Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is SEO the name of an accounting firm? Q&A with search consultant Dan Rosenbaum

For all the hype around Twittering and Facebooking and blogging, I'm still convinced at least half the amount of public relations professionals know very little about social media.

Social media webinars are packing them in in 2010. It's the same group of 10 people teaching PRSA social media seminars every year.

So many publicists, so little time.

As a public service, I bring to you independent search consultant Dan Rosenbaum, who has been busy speaking to many large public corporations and was kind enough to answer some questions to help all of you learn more about hitting the top of the charts (Google, not Billboard, that is). Dan sings opera, so you know when he speaks, he projects.

There are still a large number of publicists who think SEO is an accounting firm name. Why do you think that is so?

This is a hard one to answer. I think it's a matter of short-term thinking versus long-term thinking. Some of it, I think, is because publicists are at heart a pretty conservative bunch. I see a lot of PR efforts handled as discrete events, rather than true long-term campaigns. Press releases are crafted, negotiated, and dropped -- like anvils. If they hit something on the way down -- a reporter calls, a crowd assembles -- the release is a success and tomorrow is another day. But SEO doesn't reward that. SEO, because it's based on reinforcing the popularity and authority of web pages, is part of a long term strategy that's too frequently absent from traditional PR.

How can publicists increase the search visibility of their press releases?

With Google and Bing's increased attention to real-time search, there's more opportunity than ever to get a press release into the main search index. Here are some tips.

a) The odds are vastly increased by using language that their audience uses. Let's say you're promoting a product that your company calls "The XD-5402 Jam Whacker, Left-handed," but which the market popularly calls "The Magic Whackinator." Don't be stuck up about it: prominently use the phrase "Magic Whackinator" high in your release. The most important thing you can do to optimize a press release is to use outward-facing language -- the language your target market speaks when it talks about your product and category -- rather than insider-oriented language. One real-world example is for a pharmaceutical company with a pain-relief product. They didn't know whether to use the medical term "neuralgia" or the more common-place word "pain." The wound up with two web sites: one oriented to doctors, the other to the public. The public-facing one used the word "pain" prominently; the industry-facing one used "neuralgia." Different audiences, different vocabularies.

b) Make sure your web site does all the right things technically: that Title tags are in place, that navigation isn't hidden in Javascript, that the right text is used inside headline tags. If you don't understand this paragraph, hire someone who does and let him or her tell you what to do. Then buy a book and learn HTML. It's easy, and should take less than an evening to get the basics.

What SEO recommendations would you make for a corporate web site?

Corporate web sites can be powerful tools to get a company's message out. One of the standard SEO tactics for big sites is to link aggressively among its own pages; pages with lots on incoming links generally rank better than pages with fewer. But be careful to follow the standard rules of the road. I had one client that centralized links to all its press releases across all its businesses on one page (which was good), but generated the list of links in Javascript, which search engines can't follow, so the releases all looked like there were no links to them at all, and therefore never showed up in search engine results.

Corporate sites should avoid falling into the trap of using content management systems that produce obscure URLs like www.corpsite.com/database?q=495082&tor40593-2?a=40395. Search engines have a hard time with query-driven URLs like that. Better are easily navigable URL structures like www.corpsite.com/releases/grocery/slam-bang-cereal-new-box-size.

How can PR people incorporate SEO into things other than press releases?

Any publicist worth a dime has a list of key contacts and second-tier contacts for each of his or her clients. The point of SEO isn't reaching those contacts. SEO is to reach the new class of influencers: people tweeting or posting about your clients or their products, people involved in the Great Electronic Conversation. Odds are, publicists don't know who they are -- and, to be frank, they may not be worth targeting individually. But collectively, SEO is a great way to find them, because it helps them find you. By optimizing press releases and client sites, you're increasing the odds that influencers and casual browsers will get your side of the story.

But again: you have to use their language. One client's product was named in a high-profile investigative article, which linked the product to deaths among its users. The company responded on its blog, but didn't actually use the product's name in its response, opting to refer to the general class of product. The result: anyone who searches for the product's name will find the accusation but not the otherwise effective response. Anyone who searches for the specific inward-facing product class will find the response but not the initial story. As PR professionaly, which would you rather have?

Once someone does find you through your SEO efforts and contacts you, have something more to offer than the press release. A briefing paper, a video, photos or diagrams. The press release becomes less of an anvil and more a wedge. Rather than hitting whatever happens to be under the anvilprint, use the press release as the starting point for a conversation, and hit it again and again.

SEO won't help you very much when it comes to reaching your core contacts. But it's vital in helping you reach influencers you don't know about -- and in reaching people who have a new need to know about your client and its products. It's a tool for expanding your PR footprint.

What kinds of questions should publicists ask their clients about their SEO efforts?

Ask, first of all, if they're doing anything at all. Some clients may be doing paid search (CPC, in particular) to drive traffic. CPC can be very effective -- particularly for crisis communications -- but it can get very expensive very quickly. Ask if they're tying their optimization efforts to any performance metrics: pageviews, additional clicks, name collection, any calls to subsequent action. Ask if they're tracking traffic, and what percentage of their traffic comes from organic search, paid search, direct traffic, and so on. Ask if they know who's linking back to them.

Ask, too, what technical resources are under their clients' control when it comes to the Web site. All too often, clients have outsourced Web development to shops that can (or will) only make changes for big bucks. If the developers have engineered an SEO-hostile site and won't fix it without undergoing a big and expensive project, you've got a problem -- and ought to be looking for a new and more cooperative Web shop. In many cases, the technical changes to optimize a site are not difficult. If your site is heavily dependent on Javascript and Flash, though, you're going to have an expensive problem.

What are three basic SEO tenets that every publicist should know?

1) Use customer facing language.

2) Don't expect quick results. SEO is a long-term game, and quick fixes will backfire.

3) Set key performance goals and track results. Are you looking for traffic to a given page or overall traffic to the site? Conversions? (And how do you define a "conversion"?) Do you want to build a backlink profile? Decide before you start why you're bothering with SEO, and build systems to track how you're doing.

When you speak about SEO in front of corporate PR departments, what are the most frequently asked questions/topics?

I usually get a lot of questions about the advisability of using Javascript and Flash, and how to optimize video for search. In some cases, that means that audiences are missing the point. In others, I get the distinct impression that they already understand the importance of messaging and language, but are having trouble building consensus around it in their own organizations; it's the technology that they're at sea about.

I get questions about how to get people to link back to corporate sites. And there are always questions about paid search and buying links.

Dan Rosenbaum can be reached at dan@panix.com.

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