Digital media has long been both an opportunity and a threat to the public relations industry. For a long time it was touted that digital marketers were going to steal PR’s lunch. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it is, in fact, SEO agencies that are nicking food from PR’s plate while it’s looking the other way.
It should come as no surprise whatsoever to anyone working in marketing communications that PR and SEO are converging. It’s been happening at least since Google introduced the Panda search algorithm update in 2011, realistically since long before then.
Panda was four years ago. So why hasn’t the public relations industry taken the threat from SEO seriously? And could it be costly?
I’ve recently been speaking to a couple of very successful SEO agencies with regard to helping them integrate social media and PR more effectively into their technical teams. And it’s my firm belief that the SEO industry is now the single greatest threat to public relations.
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PR needs to wake up and see this for the battle it is or suffer the consequences. Let’s consider why.
Why SEO is diversifying into PR
Around the time that Google introduced the Penguin update in 2012, old SEO tactics stopped working. Penguin penalises websites that use ‘black hat’ techniques to artificially increase the ranking of a webpage by manipulating the number of links pointing to the page. When Penguin hit, the SEO industry had to adapt. Fast.
And adapt it did. Or at least, adapt the good agencies did. And if you follow the breadcrumbs it’s not difficult to see why they set their sights on PR.
A couple of years ago, SEO switched its focus from high volumes of low quality links to high quality links relevant to specific search terms. But high quality links are much harder to achieve. They typically come from sites that feature high quality content. High quality content means editorial. And editorial means PR.
The SEO companies I’ve spoken to are making a conscious and determined effort to diversify away from traditional ‘technical SEO’ in the same way that PR agencies are moving away from traditional ‘media relations’ (or should be). The two are colliding in the area of content marketing and ‘storytelling’.
SEOs have realised what PRs have known for a long time; that the ability to tell a great story is extremely powerful. So they’re embracing the concept of gaining quality links by developing and pitching stories to the media and to influencers. And they’re approaching this in a far more methodic and process-driven manner than I’ve witnessed in any PR agency.
To call it clinical may be too harsh, but an SEO’s approach to identifying potential targets is much more rigorous than a PR’s. SEOs are used to using technology to do their jobs and more readily adopt and utilise software tools to help them with things like influencer outreach. PRs, well…don’t (in my experience).
Can PR offer anything that SEO can’t?
What PR people have always been great at, and still are, is building beneficial long-term relationships with journalists and bloggers. In line with their process-driven mindset, SEOs tend to take a short-term view of outreach: get the editorial and link, and move on to the next ‘target’.
This rather cold approach only goes so far, and SEO agencies are finding outreach tougher as bloggers and influencers wise up to understanding their own value and expect recompense for their time, effort and influence.
PRs know how to frame a story and how to pitch that story to a journalist in such a way that the chance of it being picked up is greater than if an SEO were to do the same job. And the relationships they’ve built over time play a major role in that.
That said, however, SEO companies are starting to address this weakness too.
Some are employing communications specialists and social media professionals, or contracting people like me, to help them evolve into more rounded service providers.
And here’s what makes the SEO threat so compelling: it’s easier for an SEO agency to extend its services into social media and communications than it is for a PR agency to extend into technical SEO and digital content creation.
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Why is public relations so reticent about SEO?
SEO scares PR people. Fact.
It involves coding and analytics and things like domain authority and meta-data and other things that PR people just don’t understand. And as a result, the bosses of PR agencies don’t know where to turn and so bury their heads in the sand about it.
How many of the top 150 PR consultancies do you think employ at least one technical specialist, or are planning on doing so in the next six months? My guess would be about 10%. Probably fewer.
And yet, if they haven’t already, SEO agencies are making moves to bring in communications specialists right now.
PR is resistant to change. We know that already. But when you consider that SEO is an industry built on change, even before the likes of Panda and Penguin, the threat is all the more serious.
PR’s failure to adapt to data and technology isn’t news. SEO’s systematic and targeted methodology to take a large slice of the PR pie is.
The threat is real and it is now. React or die.