By Gabrielle Lane,
The ‘changing digital landscape’ is the biggest challenge facing PR practitioners in 2019. In CIPR’s latest State of the Profession survey, it overtook ‘under-representation of PRs at board level’ as their top concern.
This should come as no surprise. Copywriting and editing are now the most commonly performed tasks in PR, with social media also ranking highly. An implicit requirement of all this is digital knowledge: content creation demands an understanding of content channels, measures of success and online visibility.
That’s where SEO (search engine optimisation) comes in. Improving the ranking of your content in search results delivers greater public exposure for your client or organisation.
At a recent roundtable, hosted by Influence and Business Wire, seven media and comms professionals met to discuss how PR teams should approach SEO in their day-to-day work.
What is SEO?
The order in which content appears in search results is determined by an algorithm that ranks relevance, using criteria such as article length and topic. SEO is the process of meeting these criteria in your content.
The problem is that “SEO is constantly evolving”, said Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe. “You need inquisitive people to understand how the algorithm works because Google doesn’t tell you.” In 2016, Threepipe acquired SEO specialist Spot Digital to bring this expertise in-house.
Collaboration between PR and SEO specialists at the start of a project means every part of a website or content platform can be optimised. “I want to be brought in as early as possible,” said SEO specialist Lukasz Zelezny. “We need to think about meta descriptions, URL structures and other elements that affect SEO, without having to do reverse engineering.”
Stylist Group has a two-pronged SEO strategy, with a team that handles the technical development of the Stylist website and an editorial process that plans content far in advance to ensure brand visibility. “Editorially speaking, we are concerned with staying fully in tune with the Stylist reader and being aware of exactly what they are searching for, how and when, so that we’re there to meet them with meaningful content,” said Stylist’s SEO executive, Lucy Robson. “This is about discovering search terms and topics that not only have high volume but fit with the core Stylist feminist ethos.”
That’s how many PR professionals approach SEO, added Vikki Willimott, global head of content and publishing at Hill+Knowlton Strategies: “We’re one step removed from the technical side of SEO but we use online search behaviour to inform content briefs.” This helps in three main ways: “We can look at the questions that people have been asking about a brand or theme, and that highlights interesting topics. We can then use a tool like BuzzSumo that shows us how different websites are treating the different topics – that gives us a more detailed view, almost like a competitor landscape. Then we can test headlines by looking at how different keywords perform online.”
In fact, search engines like Inject are evolving specifically for use by media and comms professionals. Search for a term and Inject unearths facts and news to provide inspiration for story angles. Newswire services like Business Wire can help too. “We distribute information so it can be featured by multiple sources,” said Scott Jamieson, regional manager, UK and Ireland, at Business Wire.
In some circles, there is growing understanding of the benefits of working with SEO front of mind: “Many of our team would say there’s no point doing lots of offline PR activity if the online piece isn’t sorted first,” said Hawker. In others, there is still some resistance, because SEO rules can seem arbitrary. “It’s a process and step by step we’re getting there. Nine times out of 10, people will come to me and say: ‘I still think there is something basically wrong with these rules but, when I see the results, I know we can back this up with stats,’” revealed Zelezny. “SEO drives high-quality, relevant traffic to your website.”
Comms professionals still dictate the content agenda in teams where SEO specialists co-exist. When he worked as head of organic acquisition at uSwitch, Zelezny said he was “second in line”. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
George Brock, professor of journalism at City, University of London, insisted that creativity was more important than metrics. “I’ve seen a lot of organisations get obsessed with technical information. It’s very easy to allow technology to lead decision-making if you’re not careful and at that point it’s likely that things will go wrong. There’s a very simple truth at the heart of this: if the content isn’t any good, you don’t have anything else.”
So what makes good content from a PR perspective? First, it should always be on brand. “For any brand to work, you’ve got to be authentic,” said Robson. Second, it needs an element of originality to engage readers. “Our audience is young professional women in major cities and obviously we want to respond to search terms and answer their needs, but we also want to set trends,” Robson added.
Blending SEO and comms approaches is therefore challenging. “You’ve got different types of people with different skillsets coming together, and they don’t necessarily respond in the same way as a PR person,” admitted Hawker. “There is a need to explain and interpret data in a way that’s understandable to the rest of the organisation, as well as to the client.” For this reason, he describes the shift to a new way of working as “iterative”.
PR teams often contract with independent SEO teams to support campaigns, and those contractors might have little understanding of a specific market or product. For this reason, Chen-Lee Tsui, manager of European marketing at Business Wire, questioned whether the way agencies hire was changing. It was agreed the industry should focus on hiring graduates with a general understanding of PR and then develop their specialist digital knowledge through training. Indeed, the State of the Profession report cited digital skills as the attribute most lacking in new recruits.
“We should hire T-shaped people,” said Willimott, “who have a broad understanding of the process, and then go deeper into an area of that process.”
After all, SEO is only set to become more complex.
Consumers are increasingly asking questions of voice-activated digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa, so brands must provide discoverable audio content. “We’ve been creating content against that demand and have focused on driving up brand visibility on voice search engines. It’s still SEO, because you’re creating content to match different keywords and enquiries,” says Hawker.
How much this development will affect PRs across different sectors in the short term is up for debate; our experts believe it depends on your target demographic. In the UK, say, 53% of 18- to 34-year-olds use voice assistance tools monthly or more, compared to 37% of the general population.
Brock highlighted that there was growing consumer resistance to the use of data to shape content – and that this could potentially be a reputation issue – but there was a general consensus that PR would continue to apply digital skills such as SEO to broaden its remit.
“Having an SEO mindset for the curation, distribution and measurement of content has to be the way forward, because it drives efficiency and measurability, and it shows your worth as an agency,” said Hawker. “PR is moving away from more traditional media into content marketing.”
In conclusion, the benefits of SEO for PR were described by Zelezny as “increased revenue”; by Willimott as “more insightful content”; and by Robson as “brand awareness”, with Brock offering one caveat: “Just don’t overlook the value of high-quality content in itself.”
A version of this article (under the heading Search Party) was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.