While discussing marketing plans with various clients and industry professionals recently, I found myself constantly explaining how the worlds of SEO, PPC and marketing are inextricably tied together. I wondered why the idea of a search engine optimization professional being separate from a public relations manager, which in turn is separate from a marketing associate, is so pervasive. And then the answer occurred to me: we, as industry professionals, have isolated ourselves. First a little history:
Search Engine Optimization is Rooted in Algorithms (Fancy Math Equations)
The world’s most popular search engine, Google, started as an idea thought up by Stanford student Larry Page. Page was considering ideas for his dissertation, and his chosen theme was “exploring the mathematical properties of the World Wide Web, understanding its link structure as a huge graph.” Add in a bit of entrepreneurship, some financing, and a few years, and Google was born. We won’t go into depth into the history of Google, but the summation of the point is that Google, and search engines as a whole, are built on a mathematical algorithm that ranks pages based on links and relevance. This was a very logical approach to trying to decipher the appropriately-named “web” of information that was rapidly growing. It’s also an impersonal approach to trying to decide what people like, what is relevant and what the answer is to any given problem.
In a mathematical formula, if you can figure out what the variables are, you can plug in your own values and get the answer you want. Thus, search engine optimizers were born. If you could deduce the formula, you could ‘game’ the system and see your desired result. In the early years, companies made fortunes based on getting their clients to the top of the search results. A lot of times, the way they did this didn’t make content any more informative or useful. They simply tricked the search engines to favor their websites… even if their sites were useless to visitors. This led to an arms race between search engines and SEOs: a not-so-Cold War that Google and other search engines are actively fighting to this day.
The Function of Search Engines is to Act as an Unbiased Marketing Platform
At the root of what search engines are trying to achieve is the idea that a computer program can best answer a question with an accurate answer; a form of unbiased marketing. Marketers spend their careers identifying questions (read: what consumers want) and then answering with the products and services they represent. When you search “the best ice cream flavor,” the search engine returns results like news articles titled “Duh, Rocky Road” and blog posts like “Top Ten Flavors that Wish They Were Rocky Road.” But the holy grail for a marketer is to have your product, “Rocky’s Road Ice Cream,” be the top result. The only way in a perfect search engine world to have this result is to allow the community to decide what’s the best. This is determined by relevance in the form of links. Relevance means that the linked content is useful. If a popular site links to your page saying that it’s useful for something, then search engines will look at it and go, “THIS IS AWESOME,” and bumps it up in the search rankings.
There are certain sites that Google trusts a lot to tell it what’s awesome. If a respected university posts a study that shows that one serving a day of your brand of rocky road is the key to prostate health, and the study links to your site for whatever reason, Google will trust the university’s opinion and rank your site high in search results about rocky road ice cream. If CNN or Fox News then posts a news story that links to the university study that, in turn, links to your site, then Google will see you as being trusted by the university AND the respected news site, giving you even more relevance. And so on. This means that the key factor, at least currently, is a healthy link profile that points the search engine to your product as being the most relevant.
So, how does this work today, as the landscape of SEO is evolving?
This is where the tie-in with PR lies. I can only say this anecdotally, but I see that most SEO companies are full of those guys spending time trying to figure out the formula, and then modify their sites to best get the result they want. The most common form of this is with so-called “black hat” SEO firms that build backlink portfolios and then add you to their directory, and link to your site. Okay wait, let’s clarify a little. So we talked about how being linked to by one really important site can catch Google’s attention. Well, SEO firms started using a trick where they built thousands of sites whose only purpose was to link to the sites of clients who hired them. So instead of one great link to your site from UCLA or CNN, you got a 1000 links from sites with name like, say, e7t8bjejwh.com. Google would eventually see all these sites, and give you a high search ranking because of the thousands of links to your website.
This, for the longest time, was the most effective way to get your site ranked highly, and still has an effect on a small level. Of course, Google is aware of this and actively fights it. You may have heard about Google Panda, Penguin, or Hummingbird. These are just code names used for changes made to Google to help the search engine detect sites that had thousands of obviously garbage-quality links. I had a client recently get hammered in the search rankings because Google finally caught up to the fake links that pointed to their site (thousands of them) and penalized them in what’s called an algorithmic penalty. Instead of the links giving them higher search rankings, they now get much lower search rankings than if they had no links to their site at all. Now they have to spend countless hours and dollars and hope they can fix it. And no, before you ask, Creative California was not the company that built that backlink profile. We take a different approach.
Google (and to a less extent, other search engines) has spent a huge resource load to make their algorithm function more like a human. When you’re looking at a site, it’s very easy to determine the quality of the site and whether or not it’s trusted. It’s more difficult for a computer to do this, but they’re getting better. Google is pretty good at determining the trust factor of a site, the relevance of the information, and the quality of the links and sources that lead to it. Before long, we’ll have office buildings full of T-1000s scouring through websites to determine which tube sock really does offer the most aeration to your foot.
PR is the most effective form to help your company stay ahead of this trend. By offering a good product or service, and making sure that the community is aware of it, you can generate positive feedback, word-of-mouth, and relevant links in a self-sustaining cycle, like so: you make sure your site loads quickly, is built so search engines can crawl your site properly, local settings are correct, and so on (SEO). You then boost your presence on search engines by running an effective PPC campaign. You generate good content that people want to talk about (Content Marketing). You promote that content online, in person, in your community, and more (PR). People talk to each other about your product (Social Media). When people do this, your site gets links from various reputable sites, and your website becomes more relevant to the desired keywords (SEO again). The nice thing is that once this cycle has gone around a couple times, you can cut back on PPC a bit, saving you money.
I like to call this Search Marketing (or, SM). A good article on this showing statistics can be found at Search Engine Land. When you pool together all of your marketing resources, you can see a positive gain in your relevance, and thus rank, in search engines. Why take out the “engine” in SEM? Because the overall goal is not to just be found on Google or Bing, but to be found on social media sites, news sites, review sites, directories and more. When people are searching for something, asking a question, is your product or service going to be the most relevant answer, regardless of where they’re looking? That’s the idea of Search Marketing, to facilitate this goal. The point isn’t for Google to find you, but rather, for people to find you.