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Talking to PR agencies about search engine optimisation (SEO) can make you feel like Noah before the flood.

Building on the recent debate around PR owning SEO, I look at how agencies who fail to embrace search will ultimately fail.

Cast your mind back to 2007-8 and the buzzwords in PR and marketing then around social media. Agencies scrambled to recruit what some mistakenly called a ‘guru’ (often a fresh graduate) who understood the platforms, if perhaps not the principles and nuances of marketing.

Since then, savvy and ambitious PR agencies realised they needed proven digital expertise and either bought in talent or skilled up their own executives on the ways of social media. Social media is now a healthy component of UK PR practice and providing high levels of fee income for PR agencies.

Fast forward to 2012 and the same is strangely not happening for a seriously high value battleground: search engine optimisation.

For readers of Econsultancy, this may appear a little like preaching to the converted, but we all know agencies and practitioners that aren’t on board with SEO.

James Crawford of PR Agency One quite rightly argued on Econsultancy recently that PRs should “get a grip” on SEO as PR practices tick a lot of the boxes which make up the Google algorithm for high ranking on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

I’d like to move that debate on and tell PR agencies what will happen if they don’t learn and embrace SEO best practice, indeed, what is already happening: They will die.

SEO: The threat for PR

I’m a regular attendee at the twice yearly Brighton SEO conference. In February 2011, speaker Lucy Freeborn of digital agency Leapfrogg, implored the hundreds of SEOs present to learn PR in order to generate the extremely important diverse and authoritative links for clients in addition to the back-end and on-page optimisation that they already specialise in – and they are!

As an SEO and social media trainer with a PR background I ran a session on using PR outreach to build links at Brighton SEO in April 2012 packed by SEO pros.

SEOs have a hunger for PR because they understand that changes in search engine algorithms to put the emphasis on quality inbound links and social signals puts the onus on them to learn PR skills, but PRs don’t yet have a hunger for SEO as they still see their mission chiefly as coverage and positive sentiment generator.

PRs just don’t understand SEO…yet

One of the reasons the PR industry as a whole hasn’t quite got on board with SEO yet is a lack of understanding. I ran a poll into PR knowledge of SEO this summer and the findings illustrated some major issues.

What UK PRs believe influences search rankings:

I found that the overall feeling from PRs is that they know SEO is important and also almost three-quarters (71%) of UK PRs expect their fee income from SEO to rise in the coming 12 months, yet only 42% of respondents could accurately identify the most important signal in Google’s algorithm: inbound links from diverse and authoritative sites.

Given the majority of the audience were active on social media and came to the survey link via Twitter this means the inactive majority are probably even less SEO-savvy this rings alarm bells. The gap between the good intention and the reality to deliver is vast and SEO firms will exploit this void.

SEO: The opportunity for PR

However, PR already has a head-start without even apparently knowing it. The massive majority of what influences high ranking on SERPs is within PR’s control:

  • Link building from diverse and authoritative sites.
  • Social media signals.
  • Optimisation of on-page content.
  • Optimisation of URLs.
  • Universal search (pictures, video etc).
  • Domain-level brand metrics (affinity towards the brand online).

SEO is a £500m industry in the UK, so why wouldn’t PR agencies want to mop up?

Another key thing for PRs to consider is that SEO finally provides PR agencies with data with which they can actually prove a return on investment, something they’ve traditionally been missing badly with coverage reports, and also get their hands on accurate data which will help them plot more effective future campaigns for their clients.

Organic SEO is a battle that is never won – you may get high on page one of Google, but then you need to fight to stay there so this provides PRs with repeat income over the long-term.

PRs: Here’s how to learn SEO

An SEO trainer with PR experience who has run keyword-based campaigns in the past can help get you started with the basics:

  • Keywords/phrases: How to identify and track performance over time.
  • Website auditing.
  • Content calendar and strategy.
  • Building diverse and authoritative links.
  • Social media strategising for search.
  • Setting key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Monitoring, analytics and measurement tools and best practice.
  • Ongoing improvements and long-term strategy.

PRs also need to take personal responsibility in learning SEO best practice and issues, and experiment in their own time. Rather like social media, a lot of SEO can only really be appreciated learning on the job, a job SEOs will be doing instead of PRs if the PR industry is not careful.

Chris Lee

Published 20 August, 2012 by Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a freelance digital consultant, trainer and copywriter. He is also @CMRLee on Twitter.

