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PR is no longer the future of SEO. It already is PR. 

SEOs recognise this, and the majority are now carrying out online PR: whether they call it that or not, all decent SEOs are now creating content and reaching out to online influencers. 

General marketers realise this. In a survey we recently conducted of 250 UK marketers, 52% said that PR and SEO work closely together in their organisation, and a whopping 71% think their PR agencies are experts at SEO.

But how are those PR agencies performing in their newfound position as SEO experts? 

A majority of those marketers, 61%, said they do not have sufficient SEO knowledge in house, so it’s no surprise they are relying on agency expertise. But it seems that many PR agencies are still playing catch up, and are potentially underserving their clients. 

SEO as a PR service offering

This suspicion is based on what PR agencies have told us ourselves through their most powerful tool to offer SEO as a service. 

Our research partner Retortal has a huge index of websites in the UK, and crawled the sites for those with ‘PR’ in their home page title, concluding that those sites were primarily companies offering PR services.

They then crawled those sites found, looking for the term ‘SEO’ anywhere on the site, the assumption being that if they were offering SEO as a service that they’d have the sense to mention it on their website somewhere. 

A mere 26% were found to have any mention of SEO, leaving 74% that don’t. We can assume that these sites fall into two categories of PR company; those that do offer SEO services but have failed to implement basic SEO practice on their own site in mentioning it, and those that just don’t offer it at all.

If you ask me, either mistake is pretty heinous. 

Is SEO a separate PR service? 

One response to this could be, if PR and SEO are the same thing, why do PR agencies even need to offer SEO as a separate service? As a PR agency that does offer SEO as a service to clients, it’s a question we’ve come across.  

The simple response is that an agency sells expertise and time, and SEO is more of both. Especially when it involves extensive site audits, on-site changes and keyword research, the more technical bits of SEO that are less closely related to PR. 

But taking a step back, the fundamental difference is to do with objectives. The objective of SEO is ultimately to drive more quality traffic to the website. That can be a PR objective, but more ordinarily PR’s remit is further up the funnel, generating awareness of a business, brand or person, or more generally managing the public perception of them. 

Thinking of the two as services and the buying process of a potential client, offering the two as separate services is essential because buyers do not first think in terms of services, they think in terms of problems and objectives. This means – 

  • “I’d like more quality organic search traffic to my website, so I need SEO.”
  • OR “I’d like more people to be aware of my business, or to solve a particular perception problem, so I need PR.”

Perhaps in time this may change, but at the moment that is the common buying thought process, as born out by the fact that searches for ‘PR agency’ and searches for ‘SEO agency’ are continuing to converge. And while that is the case, PR agencies not offering SEO services are going to fall behind. 

EML Wildfire has launched a free downloadable guide to SEO-charging your PR activity
Ian McKee

Published 25 November, 2013 by Ian McKee

Ian McKee is Account Director at Wildfire and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google Plus

9 more posts from this author

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Simon Wharton

The vast majority of PR agencies pay lip service to SEO but have neither the knowledge or resource to deliver it though they do need to say they can deliver it. However I would say there are some agencies with a really strong capability to deliver. My utter guesstimate is that about 1 in 10 genuinely know what they are doing. Two practitioners in particular I would mention would be Lexi Mills at Dynamo and James Crawford at PR Agency1. I must add a disclaimer in that I may or may not occasionally go drinking with them.

over 2 years ago

Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein, Director at Browser Media

Thanks for your thoughts Ian.

This is a subject that I love and I have been exploring it a lot over the years (most recently in http://www.browsermedia.co.uk/2013/06/27/seo-war-let-the-battle-commence/, which looks as the whole turf war issue between SEO and PR).

I don't think anyone with a real working knowledge of SEO can deny that you need a PR mindset to be successful these days.

I do, however, agree with @daveholcroft who has just tweeted two very good tweets. The first points out that most PR bods will run a mile if you challenge them with specific technical SEO issues.

I know some excellent PR agencies, but very few have the technical confidence and know how to really tackle the deeper level technical issues that are as important as ever in modern SEO.

In my humble opinion, SEO agencies have been forced to start taking a more PR-led approach whereas PR agencies continue to resist getting their hands really dirty. SEO has therefore evolved far more than PR.

