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Search Wars: How to Play Nice in Google’s Sandbox

how-to-get-out-of-the-google-sandboxThis post was first published by Michelle Pittman on JCPR‘s blog.

Forget everything you thought you knew about search engine optimization (SEO).

Google recently implemented significant changes that will put an end to optimized anchor text in articles and press releases distributed on other sites. This announcement heralds a sea of change in the way that companies leverage back-linking in press materials to increase their visibility among search engines. The process of linking to a company’s web pages using search engine keywords—the phrases searchers use to find companies, products and other information online — have ended. The parameters Google has put around this practice, which include limiting the violation to distribution on other sites, dramatically impacts the content that is posted to commonly-used newswire services.

The dissonance between Google’s updated guidelines and standard operating procedure of corporate communications, which relies heavily on back-linking to improve search engine rankings, creates a critical juncture where digital strategists and PR professionals need to connect. And that connection needs to happen immediately.

For too long, technology has not been able to distinguish between good content and link-baiting garbage. So, we’ve had a good run, but in essence, “you caught us, Google.” Even the best content creators have steered the spiders on how we felt was the best way to index the web, but like Icarus flying too close to a digital sun, we went too far and the consequences of content that relied solely on link-baiting or attempting to game the system caused our wings to disintegrate and come crashing down to a reality where businesses must shift the way they increase their relevance in search engines.

Thanks to smarter algorithms, SEO now relies not solely on unseen meta tags and other technical components, but rather on smart content – written, video and digital — that actually engages target audiences. And this is a good thing. It may have taken until 2013, but the gap between content creation for search engines and humans has been effectively closed. There really is no need to point search engines to related materials or links—they already understand the associations that live online, and they are relying on social sharing to identify new ones. The irony is that linking practices that started as a way to direct search engines to relevant content have evolved to the way humans process online information to gain greater context and understanding for the articles they are perusing.

This may sound like the premise of a science-fiction movie where machines become self-aware. But it’s not quite that dramatic. Companies will now have to place a greater emphasis on natural, human-focused SEO tactics, rather than relying on distracting search engines with links to show up higher in search engine results.

Google’s below-the-radar announcement is merely the latest example of a rapidly shifting online environment that requires constant vigilance to keep up with evolving standards. But understanding digital strategies and using them to your advantage need not be a Sisyphean endeavor.

Companies  do not necessarily need to take more steps to build a unified online presence, but they do need to take smarter ones. The could start by affiliating existing properties—like disparate LinkedIn profiles—or optimizing existing web pages with more focused content. Augmenting these tactics with online video can result in an immediate search-engine ranking boost with long-lasting impact.

The web is not just a series of tubes. It is a fabric of connections between your original materials, shared content that is relevant to your audiences, affiliated industries and organizations, and the people who ultimately need to know about your business. A company’s online presence needs to be connected across platforms and pages, not merely propped up with behind-the-scenes technical architecture that doesn’t achieve the desired results.

While web developers and SEO experts play a vital role in helping companies get their brand noticed online, PR pros can help set the content strategy that will drive organic sharing and natural link building—in other words, PR can help create relevant content and distribute it so it gets in front of the right people, who will then send, share and repost that content with their audiences. It’s what PR has always done in the offline world, and what will ultimately help companies build a valued and noticeable presence online.

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