Google, SEO and PR Firms

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/23/2005

The prolific programmer and writer Paul Graham, who was brought to my attention my friend John White, wrote this fascinating article on the PR industry as lurking like a huge, quiet submarine beneath the news. Being a programmer myself, and relatively new to the PR industry (~1 year), I’m always entertained to see how, and whether, it’s perceived by the outside world. I’m entering the PR world here in New York with the specific intent of redefining it—actually rewriting the rules. I get the sense that I’m entering an industry that’s being told (wrongly) that it’s dead. Blogging has come along, and there’s a new set of influencers in society. But that’s not true, as I’ll describe in a later article. My role is simply to take the emerging industry of search engine optimization, and have PR plant its flag on this new territory and claim it as its own. A PR firm who has the capabilities to carry out the extremely technical projects of say, taking a company’s website out of the “Invisible Web”, is a PR firm that’s not in crisis. Quite the contrary, it’s an industry ready to thrive.

We all get the idea that Google AdWords is changing the advertising business forever. But paid advertising is just one item under the overall marketing umbrella. There is also direct mail, telemarketing, and yes, public relations. AdSense is paid advertising, and is the online equivalent of paid advertising. But then, what is the online equivalent of public relations? Paul Graham is one of the few people on the Web drawing the direct correlation between PR and search engine optimization (SEO). He states that “PR is the news equivalent of search engine optimization; instead of buying ads, which readers ignore, you get yourself inserted directly into the stories.” YES!

But the big story, because of the Google IPO and unexpected and unprecedented levels of profitability makes AdWords, and the impact on the advertising industry the big story. There’s simply not room for the PR-SEO story yet in the mainstream press. And when it does receive attention, the story is choppy and doesn’t flow. First, you have to explain that not all search results are paid Google AdWords—only those clearly labeled as sponsored results. Then you have to explain all the rest are non-paid, and are actually the main draw of the site. The quality, relevancy and trust imbued into these results are what made Google so successful in a non-monetary sense. It’s what built the Google brand. And although the burgeoning SEM industry that makes its money by managing paid keyword campaigns will deny it to their dying breath, the click-through rate of the genuine results must massively outnumber the paid clicks. Yes, the majority of the business that Google routes on this planet is being done for free. Getting into those free listings is more valuable than maintaining a pay-per-click campaign. The effect of the campaign only lasts for as long as you pay. And your competitors with strong natural listings get a double-whammy edge over you, because you’re depleting your marketing budget on what they’re getting for free, and in a more credible and trusted area of the results.

So, is influencing Search results honest? Is the PR industry’s influencing of the media honest? Well, Paul Graham measures in on the PR side of the question, stating “PR is not dishonest. Not quite. In fact, the reason the best PR firms are so effective is precisely that they aren’t dishonest. They give reporters genuinely valuable information. A good PR firm won’t bug reporters just because the client tells them to; they’ve worked hard to build their credibility with reporters, and they don’t want to destroy it by feeding them mere propaganda.” It is with the exact same spirit that a reputable SEO firm—especially one tied to a parent PR firm that HAS to maintain its reputation—will only do what Google should rightfully reward. No company should be penalized because it can’t construct an internal link-structure to compete with those automatically generated by blogging software. No company should be penalized because they happened to choose a navigational system that hides its website from Search. Quite the contrary, an effective SEO does exactly what the PR firm does. It gives the engines genuinely valuable information, without bugging the systems (or the people who maintain them) with spam. A PR company’s reps worked hard to develop their individual relationships with reporters and journalists, and wouldn’t put it at risk for some cheap promotion. Instead, they make sure the story is truly compelling, and they only go to the well often enough to deliver value both to the reporters, and to the clients they represent. This is exactly the case with SEO. Quality content needs to be written, delivered and organized in such a way as to effectively deliver the client’s message to the Web-searching audience worldwide. And that takes both communication and technical expertise—a rare combination. You either get technical people in SEO firms, or communication specialists in PR firms.