The Trust Signals Podcast: Inbound Trust Signals—Laying the Breadcrumb Path
The audiobook version of Trust Signals is now available as an 18-episode podcast. The seventh...
(Following is Chapter 14 of Trust Signals: Brand Building in a Post-Truth World.)
In 2015, as Google’s algorithms slowly compelled the fields of PR and SEO to join forces, I gave the same talk at two events: the popular SEO conference State of Search and the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselors Academy.
My presentation was titled, “The Shotgun Wedding of PR and SEO: Can This Marriage Be Saved?”
For practitioners in both industries, it was a shotgun wedding—the bride and groom lurching reluctantly toward each other with the blunderbuss of Google’s algorithmic imperatives pointed squarely at them.
It used to be that PR practitioners could deliver SEO value simply by including links in press releases. Most didn’t know—or didn’t want to know—much about search marketing beyond that.
SEO practitioners, meanwhile, had little interest in brand building or PR. They were technical specialists focused on cracking Google’s code to increase web traffic and sales for their clients. Landing the top ranking for high-volume keywords was all that mattered; the quality of the content—i.e., whether their client actually deserved that ranking—was a secondary consideration at best.
Google’s releases of the Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird algorithm updates in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively, changed all that. The updates killed the SEO value of press-release links, sending PR firms scrambling for other ways to show their digital worth. And it put SEO practitioners on notice that the search giant’s number-one priority was to rank the highest-quality content with the highest-quality links as the top results. Game playing would no longer be tolerated.
Google added the icing to the cake the following year, with the introduction of the E-A-T formula in its Search Quality Rater Guidelines. E-A-T is an acronym defining what Google values most in web content:
Google has been working relentlessly to align what ranks high- est with what website visitors trust most ever since. Which is why integrating your PR and SEO strategies is one of the best ways to build, grow, and protect your brand today.
SEARCH-PRESENCE STRATEGIES TO BUILD AND GROW TRUST
SEO is about more than increasing traffic. A poor search presence tells your customers that your website is unimportant and that your brand lacks credibility with Google. It’s like having your fancy office in a run-down neighborhood; it’s not a good way to establish trust.
To gain Google’s trust, your search presence strategy should include the following components:
Let’s explore each of these elements in more detail.
Strategy #1: Digital PR
John Mueller, Google’s chief search advocate, said last year that when ranking websites, a single, high-value link from a major news website like USA Today or The Wall Street Journal carries more weight than “millions” of low-quality links (Southern 2021).
Think about that. It means that a single high-profile PR placement could have a greater impact on your search presence than all the efforts of your SEO firm over the past five years.
Google has made clear that combining PR and SEO is the most effective—and least spammy—search strategy of all.
This discipline has become known as Digital PR.
Traditional PR focuses on promoting brand awareness through media coverage. Digital PR, by contrast, focuses on promoting linkable assets—website content that is purposely crafted to attract links, usually from other sites in your niche. The site might be an industry trade, or it might be a blog by a company that is not a direct competitor but is also in your space.
A successful traditional PR campaign for a company announcement might earn twenty mentions in different media outlets over a period of days or weeks.
A successful Digital PR campaign promoting a linkable asset, by contrast, might earn two hundred links from a wide range of relevant websites—from high-profile media sites to small blogs— over a period of weeks, months, or years.
How to Create and Promote Linkable Assets
Linkable assets are the cornerstone of any Digital PR campaign. For a year-round Digital PR program, you should plan to produce at least one of these every quarter. Expect to spend six to eight weeks to research and develop the asset, then four to six weeks to promote it.
The type of linkable asset that tends to work best is a business or industry report that contains original research. You can collect this research from your own data (the B2B review site TrustRadius, for example, reports on the technology services and sectors that are most in demand based on its website traffic), or you can conduct surveys, either of your own customer base or working with third-party research companies.
Additional types of linkable assets include calculators, quizzes, and other interactive tools and assessments.
The process for creating and promoting a linkable asset generally goes like this:
#1: Research Your Topic
Use Google News, SEO keyword tools, and social media hashtags to surface the topics that are hot. Then, find an angle that fills a gap in coverage.
#2: Create and Optimize Your Asset
Develop a substantive piece of content that lives on your website and has been optimized to rank for a specific set of keywords for your chosen topic.
#3: Pitch the Story to High-Value Publications
Start several weeks before you publish your content to gain advance interest from key journalists. Give them materials under embargo, so they can prepare a story to run on the publication date.
#4: Begin to Rank for High-Volume Search Terms
If you’ve planned well, your initial coverage should help you rank for your target keywords. This will attract more eyeballs to your work, including some from other bloggers and journalists researching the topic.
#5: Earn Relevant Backlinks over Time
Ranking high in search results will lead to more backlinks for your content weeks, months, and even years into the future. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Traditional PR measures the success of a campaign by the number of brand mentions in the media. Digital PR, by contrast, may generate links that do not reference your brand’s name; a blog might direct its visitors to your asset with anchor text like “study” or “calculator,” for example.
But these links can have an enormous impact on your brand’s search presence—which is just as important to earning trust as even the highest-profile media mention.
Strategy #2: Technical and On-Page SEO
Imagine you are running a relay race. Going fast is important—but no matter how fast you run, if you botch the handoff of the baton, it’s over. You’ll never win the race.
