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Can PRs meet the demand for SEO services?

Keen readers of Brand Republic’s Wallblog will have noticed that I posted recently on the findings a survey I’d run into PRs’ understanding of search engine optimisation (SEO). I found that the overall feeling from PRs is that they know SEO is important and also almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of UK PRs expect their fee income from SEO to rise in the coming 12 months, yet only 42 per cent of respondents could accurately identify the most important signal in Google’s algorithm: inbound links from diverse and authoritative sites.

PR influencers of SEO

Fig 1: What PRs believe influences search ranking most

So, is PR truly ready to take on SEO (as this piece in New Media Age recently suggests) or are SEOs – who for some time now have recognised that they need to think more like PR people – going to steal a march on PR? In a recent post following on from the Brighton SEO conference, where I ran a link building training workshop – I demonstrated that PR should lead SEO as an estimated 82 per cent of Google’s algorithm can be influenced by the things PRs do as standard: getting coverage (links to pages and the wider domain), creating content (optimise it!) and engaging on social networks (social signals are increasingly relevant in queries).

Where PR and SEO collide

Let’s look at the data and thanks of course to the 100 UK PRs who took part and were generous with their time, comments and tweets. More than half (55 per cent) of respondents said that currently their clients view SEO as either “critical” (12 per cent) or “important” (43 per cent), so it is something that’s very much in the ascendancy. Yet as we saw in the very first paragraph, an educational process is going to have to take place to get PRs up to scratch on SEO.

My colleague Uday Radia at PR firm CloudNine PR believes that SEOs could yet steal the thunder from under PRs nose in what is a £500 million-a-year industry. In this recent post he states:

“[SEO agencies] need to adapt in order to retain clients’ rankings and survive; which is why they have a much bigger incentive to add PR techniques to their offering.  And probably why I’ve come across a number of search agencies who’ve recruited PR people and copywriters in recent months. To be clear, many search agencies have always used PR techniques to help with link-building. Now they’re investing more in the area and getting in position to challenge PR firms.”

What PRs think about SEO

Thanks to the quarter of respondents of the PR and SEO survey who took the time to enter their thoughts on the subject of PR and SEO in the comments box. Here are some of the most interesting:

-          “Even at the very best agencies, with smart people, most of the staff don’t get the intricacies of search and how clever PR can make a massive difference in this area.”

-          “It’s not understood at all by PR people. I feel like PRs selling SEO are a con.”

-          “We as an industry don’t understand as much of it as we should. However, clients don’t seem to associate SEO and PR. So, they’ll pay for an SEO agency to ensure marketing outputs are optimised, key words bought etc., but when it comes to PR content, they will still insist on crap press releases and other overly verbose guff that does nothing for SEO yet is only ever likely to deliver value for the business in a SEO context. Twas ever and thus.”

-          “PRs don’t know the SEO value of what they already do. Just asking for a link to the right page is incredible powerful to SEO. Most PRs say that they can’t get those links, but never ask for them. They should. Not just to home pages either – to deeper category and product pages!”

-          “PR’s understanding of SEO is abysmal. And so is SEO’s understanding of PR.”

-          “I work in tech PR, all my clients are asking for SEO, they would love for us to do it in-house at the agency but most keep an SEO agency on retainer as well as our agency.”

-          “Do I detect an incredulity that PRs don’t know enough about SEO? If so, it’s misplaced. I work at a level where an awareness of SEO is important but I’m not all about online, believe it or not, such as speaking to people, building relationships IRL, speechwriting, and so on for clients. For my own business, I don’t use my own website to attract customers at all. That’s all word of mouth, too.”

One response, which kind of illustrates where many PRs are going wrong, was: “If you’ve a good story, putting even a moment’s thought into SEO is a waste of energy. I thank you.”

PR fee income SEO

Fig 2: Current percentage of PR fee income from SEO services

An important caveat is that the survey was pushed on social media – Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – therefore respondents are already heavily active in online marketing. There are many PRs who are barely active at all on social media and therefore this survey could be merely a straw poll of online-savvy PRs at the tip of a search-illiterate iceberg of PRs.

There’s a Darwinian struggle going on. Smart PRs who haven’t done so already will clue up on SEO and integrate search strategies into their PR and social media campaigns to avoid missing the boat. Those that do not won’t be able to offer the full remit of PR services required in the era of the Social Web. Where do you stand?

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