In 2012, Google introduced the Penguin algorithm update. It was designed to catch websites that attempted to boost their search engine rankings by, among other things, buying backlinks or obtaining them through link networks. It placed the emphasis firmly on authentic, quality backlink profiles, and it should have started a gold rush for the public relations industry.
It didn’t. The PR industry was very slow to realise the commercial opportunity that Penguin presented, and has been even slower reacting to it.
In a recent article in Influence magazine, Christian Sharp from Firefly rightly said that “PR’s involvement in SEO is becoming easier than ever with Google evolving to answer search queries more like a human would”, but that PR continues to ignore it.
One of the very few communications agencies to make a real play for SEO budgets is Threepipe, the London agency that following a merger with digital agency Blowfish in 2013, last year purchased an SEO operation. MD Jim Hawker has some very interesting views on why PR people are not suited to grasp the SEO mantle.
Below are their at-times-complementary and at-times-conflicting viewpoints.
“In 2016, we became (we believe) the first UK PR agency to acquire an SEO agency. We wanted to accelerate our capability to deliver SEO-impactful campaigns. Here are a few quick observations I have made in the last six months:
1. Most PR people do not have the natural skill sets to run SEO programmes. First and foremost it requires a data and analytically alert mind. It is all about incremental improvements over a sustained period of time that deliver revenue and performance benefit to clients. It is a performance marketing discipline.
2. SEO is more complex than most PR people imagine. The tools, the language, the reporting are all different. We chose to invest to bring in a team of experts rather than train people internally because it would take too long and we didn’t have the right skill sets within the PR teams.
3. The reporting lines are very different. SEO teams do not report into PR people in house. Growing SEO revenue for a PR agency therefore will be challenging as it will require the formulation of new client side relationships with budget holders that don’t view PR agencies as performance agencies
4. Those running SEO budgets on the client side can be very suspicious of the claims made by PR agencies to be able to run effective SEO programmes. They see it as opportunistic and the SEO impact of PR programmes as being delivered more by accident rather than by design.
5. Combining PR and SEO skills is an exciting opportunity. We have created some great campaigns for the likes of 888 and LloydsPharmacy by being able to deliver expertise on both fronts. Having the ability to deliver PR creativity but grounded and supported by SEO knowledge does work
6. SEO is more than just content and earned media link building. There is no point running a SEO programme if the client website is a mess. That means the work starts onsite rather than offsite, which means you need technical SEO knowledge within the agency as part of the planning
7. There have been a lot of benefits to the wider agency in having dedicated SEO expertise in the building. It allows us to build out integrated paid search and SEO programmes that go together hand in hand and it also allows us to deliver better content strategies to our social and PR clients.
Having the SEO expertise within the team has allowed us to build out separate services offering independent analytics advice to businesses trying to make sense of their online data. This has created further revenue streams for the agency.
The last six months have been a fascinating journey and I have seen both the PR and SEO teams learning from each other which has been great to see. I am however more than ever convinced that we wouldn’t have been able to build out SEO impactful campaigns solely from the PR teams and that without acquiring an agency, this would not have been possible.”
“It’s great to see Threepipe moving into the SEO space, winning new budgets and running SEO-led campaigns. Not all PR teams would be able to do this. Jim is right, SEO is a complex area of marketing and not all PR practitioners have the analytical mind-set to create search strategies.
Having said that not all SEO work needs to have the strategy set and activity held by one agency. That’s where the search has industry changed in the last few years.
Before working in PR technology I led the link-building/PR team at search agency Propellernet. When I first made the move to Search in early 2009 a search agency would be hired and the budget was set to cover insight, strategy, SEO on-site tech recommendations, link-building, paid and analysis. The Google Penguin update was then rolled out in 2012 and we saw a change in the industry and how activity was managed.
In-house SEO leads and budget holders wised up to the dubious links that had been built over many years by the analytical SEO agencies they hired. Although their skillset was perfect for strategy, on-site work paid and analysis, the link building activity never beyond negotiating the best price. The most creative at that would be paid advertorials.
However by 2012 it was an industry-known fact that paying for links was strictly against Google guidelines and any respected SEO lead knew they needed to change. This heightened when news spread of brands such as Interflora being removed from search results by Google for paid link activity in 2013.
Earned recommendation was the only choice for heads of SEO if they wanted a job in the future so from that moment we saw a big change how briefs were written and budgets distributed.
By 2014 nearly all of the search briefs we received were split by SEO and paid, and approximately 70% of SEO budgets we won were weighted to link-building. So that left 30% to strategy, on-site tech and analysis. Our SEO retainers were between £10-50k per month.
Threepipe saw that huge opportunity and moved. I thought more would but, as Jim has said, it’s not easy.
Since writing ‘PRs Digital Resolution’ hosting talks and training on this topic in the PR industry I have seen another change. More PR teams are receiving and winning pure link-building briefs.
Heads of SEO are beginning to integrate with internal PR teams and work together.
Many have realised that search success is the outcome of all areas of digital marketing working in harmony together. Of course not all are working in this way yet but some are. I’ve worked on change management programmes on this very topic at some of the UK’s biggest brands. Change is happening.
So this presents the second opportunity for the PR industry in recent years.
If you generate online media coverage with links back to your client’s website and you encourage social shares of content, you could win and lead a very successful link-building brief and budget.
Yes, if you want to go after full SEO (substantial) budgets as Threepipe are there is a lot to learn, and you do need technical SEO expertise, data-led strategy and a whole host of knowledge-sharing processes and integration. But that’s not the only way.
Apart from the opportunity and appeal of new budgets, if your team are generating links and social shares back to your clients’ content you should absolutely be aware of the value you are building. If you’re not reporting on it somebody else will be claiming it. This is an important part of PR measurement too.
If you’re doing any PR on behalf of a web-based business, especially if that business is ecommerce, and you don’t understand search you really need to wise up quickly as your future PR budget is in danger. In my opinion in 2017 there are three options for PR agencies:
1. Buy an SEO agency to quickly integrate skills, gain knowledge and go after SEO budgets (as Threepipe did)
2. Skill up in how search works, understand your value, report on the links you’re gaining and go after ‘link-building’ budgets
3. Learn about search, understand your value, improve your PR measurement and retain your PR budget.”
Sink or Swim?
So there you have it. In my own view, I strongly believe that PR and communications professionals have to start learning about Google and search, and building elements of SEO and link building into their work. As Stella rightly points out, digital communications is a discipline that works best when a holistic view is taken; a view that includes online PR, social media, content marketing, paid elements and search.
To Jim’s point, whether or not that comprises the full gamut of SEO activity or not is questionable. But the days when all of this sat in little silos are fast coming to an end if for no other reason than, with digital, everything impacts everything else in a very direct sense.
One of the things I’m hearing more and more is that heads of communications agencies are worried that their staff are ‘winging it’; that they don’t know how to talk to increasingly sophisticated clients with authority about their digital media challenges. And make no mistake about it, that’s a huge threat to the communications industry.
If you want to have better conversations, to protect your budgets and potentially to increase them, then learning about search is, for me, a given. Stella and I are carrying out a joint SEO/PR workshop at Digital Download on 27 April in London, in which we’ll be providing guidance on doing exactly that. There are currently some tickets left but spaces are limited and going fast.