SEO is the New PR

by Eleanor Pyne Edit Ltd

Stephen Kenwright, Head of Search at Branded3, explains why your SEO and PR teams need to talk

It used to be commonplace to think of PR and SEO as two very separate worlds: one was upfront and fully involved in driving brand interest and awareness, while the other stayed out of the limelight and focused on links. But the digital landscape is continually changing and, says Stephen Kenwright, Head of Search at Branded3, these two sectors need to start talking to each other.

Stephen Kenwright, Head of Search at Branded3

This is not, he notes, entirely new news. Commentators have been tracking the interface between SEO, PR and content marketing for a while. And yet there aren’t many companies who’ve ditched their PR agency and replaced with them an SEO or content team. The key is to understand that these previously distinct disciplines must now be much more closely aligned within your overall digital strategy.

In the past, points out Kenwright, PR and advertising agencies were responsible for what happened above-the-line, while the SEO team delivered a spreadsheet with a bunch of links at the end of each month. But unclicked links on unvisited pages are unlikely to drive brand awareness and, crucially, link-building as a tactic doesn’t actually help consumers.

What Google wants

In deciding how a site’s going to rank, explains Kenwright, Google moves down the purchase funnel from awareness through to consideration, conversion and loyalty. SEO, however, moves up the funnel from loyalty through to awareness. “No one can rank on awareness alone,” he says. “Even the most trusted brands can fail to rank for something that might actually drive traffic.”

As an illustration of how SEO needs to work now, Kenwright cites the following example. City Index are a spread-betting provider. If you’re thinking about buying shares in Tesco, your research might involve scanning an industry publication like The Grocer, which is exactly where Branded3 seek to place City Index’s products and content. The approach combines traditional PR – getting the message in front of the relevant audience – with a strong search strategy. Having an intricate knowledge of what Google wants means that SEO agencies can deduce the best course of action for a brand.

“Google only really cares about two things. It cares about site popularity, which has always been the realm of PR and above-the line advertising. And it cares about site health, which has always been the SEO team’s problem.” One thing that neither Google nor PRs care about anymore, he says, is advertising value equivalency; now that SEO agencies can track the movements of users with pinpoint accuracy, merely counting impressions is a thing of the past. This is where SEO and PR come together to deliver the holy trinity of content, awareness and measurement. And since it’s the SEO team’s job to know what Google wants, they’re also in a position to help PR workers and brands avoid unnecessary penalties.

Bad Co.

“Google wants you to stop sending stuff to bloggers,” Kenwright says. “A well-known high street fashion retailer got penalised for this recently. It’s not that you can’t do it at all, but you’ve got to do it properly. Advertising standards and Google guidelines are not the same thing.” (In January last year Google’s Head of Webspam Matt Cutts blogged about this himself: “If you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014,” he wrote, “you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.”)

Advertorials, too, are frowned upon by Google. “The problem is that a lot of native advertising looks a lot like advertorials,” says Kenwright. “If you’re using that to drive SEO performance, it’s going to get you in trouble. Google also wants you to stop syndicating press releases. If you use sites like PR Newswire – well, I probably wouldn’t anymore, and certainly not with links in. Links from press releases will get you penalised.” This is compounded by the fact that, with the rise of social media, online influencers, reddit and all the rest, plenty of journalists are no longer looking at newswires as the primary source of their information. Essentially, says Kenwright, SEO agencies know how the internet works and, if brands want to stay afloat in the digital tide, their PR teams need to take note. “If something’s worth syndicating, someone will do it for you.”

Data tells stories

As an example of how this strategy has worked, Kenwright highlights the work Branded3 carried out for cosmetic surgery group Transform, which wanted to be seen as the UK’s most trusted and transparent provider.

“People tell their own stories now. They take what you’ve got and add their own context. Something we’re very big on is telling stories with data. This is one of the best ways we can do PR as an SEO agency.”

In the case of Transform, Branded3 looked at the last four years of enquiry data in the company’s CRM system. This covered the types of cosmetic operations customers were seeking. The data formed the basis for a report from Transform titled ‘Brits, Boobs and Botox’, which revealed the most popular cosmetic surgery procedures across different areas of the UK.

What’s significant from a PR perspective is the media coverage which this content generated. The findings included the fact that Blackpool is the ‘boob job capital of the UK’ and the revelation that the biggest market for facelifts is among those aged 18-24.

From an editorial perspective, stats like this are dynamite and The Sun on Sunday, the Daily Star, the Telegraph and Mail Online all put their own spin on the story. In total there were 40 pieces of coverage. Result: 7,000 referrals for Transform, a 105 per cent year-on-year organic lift and 65 conversions, which in the field of cosmetic surgery is significant. As Kenwright points out, “We’ve got something here that journalists actually want to use.”

So, PR and SEO are evolving. But that’s not to say the line between them has completely dissolved. “There are aspects of PR that SEO will just never be good at,” Kenwright concedes. “I’m not advocating by any stretch that you get rid of PR. What I’d prefer is that your PR team talk to your SEO agency and realise that we’re all friends.”

When it comes to crisis management, trade contacts and real-world factors like celebrity endorsement, you probably want access to an experienced PR rather than an SEO expert, even if they do understand anchor text ratio. This is not, stresses Kenwright, about two departments encroaching on each other’s turf. It’s about amplifying the extent to which each sector can benefit the client.

Stephen Kenwright spoke at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference, November 2014. This feature appears in Figaro Digital Issue 23 – January 2015.

Article by Estelle Hakner and Jon Fortgang


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