The power of Google is obvious to any company in communications. It accounts for 85 per cent of the UK's search engine traffic and the success of a company website can hinge on where it appears on a Google search results page.
Brand owners know, with Google, that position is everything. The much-coveted top spot on a search results page will get nearly half of all clicks; the bottom result on the first page will be lucky to get two per cent. Fall off on to the second page, and a site will get well under one per cent of search traffic.
The number of links pointing to a site is one of the most important factors in reaching the top of Google's results, so companies have two options.
They can engage important sites, typically bloggers, in a digital PR campaign and earn real, credible links, which can take considerable time and effort.
Or they can get the corporate chequebook out and buy thousands of ready-made links from a 'link farm' site, designed to make a web page seem a lot more popular than it is.
Link farms can be found by typing 'buying web links' into a search engine. Sites such as SearchQuest.co.uk, Authority Domains.com and Link-ExchangeExperts crop up regularly.
It will come as no surprise that Google, known for being fiercely protective of its search engine's accuracy, would rather companies go down the digital PR route rather than buying a fake position. Hence, at the end of last year, the search engine giant sent out a warning that companies that buy links would see their position in natural search results downgraded.
On 1 December 2007 the head of Google's webspam team Matt Cutts issued a warning: 'Buying or selling links that bypass (Google's) PageRank (system) violates our webmaster guidelines. If a webmaster buys or sells links for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings, we reserve the right to protect the quality of our index.'
Several high profile sites were immediately given a proverbial rap on the knuckles (see box) - and the digital PR sector could not have been happier.
Create a buzz
Digital PR can be as much about ensuring there is positive comment about a brand high up on Google's ratings as it is about raising the profile of the client's home page itself. In fact, with the case of Orangina, Mark Hanson at Staniforth explains there was not a branded page for the PR agency to promote.
'Orangina wanted us to help identify the influencers for trendy bars in London and Manchester so it could let people know it was planning the launch of cocktails using Orangina,' he says.
'There wasn't an Orangina site to promote, it was all about starting a conversation with the influencers and making sure their web sites and blogs were high up on search results with positive articles and posts.'
Similarly, McCain has been actively engaging with opinion formers in the online gourmet market for its Potato Gourmet products and in the family eating market for its Goose Fat Roast Potatoes. The primary aim was to ensure when people Googled 'potato', the bloggers they had reached would be top of the first page.
Ben Mason, head of Fleishman-Hillard's digital practice in London, explains this requires a slightly different approach from traditional PR.
'We established who the best bloggers were for each of the markets and entered into a one-on-one converstion,' he says. 'The result was third-party good reviews, and that meant we topped the Google search results.'
Nicola Ech-Channa, communications development manager at McCain, reveals the company was impressed enough to extend digital PR to the education market.
'We have a non-branded site called Potato Story designed for seven- to 11-year-olds,' she says.
'We used the same technique to reach education bloggers, which got us the top of the first page of Google results with a couple of blogs and had the added benefit of increasing traffic to the site by 50 per cent.'
Indeed, the effectiveness of digital PR can sometimes surprise clients and traditional PR practitioners, according to Gaylene Ravenscroft, head of digital at Hill & Knowlton.
'Bloggers are becoming so crucial they underline PR's importance as an integral part of the communications mix,' she says.
'A communications agency is devoted to building brand reputation and now digital PR is a huge part of that. We've been doing a lot of work for LG's Shine and Chocolate mobile phones, getting them blogged about on sites that are important enough to get us positive articles in top spots on Google searches for the handsets.'
Building links rather than buying them has been central to Sony Europe's digital PR for its Bravia range of LCD televisions. The Japanese electronics firm started engaging with bloggers and online forums three years ago when it noticed bloggers discussing why a TV crew was rolling half a million balls down a San Francisco street for a television advert.
It used the opportunity to work with digital PR specialist Immediate Future to build and maintain links with key bloggers when shooting its subsequent television adverts (paint exploding on a high rise flat in Glasgow last year and Plasticine bunnies leaping around New York this year).
'Our approach has been to build an honest conversation with bloggers,' says Katy Howell, managing director of Immediate Future.
'You have to be very open that you're a PR company and that you're working for a client. Once you get a conversation going you can follow it up.'
