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John Battelle’s The Search: SEO and PR

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/20/2005

I just received our company copy of John Battelle’s The Search. I’ve got to get through it fast, as this is one I have to hand around to the entire SEO and PR departments here at Connors Communications. Thank you John Battelle for telling this story. I’ve been waiting for it to become mainstreamed, as it is necessary for the maturing of the SEO profession. I’m only in the first chapter, The Database of Intentions, but I can already see that John had the vision of search engines as media companies before even Google’s CEO, Erik Schmidt — and he relates it in a humorous way in the first few pages. I’ll be sure to catch him on his book tour tomorrow at 6:00 PM when he’s here in NYC.

Here at Connors Communications in New York City, I am constantly explaining the parallel between the PR industry influencing editorial content, and the SEO industry influencing editorial content. Yes, that’s right. The “natural” or “organic” search results, as we call them are the equivalent of the unbiased citations of journalists. The search results are the media. And optimizing for these results is public relations. The PR and SEO industries one and the same. The world just doesn’t think of it that way yet.

SEO and PR have the same mission. They occupy the same niche under the marketing umbrella. They are on a collision course, and I believe only the technically savvy PR agencies will survive and come out a as a new, more exciting creature. I’m busy developing the systems and methodologies to ensure that Connors is not only one of those survivors, but will thrive. And I’m putting a big focus on the fact that PR is to SEO what print ads are to AdWords. Read that again. To maintain the trust and good will of its users, Google and others will always be forced to maintain the integrity of their results, just like news organizations are forced to maintain journalistic integrity, lest they lose audience (or, one would hope).

If getting mentioned on the front page of The New York Times or Wall Street Journal is an ultimate goal of PR, and worth its weight in gold, than what is coming up in the #1 position on your keywords in Google worth? Clearly, it’s worth a lot judging by how Google and Yahoo revenues on their paid keyword products are driving them to unexpected profitability. But that’s the AdWords and Yahoo Marketing products, which are the equivalent of paid advertising. Ad buyers love it, because it’s a clear deal, measurable ROI, and an easy way into the sponsored results. But how many clicks do these paid ads get versus the regular results, which are the actual draw of the search sites, after all. If search sites are the media, you can think of the paid results as the main programming or articles, while the sponsored results are the ads. How many people skip over ads in this new TiVo world of ours? How many people mentally filter out the ads? How much is it worth to get into the genuine search results?

While the mainstream media article may get your company on the map, the search placement will be working for you 24x7 for a very long time. It becomes sort of a permanent asset of your company, if the optimization is done well enough. When you stop the SEO campaign, the effect continues. Better still, your search visitors are uniquely pre-qualified because they’re looking for you. The “citations” that occur in the form of search hits are also perfectly trackable, so it’s like PR with measurable ROI.

With the proper systems, PR companies are able not only to tell you how to tell your story to make it compelling to writers and journalists, but they are also able to tell you what and how to write to make it appealing to search engines like Google. But unlike “traditional” SEO firms, which already have the reputation for underhanded tactics, a PR firm is sensitive to the company image, including its all-important positioning and messaging. The only thing that PR firms are generally lacking is the technical chops to make the synthesis of these two fields work. But while the missions of these two fields are exactly the same, their methods couldn’t be more different. The main overlap is in how they both require writing skills — PR in writing press releases, and SEO in writing Web content. They also are similar in the need to identify key influencers — PR in journalists in the right beat, and SEO in bloggers and message boards. Pitching online influencers is dramatically different than pitching professional journalists, and in many cases, much more labor-intensive.

Plus, optimizing a site is a technical process. And knowing what to write about and why, in order to tap into that “Database of Intentions”, as John Battelle puts it, requires those multi-disciplinary crossover skills that evolved today’s generation of Flash programmers — but applied very differently. The multi-discipline here is in analysis, writing and design. How can you take the vast amounts of data pouring back to you through analytics, and turn it into exactly the right action-item to grab an incrementally larger portion of market share? The merging of PR and SEO will turn PR into a science the way statistical analysis turned marketing into a science years earlier. And as marketing departments and media buyers begin to understand search engines as a media, they will be able to differentiate between AdWords and genuine search results, and understand SEO they way they have come to understand PR. It’s not the main component in your overall marketing campaign, but it should be part of the marketing mix, and if successful can be like hitting the jackpot.