Engine Optimization: Working toward a front-page mention

A front-page story is something all PR pros aim for. But the front page of Google is just as important - and maybe even more achievable.

A front-page story is something all PR pros aim for. But the front page of Google is just as important - and maybe even more achievable.

Vibrant Media's first year in business has not been greeted with universal applause. A provider of contextual advertising, Vibrant enables online publishers to place links to ads in the middle of editorial copy - which has caused some media pros to decry this perceived church-and-state violation.

While a Google search on Vibrant Media yields mixed results - some leading to Vibrant's website, others leading to negative comments about its business model - a search on "contextual advertising," "contextual ads," or "contextual" will not find any mention of the company on the first search page. This means that interested publishers, advertisers, investors, journalists, and otherwise-engaged constituents will not come across the company quickly and easily.

This example highlights the importance of search-engine optimization (SEO), which enables companies to manipulate their search rankings through a variety of coding and wording techniques. Its importance hinges on the belief that the search engine is the gateway to the internet. "When a journalist or someone is researching something, [they] start at an engine," says Lisa Wehr, president of SEO provider Oneupweb.

Indeed, a survey by Steve Ross, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, done in conjunction with former Middleberg Euro RSCG principal Don Middleberg, found that 73% of journalists use the internet for finding press releases and 92% use it for article research. Despite this, Tony Wright, VP of media and interactive marketing at Zunch Communications, says that many PR people haven't understood SEO yet.

A possible reason comes from PR pros staunchly defending the messaging they created. Wright explains that some professionals are so enamored with their words and obsessed with the "sweat equity" they placed in the messaging that they're unwilling to take the advice of an SEO expert who may tell them that certain terms should, or shouldn't, be included in order to secure a favorable search-engine listing.

While PR pros might view this as a concession of messaging control, SEO experts don't want to assume that position. "We've been having meetings with PR firms [showing] how we should partner on it," says Reid Carr, president and strategy director of Red Door Interactive. "It creates a really successful campaign if we partner with PR."

He adds that it's important to talk to PR firms about what messaging they have in place and how it can be best exploited for search-word optimization. Wehr says her company, with three pros on staff, wants to partner with the client's PR firm or in-house staff to create a message that fits both their goals.

"We can advise them before the release goes out," Wehr says, adding that if a press release is worded counterproductively to the rules of the search, that could lead to a company pushing itself out of the top search page. The press release is key, Carr says.

"One of the greatest entry pages [from search results] are press releases," he says. "You have a lot of pages on a website, but chances are that you're going to [come up with] press releases on specific searches."

For example, Wright says a cell-phone company that wants to call its capabilities "mobile" technology in a release will lose the search game because the user will most likely type in "cell" when looking for a product. Search has come a long way, and those with antiquated websites might miss out. In the internet's early days, people may have been surprised to run the cursor over white space to find hidden text highlighted.

Josh Stylman, managing partner at Reprise Media, says this technique, called cloaking, was used to covertly influence the search engines. But search grew up, due in large part to Google, which uses link popularity as one of its primary search criteria.

In today's hyper-aware search world, search engines encountering a trick like cloaking would deem it spam. The rules, caveats, and changes occurring in proper search-engine optimization can make it difficult for a PR pro to keep up. Additionally, Stylman says many companies don't want to make the infrastructure commitment for proper SEO and, even if they do, they don't have the intellectual capital to put forth an effective campaign.

Wright says there are three important aspects to SEO: the page criteria, such as content and words; the coding aspect, so the search engine can actually read the text; and the off-the-page criteria, such as link-building. There are many sources available to guide you through these issues. For example, PR Newswire offers a service called Search Engine Visibility, done in partnership with search-engine marketer iCrossing, which optimizes press releases going over the wire for six months after the initial push.

Michelle Horowitz, VP of content development at PR Newswire, says that after the big bang of publicity in the first week, it's still important to have the press release in the search results for journalists doing trend pieces. So what can be done if, like Vibrant Media, a search on your company name reveals unflattering links?

The first entry on Google refers to Vibrant's website, calling itself a "pioneer," but the second entry lists the personal blog of Weblogs Inc. chairman Jason Calacanis, and is entitled, "Vibrant Media ashamed of themselves."

If there's any doubt that traditional PR is still important, when asked what his firm would do about Vibrant's situation, Stylman said the post listing was the "democratic nature of organic search at play."

Essentially, due to the linking popularity of Calacanis' post, it would be hard for Vibrant to push out its message. His advice? Try to do some damage control.

Technique tips

Do work with SEO firms on the wording of press releases

Do realize that the public may search with different terms than you may use

Do make sure the SEO firm has clients and a good track record

Don't think you can squash all negative information online with an SEO plan Don't think SEO firms are looking to usurp your messaging duties Don't try to optimize your own releases without professional help

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