One of the challenges facing any new industry is creating a demand for and an awareness of the industry in the mind of the consumer. Since many Website owners have only a general idea of what search engine optimization (SEO) is and how it works, I've come up with an analogy from another industry that makes it easier to understand.
Search Engine Marketers = Ad Agencies
Search engine marketers dealing with paid listings are very similar to ad agencies in offline media. They work with the message and the creative to get people to take action: to buy, subscribe or register. They have budgets and are able to monitor results and tweak campaigns to get the maximum return for their clients.
It's pretty easy to see the parallels between SEMs and ad agencies, but a little harder to understand the role of search engine optimizers, as they relate to the "free" search listings.
Search Engine Optimizers = Public Relations Firms
A search engine optimizer is actually very similar to a public relations firm in the offline world. Public relations firms try to get their clients mentioned in news stories and featured in print and broadcast media, i.e., they obtain "free" publicity. An SEO consultant attempts to get their client's site listed highly in the "editorial" or "free" listings of the search engines. As with offline media, the editorial content (or listings) often carries more credibility with consumers.
Just as a public relations firm carefully writes press releases and formats them in a way that is favorable to the news media, a search engine optimizer adjusts the code and wording in a site to present it in the way that the search engines prefer to read it. A good SEO (just like a good PR firm) will create content that is interesting and useful, making it much more likely to be ranked well (or be newsworthy).
PR firms often act as image consultants as well, working with the company and its executives to make sure they present the best possible impression when meeting with the press. They make sure their message is consistent and in keeping with their brand, to help firmly cement the company's image in the mind of the customer. A professional SEO often does the same thing for a site, making design or usability recommendations to ensure that once people arrive they will easily be able to find what they need.
Not All Search Engine Optimizers Are the Same
There are different kinds of SEOs, just as there are different kinds of PR firms. Some PR firms merely churn out press releases on a regular schedule. They spend their time faxing and following up on items that may or may not be newsworthy. They make very little attempt to be creative or find truly newsworthy events within the company -- they simply send a regular stream of minor happenings out via press releases. They may even try to sneak releases past screening personnel or exaggerate the truth in order to get a mention in the media. Ineffective PR firms waste your money; an unethical one can even hurt your company's image.
The parallel in the SEO industry is those SEOs that use deceptive practices to place their clients' sites in the engines. One such tactic would be the use of software to churn out keyword-stuffed pages instead of attempting to improve the site itself. Another tactic would be showing search engines different content than a human visitor would see. These are strategies that work in the short term. But just as a newspaper editor will eventually start throwing out all of the low-value press releases from a company that has proved they don't provide good content, a search engine will eventually do the same to pages using deceptive techniques and which don't provide any value to site visitors. Eventually, those SEOs will find that their clients' sites are penalized or banned.
Neither public relations nor search engine optimization are forms of black magic; anyone can learn what needs to be done to get a company noticed. There are PR companies who see the media as something to be manipulated, just as there are SEO companies who see the search engines that way. However, you'll find that it's much more productive when an SEO actually works with the search engines, rather than against them.
Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.
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