PR SEO 2.0

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 09/29/2005

In the spirit of producing all of our writing in such a way that it builds web traffic through either my or Connors’ blog, I’m taking my latest assignment and writing it in a voice that will be equally applicable in a presentation to the client, and for use in this blog. I hope to reveal to you a little of our thought-process, and what we mean when we say that we are a PR firm specializing in Web 2.0. Not only are we a PR firm specializing in emerging technologies, but we are also active participants in the emerging industry of search engine optimization (SEO) and plan to rewrite the rules of the PR business.

First, let me provide some background to put this concept into context. Why in the world would a PR firm concern itself with SEO, when the popular wisdom says that the future of online PR is in blogging, message boards, and influencing other Web communities? Because no matter how much blogging is changing the world, it’s yet another fragmented media where you battle against audience dissipation (it’s not the 3 TV networks anymore). As the blogosphere grows and fills with more voices of all quality levels (plus spam), the same rules of quality and reputation (that exist in publishing and the search algorithms) will rise some blogs to the top, and today’s rules of PR will still apply. Those bloggers behave, and are treated much like journalists are today. PR agencies will continue to build media lists, but they will transform “influencer lists”. Pitching transforms into “joining the discussion”. And the practice of making all roads lead back to your client through blogging, while valid and necessary, is not the most efficient spend. We take the blogging phenomenon as a starting point, and increase our focus on the one least-fragmented section of the media that exists today—a “choke point,” if you will—The Search.

When you think about the proliferation of TV channels on Cable, and the proliferation of magazines, where can you reach out so that you know everyone in your target audience will see you? Well, Google, Yahoo and MSN, of course. “The Search” is one of the few un-fragmented components of the media today, and John Battelle’s new book, The Search, has many interesting statistics about how much of the public uses search, and how. He quoted a Pew Internet & American Life Project study from 2004 that estimates 107 million people in the United States, or about 1/3 of the population. It goes onto describe how often and for what reasons. Suffice to say, it’s safe to assume that a huge portion of your target audience will be going through Google several times a month and stands a fair chance of looking for answers to questions that if you were providing, would put you in the strongest position for turning it into a new opportunity (sales, investor, partnerships, etc.).

So, try performing a search on keywords that are important to you, and notice the number of other pages with which you are competing. It is often tens-of-thousands, and that number continues to grow. How can you hope to be in—say—the top 5? Today’s common wisdom says that you simply buy your way into the SERPs through a Google AdWords or Yahoo Search Marketing pay-per-click (PPC) keyword campaign. The competitive bidding frenzy that results from such campaigns is what monetized the media that Google controlled, and is driving them to unexpected levels of profitability. Basically, you pre-define the keyword list and have your company advertised around the genuine search results. It’s a clear deal, and is very similar to buying media and placing ads. You only pay for the clicks (not the impressions—or the showing of the ad). It is an excellent value proposition, clear deal and a familiar concept to media buyers, analogous to buying column inches. But you’re not in the SERPs.

The genuine search hits on the other hand are the original and ongoing draw of the Google site (and others). The real results are the SERPs. In the online media world, these results are equivalent to the unbiased editorials that you would find in print media or television. And you can’t necessarily buy your way into those spaces. It’s a subtle art, and a type of interdependency between journalists and PR professionals built on human relationships and trust. A PR specialist won’t feed a story to a journalist that would diminish the journalist’s credibility if run. So, PR companies have to must present truly newsworthy and compelling stories. In short, they need to produce quality content and efficiently distribute it using hard-earned skills, relationships and knowledge. Similarly, the SEO professional must feed quality to the search engines, and the search engines must not compromise the integrity of the SERPs with sponsored results, least they break the trust and lose the user.

There are no guarantees with either PR or SEO. The deal isn’t nearly so clear as advertising or AdWords, but neither do the budgets have to be so large. In PR, when the story is good enough, and you go to the right media outlets, you can win the kind of publicity leads to success. This is, for example, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) or New York Times (NYT) article that many clients covet. Meanwhile, you probably spent much less money on the PR campaign than the advertising campaign that would be required to generate the same amount of buzz. PR is a much more efficient way to spend your marketing dollar because when you win, you win big.

