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.