by Chris Lesieutre, President

I’ve always hated SEO. There, I said it.

I’ve hated SEO from the day I first heard about it. I still remember that day. A vendor who’d done a great job for us with some web design services phoned up to sell me SEO services, telling me that we needed special help so people would be able to find our website. And, he said, we could resell his service to our clients.

The whole idea infuriated me then and still does. It’s the notion that you had to specially code your content so that a machine would be able to scan metadata to figure out what you were all about, and then somehow rate and rank you. And if you didn’t sign on to the SEO concept, so the threat went, then no one would ever find you on the Internet.

So you spend hours, days, weeks … months go by in crafting your message, reviewing and massaging the copywriting, creating images and stunning graphics, pulling it all together into an engaging and informative site and then  …  sigh, it’s all for naught, because you didn’t code it correctly for the search police?

What makes it even more exasperating is that early on people figured out they could game the system. At first Google’s search results depended a lot on inbound links. The more links pointing to your site, the higher you appeared in the search results, regardless of the actual quality of your content. It was a popularity contest all the way. And that led to the scam of link loading, which was a way of artificially getting links pointing to your site, including the fad of link trading. And that was soon followed by the scam of keyword stuffing. It used to be that if your competitor was using a keyword 100 times in the text and the meta tags of a page, then your counter tactic would be to use the keyword 200 times. Agencies used to be able to charge you thousands of dollars per month to play games like that. But I’m not bitter.

A real life example: an interesting thing that happened to us in the keyword game was that a competitive agency actually was using our company name as one of its keywords, so that if you searched for Wall Street Communications, up popped this other agency, high in the search results. Those are the kinds of games people were playing.

Back in those early days of SEO, my big objection, in my great naïveté, was that if these machine bots that were trolling websites and the programming behind them were so smart, why couldn’t they be trained to analyze and recognize the actual content of the sites for what they were rather than rely on metadata and other essentially artificial indicators. I mean, like, please: just read the words on the damn page!

Time goes by, and the Wild West days of search starts to get tamed a bit. Google worked hard to get its algorithms to the point of recognizing and seeing websites more as a human would. Bottom line now: your actual site content counts. In fact, it counts as much as anything else, if not more. And that’s a better starting point. Breathe a sigh of relief.

On top of that, there are now nifty little apps to pop onto your WordPress site so that anyone with a moderate understanding of how search works can tweak and streamline SEO themselves quite effectively with very little effort.

So to get on with the topic at hand, I’ve sat in on two webinars in the past two months about how PR helps SEO. In both webinars, though, presenters spent most of their time on basic SEO principles that had little to do with PR directly. They emphasized the importance of keywords and the use of them — “keywords” being a basic principle or concept of SEO. In real language it means: use the real words that you would use in normal communications to describe your company and your products. So, for instance, if you make a video server, you should actually use the words “video server” and whatever other terms that would be obvious to your potential customers trying to search for your type of product.

It sounds like I’m making fun, and I am sort of. But to give a real-world example, I once sat down with a company to review their corporate website, and we went through the exercise of coming up with the five most important keywords that should be used on their site so that customers might find them through search. We set aside an hour for the task, and they came up with five keywords and phrases quite easily. We had all five in like the first three minutes. And then for the next 57 minutes they engaged in second-guessing, analyzing alternatives, over analyzing, coming up with 99 slight variations on the first five, then doing a little bit of finger pointing, with some healthy “Who cares anyway?” negativity, and finally reaching consensus on the first five keywords that came out in the first three minutes. Same as any company meeting.

The next step was to go through the existing site and find the keywords. And this is the shocking part. Of the five keywords/phrases we had identified, three didn’t appear on the site at all, and while the other two did make an appearance here and there, their presence could best be described as sparse. What’s stunning about this revelation is that all of the keywords seemed obviously associated with this company. So, why weren’t they using the words in the normal course of their business? That might be a deep psychological question; but the simple answer for them was: “everyone knows what we do, we don’t need to keep saying it.” Answer to that: everyone who already knows you, knows you; but new prospects, where do they come from, and how are they going to find you?

Enough of that for now. We can agree that keywords and phrases are important — meaning: please actually use the actual words that describe your company in the materials that describe the company.

How does PR come into this picture? Of the webinars I sat through on the subject of PR and SEO, the basic take-home message was this: you want to get other sites to mention you and provide backlinks to your site. But not in the same way companies did during the old days of link loading. It’s not just any site you want; you want sites with high “domain authority” to link to your site.

Domain authority is a term and a rating developed by Moz, one of the companies that provide SEO monitoring. Other monitoring services, such as SEMrush, use similar terms around the same concept. Regardless of terminology, the basic idea is that sites with good reputations and high audience levels have high value. An extremely high-value site would be NYTimes.com, for instance. The trade press that we work with won’t generally be ranked as high, but if you pick a metric like domain authority, you at least have some way to compare and then target different sites. Identify high-value sites, and start working with them.

And what you want is original content placed on these reputable sites (i.e., well-respected, high domain authority) preferably with a backlink; that’s the ticket.

And that’s pretty much the takeaway from two hours spent on webinars in the past two months.

I’d also make the observation that anything that gives you exposure on the web and drives traffic, whether there’s a backlink or not, is a good thing, and one of the obvious places for that is trade publication sites. In the specialist industries that we work in, there are some really big-name companies, but most of us are medium-sized companies, and the web traffic we see is modest. The best of the trade publications have a much bigger reach, and so to be mentioned on their sites gives us more exposure, builds name recognition, and drives traffic.

So the positive side of PR and SEO is simple. But let’s look at a negative example. And that would be putting out a press release over one of the wire services and expecting that all the “pick ups” in the online “publications” will improve SEO. Once upon a time that did actually work, but then the search engine people realized these mass press release distributions were just another way of gaming the system. Put out a press release, any press release, and it’s automatically picked up on 1,000 sites, woo-hoo. But what kind of nonsense is that? And you’re supposed to get bonus points for it? Not anymore; Google figured out the difference between a mass distribution where the same content is repeated hundreds or thousands of times (spam) and original, unique content. Sure, there are still good reasons to push press releases out over a wire service, but SEO isn’t one of them.

One more real-world example. In doing the keyword/keyphrase exercise with another company (let’s call them Company M), the company communicated that there was an emerging new “term” for a new technology they were promoting, and we thought we could do a campaign to try to “own” that term in the market. So first step was to do the online search.  Fascinating results. The top two results on Google turned out to reference Company M, except the results weren’t from the Company M site; they were both from trade publications that had received press releases from Company M and written articles based on those releases. I’d never actually seen that before.

So why wasn’t the Company M site coming up in that search? Easy answer: because they didn’t actually have the keyword/phrase on their site. Duh. That was quickly fixed, and inside a week they were right up there on page one of the search results. They owned it.

The final observation for today is to ask how much does all of this matter in highly specialized technology markets anyway? Almost every marketing webinar or marketing conference that discusses these issues almost exclusively talk about business-to-consumer applications. What about B to B? What about B to B in highly specialized technology markets? No one ever gives examples of these in the general marketing seminars and webinars. A few years ago I was at a digital marketing conference here in Portland, and a speaker from a major marketing automation vendor was talking about the web in general and social media and he stood up in front of a couple of hundred people and said, “In B to B, it’s hard to tell what the analytics really mean. What does the number of likes and followers on social media mean?” The answer: no one really knows. (But that will have to be a topic for another time.)

So, I still hate SEO. Can’t think of many things I hate more. The American healthcare system might be one thing. Another might be social media. Can you imagine having to sit through a webinar on how social media impacts SEO? It’d be my own special hell. I’m sure it’s coming.