A SEO PR primer
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is about listening to conversations on the web, creating relevant content and building relationships. It’s public relations.
Internet search is integrated into every aspect of our life from health and financial to shopping and entertainment. In fact when was the last time you made a decision without consulting a search engine?
General purpose search engines include Baidu, Google, Microsoft's Bing, Naver, Seznam, Verizon's Yahoo, and Yandex. Vertical search engines include Amazon and eBay (e-commerce), Kayak (travel queries), LinkedIn (job queries), and YouTube (video).
Web analytics firm Statscounter is a good source of internet usage data. It reports that more than 90% of worldwide search queries start with Google, the search engine created by 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Standford University. It serves more than 3.5 billion queries a day.
Google has been adopted into everyday language although ironically the search giant counters the use of its name as a verb in a bid to maintain trademark protection.
There are two ways of trying to ensure that your website appears on the first page of a Google search. You can either buy attention through Google’s marketplace for keywords or earn it through organic search.
Typically 90% of the public ignore the paid results and click on the organic results. The top five organic results on Google generate around 80% of clickthroughs. Any link after the first page will generate a click through rate of less than two percent.
Public relations initially missed the opportunity to optimise content to earn the attention of Google. A new industry called search engine optimisation grew out of coding and website development.
Activity focused on a mix of legitimate content and link building techniques and those that sought to game Google’s influence through manipulative content and links.
That game is over thanks to Google successively hardening its search algorithm to focus on influence, reputation and trust.
The so-called Penguin and Panda updates released by Google in 2011 and 2012 penalised organisations that used rogue tactics such as thin content, unnatural back links and keyword stuffing, whereas high quality editorial content was promoted.
SEO has shifted towards the skillset of public relations in identifying and listening to audiences and creating content to earn attention.
Smart public relations practitioners are putting search at the heart of their campaigns and seeking followed links from the media sites they pitch.
Search optimisation starts with your public
Start your SEO campaign as you’d start any campaign by listening to your public. What are people searching for related to your product or service?
Google provides planning tools such as Google Keyword Planner and Google Search Console as well as measurement tools such as Google Analytics to help practitioners build campaigns.
Google keeps track of the words and phrases used by its millions of daily users. The data is available to interrogate for free.
Google Trends shows how search terms peak over time. It can provide real time insight in terms of what people searching for on a minute by minute basis or look back over the last 14 years and all points in between. It’s useful for spotting seasonal variations and short and long term trends.
A quick search for sausage in the food and drink category in the UK in 2017 shows a peak around Christmas.
Sausages feature in conversation around Christmas and it’s no accident that both baker Greggs and supermarket Morrisons both promoted sausage-related products in the run up.
Google Trends can also be set up to send alerts if your target keywords show out of normal range spikes or troughs. See example here for the term public relations training.
Google Keyword Planner Tool shows search volumes and related search terms. You can get access the tool for free, but this will only provide you with a range of search volume numbers. For a more precise figure, Google requires you to have at least one live paid for AdWords campaign.
It turns out that there were an average of 18,100 searches per month over the last year for the term sausage in the UK. The plural term sausages was searched for 14,800 times.
Here the tool shows which pages are ranking highest organically as well as which organisations are trying to buy visibility through Google AdWords for the relevant terms.
Notice also how editorial pages from The Guardian and The Independent rank highly for the term sausage.
There’s another third party tool that I want to introduce.
AnswerThePublic was developed by the team at Coverage Book. They’ve made it available for free. The tool scrapes data from search queries to show the types of questions the public is asking.
I’ll let you explore how people search for sausages at your own leisure.
Google Trends, Google Keyword Planner and tools such as SEMrush or Moz should be the basis of content planning for your website.
Expert opinion: keywords, content and tools
“Start with defined goals and targets for what you want your SEO activity to achieve. How much extra organic traffic do you want?”
“What keywords and content are likely to deliver that traffic? What is the likely cost, effort and timescale to achieve these incremental traffic increases? Does the additional organic traffic actually deliver meaningful outcomes?
“The good news is that all of these questions can answered with a reasonable degree of accuracy by simply using the excellent tools and data sources available from Google, Moz, SEM Rush and Majestic.”
Andrew Smith, Escherman.