Does that mean that SEO agencies will win the turf war? No it does not. What it does mean is that the successful agency of the future will not be an SEO or a PR agency - it will be a hybrid digital marketing agency. I am biased, but I love the whole 'inbound marketing' movement - this is the PR-led SEO that we have banged on about for the past 9 years.

As Darwin said, whoever adapts best to change will be the winner.

Always an interesting debate.

over 2 years ago

Ian McKee

Ian McKee, Account Director at WildfireSmall Business

Agree Simon. Interestingly the PRCA (one of PR's industry bodies) recently completed their digital survey, finding 72% of PR agencies are offering SEO - http://www.branded3.com/blogs/digital-pr-report-shows-72-pr-agencies-now-offer-seo/ - almost the polar opposite number that we found have it listed as a service on their website. So they are telling an industry survey that they offer it, but not telling the world via their website? Wonder what the cause of that is - I'd guess just lack of confidence in their own knowledge.

I suppose the next question is how PR agencies address the problem, as I'm not sure just drafting in the odd expert (like your drinking buddies!) solves the issue.

over 2 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

I'm inclined to agree with Simon. I think that the PR industry has a real identity problem these days, such is the nature of the media landscape (which includes social, and is no longer all about broadcasting). It's tough being in PR these days.

It's harder than ever to draw the boundaries, to know what PR is (and isn't). It's somewhat easier with SEO, but ultimately both are anchored to content and brand positioning, and to my mind a great deal of PR and non-technical SEO falls under the content marketing umbrella. There are exceptions, but when I think of our own content strategy, both SEO and PR underpin what we do and why we do it.

over 2 years ago

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Martin Harrison

I think a more accurate title for this piece would be ‘Link building is now PR...’

That link or citation from dailymail.co.uk that your PR agency can get for you is worth a lot more than the links your SEO agency is buying, but to suggest that PR is the silver bullet in terms of SEO is pretty naive. What about all of the technical elements of SEO? How many PR agencies know about meta data, canonicalisation or 301 redirects?

The real problem here lies in the metrics that are used to analyse success - PR agencies are focused on press cuttings and exposure, not rankings and links. Until that changes, PR will never be SEO.

over 2 years ago

Jon Clements

Jon Clements, Chartered PR and marketing communications consultant at Metamorphic PR

PR people have always been tasked with optimising whatever content they've got to play with in order to gain prominence for their clients in whichever medium reaches the desired audience.

That approach lends itself well online - especially in the search world that Google has developed now, in which high quality content is meant to trump any other search engine optimisation technique.

But that doesn't mean that PR becomes SEO or vice versa. While people schooled in PR should have the better understanding and ability to manage both the risks and rewards of communicating via any medium, SEO specialists will have a greater level of technical nous to bring to the party.

The two disciplines, in my opinion, need a greater knowledge of each other's expertise and how it works in the overall, digital marketing and communications picture. But they should still stick to what they know best as clients need to trust implicitly the advice they're getting.

over 2 years ago

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Camping Sites

I agree and most SEO agencies I have encountered haven't still understood its now just about PR rather than link building.

Link building of the past has changed, its no longer about buying links, its purely creating likeable shareable content that people want to read.

Which type of agency will survive will be an interesting watch in 2014, my best guess who ever learns to change and adapt the quickest, but its more likely to be a new type of agency that combines both the SEO technical fixes (on-site), but a PR agency for creating likeable content.

over 2 years ago

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Will O

Interesting article. I think it also comes down to an education issue from a client perspective. Often their budgets will be siloed, meaning a marketing director can't (or won't) shift SEO budget towards PR, no matter how qualified the agency is to deliver that work. We've covered some more of these issues around SEO + social media on our blog http://prohibitionpr.co.uk/seo-vs-social-media/

over 2 years ago

Neale Gilhooley

Neale Gilhooley, MD at Evolution Design

I agree with Simon in that the vast majority of PR agencies do not understand SEO and online.

Sadly the vast majority of SEO's do not understand PR or client communications.

Clients want more integrated campaign evaluation than clippings or click reports, but who delivers that?

over 2 years ago

Farhad Koodoruth

Farhad Koodoruth, Managing Director at ThreepipeSmall Business Multi-user

Rather than SEO and PR becoming the same thing, it might be more fitting to suggest that the two are each evolving and integrating to be able to work more closely together and deliver more value to clients, whether that’s separately or in combination.