The results have pleased Ruth Speakman, head of PR for Sony Europe, who has been amazed at the scale of interest among bloggers.
'We've received something like 2.3m posts and created roughly 40,000 links to the Sony Bravia website,' she reveals. 'This is all helping us to achieve the three goals we have set for digital PR; better visibility on Google, building an online reputation and driving traffic.'
Another argument for using digital PR rather than link farms is that, in addition to top positions on search results, communicating with bloggers sets up a long-term dialogue with writers who carry considerable clout, according to Hugh Davies, director of corporate affairs at mobile operator 3.
'Bloggers we've reached out to now not only give us great reviews that get to the front page of Google but they also come to us when they've heard of a problem or a rumour,' he says.
'This means we now have a two-way dialogue and they can flag up issues that we can respond to.'
But how does one find these online influencers who will help push a brands to the top of the search results page? Finding the key bloggers is not as hard as it looks.
Volkswagen Commercial (VWC) ran a successful trial programme 12 months ago that saw its search engine optimisation (SEO) provider, Net-rank, use an algorithm that searches the internet to find the most authoritative web sites and bloggers. It then sends four press releases to them every month.
The search agency also tweaks the releases, which are written by VWC, to make them more search engine-friendly, repeating keywords the company would like to associate with its name and ensuring all-important web links, which are relevant to the copy, are added to releases.
'It has created a lot of brand noise beyond traditional print media on the most influential news sites, such as ITN and Daily Mail, as well as among bloggers,' reveals Hugh Fletcher, prospect marketing manager at VWC. 'The traffic and the links this have created have really boosted our search position, which is hugely important for us as there's so much competition to get to the top of page one among car brands.'
Indeed, Carolyn Watt, group account director at Netrank, reveals the digital PR activity gave VWC 10 per cent more number one Google positions for a multitude of search terms in the first three months.
So, if any traditional PR agency is dragging its feet on digital PR it may soon find its clients are not only considering other PR agencies for their digital work but also extending the remit for search agencies beyond web optimisation and into digital PR.
Though the digital PR sector is booming, it is still a small part of the PR mix, and that is why firms are often tempted by the quick fix offered by link farms. But it does not take much to explain why online PR offers a far better alternative.
Google's housekeeping last month may have been nothing more than a shot across the bows, but once it toughens up, companies will be begging PR agencies to help.
HOW GOOGLE WORKS
The algorithm that works out where brands' web sites appear in search results is a closely guarded secret but the general principles are well known among businesses.
Google's software ranks a site by the relevancy of its content to a search request, how much traffic that site attracts compared with others in the field and also, crucially, how many links it has attracted from other sites.
Links are seen by Google as 'votes' from other sites that democratically push a site up its rankings and, hence, it is working to disregard links that have been paid for.
It is doing this by punishing sites that buy and sell links through downgrading their PageRank (see box). Companies can still pay for links and avoid punishment if the webmaster of the site where the links appear attaches a 'no follow' tag to a link so Google does not include the link or any traffic it generates in its search results.
FALLING FOUL OF GOOGLE
So far the action backing up Google's reiteration of its anti- 'link spam' stance has only been at a low level, although some of the biggest names in publishing have been affected.
Although Google never publicly says why, it downgraded PageRank scores for some well-known media sites in November at the same time as it repeated its stance against buying and selling links.
PageRank is a credibility score (from 0 to 10) that measures how respectable Google believes a site to be. Each single digit step up the scale is itself a factor of ten (like the Richter scale) and so if a site loses two points, it will have had its credibility rating effectively slashed by 100, if it loses three points it will have been reduced by 1,000, and so on.
This is what happened in November to The Times, The Washington Post, Forbes and New Scientist, which all slipped, typically, from a reputable 7 to a mediocre 4 or 5 (The Washington Post and New Scientist soon managed to get back to an 8).
The search community is largely seeing the actions against the large publishers as a public 'shot across the bows' and is now wondering if any high profile sites will have the ultimate sanction taken against them for selling links and be delisted altogether from search results.
At the end of the year several 'link farm' directory companies also had their PageRank figures slashed to 0, effectively warning anyone buying links from them that Google will not count the links nor any traffic they generate.
PageRank figures are available to anyone who downloads the Google toolbar, which features a sliding scale revealing the score for the site selected.