Are SEO Specialists Replacing PR Specialists?

There’s a lot of buzz these days about SEO — Search Engine Optimization — and for good reason. The SEO discipline has transitioned from that being a niche specialty largely handled by website designers and data analysts to one as an integral cog in the Digital PR and content ecosystem.

Essentially SEO is focused on improving the odds that content, and that includes written or visual content, gets in front of the desired target audience. It’s very important to recognize that this is not the same as gaming the system using black hat processes as was done in the past before the search engines got smart. In an increasingly content cluttered landscape, the ability to analytically and efficiently help ensure your content won’t get missed is what is driving the rapid growth in SEO on the digital PR landscape.

The influencing factors driving SEO are the constantly changing proprietary search algorithms from search engines such as Google and Bing. These algorithms analyze content in real-time and rank and categorize each piece of content with the goal of helping to ensure the right audience sees content that is relevant to it.

How does SEO fit into the world of PR?

Let’s use a press release as an example. In the past, companies wrote and distributed press releases such as new product announcements using corporate speak and proprietary lingo that made sense to the internal audience, but generally had little relevance or appeal to the target audience. Because distribution channels were relatively few in the pre-web publishing days, basically limited to the newswire or email, this blast approach to a content strategy was accepted by default.

The web as a publishing platform changed all of that. Now, content published in one place can stream to literally thousands of places instantly. This means increased competition for visibility, and this is where the search engines exert their influence by analyzing and ranking content.

So, for example, if the press release does not include keywords or phrases relevant to the target audience (and I’ll explain more what this means in just a second), it will get ranked lower and receive less visibility because the algorithm has determined it’s not as relevant as other content that uses keywords best associated with the category or sector.

To put it another way using a familiar analogy as a springboard, content may be king but it’s relevant and engaging content that trumps everything.

So, to cut to the chase and the key question. Does this mean that SEO specialists are now the drivers of the discipline of PR? Absolutely not, and here’s why. The proprietary sophisticated search algorithms owned by Google and Bing grade and rank content on a number of criteria, and one very important one is content context and quality.

I know a number of top-notch SEO specialists, and with all due respect, while most are great at analyzing and optimizing existing content pieces and slicing and dicing relevant datasets, creative writing is not their specialty. This means that, even though their content may be perfectly optimized in a lab for viewing, it won’t get read because it’s not interesting or creative. Content written purely with SEO in mind will come off as lacking emotion and appeal and a good litmus test of this type of content is when it’s not shared or engaged with.

What’s the Bottom Line for SEO and PR?

So the bottom line with regards to SEO for digital PR is that you need to focus on creative writing and relevance first and SEO second. And the process of writing — such as crafting press releases, blog posts or ghostwriting bylines or OpEd articles, is what PR professionals do — and have done for ages — as a core part of their job. Plus, the search engine algorithms these days are getting very good at being able to “read” a block of content not only from an SEO standpoint, but also from a contextual and quality point of view.

To sum things up, when it comes to PR, you need an experienced writer first and foremost, and one that has a solid grasp of SEO second, not the other way around. Because content that’s not read or engaged with is not going to support your PR and marketing goals.

One last point when it comes to SEO and digital PR. Since context is so important, how does Google or Bing determine what is relevant and what isn’t? Think of it this way — search engines capture millions of searches daily. Each one of those search phrases is a nugget of contextual gold to the search engine. The search engine is essentially learning contextual relevance by what people type into search, connected to what link they click on based on the search results.

So while your old school press release might have referenced your new product by its model number and internal company description, the “PY-61 Ultra-light Aluminum Extruder,” an actual keyword phrase to use in the release could be something like “tool for creating a metal support beam.”

How do you find these search terms so you can know to include them? I use a number of paid Digital PR tools and services that streamline this discovery process. But Google itself yields strong insight through the organic search process. Next time you type in a search on Google, notice that Google will begin suggesting terms in the search box. This is Google’s way of telling you what terms in its database initially match the search you are performing.

Once you’ve identified core keyword associations, the challenging part is still to come – drafting a compelling and engaging piece of content. And that’s a process that is best left to an experienced writer, not an SEO Specialist.

Bill Threlkeld is president of Threlkeld Communications, an SEO and digital content marketing consultancy based in Santa Monica, California. Threlkeld Communications specializes in digital content strategy and tactics, with a focus on integrated content campaigns. This approach is known as the Content Distribution Ecosystem, a unique content model that synchronizes and integrates PR, Social Media, Blogs, Audio, Video, Email Marketing and other content.

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