By: Bruce Kennedy
Public relations (PR) and search engine optimization (SEO) have more in common than simply being professions your mother is likely not to understand. While your mother may keep telling her friends you are in marketing (technically she’s not wrong) you probably have a stronger definition for you career. If you are looking to invest in PR or SEO for your business, it is important to understand how the two work together, how the two overlap and also how they differ.
Let’s start with definitions. In simple terms, search engine optimization is an action taken to improve your website’s ranking in various search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. The Public Relations Society of America defines PR as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” In a nutshell, PR is what other people are saying about you or your brand. Public relations professionals try to influence this by forming relationships with journalists, sharing stories, creating events in which the public can interact with a brand and a multitude other ways we will refer to as tactics, which is where the line between PR and SEO begin to blur.
External Link Building: SEO 101
Here’s where it gets fun, because you can think of SEO as a video game. Your ranking in any search engine is determined by points. One of the simplest and most effective ways to increase your rankings for other sites is to host links back to your site. The value (or points) of a link is based on several factors about that site including popularity, importance and trustworthiness. Your friend’s blog that ranks the best hotdogs in a ten-mile radius from his house may be worth a few points, but a link from Forbes.com is going to have a much higher point value, which is where PR comes into play.
Public relations – and more specifically media relations – is getting other people to write, say, and blog things about your company, brand or product. Online, those wonderful things people say about you usually include a link back to your website and, if not, you need someone with the ability to tactfully ask that they do. Public relations pros use a long list of tactics to secure their clients coverage including guest blogging, contributed content, offering expert opinions/insight on breaking news or industry trends, pitching story ideas, hosting media events and many, many more industry secrets I am not at liberty to disclose, under threat of extreme penalty.
Furthermore, PR pros live, breathe and eat all things media. This makes them uniquely qualified to evaluate what your brand has to offer the media, who is likely to want to hear it, how to get in touch with the right gatekeeper to have your content published and what makes for a good story in the first place. Is your company and online dating site with a treasure trove of data on relationships? Cosmopolitan may be interested in hearing from you. Is your company a finance management firm with some helpful tips for tax season? You may want to reach out to The Wall Street Journal for that one.
Anytime an SEO expert reaches out to a blogger requesting a link, they are engaging in PR, and anytime a PR pro lands an article online, they are improving that company’s SEO. “But what if there isn’t a link in the article?” you might ask. Easy, tiger, we’ll get to that when we talk about implied linking.
Content is Still King
In the Wild West days of SEO, more links meant a better ranking. This led to SEO practitioners using a spam approach to blast their client’s links anywhere and everywhere. However, as search engines grew endlessly more complex, they began to recognize and even punish these practices. Take Google as an example.
Google changes its search algorithm around 500-600 times each year. While most of these changes are minor and go largely unnoticed, every few years Google makes a change that drastically affects how websites are ranked. Such was the case when they made the determination that mobile-friendly sites should rank higher when searched from a mobile device, an event that became known as “Mobilegeddon”. The most famous algorithm update, which ultimately lead to the shotgun wedding of PR and SEO, was Google Penguin. Announced back in 2012 to the dismay of many practicing SEO gurus who subscribed to the “more is better” model, Google Penguin was Google’s first step pushing back on practices it saw as dishonest or “spam-y”. Practices like automatically generated content link schemes, cloaking, sneaky redirects, doorway pages, malicious behavior, hidden text and hidden links began being actively punished by Google, and will decrease a websites rankings if engaged in today.
We already talked about how PR can help you identify and connect with reputable sources to host your links, and SEO experts can do this as well. Where PR can really make the most of your SEO efforts here is helping to create highly engaging content. As search engines like Google become more focused on quality over quantity, it is important to have storytellers working with you to identify what will really engage an outlets readers and thus rank higher for SEO purposes.
Keywords & Key Messages
While we have focused largely on external linking and creating quality content, we actually need to take a quick step backwards. Before you can share your ideas with the world, you need to be sure you are inviting people to the best website possible. Any SEO freelancer or agency you work with is likely to tell you that optimizing your site is step one. This involves meta-tagging, alt tagging, optimizing on-page copy, keyword research and keyword mapping. In laymen’s terms, this means making your site as easy for search engines to recognize and rank, while also making it as appealing as possible once someone finds their way there.
What’s interesting about that is it that it overlaps with one of the first steps in the PR process, which is creating key messages. In its most basic form, the PR process looks like this:
If you are going to take the time to rewrite all of your website copy to be SEO friendly, you may as well use that as an opportunity to be sure it is PR friendly. One could even argue that more PR friendly copy will be more SEO friendly and vice versa. In an ideal world, you are working with a talented SEO expert who can identify the key words that will drive business and a skilled PR pro who can work those key words into your messaging in a natural way.
- Implied Links are Becoming More Important
So what are implied links? In the public relations world, they are known as brand mentions and they are nearly impossible to track. Basically, an implied link is when your brand is mentioned, and after reading about it someone does a Google search for that brand name. These searches are not as easy to track as a hyperlink, but Google is making some headway on that. In 2014, Google released a patent detailing how it values these implied links, showing it is getting better at tracking them.
Common sense says that if your brand name ends up in USA Today it is extremely valuable for SEO, and it is. However, outside of looking at how many unique monthly visitors (UMV) USA Today has, it is near impossible to track that mention’s value. While roughly 14 million people visit USA Today every month, how many actually saw your article? How many looked you up after the fact? These are some of the roadblocks inhibiting people being able to see the intrinsic value of PR. As technology improves and tracking becomes more sophisticated you can expect to see more overlap between public relations firms, search engine optimization agencies and even digital marketing firms.
Looking at that 14 million number you may think “all PR is good PR” and that any mention in USA Today is hugely valuable. While you are not entirely wrong, (except for all PR being good PR, bad PR is very real) does that mention intrigue readers enough for them to open a new tab and look you up? This is where messaging and great content come back into play. A great key messaging strategy should result in the USA Today’s of the word talking about you using the language you want and great content should pique the interest of their readers to want to know more. Should they do a quick search and you have all your ducks in a row from an SEO perspective, USA Today never needs to host a link for you to get you SEO value, due to implied linking.If you are currently invested in or looking to invest PR and SEO separately, your teams should be at the very least talking to each other and ideally working under the umbrella of one unified strategy. As external link building becomes more competitive, it will be key to build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with media gatekeepers who can point their readers back to your page. Well thought out content and key messages will help ensure quality metrics that search engines implement will not hurt your SEO value. Lastly, as tracking becomes more sophisticated the ROI and SEO value of traditional PR will become more apparent. What you should take away from this is by staying ahead of the curve and ensure your SEO and PR strategy work in tandem now, you’ll be better positioned down the road.