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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Google, Zappos, and the "New PR" - Communications Savvy Must Be Distributed Across Your Company

This isn't really a post about Google per se, but working with different Googlers at different levels, and reading their various public statements and blogs, and hearing Googlers speak and interact with the public, definitely hammers the point home. It's a huge company. Their people are well trained, well spoken, and well scripted. But everything can't be scripted, and they'd come across as awfully spooky if they walked around "muzzled".

Typically in the good old days, public relations messages were controlled. And people in companies were supposed to communicate sparingly and always "check back to base" before sharing with the public.

In companies still controlled by traditional top-down PR concepts, this seems like the right thing to do. To everyone else, it seems not only old-fashioned, but unworkable.

The Zappos legend is one of radical openness - one of allowing reporters to walk around and talk to any old employee. No surprises, no secrets.

I thought of this again when posting a response to a customer on a consumer review site I work with. A little part of me said, well maybe I should be collaborating on the team before I post my responses, to make sure we are all on the same page. But you know what? If we always did that, our responses would sound canned and we wouldn't sound like real people. And the speed of the business would slow to a crawl. Especially in the digital world, a slow business is a dead business.

What it comes down to is this: everyone in your organization needs to be someone you can trust to do a good job of representing your brand and helping out a reporter or customer when they're seeking information or ideas. Scary from the standpoint of traditional PR, but most of all, an opportunity to reflect on whether your people have your full confidence: do they know their stuff, do they have good judgment, are they social media savvy, do they know how to make it clear that there's a difference between them thoughtfully considering an issue in their unique human way and official company policy, etc.? And if they aren't quite up to speed on all that, maybe there's an opportunity for company-wide education - not about how to stonewall, but how to naturally reach out to the ecosystem based on the relative transparency of the "new PR".

When more people are qualified and willing to speak on behalf of the company at a moment's notice, you can get more done. You can draw customers into the dialogue, and solidify your role as a partner. It's a mistake to imagine that there is any other way to go about it. That's especially true in companies that have all sorts of responsible people working on hundreds of products, in dozens of divisions.

The "letting go" attitude also strengthens accountability and responsibility in more people in an organization and even outside it. That reinforces the idea of partnership. Think about the difference between two celebrities or CEO's who come to a major interview. One has had his "people" control which questions can and cannot be asked, and wants their bio to be structured in a certain way. The other has her people inform the magazine that (unflattering photos aside) the choice of questions and biographical portrayal are in the reporters' and editors' "capable hands". Who do you think is going to think harder about their real role as a responsible journalist? The one who is told what to say? Or the one who is asked to exercise their judgment?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PR Can Be Stupid Sometimes

Today I heard that The Killers are now pronouncing that they will soon supplant U2 as the world's most important, significant, dominant, or highest-grossing band.

Given that they allowed themselves to be compared with The Beatles when they first came out of the gate, this cannot be an accident. It must be a "PR strategy."

Seems like a shame that a popular act would make itself into a laughingstock by attempting to either resemble or compete with immense, unassailable pop culture icons with bodies of work a mile deep.

Maybe PR spin is counterproductive in these kinds of cases. Or even just plain dumb. Especially given the fact that musical longevity is often associated with perceived integrity.

Then again, given that the comments spewed from the mouth of Killers frontman Brandon Flowers (not to be confused with a practice squad wideout with the 49'ers), it could be just bad droogs talkin'.

Doesn't it remind you - just a bit - of the mistakes Powerset made, allowing their launch and the associated spin to be too much about "Google killing"?

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, October 25, 2007

Google Shoots Arrow into Heart of "Link Economy"

There's an unwritten rule in search marketing: when a Google update knocks the stuffing out of a bunch of sites that were unfairly ranking too high, you're not supposed to gloat if you came out unscathed. But for the Grace of GOOG, there go I, etc.

Even when the infamous Florida update had webmasters scurrying in circles, and we noticed a sharp uptick in interest in paid search opportunities, I only gloated mildly.

That's why I almost considered letting this latest assault by Google on the practices of link buying, link farming, and business models that constitute premeditated interlinking schemes by their very nature, slide by without comment. But the lessons learned by this latest cannot be emphasized enough. It's time to stop ignoring these things or treating them as episodic examples of Google's high-horse madness, and to begin realizing that they continue to take aim at rank improvement "schemes" in their role as consumer advocates, attempting to reflect legitimate real-world authority and usefulness, just as they do with their increasingly tough rules on the paid search side.

Sounding every bit like a woman with a clear conscience, Jill Whalen gloats a bit in her recent commentary about these developments, and resolves to get out the popcorn to watch things unfold.