Get your house in order
Good SEO starts at home by ensuring that a website adheres to best practice design and implementation.
- Meta data – these are the page titles, descriptions, and image tags embedded within web pages. They are typically managed by content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress.
- Site speed – Google rewards web pages that load quickly. Optimise content and design for the mobile web
- Security – secure websites that implement https rank higher than those without security. Ensure that your site uses the https secure protocol.
- HTML compliance – you site should comply with the latest web standards. Again, a CMS system is the best means of ensuring compliance
- Mobile design – speed and mobile design are being prioritised over desktop. Design for mobile (not least because Google is moving to a mobile first index in 2018)
- Keywords – it’s an obvious point but the content on your site should reflect your target keywords
- Domain name and URL structure – URLs should be readable by a human being and reflect your keywords
Links as a measure of the influence of a website
Google uses hundreds of signals to determine how content is displayed in response to a search query including content, speed, locations and links. However, one of the fundamental ranking attributes remains a single mechanism called Page Rank.
Page Rank is the means of ranking content developed by Page and Brin. It’s a logarithmic rather than linear scale. It’s a value attributed to a webpage based on the quality and quantity of inbound links from other websites for a given topic.
In this way links from websites act as a vote of confidence in the site’s content and raise the Page Rank value. But not all links are equal. A multiplying effect is added for the quality of the originating site.
The more quality votes a website receives, the higher its content will be presented in Google search results.
You can quickly see how this plays into the public relations sphere of relationships and earned influence. It takes us back to our core proposition of earned media.
Earned media websites typically have a high Page Rank authority. The goal of your activity should be to secure links and not just print off online coverage.
A manufacturer of sausages that gains followed links from food media bloggers, trade media, and the food pages of national media, will rank higher in search result for sausages than one with no links.
If you want your sausage website content to rank higher than a competitor’s, you’ll need to earn more relevant quality links from higher quality websites.
There are a number of useful third party tools that grew up out of the SEO business to help make sense of the numbers and plan activity. For example, Moz enables you to explore the inbound links to a website so that you can understand the scale of your task.
Majestic offers its own metric called Trust Flow to understand which sites and pages may carry more weight and authority/
Moz uses a metric called Domain Authority that attempts to mirror Page Rank and scores the potential for a page or website to rank for search. It’s based on logarithmic scale between 0 and 100, thus it’s much easier to improve from 20 to 30, than it is from 80 to 90.
There’s another important Moz metric to consider. Page Authority is a score from 1 to 100 that predicts how well a page will rank on a search engine result page. It’s also a logarithmic scale.
Developing a search strategy
SEO requires patience. It typically takes two to six months to rank for a search term depending on the level of competition. You’ll see significant results after 12 months.
Explore the market and links around the search terms that you’re seeking to own, and the websites that are returned. Use this as the basis of planning your search strategy.
You need to make a judgement on the likelihood that you’ll be able to compete with the results that you discover. List the potential sites where you could generate links and evaluate these against competition sites.
Seek out sites that provide followed links. You’re wasting your time with those that don’t at least from an SEO perspective.
Pay walls are also challenging. If a website uses your content ask for a link back. Savvy publishers respect the link economy. Hustle for links. It’s worth an email and a phone call.
You can use Moz or SEM Rush to benchmark the success of your campaign by measuring the growing authority of a page or site. An analytics application such as Google Analytics couple with Google Search Console will provide more accurate granular data about the volume and quality of organic traffic.
PR SEO link building tactics
The goal of link building for SEO is straightforward. You need to create followed links (links that pass on SEO value) from third party websites to your owned website.
No follow links are of limited value for SEO purposes, but are still worthwhile for sending traffic and branded search and so shouldn’t be discounted completely, particularly from respected media sites.
Identify no follow links by looking at the source on the page (right click in most browsers) or right-click an example of the link you want and Inspect element. This will serve the html code that makes up the web page. In the <a> tag you will see rel=nofollow.
There's also various plugins that highlight nofollowed links on a page including SEOMoz's Mozbar.
There may be a benefit in so-called branded search from activity. Coverage of an organisation in the media or on social media platforms frequently results in an uplift in branded search. This can be identified and tracked via analytics tools. It’s a useful metric.