That’s how it is with Digital PR and your website. No matter how much work you put into link outreach, you won’t be successful if you don’t align it closely with technical and on-page optimization. The handoff from off-site SEO to on-site SEO is critical.
Technical SEO refers to improving the technical aspects of a website, encompassing trust signals such as site security, page speed, navigability, and clean coding. It also includes adding structured data to your site, which makes it easier for Google to highlight your content in search results.
In 2021, Google introduced Core Web Vitals, which measure your site’s load times, interactivity, and visual stability. Google describes Core Web Vitals as “signals that are essential to delivering a great user experience on the web.” Google provides guidance to developers in helping websites achieve these standards.
Matching the Keyword with the Experience
On-page SEO focuses on improving the content, organization, and internal linking strategy of your site to enhance search presence.
Deploying a keyword strategy is a starting point for on-page SEO—but it’s only a starting point. As Google puts it in its “How Search Works” report:
The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the same page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is more likely to be relevant.
Beyond simple keyword matching, we use aggregated and anonymized interaction data to assess whether search results are relevant to queries. We transform that data into signals that help our machine-learned systems better estimate relevance. (“How Search Works: Ranking Results”)
So Google looks to your use of keywords in your content, page URL, page title, headers, and meta description to determine what your page is about. Then, it looks at user experience data to determine whether visitors are satisfied with your page when they land on it—or if they go somewhere else instead.
Expect Google’s ability to evaluate—and rank—your site based on user experience to only increase in the years ahead.
Strategy #3: Zero-Click SEO
If you think Google’s primary purpose is to serve as a search engine that directs visitors to other websites, it might surprise you to learn that as many as 65 percent of searches do not result in a click at all, according to a 2021 study by Similarweb (Nguyen 2021). These users never leave Google’s search engine results pages, or SERPs.
And that’s exactly the way Google wants it.
Over the past several years, the number of so-called “zero-click” searches has increased sharply as Google has introduced more and more features to its SERPs that keep people in the Googleverse. This trend is even more pronounced on mobile devices, where as many as three-quarters of all searches are zero-click, according to the Similarweb study.
This study confirms what we should all know by now: Google is not just a way station but a destination for web visitors. That means brands would be wise to treat it like a media platform in their PR and SEO efforts—one that is hungry for your content.
With a few exceptions, Google does not produce its own content. It repurposes content created by others, which it displays on its SERPs. Its sources range from global news organizations to the smallest business and personal websites. This is how it generates more than $150 billion per year in advertising revenues.
Google SERP Features
So, how do you get your brand more exposure on Google results pages? Beyond overall search optimization, it’s critical to under- stand and maximize your opportunity to appear on Google SERP features—widgets that appear above or alongside organic results.
Now that you know all this, what can you do to master the zero-click search?
SIDEBAR: WHY A GOOGLE BUSINESS PROFILE IS A MUST FOR YOUR SEARCH PRESENCE
When people search for your company by name, think of that first page of results as your “second home page.” What do your buyers and other audiences see? One of the best ways to greet them is with a Google Business Profile.
A Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) is a must for any business with physical locations customers can visit. To create a profile, start by submitting your business name, location, and category to Google. Once your identity is verified, your profile will be created. You can create a profile wherever you have a physical business location.
After your profile is up and running, add photos, events, and other updates to make it stand out. As part of your listing, Google also lets consumers add feedback, reviews, and photos; ask questions; and even provide answers to certain questions about your business.
Google Maps and Reviews
When you create a Google Business Profile listing, your business will begin appearing in Google Maps. This is helpful when people search for you by name and want to visit you—but it’s even more valuable when users are seeking the products and services you offer.
According to Google, nearly half of all searches have local intent. That’s why when someone seeks out “accounting firms” or “plumbers,” Google Maps displays the closest providers near the user’s location, with the top three results highlighted. Being part of the so-called “Google 3-Pack” is great for trust and even better for traffic.
Google reviews and star ratings also appear in your Google Business Profile and Google Maps results, making them the most prominent customer reviews of local businesses by far. So be sure to ask for and respond to these reviews regularly.
Rich Results and Structured Data
Google classifies much of the content that appears in snippets and other SERP features as rich results, or enhanced organic search results. It provides guidance on how brands can best position their website content to be highlighted in these results.
Specifically, Google instructs marketers to implement structured data markup on their sites. Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying its content. Google advises developers on the proper markup for different rich result types, such as datasets, event information, recipes, and so forth.
The majority of websites today use at least some structured data, but few are as well-optimized as they could be, because most marketers leave this task to developers or content-management-system plug-ins rather than rolling up their sleeves and getting involved themselves.
That’s a missed opportunity. Putting this in traditional PR terms, appearing in Google’s SERP features can be thought of as a media placement. Adding the right structured data markup to your most important content is your way of “pitching” the search engine. It’s worth the effort.
PR and SEO came together several years ago in a marriage that could only be described as awkward. But today, it is a productive partnership—and one that should grow even more lucrative for brands and practitioners over time. The Grow With TRUST system offers a straightforward way to leverage these synergies, with a focus on Digital PR. As Google itself has confirmed, it’s the best way to improve your search presence.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, one of the most forward-looking public relations agencies in the United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers, with clients ranging from venture-backed startups to Fortune 100 companies.
The audiobook version of Trust Signals is now available as an 18-episode podcast. The seventh...