Just over a year ago, I argued that the UK PR industry was missing the search engine optimisation (SEO) boat as data implied the number of agencies offering SEO services had dropped markedly. One year on, I take a look at how the market is developing.
If you’re new to search marketing, how Google – by far the most dominant search engine in the UK – decides what to present to you when you enter a search term depends on more than 200 ‘signals’.
Some of those factors are more important than others in determining the ranking of a web page. Three of the most important include having authoritative inbound links to your site from a diverse range of websites, a user-friendly website that works on all platforms (desktop, tablet, mobile) and the quality of your content.
In short, the way Google’s algorithm works increasingly favours PR’s core competencies: gaining attention from high-value media and influencer sites and generating and seeding compelling content.
These are not new developments, I wrote a blog post way back in 2012 about the opportunity for PR agencies from Google’s changing algorithm. In response to those changes, many SEO agencies have adapted their offerings, often hiring PR specialists to help build attention and links. What about PR?
The weekly #CommsChat Twitter conversation covered the topic recently and the consensus was overwhelming: the PR industry still needs to up its SEO game.
Putting SEO at the heart of PR
Some agencies have already successfully implemented SEO-based approaches.
David Fraser set up his agency Ready10 less than two years ago with the belief that “SEO was a gift to, and the future of, the PR industry.”
Fraser told me: “The great bit for PR now is that its worth can be properly evaluated and accountable, something the industry has been struggling with for years. What I have found is a situation where the SEO industry know their future is PR but don’t quite have the tools to create the content that’s needed….and the PR industry knows how to create the content good SEO requires but too often wants to keep itself separate. As an agency, we try to sit in the middle of that.”
SEO needs both PR and technical input
According to Jim Hawker, co-founder of London-based agency Threepipe, there are two camps of approach to SEO: One is that it’s all about building links from authoritative sites, which is supported by the PR agencies that dabble in SEO; and the other being that SEO is highly technical and that it should focus on making improvements to the website so that it is more ‘Google-friendly’.
“The reality is that it is both but that most agencies are not very good at doing both!” Hawker told me, which is why Threepipe brought together a team of highly technical SEO experts to work alongside people who are good at outreach to other websites to try to gain links back.
“For most of our clients we measure in terms of commercial uplift around sales or leads generated and again that is the difference between a PR agency and an SEO agency,” he added. “A PR agency is more likely to report on the number of links it is generating, which is an output and not an outcome that can’t be measured in commercial value.”
Hawker views SEO as “a bit of a cat and mouse game” and SEO experts are continuously trying to understand what Google is looking for.
“Ultimately, however, it is about making the customer experience as best as it can be which is why there is a huge focus on creating sites that are optimised for mobile to reflect the changing way people are discovering content on mobile devices,” he said.
SEO is now also a people business
As a blogger myself – I run a football culture blog and website called Outside Write - I can tell from the many approaches I get by email whether or not they come from a PR or an SEO agency. The PR will often offer me something tangible – an experience, a book to review, an interview – because their chief concern is coverage. Typically, approaches from SEO agencies include offers of articles or infographics and there is always a request for a link.
I agree with Andy Barr of the consultancy 10 Yetis, when he says that the savvier PR agencies cracked on and built an SEO offering because both disciplines are merging into one.
For Barr, PRs have an advantage when it comes to link building.
“I am never going to be convinced that a traditional SEO person is going to be better at building relationships with the grand controllers of authority web links than a public relations person. Building relationships is what we do, day in, day out, across every spectrum of communication,” he told me. “The on-page side of SEO is a niche skill but it can be taught. Public relations is a results orientated business, you are only as good as your last campaign and SEO is very similar. If your rankings don’t go up, or that dodgy story about what your CEO did doesn’t go down, you are going to get the chop.”
Search marketing doesn’t end with Google or YouTube. Threepipe’s Jim Hawker sees a rising focus on non-Google search engines, principally Amazon.
“With over 50% of all product searches starting on Amazon, rather than Google, we are now helping lots of clients optimise their presence within Amazon by understanding the specific algorithm that Amazon uses,” he said.
And Hawker reminds us that SEO is also having a big input into helping brands become more discoverable on voice search platforms, such as Siri on mobile phones, or on Amazon Echo or Google Home Assistant.
“That is a massive opportunity for new brands that want to cut through quicker by focusing on voice search, rather than desktop search,” Hawker added.
Where now for PR and SEO?
It’s clear that the two disciplines of PR and SEO have been interdependent and symbiotic for some time. The smart agencies, whether they come from a PR or SEO background, are getting the two disciplines to work together to drive business benefits for their clients. There are clearly opportunities out there for agencies who work with clients who ‘get it’ and are willing to commit budget to combining search and PR, so PR agencies need to set themselves up with training and a strategy to equip themselves to offer combined SEO and PR services.
Ready10’s David Fraser concludes: “Two years on, I feel vindicated that my hunch was correct and energised in feeling that there is so much potential there for anyone working in earned media.”