9 more posts from this author

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John Smith

It does seem as if PR agencies should educate themselves a bit more on the influence that SEO actually has and how the future of digital marketing will rely on a combination of SEO and content rather than PR.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Hi John, thanks for your comments. One should see PR as the almost the extension of the content (seeding, distribution etc) to encourage in-bound links and social signals, which are growing in significance.

PR should own the whole thing from strategy to content creation and link building. The issue is are they qualified to provide that counsel? At the moment the answer is overwhelmingly "no".

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

I'm not so sure it's that cut and dried. If anything, both SEO and PR - and a few other things - should ultimately sit under the 'content marketing' umbrella. They are part of something bigger.

If I was going to start an agency tomorrow that's the area I'd move into, and I'd bring together SEOs, PRs, editorial and design pros, and throw in a few marketers that understand online and offline. Some community / social bods would be the missing link.

The technical stuff should ultimately be owned - and understood - by the techies, much in the same way that 'accessibility' became subsumed by the usability and design agencies.

I think if SEO was going to eat the PR industry whole then it would have done it by now.

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

I think you and James highlight an important point here. But we need to be careful of not overcooking things. Saying PR agencies will die if they don't adopt SEO is just not true in my opinion (although switch that sentence round and you could be onto something!)

As you mention, recent updates from Google push the search power much more towards traditional PR techniques.

We also need to be careful not to tar an entire industry with the same brush. Things are changing. I know many agencies (including my own) that are taking serious steps in this direction. Also the industry's professional bodies (disc. I chair the PRCA's digital group) are putting much more of a focus on search as a strategic skillset for professionals and agencies alike.

Of course it takes some time for things to change as you allude to with the social media example. But I think PR is in a strong position to help advise clients/brands on how search affects reputation, awareness and communication. Can we capitalise? Yes I think many of us already are and the others *will* follow.

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Agree with the comments from Chris but think this goes a step further. Search and content marketing (and press releases and media relations and social media etc.) are all just earned or owned media implementations. How these all work together as part of a coherent (and creative/innovative) strategy is where agencies of the future will really earn the big bucks IMHO.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Chris - cheers for the input. PRs also need to get to grips with analytics to put the full programme into context. Content marketing is so powerful: every company = a media company etc.

Danny - you'll note I used my journalistic and PR background to grab some attention and over-emphasise a point just to make it. I'm glad it's on the PRCA agenda - we need to talk...

almost 4 years ago

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Bracken Vernon-Jelier

Thank you for a great article. I recently joined Chalk and Ward Advertising in Exeter as PR Account Director. It was never in question that as well as offering traditional offline PR services that - just as importantly - we were to offer online PR in partnership with our SEO team. It is not always easy to impart the importance of this service to a client who sees PR as a good 'newspaper name check' but despite that, Online PR/SEO services are the fastest growing part of our business. However, we feel that some Online SEO/PR training needs to be done with some of our less experienced team members. Do you have any suggestions of informative classes from leading experts in the field?

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

p.s. further to my comment above, PRCA forthcoming conference on the issue of search and SEO - http://www.prca.org.uk/prcagateway

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Bracken - please drop me a line info@planetcontent.co.uk - and we can take that conversation forward re: training

almost 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Chris, it's hardly surprising that most PRs don't understand SEO, when most don't understand SMO either.

You say "Social media is now a healthy component of UK PR practice and providing high levels of fee income for PR agencies.."

Providing high levels of income - yes, but healthy? I very much doubt it. Money is being spent and a wheel is being turned, but it mostly competes for attention rather than real social engagement.

“We’ve just launched a new page! RT if you’re a fan!” WTF?

Most PR activity continues to be a mix of broadcast + snooping, with very little understanding of content marketing or social engagement.

To make content work socially you need to be able to tell a story, which means knowing what's being already discussed, being a contributor in the relevant channels and building stories with customers.

When you do this, inbound links become a natural by-product as does an increased page rank (assuming your page adds something of value to the story - which it usually doesn't).

Thereafter optimising for social and search makes sense, because you have an asset that's actually worth optimising (i.e. interesting content and a relationship with your audience).

While I agree that SEO should be a necessary competence of everyone involved in digital marketing, as far as PR is concerned, I'd like to see them 'walk' before they start to 'run'.

There's still a very long road to travel (in my sector - automotive) before I'd recognise the PRs had anything of substance worth optimising.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Thanks for your input, Steve. For "healthy" read standard component of PR briefs. How well PRs perform in that regard varies wildly, as it would for any industry.

