In this modern world Google rules all and functions as a Yellow Pages, Washington Post and National Enquirer all rolled into one. To this end, some companies have fired their public relations agency in favour of using precocious SEO firms to boost their presence on Google, carefully positioning glorifying articles all over the web which are designed to bolster their brand as well as making them easier to find in a search engine. In response, PR companies are frantically training themselves in search marketing, hoping that optimizing their current content for the Google generation will future-proof their business.
If you ask us, both sides are missing the point. They are two very different beasts with their own rules and their own agenda, which happen to creep into each other’s territory every now and again. To revisit a metaphor from the previous paragraph, you wouldn’t publish an article in the Yellow Pages refuting your company’s alleged connection with the tobacco industry, nor would you use the pages of the Washington Post to advertise your services as a plumber. Also mentioned above, SEO is a marketing tool and is designed to get you found by the people who need your product or service, keeping you one step ahead of your competitors. PR assumes that the audience is already familiar with your brand but need reassurance that you are trustworthy.
This may all sound like Promotion 101, but stripping back the layers to reveal each underlying purpose is crucial to keeping the two factions separate. It is when you start to examine the technicalities that the lines start to blur. Achieving a high SEO ranking requires a constant supply of fresh content from reputable sites,containing relevant keywords and links to your home page. Often the actual content value is negligible as long as it fulfils the technical requirements, and is most importantly published as widely as possible. The rules are equally important within the confines of your own website, where meta-tags need to be all present and correct; if you play by these rules, Google will decide that it likes you and – sort of like the head cheerleader at high school – will invite you to more parties, placing you at the top of relevant searches and name-dropping you in front of the popular kids.
Conversely, when charged with promoting the latest positive news about a business or having to temper some negative press, PR firms will send press releases to relevant publications, many of which are now either purely online or have very popular online counterparts. These articles differ from SEO-focussed pieces because the content is designed to be read by humans, with the intention of building brand awareness and consumer confidence. As you may have guessed, these articles do have an impact on SEO but the organic value is insignificant; to make them truly effective for search marketing would require compromising of the content which would throw the PR value out of the window.
So we see a tug-of-war emerging, where the marketing department are pulling hard to grab hold of the company’s public image, but PR are digging their feet into the mud to stop it falling into the wrong hands. To go back to our initial question, where is the line drawn? Well it depends on your company. If you’re a behemoth, make sure you have both and put them on tight leashes, or be a pioneer and try to get them working in harmony. If you can’t afford to have your cake and eat it then you must take a long hard look in the mirror. Put simply, if business is slow get SEO, and if your MD likes babes and fast cars, call the PRs.
Zac is freelance writer who's worked in search marketing and social media for five years across a range of sectors from online dating and film distribution to health and fitness.