Industry commentators have been keen to sound the death knell for traditional SEO in the wake of recent updates (and full-on algorithm switch-outs) from Google.

It's arguable that they have good grounds to make such dramatic claims. In its never-ending battle to have its search spiders behave more like humans, the big G has increasingly moved away from rewarding those who tick the boxes on technical elements and has instead placed a growing emphasis on social signals and quality content.

However, I'm of the opinion that although SEO is here to stay, its evolution will lean toward the more traditional practice of public relations (PR) in the coming years. In this article I'll try to…

  • Back up this claim by looking at industry statistics
  • Put forward a case as to why PR can be highly complementary to SEO
  • And, above all, offer some suggestions about how marketers can capitalize on this trend

Facts and Figures

As I noted, Google wants its robots to behave more like a human when displaying search results. Accordingly, the general consensus among the experts is that more weight is being placed on factors such as inbound links and Google +1s. The way that personalized results are being rolled out to more and more users, and the introduction of Authorship, are further indications of that trend.

Similarly, the changes are aptly summed up in the search giant's recently revised guidance on how webmasters can improve the ranking of their websites: "In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by creating high-quality sites that users will want to use and share."

And that's exactly where PR excels. Once you have the technical elements down, the focus switches to consistently producing valuable, shareable content that appeals to your key audiences—a task that traditional PR agencies have reams of experience in.

But don't just take my word for it. In the UK at least, marketers are plunging more and more resources into bolstering the online profile of their brands via PR. For instance:

  • The Public Relations Consultants Association found that 72% of PR agencies were offering SEO services in 2013.
  • The most in-demand digital PR services were content creation, outreaching/engaging with influencers, and social networking strategy.
  • More than 60% of agencies have increased their digital marketing budgets, with a particular focus on monitoring, SEO, content creation, and PPC/online advertising.
  • Compared with 12 months earlier, agency revenues from digital sources have increased significantly.
  • Businesses in Britain are increasingly devoting resources to social media; though most of them are keeping this activity in-house, a significant portion are splitting responsibility for social with an agency or completely outsourcing altogether.
  • In the vast majority of cases, responsibility for content creation and social media is handled in-house by the PR and communications team.
  • There's also growing confidence in the ROI gained from social media, with levels nearly matching those of traditional PR activities.

Why PR?

One oft-quoted anecdote about the difference between marketing and PR goes something like this:
"You see a gorgeous girl at a party. You go up to her and say: 'I am very rich. Marry me!' That's direct marketing.

"You're at a party with a bunch of friends and see a gorgeous girl. One of your friends goes up to her and pointing at you says: 'He's very rich. Marry him.' That's advertising.

"You're at a party and see gorgeous girl. You get up and straighten your tie, you walk up to her and pour her a drink, you open the door (of the car) for her, pick up her bag after she drops it, offer her ride, and then say: 'By the way, I'm rich. Will you Marry Me?' That's public relations."

As this unwieldy metaphor demonstrates, "traditional" PR activities are all about emphasizing the interesting aspects of a business and crafting a profile that positions it as a trusted authority in its field and engenders both recognition and trust among target audiences.

Unlike an agency or in-house team focused exclusively on search, social, advertising, or marketing, PR can encompass all of those disciplines, taking a holistic view of a brand's profile and crafting a multichannel campaign designed to positively influence.

Creating content people want to use and share is a given with PR. Activities such as media relations, events, crafting corporate communications, and even drafting press releases with a view to attracting as much media coverage as possible stand as analog versions of modern digital public relations tactics such as blogger outreach, guest posts, and social media networking.

Traditional PR activities map extremely well to digital marketing activities, giving a brand or business something to talk about on the Web and the means to attract coverage in offline as well as online publications.

Link-Building and Press Releases

Google now frowns on aggressive linkbuilding or widespread guest posting campaigns that intend to manipulate page rank.

Fortunately, the time-old media relations tactics employed by PR agencies in generating coverage translate fantastically into the digital arena. Those methods allow companies to earn high-quality coverage from reputable, relevant news sites—many of which happen to have great domain authority and other favorable linkbuilding qualities—enabling sites to ethically gain inbound links while simultaneously bolstering their profile.

Google's updated advice on linkbuilding was forecast to cause something of an uproar in the PR world in regard to press releases and other types of promotional content posted across multiple sites and stuffed with links.

Despite the hyperbole, the death of PR agencies never really materialized. Online press release directories and sites willing to host such content are undoubtedly valuable resources, but if your agency's strategy to attract coverage is to fire these out en-masse, without much thought towards targeting, it's safe to say they're doing it wrong.

Cashing In

So now that we've established just what PR can bring to the digital marketing table, what are the best ways for marketers to put the methodology of public relations to use in the online arena?

1. Offline and online activity complement each other

Content creation is one of the key struggles for businesses branching out into the world of digital. However, by ensuring that offline and online activities complement one another brands can ensure they have plenty to talk about via both channels.

Live-tweeting and sharing goings-on from relevant networking events, industry conferences, and speaking opportunities should be your bread and butter approach to raising your profile within your community, as well as helping you look like you've got your finger on the pulse of your sector.

On the flip side, if you've already secured a guest spot in a relevant print, TV, radio editorial, or speaking event—be sure to capitalize on it via your online assets.

2. Bolster your media relations

PR has long been about quality over quantity. Agencies and individuals are often hired and fired based on their reach within relevant press circles. Digital marketers should attempt to emulate PR practices with a view to building long-term relationships with offline and online publications, bloggers, and journalists that can provide valuable sources of coverage time and again.

However, don't succumb to the temptation to revert to the fire-and-forget methods of days gone by... and so abuse these relationships. Get to know the assets in question, what they'll be interested in, and what they avoid like the plague. In short, be useful to them, and they'll reciprocate in spades.

3. Make the most of your content

By using your site as a hub for quality content relevant to your industry and offering insightful comment on pressing issues, you have the potential to attract social shares, online coverage, and guest-posting opportunities on relevant sites (which will generate more of those precious inbound links).

But the fun doesn't stop there. Promoting your quality on-site content can get you noticed by the people who matter, leading to the possibility of print coverage and participation in real-world interviews, editorials, and events—not to mention the prospect of new business from parties you've attracted through blogs, whitepapers, videos, and the like.

PR itself can also have a direct impact on traffic to your site. HubSpot's Lindsey Kirchoff claims that the company always sees a spike in branded traffic following a concerted campaign. So, in addition to promoting your events online, make sure you're trumpeting your online presence when engaging in real-world activities.

4. Join relevant industry communities and discussions

And if they don't exist yet, get them started. Platforms such as LinkedIn and Google+ are among the best tools for finding and developing relevant communities; they also offer you a chance to showcase your expertise to those looking for advice or guidance.

The Bottom Line

PR is in no way a silver bullet for your SEO woes, or your lack of social media profiles. As with any sustained marketing effort it takes hard work, collaboration, and regular review to realize a successful PR campaign.

However, savvy digital marketers who use the methodologies of public relations in a sustained and strategic manner across the board can reap a potential world of benefits.

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image of Gerald Heneghan

Gerald Heneghan is head of content at Roland Dransfield PR, based in Manchester, UK. He combines a background in journalism with Internet savvy and a genuine passion for technology and search.

LinkedIn: Gerald Heneghan

Twitter: @GeraldHeneghan