Put plainly, the reason the majority of the search marketing world responds so ineffectually to such issues is because of tunnel vision. At the most general level of professionalism, many in the "agency world" will advocate "integrated marketing," "brand management," and other long-term views of marketing strategy. This is the furthest thing from the minds of many SEO hacks.

And granted, that's too high-concept and not appropriate to the work many search marketers do. However, I'd propose that to be effective, the hyper-focus on the details of ranking tactics needs to be brought back into a mid-level focus. More on this as we go, later in this post.

The fallout of Google's latest rejiggering has been fairly severe, if you go by PageRank. On one of the PageRank checkers I use, you can see the multiple datacenters, so you see the "old" PageRanks and the "new." Traffick.com, I had nary a worry about because of the long-term, stable way we gathered external mentions since launch in 1999. We're stable at 7.

A number of the blog networks have been hard hit, with sites like AutoBlog losing one or two notches in PageRank. I would have to assume that this would take a direct hit out of the pockets of blog network owners such as Nick Denton. Organic traffic from search engines is a free lunch to many private entrepreneurs like this. Quality content deserves search visibility, of course. The question is really how much. There is only so much search traffic in a given month, so every Google reassessment of ranking and weighting methods amounts to a zero-sum game of "who gets the available free referrals."

One well known search industry site, Search Engine Guide, clocks in with a drop of 6 to 4, at least if you believe this PR checker. In the old days, they often came in with an 8, which is very high. I'm not saying the current drop is justified - Google decides on that. But it is probably the case that the 8 was too high.

And yes, I realize that PageRank's only a rough guide to Google's opinion of your site's authority, after weeding out phony forms of authority as best as they can. Some of those hard hit are claiming they see "no drop in traffic" and speculate that "Google is putting on a show." In denial to the end? Could traffic drops be coming soon?

Dropping two notches in PageRank may not sound like much, but it could constitute a severe penalty because the scale is logarithmic. The difference between 4 and 6 is really significant, as any experienced site owner will tell you.

But the point here is not to single any one actor out. It's to point out that search marketing as a profession became so popular so fast that many actors assumed that popularity or prevalence equated to real marketing expertise. The momentum of the industry translated into a "everything's fine here" sensibility, and an insular view that more experienced marketers had nothing to teach us. We're taking over! (With bought links, keyword research, and meta tags, you're taking over?)

What it looks like, to draw upon some of the beautiful photos I picked out to dress up this post, is that search marketers were so sure of themselves that they turned into the fuzzy, wool-bearing little creatures below. Matt Cutts says bought links are bad? Selling PageRank is bad? Baaaa humbug! 1,000 of my friends agree with me, so Matt must be wrong, and possibly evil.



















The thing about it is, if you're in high school and well compensated (if not well dressed), you and your peers don't look like sheep to one another. It's such a cool gig to have, you actually look like Heathers...





















No, I did not mean those heathers, and plus there are still sheep grazing nearby... can someone please...


Right, that's better. Heathers.

These Heathers were so compellingly popular, it seemed sometimes like you'd want to do anything to be like them. Even if you were the aloof, independent, and lovely Winona Ryder. Stop, Winona! You're better off without them!




So, I'm here to make the case for a mid-level focus rather than a close-up view that a narrow set of tactics in a toolkit will give you any clear guide of what to do to improve your company's long term reach and connection with prospects. As Goldilocks (or Winona, before she began shoplifting) I'll suggest that for many search-focused professionals, the idea of "integrated marketing" is too high level to be practical; whereas pure old-school SEO tactics always get you into the same mess eventually. You're not VP Marketing at a Fortune 500, or any other type of lifer; nor are you going to get far in life if your only skill is to tweak an H1 tag. In between, there needs to be an integrated understanding of what makes customers and markets tick today, and how to put that together with a search visibility strategy. That entails a lot of detail work, but deciding on the appropriate types of campaign work will be more effective if it's done within a structured framework that recognizes Google, and other sites for visibility online, as the complex consumer advocates they are. Call it "integrated online attention-getting," if you will.

So whereas for a couple of years on the Page Zero site, we joked about that we don't do SEO at all, we realize that what we've developed for some clients (at the moment we call it SEO 2.0) is something that yes, we actually do, and will continue to do. A long-term focus on "integrated online attention-getting" means a sustained strategic implementation, with particular action items leading to detail work performed by the appropriate party (sometimes us). When we launch the new version of our consulting site in a couple of weeks, that's what we'll make clear to current and prospective clients.

If that's gloating, well... unwritten rules were made to be broken. The way we see it, our clients are not in business to sit around wondering when they'll be "Google-slapped."

Update: Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, responded to this piece to note that "the Google demotion of link farms has only hit offending blog networks. Engadget and other Weblogs Inc blogs have taken a hit of a couple of points of PageRank. But Gawker sites, which are much more sparing in their linking, are unaffected by the latest change."

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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