Moz and Buzzsumo also provide so called link opportunity finders. These identify where your brand or organisation has been mentioned in content, but no backlink was included. It might be possible to contact the content author to request a link.
Both tools allow you to prioritise which sites to target based on Domain Authority. In this way, it might be possible to gain valuable back links even after content has already been published.
8 ways to earn links for SEO
Links are created either by building relationships or by providing useful content. Here‘s a series of proven means of earning links. None of these tactics are particularly original. They all have their roots in best practice media and influencer relations.
Building long term relationships with journalists and influencers is fundamental to media relations. But it’s also key to link earning. It’s easy to pitch a story to someone with whom you’ve an existing relationship. Content is a currency. Share stories not just about your own organisation but insights and tips too.
Publish useful and editorially newsworthy content on your owned website. Lists and infographics used to be called out as link bait but there was a truism in the criticism. They work as means of link building. Audio, ebooks, images, presentations, reports, video, and white papers also work.
#3 Feature comment
Media publish lists of features that you can pitch in advance. Bloggers and journalists will typically have a list of sources that they regularly approach for comment. You need to get on these lists by establishing relationships and being useful.
#4 Data and reports
Almost every organisation has data and insights about its market or public that it can anonymise and share. It’s a rich source of comment on human behaviour. If you haven’t got your own data seek out public sources such as the Office for National Statistics, or third party sources that you can cite.
#5 Press releases
It’s more or less game over for press release wires from a SEO perspective. Google attributes limited value from syndication. As a result links are typically stripped out by publishers. The only benefit is where bloggers or journalists use a press release as the basis of creating their own content.
#6 Curation: events and news
Collate and comment on content around a topic. It’s a tactic that works well for breaking events and news. It’s a tactic that serves professional services firms well.
#7 On diary vs off diary
Every newsroom has a schedule of anniversaries and stories that they’ll cover every 12 months. You’ll need to create original content to get attention but you’ve the guarantee of relevancy if you’re responding to a scheduled event.
Here’s an irony. At a time when information is all but free, pitching a story on an exclusive basis to a single publisher has huge value. Links can be negotiated as part of the information exchange. Pick your target with care and reserve for high value websites.
Expert opinion: link reclaimation
"Quite often in SEO PR you’ll have earned your brand mention in the media but frustratingly the publication hasn’t linked to your website. This is where ‘link reclamation’ comes in – just a polite email to the writer to request they link to the website if it will add value to their readers’ experience."
"The writer may or may not oblige, and some publications may have a policy against linking out. So long as you’re not offering an incentive, such as free content, a review product, or payment in exchange for a link, it shouldn’t fall foul of Google’s guidelines on linking.
"Likewise, if someone’s linked to you but included the wrong URL you can ask them to update it for accuracy."
Chris Lee, Eight Moon Media.
Monitor the contribution of new links to your SEO performance. Outputs such as links are an important metric however the results of your activity will be plain to see via a search query. Double down on areas of success and modify your strategy in areas where it doesn’t yield results.
AnswerThePublic - insight into how people search for topics scraped from autocomplete data.
Buzzsumo – although primarily a tool for content research and social sharing data, it also includes a monitoring feature that allows non linked mentions to be tracked in order to identify high value backlink opportunities.
Google Keyword Tool - search volumes and related keywords. Also based on Google search queries.
Google Trends - what’s hot and what’s not on the internet? And when? Insights are based on Google search queries.
Majestic – a tool for link analysis and researching highly trusted media sites and journalists.
Moz - explore the link economy and the potential for a website to rank for search. A solid platform tool for SEO.
SEMrush – an solid all one suite for search engine optimisation.
Summary: Google relations is public relations
#1 Understanding your public
Your website content should be relevant to what your publics are searching for in your related sphere. Use the free tools as a means of listening to your publics.
#2 Get your house in order
SEO optimisation starts with ensuring that your website follows best practice design and implementation. Modern CMS systems are a good place to start.
#3 Understand the link economy
Explore the inbound links to websites that rank highly for your chosen terms. Use this as the basis of determine your search optimisation strategy.
#4 Create a plan to earn links
Build a public relations plan to earn links from the third party websites that you have indentified as influential around the topics that you’ve identified.
#5 Benchmark, test and adapt
Measure the performance of your campaign against initial benchmarks. Double down on areas of success.