The tyranny of rank in the age of Google
As the gateway through which most online information is accessed, search engines play a vital role in modern business.
Understanding and manipulating the logic that search engines such as Google or Bing employ to prioritise online content and determine search ranking has become big business for marketers and communications consultants alike.
A top organic search engine ranking isn’t just important for brand visibility; it’s a powerful driver of sales and profits.
A recent study by online ad network Chitika found that the top listing in Google’s organic search results received a whopping 33% of total traffic. This compares to 18% for the second-ranked search listing and 11.4% for the third-ranked listing. And it goes downhill quickly from there, with less than 5% of traffic bothering to go beyond the 5th ranked organic listing. Not surprisingly, traffic virtually disappears after the first few pages on Google, with Page 1 accounting for 91.5% of total traffic against 4.8% for Page 2 and a miserly 1.1% for Page 3.
Because of the value a top ranking represents, a number of industries strive to find and employ the most cost effective and efficient search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques.
To preserve the integrity of the systems that make them their money, search engine companies are constantly changing the rules – or more accurately algorithms – that determine what information makes a website more (or less) worthy of the all-important number one ranking for any given query. Google wants to be your trusted friend, and friends don’t dish out dodgy advice.
Because of the complexity of the algorithms employed and the regularity with which these algorithms are tweaked, it is essential that PR, marketing and communication professionals engaged to represent clients online have the credentials and capabilities to generate meaningful results in this increasingly competitive space. They must also understand and apply new SEO tactics that prioritise quality content, authority, back links and keyword optimisation.
Hummingbird an SEO game-changer
With Google changing its algorithm over 500 times a year , updates over the past 18 months have focused on rewarding websites with unique and quality content that supply real value to visitors.
Then last September Google unveiled the biggest game-changer of them all: Hummingbird.
Joanne Painter, Group Strategy Director at digital public relations agency icon.pr, believes this shift presents a major opportunity for digitally savvy marketing, communication and public relations agencies to take advantage of the demand for quality online content and its impact on search ranking.
"There is a discernable trend with recent Google updates towards penalising lazy online content generation," said Joanne. "As we saw with Google's Panda update – which penalises websites with thin or duplicate content, and Google’s Penguin update which penalises websites with low quality links – relevant content published by authoritative authors on reputable sites has become key to successful SEO."
"Google’s Hummingbird update signalled an important shift away from the scatter-gun approach to SEO management whereby websites were rewarded for bombarding visitors with links and keywords at the potential expense of content quality.
"Together with Panda and Penguin, Hummingbird is designed to move companies away from employing purely tactical SEO techniques, such as keyword manipulation, mass link-backs and spam content, towards generating meaningful results in search rankings," said Joanne.
The rise of semantic search
It is well known that Google has been evolving its algorithms to interpret web content from a more semantic or human perspective. Hummingbird is Google’s way of better managing semantic or ‘conversational’ search queries (e.g. “Sydney Opera House Images” versus “Show me photos of the Sydney Opera House”).
Of course being Google there’s also a sound business case behind the Hummingbird platform: to protect the quality and relevance of its search results and protect against the sort of manipulation that first wave SEO was renown for.
"No one wants their search results skewed by the dark arts of SEO programmers sweating away in some back room. Search engine companies now recognise that if you’re looking for a great coffee shop in Melbourne you want to see top organic results being generated by positive reviews from peers on social media, back-links from authoritative online publications, and well written/relevant content," Joanne said.
"Hummingbird simply recognises that searching is now conversing and your site’s content needs to reflect this change."
SEO spotlight falls on PR and communications
The upshot of Hummingbird is that if you want your site to rank (or keep ranking) you might want to call in the PR and communication professionals.
"The demand for relevant, quality online content for SEO purposes is giving digitally-led public relations agencies an ever-more prominent role when it comes to generating online content," explains Joanne.
"Google’s new approach is a blessing for public relations, communications and marketing practitioners because it places them at the centre of a company’s SEO – and in many cases its digital marketing – strategy.
"In our business we’ve seen a big change in SEO practice whereby tactics and strategies are increasingly driven by PR professionals capable of helping clients become recognised authorities in their space whilst generating optimised cross-platform content and quality back-links," said Joanne.
Even SEO experts like Ken McGaffin, founder of the American link building website www.linkingmatters.com, agree that PR is set to play a vital role in SEO management through the coming years.
Mike Cherenson, the former Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), believes PR is now an essential SEO tactic.
"Authentic and relevant link building, aimed at driving engagement, informing publics and building mutually beneficial relationships should be a part of every public relations and SEO effort," Cherenson said.
"The future of SEO is not in the technology it’s in the ability to tell stories that readers and Google will find interesting... and that’s public relations."
- Mike Cherenson, former Chair and CEO Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
The implications of Hummingbird for SEO and PR
In the post-Hummingbird world, a site’s ranking is increasingly shaped by the authority and quality of the content within, and the extent to which content is shared and linked.
This means creating authentic and relevant content that generates authoritative back-links, is sharable and that can be repurposed across a range of digital platforms (website, blog, social media) in a range of formats (media release, video, tweet etc).
In short, Hummingbird puts an organisation’s content creators and storytellers – in other words its PR, marketing and communications teams – at the heart of SEO.
"Google preferences original, quality content from authoritative sources. So if you want to generate quality back-links and boost your organic SEO ranking you need to start with your PR and marketing teams," Joanne said.
Of course there are other benefits from Search PR. Quality editorial (or earned media placement) can be worth 100 times more than low quality links in SEO terms. And relevant, quality content is more sharable, resulting in greater back linking and cross-linking.
Benefits of leveraging PR in your online and SEO strategies
According to Joanne, by employing the techniques and strategies that integrated PR agencies incorporate into content generated specifically for online environments, businesses can effectively differentiate themselves from the competition and develop a significant online advantage.
"While a beautifully designed website may look appealing, it is of little use if no one can find their way to it in the first place. This is why search engine optimisation techniques, and the quality of the content developed for that purpose, have become integral to the online marketing and sales strategies for any organisation serious about thriving in the digital age," Joanne said.
Tips to Boost Your Google Ranking Using Search PR
- Focus on meaning and semantic (or conversational) text in media releases and publications, not just keywords. This is because Hummingbird scans for natural phrases above individual key- words.
- Generate authority by focusing on authorship. Create and maintain profiles for content authors, ensure content is attributable to an author (the more prominent the better) and share or publish content on other authoritative sites and blogs where possible. Leverage leadership profiling opportunities like speeches and presentations.
- Aim for authoritative back-links (i.e. links back to your site from high authority sources) and full name and URL citations when sharing or creating content. A high authority back-link far outweighs the SEO benefit of a low authority source.
- Recalibrate your social media strategy to focus more on the sharing of content by people with authority rather than merely the number of links and shares a post or piece of content generates.
- Include mobile search in your strategy, particularly in light of the increasing volume of mobile search traffic. Sites that are not mobile friendly will have their search result rankings penalised.
- Create content that is ‘deep and rich’ and helpful. Make content meaningful to your target audience. Content that addresses the needs of your audience is more likely to rank according to Hummingbird.
- Drive two-way traffic to your site (and boost your site’s authority) by creating an interview series and hosting webinars or publishing white papers. Then encourage conversations and two-way interaction with your authors and content.
- Lastly, don’t overlook the fundamentals of SEO when preparing content such as including keywords in headlines, sub-heads, captions and opening sentences. Adhering to best practice for writing search-friendly content remains a vital part of your SEO effort.