Online PR & Black Hat SEO



I bang the drum for public relations (PR) as being useful and complementary to search engine optimization (SEO) objectives. I worked in the PR industry at PR Newswire for five years, prior to joining Yahoo, and that knowledge and experience taught me the value of message depth, quality, and impact.


It was PR that first taught me the importance of relevance (not search), and it was PR that taught me about relationships way back when Friends Reunited was “social media.” Timing, too, is of critical importance in all our communications — I was taught to work it in PR.


Perhaps, then, I may be guilty of painting a one-dimensional picture of PR as a discipline.


Online PR & Black Hat SEO


Yes, good PR is about good content and talking to people and communicating value. But don’t think for a second that because those benefits exist, PR is a risk-free, good guy, white hat link building strategy. PR can backfire and possibly damage your clients’ reputation immeasurably.


Several SEO agencies are tuned into the value of combined PR strategies and techniques. Many SEO agencies may even employ a PR professional to help advise and devise PR-led SEO campaigns. All this is great.


However, there’s an inherent danger here in that “doing” PR with a purely SEO objective, or thinking of PR as white hat, could leave your organization open to a reputation issue that it’s not designed to handle.


Here’s the thing. SEO has a poor reputation with other marketing professions. Many non-SEOs think it’s all about using a variety of techniques to deliberately and falsely distort factors that might not otherwise occur naturally, with the objective of positively influencing search engine rankings and arguably (ultimately) user behavior.


OK, maybe there’s some truth in that. Certainly some black hat techniques may include deliberate manipulation and falsification. But I have news for you: PR is more closely aligned to black hat SEO than anything else.


PR is All About Manipulation


It’s about making people feel, then act in the way we want them to — whether that action is to join our cause, buy our product, or take our method.


Starting with message; that in itself is often engineered or created purely and specifically for that desired outcome, content is carefully crafted to emphasize the elements we want and bury those we’d rather not air.


Timing is gamed deliberately to ensure maximum (or minimum) impact. Incentive is often used in the form of “samples,” products to review, press trips, media junkets.


So what? That’s just business and human nature right?


True, but people don’t generally like to be manipulated. We like to buy that product because we think the brand association makes us sexier, healthier, fitter, or smarter; not because you deliberately contrived to market and position your message to make me think that way.


When Things Go Wrong


Pushing too hard, crafting a thin campaign, allowing the rudiments of your method to be leaked to that same media that is your oxygen, can also be your downfall too.


Consider the example of the leaked memo from the press officer of the British Transport Minister issued to ministers on September 11, 2001, suggesting “It’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” Diplomatic relations somewhat soured, global humiliation, internal investigations into all communications; expenses, news items released in the immediate aftermath. Quite a lot of damage to limit there!


Consider the blog “Wal-Marting Across America” written by two supposed Walmart fans, traveling around in an RV and gaily charting their journey from Walmart to Walmart. Exposed, of course, as paid for by Walmart and created by Edelman PR.


Scorn from peer community, national media disdain, hundreds of thousands of negative pieces online today — this one hasn’t been forgotten. Particularly not by Aaron Wall, who neatly slaps down a criticism of the SEO industry from Edelman senior staffer Steve Rubel some years after the fake blog debacle.


Consequences don’t stop at public and professional ridicule however; there’s also the legal and financial implications, such as in the case of Reverb Communications, who settled out of court on an FTC ruling that found them guilty of faking positive reviews, or in the case of Tele2, the Latvian phone company that lost its government contract after creating a hoax meteorite story, faced later fines and a criminal investigation.


PR Isn’t a Magic Bullet


I know what you’re thinking. Great link bait, right? And yes, scandal and notoriety may pull some links, but it’s unlikely they will be going directly to your client site, or your target page.


What if those links are going to your site, using anchors like “guilty of faking positive reviews”? Perhaps you’re more than capable of handling an ORM issue for your agency, but what happens to other clients when your A-team are firefighting your own reputation issues?


Despite these cautionary tales, I’m still a strong advocate of all that is good about PR practice and methodology and the symbiotic benefits to SEO. Just because a campaign has substance, content, story, and depth to it; it doesn’t necessarily make it legal or ethical.


We professionals in this industry know all too well the old adage that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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