How much potential business do those top positions in the search results drive? Where are the people researching solutions in your space getting referred to by the search engines today? How do you wish to reach these people? Put yourself in the mind of your potential customer base, and play out many scenarios of how they find solutions in your space. We often refer to the “triple play” of an effective natural search campaign. You reduce your long-term advertising spend. By occupying those positions, you’re taking opportunity away from your competitors. And in doing so, you’re driving up their expenses by requiring them to put resources into regaining their position or spending on keywords. Over and over, you will discover that the largest efficiencies come in seizing the natural search positions that should be yours anyway, based on the quality of your product, and the story you have to tell. The trick is finding the organization that has the hard-earned skills, relationships and knowledge to distribute the story in the new media of The Search.

There are many ways that Connors Communications optimizes your positions in the search engines, both on keywords that can be anticipated, and (uniquely), those that cannot be anticipated. I will be putting most of the detail aside for the purposes of this document, which focuses in on one type of technical project that we do designed to unleash the “locked up” potential that often resides in database-driven publishing sites, particularly those with published articles or an ecommerce-style catalog and shopping area. Many SEO firms will speak of eliminating duplicate title tags and putting keywords in the URL through tools such as Apache’s built-in mod_rewrite, or ad-on software for IIS, such as ISAPI_Rewrite. These techniques involve a few adjustments to the page to get the right keywords into the critical elements for Google. But it has significant impact on Webserver maintenance, adds querying overhead to every page load, and keeps the pages (for the most part) in their original, and often un-optimized form intact. Sometimes this is a good thing, if the server load is small and the content management system already accommodates tweaking for SEO, but often is not the best solution.

A revolution occurred in programming over the past couple of decades that made previously large and difficult to maintain and update program code easier to manage. These changes are known as Object Oriented Programming and Separation of Concerns. I won’t bother explaining them, since Wikipedia does such a great job. Suffice to say that these same revolutions are trickling into website design and management. Most websites, and certainly those that are database-driven, have separated the data (such as the articles or product description) from the presentation (graphics, navigation, look & feel, etc.) from the business logic layer (what happens when you click what). Once these components have been separated, it is possible to re-mix and recombine them independently of the content management system itself.

It is in this transformation process that the particular preferences of search engines such as Google are applied. You can knit the data back into web pages with enough artistic control to precisely match the look of the existing website, and with enough scientific control that you can appease the algorithmic preferences in ways that hand-coding cannot. You can construct the perfect internal-link structure, which would be a laborious task by hand, and outside the model of traditional web application development. In addition, since the optimization formula is separate, you can tweak the formula with little impact on site. Existing eCommerce system can even use templates provided by this new output, to keep the overall look of the site in perfect sync.

The IT ramifications are dramatically reduced, because you’re not putting anything new on your servers except for static HTML pages. The location of these pages can go into a directory where security is locked-down, and the impact of working with an outside firm contained, with file transfer accomplished through secure copy (SSH) or secure FTP (SFTP). Because the pages are static, website performance actually increases, and the myth is dispelled that data must be served in real time. Pre-generating pages on a nightly basis keeps most product catalogs and magazine articles as up-to-date as they need to be. And if there’s any question, you keep the original Web app around and cross-link the parallel sites. The pages are usually different enough that there is no risk of duplicate content, and if there is, you just use the noindex, nofollow meta tags. And best of all, you can run small experiments to prove the viability of this approach without setting up testing servers—no software needs to be installed! And it’s great for the user too, because the final page is plain-vanilla browser-compatible CSS and HTML.

This process taps into the rich tool sets that are evolving to support Web 2.0. In the past, sharing data between a proprietary content management system and an outside firm would be challenging at best. Today, Web developers speak the universe rally interoperable data language of XML, and this XML data is shuttled around with the increasingly ubiquitous skill of programming a Web Service. Microsoft Visual Studio.NET reduces it to a ridiculously simple procedure, while Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) has similar tools. And the Microsoft systems can talk to the Java systems—no problem. Plus, most other Web-oriented programming languages such as PERL, Python, PHP and Ruby have such facilities. And the servers don’t have to be in the same building or even the same country. That’s the essence of Web 2.0. The same revolution that brought web-surfing to individuals is—many years later—bringing the same capabilities to machines, allowing unprecedented levels of automation in business processes.