It seems you broadly agree with the principle that PR as an industry needs to skill the hell up on digital/social/SEO.

What doesn't seem to work is silos. Surely it would all work better if all departments talked to each other for a coherent marketing approach. All too often this doesn't happen.

almost 4 years ago

Edward Armitage

Edward Armitage, Senior Consultant at Practicology

I actually think the title of this post should be in reverse. PRs will slaughter careless SEO agencies.

In the post-Panda world there's going to be plenty of brands looking for a PR agency that has the capability to handle their link building and social media needs.

Since on-page SEO is largely becoming a hygiene factor, and the 'dark-arts' aspect of link-building has been wiped out by recent Google updates, there's little reason why a forward thinking PR agency can't build SEO considerations into their campaign methodologies.

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Spot on Edward. Post-Penguin makes this even more so...

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

@Edward - which backs up my argument that PRs should own this field. Quality content (and its distribution/engagement/management) is a key factor, but how many have recognised this yet to the point where they're making concerted efforts to upsell services to clients and move away from traditional KPIs like you see in old school coverage reports?

almost 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Edward, I agree. But "..there's little reason why a forward thinking PR agency can't build SEO considerations into their campaign methodologies."

The 'Elephant in the Room' is a small matter of mindset, value system, skills and as Chris says above, 'silos'.

In an era where 'SEO gaming' is no more, the simple ingredient of good SEO will be the quality, relevance and stickiness of content and the behaviour it elicits in those who view it (to share it, attribute mentions and re-purpose it).

Sorry to keep beating the drum, but it seems fanciful to imagine traditional PR agencies have what it takes to achieve that.

It's already overdue for the traditional boundaries of PR, advertising, creative, SEO etc to be broken down and integrated into a coherent digital marketing process.

All the turf-fighting (such as between SEO & PR) just prolongs the inevitable..

almost 4 years ago

Edward Armitage

Edward Armitage, Senior Consultant at Practicology

@danny

Getting my Google update animals confused, happens to me more and more these days!

Why they had to choose two black and white species beginning with P is beyond me.

Poodle next?

almost 4 years ago

Edward Armitage

Edward Armitage, Senior Consultant at Practicology

@chris

Agreed about the KPIs.
Recently had a PR agency report showing the value of the printed coverage they'd achieved for a client in the national press. They didn't once mention the corresponding high PR links from guardian.co.uk etc. Unbelievable really.

@steve

"it seems fanciful to imagine traditional PR agencies have what it takes to achieve that"

I believe they have what it takes and more. PRs are already link building without knowing it (see my anecdote above), and just need the right people and methodologies to harness the latent value in their skill set and knowledge base.

By way of contrast, how many time a month does your average SEO agency achieve links from the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Mail Online etc. This is every day stuff for the PRs.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

@Edward Hear, hear! ..and that's why SEOs are learning PR. PR has the headstart without even knowing it, but they could still blow it!

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Agree with most of the comments re the opportunity.

One reason why I think (some) agencies aren't doing more: clients. I think the majority of clients don't expect this from their agencies (yet) and aren't asking for it. Either because they don't get it themselves and/or they go elsewhere (e.g. to SEO specialists).

Not a reason not to offer it, to educate clients and/or build more value add/new revenue streams, but I think if clients started expecting/asking this from PR agencies they'd up-skill pretty damn quickly.

Again, not saying this is the right approach (i.e. wait to be asked) but I think it might be a key reason.

almost 4 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@Edward, I'm glad to hear PR agencies may indeed have the desire (and perhaps the skills). Perhaps it's a sector issue.

@Danny - absolutely, the buck stops with the clients. I asked a major global brand (who shall remain nameless) what they expect in return from the media junkets they lay on several times a year.

These are usually launch events for new cars where the journalists are flown to a luxury destination in private jets, showered with food, drink and the comforts of a 5-star hotel and handed the keys to some £50k vehicle with an endless supply of fuel and tyres.

The answer: good coverage in their newspaper or magazine.

So, I asked how about asking them to submit a report showing the value of the coverage they achieved, its social reach and influence on positive sentiment for the brand.

The answer: that sounds like a lot of work and we're not staffed up to collate and interpret that information.

Clearly if clients allow the media involved in their PR activity such a lack of accountability, then they're hardly ready to expect any better from their agencies. Sad, but true.

almost 4 years ago

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Rahman Mehraby

As part of PR deals with content and a major part of SEO deals with optimized content, PR and SEO specialists should see the common ground and collaborate.

