Keyed Up: SEO Success Requires Decoding the Keyword Puzzle

Search engine optimization. By now, every communications professional has heard of it, though many (admittedly or not) still think of it as that thing that makes a press release appear high up in a Google search's returned results. What these executives don't know is that search engine optimization (SEO) and its kissing cousin, search engine marketing (SEM), are the shortest paths to increased brand visibility; they can also be the quickest way to crash and burn during a crisis. "Search is the connective tissue that links everyone and everything on the Internet," says Doug Winfield, VP of digital strategies for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. After all, Google is the first place most people go when they sign online, be they consumers, investors, media or employees. The numbers prove it: 91% of journalists use search engines to research stories (Pew Internet & American Life Project, March 2007). 98% of analysts use search to research and find news (Forrester Research, 2006). Seven out of 10 people initiate their Internet experience with a search, and 49% of people use search daily to find information online (Pew Internet, August 2008). But what specific advantages can be gained by communications executives via the strategic use of SEO and SEM? "Brand reputations are increasingly defined by Google," says Andrew Barnett, digital strategist, Fleishman-Hillard. "Search increases [brands'] exposure of assets online, connects with key stakeholders, drives conversions, improves branding and manages reputation." If those reasons aren't potent enough to jump-start your SEO and SEM efforts, consider their ability to enhance the impact of PR initiatives by driving traffic to their corporate Web sites, generating sales leads, getting more traction for press releases and increasing brand awareness--all objectives of most, if not all, communications programs. The best part about SEO/SEM, though, is that PR execs don't need to know a thing about the algorithms that make search engines tick; rather, they can ignore numbers and focus on what they know best: words. Semantically Speaking The backbone of any successful SEO/SEM strategy is a wisely chosen lineup of keywords. These keywords become the triggers that catch the attention of the algorithm-guided "spiders" that troll the Web for relevant results every time a user initiates a search. When used strategically in press releases, corporate Web sites, social media sites and other online assets, keywords can increase a brand's visibility. Here's how to best identify the keywords that will have the biggest impact in SEO/SEM efforts: *It Pays to Discover: As is always the case when shaping any communications strategy, the first step is determining the desired objectives. In the context of developing keyword strategies for search, Barnett says the following steps must be taken in the discovery phase: Define priorities; Define audiences and their preferences; and, Consider Web analytics. *Positive Identification: The next step in shaping a keyword strategy is to identify the universe of potential phrases that consumers might use when searching for a related product or service. As for tools and methods, Barnett says: Consider the sites/news releases of your competitors against their ranking in search results to see what worked and what didn't. Brainstorm by testing various words and phrases related to your brand. Sometimes the most obvious search terms are the least useful because they are too general. Southwest Airlines realized this when using "Southwest" alone as a keyword, which returned information about the airline way down the list of search results. By tagging "Southwest Airlines" as one of a handful of keywords and optimizing four press releases, the company generated $2.5 million in sales of tickets. Use third-party tools to help identify words and phrases that will be most effective in optimizing your branded content. (For a list of free services, see sidebar.) When choosing keywords, it's essential to exercise moderation. "You don't need to identify hundreds of keywords," says Greg Jarboe, president of SEO-PR. "You'll only use two or three." He recommends taking the "who, what, where, when, why and how" approach to begin narrowing down the pool of potential keywords. *Classify: Once you have identified the keywords that are most relevant to the content you wish to optimize, it's time to classify them. This is akin to assigning a different weight to each term, making the "heavier" or more important terms more visible to the Web spiders. These days, many online platforms, such as blogs, will provide a field labeled "Tags," into which you can type the keywords (separated by commas) and bypass the technicalities of tagging via traditional HTML codes. For those platforms that don't have a built-in keyword tagging system, there are services that will do it for you. Another option? Ask the IT department. Tagging is computer programming 101. *Analyze This: You've determined your objectives, identified keywords and classified them; now, it's time to analyze. Barnett points to the three dimensions of keyword analysis: popularity, competition and relevance. Analyzing how your keywords and phrases stack up in other searches is important when considering placement and frequency, as well as in establishing a benchmark. This is the time to examine your current rank in Google and Yahoo searches. Implement Your Research Once the aforementioned steps have been taken and you have your keyword strategy in place, these keywords must be integrated into the content being optimized for search. This isn't as cut-and-dried as peppering press releases, landing pages or blog posts with the keywords, as Google algorithms are smarter than the vast majority of humans. In fact, search engines are constantly updated and tweaked to filter poorly optimized content, which is often seen as spam and dismissed accordingly. In terms of placement, keywords must appear in headlines (whether it's a press release, a blog post or the content on a Web page); then, they should be integrated into subheads and body text, but remember: Never repeat a keyword more than six times, or it will backfire. Keywords should be placed without affecting the readability of content. If possible, imbedding keyword-rich links into the content improves search results dramatically. By giving these URLs unique landing pages, as Southwest Airlines did with its optimized press releases, you can track exactly how much traffic/sales/etc., was generated as a result of the release. These strategies and best practices for identifying and placing keywords are only part of the entire SEO/SEM puzzle. Using SEO/SEM to manage a crisis, for example, opens up a new set of opportunities and challenges, which will be discussed in an upcoming issue of PR News. PRN CONTACTS: Greg Jarboe,; Andrew Barnett,; Doug Winfield, Free Tools For Conducting Keyword Research Google AdWords: Google Trends: Microsoft adCenter Labs keyword forecast: Trellian's free search term suggestion tool: Wordtracker's free keyword suggestion tool:

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