Obviously, with the vast majority of content now being consumed online, optimising content, building high quality links and developing effective social media campaigns are all necessary in building brand awareness among consumers as well as improving search engine rankings and so it’s fair to say that the skills gap between PR and offsite SEO will start to decrease. However, it’s definitely important not to forget that there’s much more to SEO than the off-site skills and the more technical aspects such as sitemaps, metadata and title tags are not necessarily ever going to fall under the remit of PR.

One of the most valuable things we have personally gained from our merger at Threepipe comes from the different skills and insight each profession is able to bring to the table for our clients. The combination of the awareness, influence and engagement power of PR with the technical elements and intelligent use of data analytics that comes with SEO means agencies that combine the two will be even more capable of offering clients effective and measurable solutions based on their specific objectives.

over 2 years ago

Ian McKee

Ian McKee, Account Director at WildfireSmall Business

A few comments have mentioned the technical on-site aspects as being the differentiator between SEO and PR, something I acknowledged but didn't dwell on, and it is naturally where PRs' skills tend to be lacking.

I don't think it will necessarily never be part of PR's remit though, with the right skills there's no reason to say it can't be, it's just (as others have mentioned) there aren't many PRs out there with those skills at the moment.

In terms of the land grab, I think the clients type business has a lot to play here, as it affects their objectives. For instance in the case of an ecommerce company with thousands of pages all requiring optimisation for a long list of terms, meaning constant on site tweaks, monitoring etc, a PR agency is less likely to have the resource for that. But a business with a smaller portfolio of high value products that requires less on-site technical attention and more focus quality content and links might be better suited for a PR agency to handle SEO, assuming they had the knowledge and skills.

over 2 years ago

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Local Search Engine Optimization

Oh ! it is regardless to conclude that there is so much new things from Google , great to know about the news, thanks for sharing the post..

over 2 years ago

Neale Gilhooley

Neale Gilhooley, MD at Evolution Design

@Ian

Glad you added that bit about quality of online PR/SEO as a great single page/post/article can generate ROI far outweighing the timeinvestment. However that is unlikely to happen with a brief/client demanding everything now. That blind pressure might gain short term results but never achieve the desired ROI.

over 2 years ago

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Pawas Gupta, Search Marketing Consultant at NCMborz

SEO has changed so much. Using PR as a part of SEO strategy has worked well for us (http://www.ncmborz.com/seo-services/) every time.

Firstly, the SEO value of a good press release can do wonders for any site. If gone viral these press releases bring in a lot of natural links to the site.

Secondly, these authoritative backlinks keep the site far away from search engine penalties, which we all know can be a pain in the back. :)

over 2 years ago

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adam

I think the key difference between offering PR and SEO services is that the latter demands results while the former is more hit and miss.

For example, let's say an SEO webmaster who wants authority backlinks spends £2k on two press releases sent out to journalists etc. Even if it gets picked up, if it doesn't earn any links then he'll see it as a waste of time and money.

On the other hand, someone who just wanted PR would be happy with the extra brand mentions, opportunities and traffic it sent him.

I disagree that SEO is turning into PR mainly because in order to do PR properly you need a great website, great content and great contacts. Therefore SEO is more about having a better website and content then PR per say.

over 2 years ago

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James Buffington

I am highly agree with Simon. I hope you will keep updating us such stuff in future too.

over 2 years ago

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Spook SEO

That makes sense, a good PR will generate the right traffic, also a public relation effort trough press release will generate great editorial links and will help to build high rankings and direct click through.

over 2 years ago

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Marcus Miller, SEO / Head Marketer at Bowler Hat

We have two problems here.

1. PR Companies that don't understand SEO

2. SEO Companies that don't understand PR

Your traditional PR company may well be able to generate exposure and awareness for a company which we would hope would also generate some links towards the companies website and therefore boost it's 'SEO'.

Your traditional SEO company (well, some of them) can likely understand keywords and optimise the site for relevance and even conversions but generating links that make a difference is becoming increasingly more difficult.

What we need is this synergy of the two areas - a well built site, solid user experience, keyword and topic targeting, solid analytics and measurements in place but then also a solid PR and awareness campaign with the goal of driving some more link popularity to help with all other efforts.

Of course, there are other angles as well with the social and content marketing side of things and these also have to be well aligned.

Ultimately, we need a solid marketing plan that then aligns search, social, PR and any other valid approaches to further the goals of the business - it just rarely ends up working out like that.

about 2 years ago

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