So, what does all of this have to do with public relations? What business does a New York public relations agency have programming Web 2.0 Web Services? What is the connection to influencing the influencers? It’s all about efficiency in outreach. It’s more efficient to reach out to the search engines than it is to every individual potentially influential blogger in the blogosphere. Bloggers, right along with your target audience, are almost assured to perform searches in the discovery and research phases preceding any purchase. Better still, the influential bloggers are exactly the type of technical elite users that make heavy and persistent use of search tools. Whereas a blogger might have a negative reaction to a PR account executive (AE) contacting them directly with a pitch, they won’t even know that they’ve been reached-out-to if THEY find YOU as a result of a search. Remember, there are hundreds-of-thousands of bloggers. But there are only three major search engines.

And services such as this should come from PR firms because PR firms because it is “un-paid” online promotion (no advertising). PR firms have the strategic insight to keep the pages that are generated by such systems up to the quality level of the rest of the site, to be effective, but without compromising the overall site design. We are sensitive to the fact that such systems can produce thousands-more pages than the existing pristine, controlled messaging of the website calls for. But it’s no different than an eCommerce site. We can guide you through how to plant this massive quantity of content “under the surface”, like an iceberg. In this way, the site has a very large footprint in terms of number-of-pages, and any page can produce the search hit. But as soon as the visitor starts surfing around, they gets dropped either directly into the corporate site with the controlled messaging, or into the eCommerce system. Only the back-button can lead back under the surface.

Isn’t blogging the same thing as these catalog-oriented Web 2.0 projects? After all, even blogging is indirectly a search engine play as well, because blogs position well in the search engine result pages (SERPs). Reaching out to your target audience through search engines via blogging is completely valid, and we encourage and engage in that practice ourselves. It’s simply not where the largest efficiencies are to be gained (unless there is a particular influencer in your space to whom everyone pays attention, in which case we address that as well). Typically, we have a 3-front program for online outreach. The first two have a fixed cost, and are predictable in terms of results and ROI. The third is labor-intensive, and often risky. Those three fronts are:

1. Search optimization of your existing website and unleashing any locked-up content—taking your site off of the “Invisible Web” and into the arena of hyper-competitive search optimization. The later is the subject of this document. But we also perform an analysis of your existing site, provide ongoing SEO consulting, and help produce new content for your existing website.

2. Publishing on a blog you control. Blogs are the most friction-free way to roll search optimized content onto the Web, simultaneously joining the online dialogue by cross-linking with the most influential bloggers in your space. We developed our own SEO Analytics package that informs us the best topics to write about for the fastest, most effective results in natural search. So even in blogging, we go beyond what can already be viewed as “traditional” online PR.

3. Monitoring the pulse of the blogosphere, and providing counsel on how and when to jump into the online dialogue. We use similar cutting-edge Web 2.0 capabilities to stay subscribed to all the RSS monitoring data-feeds, such as Technorati and Google Blog Search, so that we know in nearly real-time when your company or the keywords related to your company are mentioned online.

There is much more to our PR+SEO services, such as building the keyword list tracking their positions over time (standard SEO-fare). But here too, we offer added value rare in the industry, such as permanent archiving of the search results as they appeared at the time of measuring. This is excellent not only for verifying that the data shown in trending is accurate, but also is useful for going back and analyzing things you might have missed, such as the emergence of a new competitor on your keywords. But I will leave this blog-post at that, because I mostly wanted to discuss the innovative Web 2.0. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re the PR firm that launched Amazon and Priceline. With our expertise in introducing emerging technology, it’s about time that we introduce an emerging industry—one that synthesizes the proven methodologies of “traditional” PR with SEO, its most powerful online counterpart.