SEM and Online Publicity

  |  May 10, 2004   |  Comments

Writing, linking, and thinking about SEO: a primer for writers, journalists, and PR professionals.

Journalists, PR professionals, online publishers, freelance writers -- these groups hunger for publicity, both on- and offline.

Journalists and freelance writers not only want their articles to be featured in newspapers and magazines, they also want their writing to be discovered through Google and Yahoo searches. Online publishers want to increase their readership to sell more advertising space.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is often a large part of online publicity campaigns. However, these professionals often overlook this component of the online industry.

Case Study 1: PR Firm

A few months ago, a representative from a well-known online marketing company read one of my columns on online advertising. As the company had recently added a form of advertising as a new product feature, it asked if I were interested in writing another article.

Why not? I was up for writing another piece on the topic.

I sent the company a set of interview questions, which was promptly handed off to the PR firm. I was very impressed with the PR firm’s responses. The article practically wrote itself.

As a search engine marketer, I knew how to optimize the article for search engines. I made sure the title and first paragraph contained targeted keyword phrases. I added section headings to make the content easier to scan and help with keyword density and keyword prominence. In other words, I did exactly what any search engine optimizer would do.

After editing and optimizing, I sent the company a draft to ensure company representatives were quoted accurately and all content was factually accurate.

Again, the company promptly handed the draft to its PR firm.

The article was returned to me with several major edits. The PR firm changed my title and headings and eliminated keyword-rich sentences.

At first, I wondered what was wrong with the title and headings. I have written for this online publication for years. I based the headline on previous articles on this topic. My suggested title not only matched the publication guidelines, it was also search-engine friendly.

Thinking I was having a diva moment, I checked in with some colleagues for objective feedback.

"Because flashy headlines and body copy can conceal the subject and context of a story, they often work against search engine ranking efforts," says Peter Hershberg, managing partner at Reprise Media. "The best approach is almost always the simplest: straightforward writing that is rich in your keywords and phrases."

"If you want readers to actually be able to find your articles at a search engine, you need to remember that you’re writing for an expansive, highly organized catalog of data, not the New York Post," continued Hershberg. "You need to feed these catalogs the information they need to accurately classify and rank your story, not tease them or make them chuckle. The copy you end up with may not be as sexy, but it will have a significant impact on your visibility in the search engines."

Great, I thought. My colleagues agree with me. But the company liked what the PR firm wrote. Since I wanted to make the company happy, I submitted the article with the PR firm’s modifications.

Six months later, out of curiosity, I decided to compare the search engine visibility of the two articles. Search engine marketer vs. PR firm. This could be interesting. I also checked the back links to each article. Guess which article consistently outranks the other?

Score two points for the search engine marketer.

Case Study 2: Online Publisher

I wish I could say this was the only time my search-engine friendly copy was modified. Recently, I discovered some untapped keyword phrases about usability and site design. Perfect opportunity for me to write an article.

I knew the publisher’s CMS took title content and used it as content for the HTML title tag. The title is also used in email newsletters.

One of my clients, MedicineNet.com, is a health and medical publisher that uses a similar CMS. "Selecting and placing the correct medical keywords in our doctor-written articles is essential for people to find them in the search engines," said David Sorenson, VP of marketing. "For example, people search for ’heart attack’ and not ’myocardial infarction.’ It took some training for our doctor-writers to adapt to this online writing mentality, but now it is second nature."

In the Web design industry, people commonly search for abbreviations (DHTML = dynamic HyperText Markup Language; CSS= Cascading Style Sheets, etc.). I knew I had to use both the abbreviations and the spelled-out words throughout the article.

"When we write and publish articles, we make sure to include the medical abbreviations, since medical abbreviations are often more common than the full name," Sorenson confirmed. "For example, Gastroesphageal Reflux Disease is also known as GERD. We include both names in the page title."

I broke up the article with meaningful, keyword-rich headings. I made sure enough sexy content was above the fold. I submitted my fully optimized article for publication.

Imagine my surprise when the published article contained no keywords in the title and no abbreviations. My golden opportunity to write an article on a specific topic, and the online publisher edited out my important keyword phrases! Was I having another diva moment, or was I experiencing déjà vu?

Tips for Online Publishers, Journalists, and PR Firms

Online publishers, journalists, and PR firms should get serious about search.

"Writers need to consider what they’re trying to accomplish when they publish something online," said Hershberg. "If they want their articles to get out to a broad audience and be highly visible, they need to understand that they ultimately have to write for two groups: their readers and the search engines."

Journalism, marketing, and technical writing classes may not contain enough information about search-friendly copywriting. Here are some general guidelines to make your press releases and articles achieve more search engine visibility:

  • Implement SEM 101. For your target audience to find your site on the search engines, the pages must contain keyword phrases that match the phrases your target audience is typing into search queries. Journalists and online writers understand this concept but often don’t implement it.

  • Take small steps. If writing with keywords isn’t quite an established habit, start small. Emphasize only one keyword and see how well you use it. Once you’re comfortable with one keyword, try two. Then three.

  • Learn about the CMS. If your CMS allows you to write unique, separate titles for email, Web pages, and HTML title tags, then write three different titles. If you must use a single title for email and the site, then write headlines using keywords. Make sure the HTML title tag always contains your most important keyword phrases.

  • Link to and from press releases and articles. When people arrive at your site, what do you want them to do? Read your article and leave? Link articles and press releases to related articles and press releases. Make sure product pages link to the press release about the new product feature.

  • Encourage visitors to take the desired action. Online publishers have different goals than commerce sites. Desired conversion points include number of page views and time spent on the site. Encourage visitors to read other articles. For PR firms, encourage visitors to read beyond the press release. Link development is also a part of search engine visibility.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shari Thurow

Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.

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