PR agencies should understand that part of coverage depends on web visibility and findability at search engines. SEOs can help them with this. Then, distribution of the optimized content on social media helps to boost the coverage these days, which pushed PR agencies to accept another fact: social media experts are needed too.

At the end of the day, it's a multi-channel marketing world and one must adapt to the trends.

Rahman Mehraby
TraveList Marketing Platform

almost 4 years ago

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James Crawford

I agree with most of this.

The other side of the coin is that some SEOs would make terrible PRs.

Not all of them but many.

almost 4 years ago

Stuart Bruce

Stuart Bruce, Principal at Stuart Bruce Associates

It all depends on how you define PR. A lot of this discussion is about quite simple, low-level public relations activity. At the strategic and higher level there is so much that SEO doesn't know or do. But that said corporate comms professionals do need to make a much, much bigger effort to understand SEO - by training, consultancy and hiring the right people/agencies. There is a huge and growing danger in leaving it the marketing and digital people who in my experience usually have far too narrow a focus (usually on sales). It is essential that corporate comms professionals understand the potential benefits to be gained from including SEO in their remit and the dangers if they don't.

almost 4 years ago

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trungnam89hn

I agree with John's comments, to improve the ranking and PR is very difficult to build a special link many times more difficult, takes time and effort and creativity

almost 4 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Great point Stuart. The link (and separation) between strategy/consultancy and tactical implementation is a key challenge for the PR industry IMO. Working out effective ways to structure agencies (and inhouse teams) to manage this and also price activity accordingly is vital for the future.

almost 4 years ago

Tim Aldiss

Tim Aldiss, Consultant/Director at ThinkSearch

Firstly there's no way a PR practitioner will ever understand the complexities of SEO.

Secondly SEO's have learned to communicate, the hard way, and communication WAS the difference between SEO & PR.

A good SEO will be able to communicate what the Panda & Penguin updates were about in one line, a bad one will try and sell you snake oil.

I think both sides are right and the name of the game is convergence. You can't do one without the other. And the vehicle is of course content.

almost 4 years ago

Stuart Bruce

Stuart Bruce, Principal at Stuart Bruce Associates

@Tim Not sure what you mean when you as PR isn't just communications so learning how to communicate wouldn't get you where you need to be. Reputation and influence are more about behaviour than simply communications.

almost 4 years ago

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith, Director at eschermanSmall Business

I wrote a blog post back in June 2008 entitled: “Why search marketing is eating PRs lunch”

http://blog.escherman.com/2008/06/25/why-search-marketing-is-eating-prs-lunch/

I was making a similar case (and using a similarly provocative headline)
to Chris Lee as to the potential for the PR industry to lose out to search marketing back then. I guess what is mildly depressing is that Chris and James Crawford’s recent post (http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/10523-come-on-prs-get-a-grip-on-seo) are largely raising the same issues that I was flagging over four years ago.

But let’s be honest.

My argument that the PR industry could suffer badly at the hands of the search sector patently never happened.

And it probably won’t - not in the short to medium term at least.

There are many reasons why that might be the case - but I highly recommend the following post by Realwire MD Adam Parker for an excellent analysis of the UK PR sector (and some clues as to the why the PR sector’s decline is probably over egged):

http://www.showmenumbers.com/pr-industry/uk-pr-agencyfreelance-market-2bn-according-to-prweek-prca-census

The PR sector remains a £7.5bn a year industry in the UK, employing around 50,000 people. Worth bearing in mind that in-house PR constitutes the majority of the sector. So even if all PR firms and freelancers were to be wiped out, you’d still have a £5.5bn PR industry. That’s not to say that in-house PRs don’t need to do more in the way of developing search skills, but idea that the search sector will somehow slaughter the PR industry in its entirety overnight is fanciful.

I appreciate that the PR sector doesn’t do itself any favours when the biggest PR firm in the land is caught making foolish claims for its search prowess:

http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/search-results-google-bell

Having said that, the search industry itself has seen its profitability squeezed as much of its traditional services become commoditised. Although the convergence of PR and SEO hasn’t occurred at the rate some of us thought, the pace is picking up now - driven by Google itself.

My conclusion 4 years ago was that: “those PR firms that bite the bullet and make the necessary (and in some cases, painful) structural adjustments to develop a properly integrated (and genuine) search/PR approach are the ones best placed to thrive in the long term.”

