case studies and the testimonials and the endorsements of mainstream marketers. We would never pretend that we're the only people who have done this. Earlier this year, we announced a partnership with one of the press release distribution services to take this to the next level. Within two weeks, one of the other press release distribution services announced a partnership with another search engine marketing firm. Instead of saying, "Oh no, we have competition, we thought it was terrific because it moves this process forward. Our biggest competitor now is inertia. This isn't a line item on anyone's budget right now. The hardest thing for someone to do is for him or her to test it and put it as a line item in his or her budget next year. If a competitor or I can get a company there, one way or another, it will move the industry forward.

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