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PR and Search Engine Optimization: What PR Professionals Need to Know

You’re a public relations pro. You’ve built an extensive networks of contacts and have deep expertise in a sector of the market. That used to be enough to differentiate yourself, but not anymore.
In today’s public relations world, you need to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to survive.
Even if you’re not all that familiar or comfortable with SEO, it’s important to appreciate its importance, and how your PR efforts can affect your client’s SEO goals, for better or worse.

PR & SEO: Better Together

SEO, content marketing, and PR all share a common objective: to put the right content in front of the right audience at the right time.
PR and SEO frequently intersect when an earned-media placement on a website contains a link to a client’s website. Links are the glue of the web. They are used by search engines to find new web pages, but also to understand how important or relevant a web page might be for a particular search query.
Very roughly speaking, in Google’s eyes the more links a web page receives from high-authority sites, the more important it is. Additionally, the context in which links and mentions of your brand exists also impacts what Google might rank you for. If you sell custom red widgets, and lots of articles that talk about red widgets link to or mention your brand, then Google is more likely to think your page should rank for red widgets.
For example, if you someone creates an article on a website with a link pointing to a section of the client’s site about custom red widgets, and the link text (known as “anchor text”) is “custom red widgets,” it’s a strong signal to search engines that your client’s website could be a good site to rank for “custom red widgets.”

Link All the Things!

In that example, your PR work has affected your client’s SEO in a positive way. Excellent. So now you should just go out and get as many links as possible, right?
No, you shouldn’t. Here’s why:
Search engines have gone to great lengths to reduce, remove and even reverse the advantage of acquiring links to artificially influence search engine rankings. Search engines do like links, but they want links that reflect a human’s judgment that each link is an indication of value to users. Consequently, search engines do not want links to be paid for in any way (or artificially traded, bartered, exchanged).
Think of it as a word-of-mouth model for machines. If your friend tells you that a new movie is awesome, you assume that she hasn’t been paid by a movie studio or distributor to tell you that. Similarly, if your friend publishes a blog and links to a web page about the movie, search engines want that link to be the result of your friend believing that the movie is link-worthy, so to speak, and not the result of a promoter slipping her a $20 gift certificate.

Follow These Best Practices

Here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when you target websites for placements:

  1. Don’t pay for an editorial link. Ever. (Exception: you are actually buying an advertorial or sponsored post. In such a case, add a rel=nofollow tag to the link so search engines know the link should not have any ranking power.)
  2. Don’t try to be too clever by coming up with compensation schemes that, while they don’t involve a monetary payment for links, still involve some form of compensation or incentive. Don’t trade for links, don’t barter for links, don’t give product samples in exchange for product reviews that contain a link to your client. Submission sites with no editorial oversight also have little SEO value.
  3. A natural way to link to a specific website is to use the name of the site as link text, rather than link text that closely resembles a search query (often referred to as “rich anchor text”). Search engines may look suspiciously at links that use rich anchor text when using the name of an organization would make more sense. This is especially true if there is a high volume of rich anchor text links.
  4. If you are unsure about how search engines may treat a link, you can ask the publisher to put a so-called NoFollow attribute on the link. It’s an instruction to Google to ignore the link: Users will still see it and be able to click on the link, but Google won’t use it to calculate your client’s importance or query relevance. Put differently, the link won’t help your client’s rankings for relevant searches. Advertorial content or paid influencer endorsements are places where adding a NoFollow tag is important.
  5. The more relevant the website is to your client’s industry or customers, the more valuable the link will be to both users and search engines.
  6. Excessive linking to your site in an article is also a less-than-ideal practice. A good practice to follow is to include minimal linking to your site (once or twice). Keep it non-commercial and link only when it makes sense from a user perspective.
  7. PR is not what the SEO industry refers to as link building (the systematic accumulation of links to improve a website’s overall ranking in search results). PR is about message placement and audience influencing, but may also help accumulate links. You should view links as a valuable outcome, not a key performance indicator.

Understanding the overall SEO health of your client’s site is also a crucial step in the PR process. An SEO audit should be recommended for all sites considering using public relations and/or content marketing to increase awareness and traffic from search engines. If there are fundamental flaws in the structure of the website, your work may prove fruitless in improving traffic and search rankings.

A Public Relations Practitioner’s Role in a Search-Driven World

Public relations professionals are uniquely positioned to help companies move ahead in the online marketplace, if they understand fundamental SEO concepts. The hard-won relationships and understanding of the publishing world offer great strengths to use in a content marketing campaign.
When I was a public relations executive I worked closely with clients on general messaging, product launches, reviews, and events to help build brand awareness for my clients. The key metrics were visibility and reach.
As lead generation and search has increased in importance, PR has had to adapt. Social media and paid search are often part of the offerings from full service public relations firms today. Some agencies have embraced Google Analytics to monitor traffic, as well.
However, there are still many areas about SEO that are overlooked. Understanding the fundamentals of SEO will elevate your ability to provide quality PR services to your clients and help you thrive in today’s digital marketplace.
Utilizing PR for promotion of onsite content is also a way to maximize impact. Strategic development of linked content (a study or a piece of long-form content) with PR has the potential to reach an even larger audience. Public relations practitioners know how to structure newsworthy content and promote it effectively prior to publishing the content onsite.
Even without obtaining Follow links, quality promotion of this strategic on-site content can drive many organically obtained links to relevant content. The links will influence ranking and traffic growth while also building deeper brand associations and market-expertise, helping to reach consumers at every point in the sales funnel.

Thoughts on “PR and Search Engine Optimization: What PR Professionals Need to Know”

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Laura Ackerman

Laura Ackerman was a Senior Marketing Consultant until June 2018. Her extensive experience in B2B marketing, content creation and social media strategy helped clients extend their brand reach

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