I guess that remains true. If we mean by long term the next 3 - 5 years, rather than the next 12 months. Of course, I’d like to see search skills develop at a greater rate in the PR world - but I don’t think the situation is as bad as I made out 4 years ago - or as some are arguing now.

almost 4 years ago

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Chris Lee

Wow! Thanks all for your comments, I feel a follow-up post on the subject. We've all been talking about it for ages, some have acted, some haven't (from either side). Let's see where we are this time next year...

Cheers
Chris
@CMRLee

almost 4 years ago

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Robert Ingram

The world of PR and SEO will surely merge closer and closer in the future. The fact that both of the industries now rely on great content and the successful distribution of that content surely the number of agencies tackling projects at SEO and PR level will increase greatly.

Thanks for the great article - not sure on the pie chart colours though ;)

almost 4 years ago

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seo courses

I am impressed with your creativity. I always facinateswith s.e.o. I Want to make a bright career in this field. Can you please suggest me some good institutes where i can under go training or guidance so that i can excell in this field.

Warm Regards
Avneet Kaur Sodhi

almost 4 years ago

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Alexandra Gaiger, Digital Marketing Architect at ThoughtShift Ltd

Interesting perspective on this Chris. I don't agree with a lot of it but it is good to see your point of view.

Rather than having everyone try to be experts at everything I think that it is time for agencies to lower their barriers and trust each other. I have worked on campaigns where the PR agency tells us what they are doing a press release about, we send them relevant keyword research and then help with the online distribution of the press release. As a digital marketing agency we don't have the offline contacts the PR agency does, and don't want them, and they don't have the time to learn and follow every time Google does another algorithm update.

There is too much suspicion between agencies who are scared of each other doing exactly what you suggest, which is absorbing their service and taking a client away.

almost 4 years ago

Chris Lee

Chris Lee, Founder at Silvester & Finch Ltd.

Thanks Alexandra - I think there is scope for PRs to understand how traditional PR, social and SEO can work together in a single offering and - if not know it all - know enough to deliver even more valuable campaigns to clients. Those PR agencies that take advantage of that knowledge won't need to partner with experts as often as they may otherwise.

Follow up post from the above is now live http://bit.ly/Plyk06

almost 4 years ago

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Michael Gower

Hi Chris,

I absolutely agree. We are keen to work with PR agencies to help them become more SEO friendly. We believe there is a great revenue opportunity for them as creators of content if this can be better applied to the demands of optimised web and social media content.

Here is a link to an eBook we have just released titled "The Prigital Revolution" - What is the prigital revolution and why should you be going prigital if you are a PR agency? - www.theinsideteam.co.uk/prigital

almost 4 years ago

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Jenny Clayton

Hi Chris,

As a trained journalist and PR of nearly 20 years I'm happy to say I've moved with the times and am a firm advocate and convert to the power of seo.

No industry stands still. Things evolve, progress and grow, and we have to adapt and embrace new technologies and methods if we are to stay ahead of the game. This absolutely applies to how marketers help their clients engage with customers - including PRs.

Likewise my traditional PR skills have been recognised and are being put to good use for the many web development and seo clients we have here at Smart Arts.

almost 4 years ago

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J.D. Farmakidis

@Tim A. I think that PR people don't write enough in the right channels and never really have. Twitter and Facebook don't cut the mustard. Traditionally PR picks up the phone or sends emails, faxes, or drinks with their prized contacts. PR practitioners are in a perfect position to do what they've always done best again. Talk about stuff. Fortunately for the PR world, voice to text technology has come of age, so picking up the phone is back - in a big way. All we have to do is propagate the rumour that SEO is dead, that's what I'm going to do. You could join me. If you don't then SEO will assume the protected term PR. What a nightmare! Let's just PR those search engine optimisers to death shall we? Now is the time to verbalise client messages on non-rented platforms. That means any Public Relations specialist needs to take ownership of the platform that hosts the content to control the release, presentation and volume of any collateral. There's no way a PR practitioner will ever understand the complexities of SEO because it's Google's core Intellectual Property. It's Google's on Quality Control System. SEO people will certainly never understand how real PR works, they simply don't have the personalities to connect with any entity other than their Logitech keyboards.

almost 4 years ago

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Charles Taylor

As an SEO Manager for 10 e-commerce websites I can say that real PR has definitely been folded into our efforts and have made a difference. With that said I actually believe the exact opposite is true. If a PR firm got it's act together in regards to SEO they could easily put SEO agencies out of business. They have the contacts, the infrastructure and more importantly the reputation. Just my two cents.

over 3 years ago

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