Seth Roseman, a friend of mine, recently confided in me about the challenges of getting publicity as a CEO of Payless Décor, a discount window shades and blinds business here in Atlanta.
“At my current company, we have a very compelling mix of quality and price, but in a competitive market, it is difficult to get the word out in a cost effective way. Also, since we go straight to the consumer most general corporate communications devices have little chance to get to our target consumer.”
If you are Google or Apple, getting coverage and maintaining an online presence is not a challenge. You have plenty of resources at your disposal and even no news is news. But what can small businesses and news-challenged companies do? How do they extend their brand to a wider audience with a limited budget?
One much discussed solution is repurposing the tried and true press release with Search Engine Optimization. Releases are a great tool for optimizing rankings within natural search by creating new content external to a company’s main web site, with relevant linking. To my friend Seth and many others, the number of people who actually read a press release is not a key performance metric — it is the search-engine spiders and how they handle the press release that concerns him.
“The intriguing thing for me is that old-world devices such as press releases would have such completely different value today to a large extent because Google incorporates them in their algorithm.”
50 Percent Adoption Rate
Despite its obvious strategic advantages, adoption is not universal. While it’s difficult to nail down a percentage, Sarah Skerik, vice president, distribution services at PR Newswire, estimates that more than 50 percent of all releases use SEO.
Part of this adoption rate may reflect a lack of awareness or confidence in SEO’s utility or value. Seeing themselves as media relation’s experts, some PR professionals view SEO as marketing. They are resistant to the rules of engagement, which require new ways of writing and organizing information. Paying attention to such tactics as key word ratios and links may not be a priority. Beyond the issue of job description, others may be resistant out of concerns of “gaming” the system. Manipulating or abusing SEO can lead to changes in the underlying algorithms and black listing a company’s domain.
For some perspective on leveraging SEO, I went to Sarah with a few questions. On any given day, PR Newswire distributes between 800 and 1000 releases a day.
Interview with PR Newswire’s Sarah Skerik
Daniel Greenfield: Who is more likely to use SEO, big or small companies?
Sarah Skerik: The size of the company really doesn’t seem to determine the SEO program. Some companies (small or large) are doing a great job, others are just beginning to utilize SEO.
Greenfield: For most non-material announcements, is there a growing sense that press releases are being increasingly used more for SEO than for the actual news? If no, will it ever be more valuable?
Skerik: Many companies are challenged when it comes to developing content for their web sites. However, fresh content that’s regularly updated is a cornerstone of a good SEO program. Search engines give extra consideration to sites that are regularly updated. For many companies, press releases are an important source of fresh web site content, and the company’s SEO plans should include a strategy for press releases.
There’s no question that more companies are issuing press releases for reasons other than disclosing financial news. That said, the content of the release still matters. Press releases are still public record, and function as online ambassadors, introducing new audiences to a company’s message. Issuing releases that are bereft of news, or are poorly written, is never a good idea, and will do little to achieve publicity objectives – online or offline.
Greenfield: What are the biggest mistakes that companies make in using SEO?
Skerik: I suppose you can start with not using SEO in the first place.
Not taking time to understand what search engine optimization really is – and how it’s really done, and the timeframes involved – is the number one cause of poor results and thus disappointment and frustration. Issuing a press release and seeing it on Google News is not search engine optimization, for example.
Search engine optimization is the art and science of being found. It means understanding intimately how your audiences are communicating about your product, service or issue, and crafting your communications using SEO techniques to ensure that your message is relevant for certain keywords — and thus highly ranked in natural search results for those keywords. SEO requires an understanding of how your public communicates about your subject, and then requires you to use that information, in the form of keywords, as the cornerstone of your communication.
As you build upon the foundation of those keywords, good SEO requires the communicator to adhere to certain rules, such as using those keywords within the headline, lead and release body, measuring the density of those keywords within the message, and linking from those keywords to related web pages (for starters.) Optimization involves the actual release content.
Greenfield: How can SEO be used most effectively?
Skerik: It’s most powerful when it’s integrated into the company’s overall SEO strategy, and communicators are using the keywords that have been identified through the company’s web site optimization efforts in press releases and other communications. The end goal is building the overall relevance and visibility of the company web site for specific topics, and press releases can contribute powerfully to that effort.
Greenfield: How can you measure its results?
Skerik: Get next to your webmaster, and get a regular look at the analytics report for your web site. This report will illustrate by day, week, or month (or other timeframe) exactly how many visitors each page had, and what site referred the visitor to that page. From that information, you can learn whether or not your press releases were a driver of traffic to your web site.
One important thing for PR people to keep in mind, however, relates to the timeframe for SEO results. We’re often used to immediate results. SEO results, however, measure human behavior — specifically, the number of times people searching the web find your message using keywords that they generate. Good results indicate that you’re in touch with your audience and are communicating with them effectively.
Greenfield: Isn’t there a danger in gaming the system and how do search engines like Google and Yahoo guard against it?
Skerik: The search engines are actually pretty good at identifying sites that try to ‘game’ the system. I advise against going head to head with the ranks of Internet geniuses that these companies employ to develop and refine their search services! Write naturally in the language of your audience, and you should be fine.
Greenfield: Lastly, we have seen a lot discussion about social media releases as a replacement for traditional ones? Does either format leverage SEO more effectively?
Skerik: Relevant links within and assets such as photos that are arrayed around a message can reinforce the relevance of your message, because search engines do consider the inbound and outbound links from a page, and they look at the content on the other end of those links. Even if you elect not to adopt the social media release format entirely, you can use elements of the SMNR to enhance your release visibility and contribute to your company’s overall SEO results.
Greenfield: Thank you Sarah for your insights.
Over the past few years, there has been much debate over the press release’s future. Some stick to the traditional press release, while others swear by the social media release. Regardless of the form it takes, its function is changing along with that of a PR professional.
Given that SEO is still in its early adolescence, PR pros can use press releases and other tools to widen their role as subject matter experts and seize a territory that traditionally was in the realm of marketing and advertising.
More fundamentally, the web is changing the relationship between news generators and readers. Through SEO, news challenged companies can draw traffic to their websites as my buddy Seth is doing. It can also help companies bypass reporters and communicate directly to their customers or potential customers. In fact, last year Information Week reported on a study by the research firm Outsell that found that press releases have surpassed trade journals as the leading source of information for knowledge workers — truly a PR professional’s dream. Of course, what you get in disintermediation, you lose in third party validation.
But as SEO plays an increasingly larger role in content distribution, the barrier to entry is no longer the reporter; it’s an algorithm. I am not sure it is any more forgiving.
Let me get back to you.
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