Thursday, 10 September 2009

A joined up approach to rising through the search rankings

Author: Graham Thatcher, Director, MCC International

In the early 1990s I was employed as web designer at a full service-marketing consultancy. Throughout this time and without exception, every brief I received came with two clear objectives: provide our business with an online presence and make sure we perform well on the search engines.

Technically, Web 2.0 holds very little resemblance to the Internet that I was busy populating with first generation sites and today even the smallest organisations can boast a slick online appearance, with a content managed site that links directly to back office applications etc. However, the issue of search ranking remains very high on the online agenda. Whereas ten years ago the average Internet user might choose from a wide variety of search engines, the search market has consolidated with Google and Yahoo! taking the majority share (although we are yet to see the impact that Bing will make). Whilst you might think this makes it easier to perform well in a search (after all you are now dealing with fewer variables right?) It is worth noting that that last year Google announced that it had registered a trillion unique pages.

Many of the dark arts that were once employed in the early days to improve a client’s ‘organic’ search ranking (ghost pages and thousands of search words in a clear font at the bottom of a page) would today result in a site being barred from having a ranking at all, and with only two main players in the search market who wants to take the risk? With so much competition for so little screen space, organisations are often prepared to go to great, and typically expensive, lengths to improve their search positions and appear on that hallowed first page.

One of the results of this need has been the upsurge of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) companies in recent years. These specialists are often skilled at interpreting the elusive ranking criteria that each of the search engine companies employ and can be effective in creating a strategy to help achieve their clients search goals. Similarly, most organisations will at some stage have received an invoice for their use of Google AdWords, a not to be dismissed back up position, just in case the organic search fails.

For improving organic search and Google AdWords there will at some stage need to be a debate (usually between the team responsible for the website, possibly although not always the marketing department and the SEO company) to agree the right search terms or ‘meta tags’. These are a selection of keywords and phrases that you think your customers are most likely to type in a random search in order to find you, your products and services.

All too often conspicuous by their absence in this meeting is the press office or PR agency. As a former web designer and now PR man, it seems obvious to me to include them from day one. After all, these are the people who write most of the material for the organisation whether they are press releases, articles, whitepapers, newsletters or case studies, and these materials will ultimately reside on the Internet whether it is on the organisation’s news page, a corporate blog, a social networking (Web 2.0) site, wiki, or an external online publication.

The PR input can provide an invaluable contribution. Firstly advising on keywords and phrases, based on their awareness of the market and the company’s voice on the Internet. Secondly, they have an absolutely vital role in ensuring the external content that appears on the Internet includes the keywords, phrases and terminology that are used on your site to drive traffic towards it. I provide a caveat at this point. Overt over use of keywords and phrases could damage the material’s editorial value and credibility. It is a skilful balancing act that an experienced press officer can help navigate.
When thinking about SEO, do not fall into the trap of only thinking about the optimisation of your own website. Remember that search engines crave original published content to help push you up the ranking and your press officers are experts in generating such materials, as this is what they are doing day in day out, identifying target audience (whether they are in print or online) and providing them with content. Furthermore, the news aggregators that where once dismissed by PRs and marketers as having no real editorial value now have a defined role in giving your press releases widespread exposure to the search engines, and if they include hyperlinks back to your website all the better!

Essentially, the most important element of any initiative that aims to optimise the search ranking for a website is to ensure that all those that can make a contribution are encouraged to do so in a joined up manner. The press office or PR agency has a vital role to perform in delivering the online presence so many businesses crave and involving them in the process at the early stages and keeping them engaged in the campaign will reap significant rewards.

I have worked on both sides of the fence and one organisation that has proven the benefits of PR in search is PiMS Workspace. Managing Director, Martin Atkinson, recently commented on the company’s use of PR in SEO activity: “Within less than a year we have found ourselves rising up to the top of the Google search rankings. We’ve found that PR is the most cost-effective way of increasing our search engine optimisation.”
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