Is Google’s personalised search shrinking our searchable internet?

Thanks to ZDNet’s recent SEO article (my rebuttal here); the SEO rocket has firmly been put placed up the PR industry’s bottom. Some seem people seem to suggest that SEO stands separately from PR, I believe SEO fits under PR. It’s unavoidable that we work in communications, and online search is a big part of that. In fact, you may as well omit ‘digital’ from PR – it’s all one recipe.

Unlike PR, there is no dispute when you come to search. Google is the most advanced search engine on the market. With regular algorithm updates, a new-ish strategy focused on author credibility and a whole load of search operators; it should be fast and easy to find the content you’re looking for.

Google Server Centre
Google’s server centres are beautiful

Except, despite the power of Google and the beauty of their server centres, their search process is not perfect. Where Google fails massively is in the realms of personalised search. Google knows my IP address, user account details, search history and all sorts of other wizardry – they build a personal profile. This profile allows them to deliver results most likely to be of use to me.

Although, as a PR working across a vast array of clients, what I search for rarely holds a true personal interest. One day I could be researching for bird watching, the technicalities of offshore data centres or even financial trading. All of these topics become part of my personal search profile. Eventually my searches start to lose subjective ‘accuracy’. For instance, Google Now regularly delivers me football result – it’s a mess.

Feel familiar? Then check out some of the below search engine alternatives. The internet is a lot bigger than you think it is.

Decentralised search
YaCy is a peer to peer search engine that is completely decentralised. This means all users of the network are equal, search requests remain anonymous and the shared index remains uncensored. It is the internet without walls and is only limited by the number of users who use it. Celebrate freedom of information and try it out.

Vertical search
This is when you use a search engine to search across one specific website, multiple selected websites or one particular topic. Using some Boolean terms, you can perform a vertical search in Google (try searching in Google… Michael White This very blog has a vertical search function built into it. Some people think Google’s reign is threatened by vertical search. Our search behaviors are changing, we’re aware of our favourite websites and regularly run searches across them. You might be surprised what information legacy pages contain – Google tends to de-rank these.

Semantic search
If you want to enjoy some in-depth reading, pop over to the Internet Consortium’s W3C Semantic Web. At the moment our online data is owned by a range of different software systems, hyperlinked together, which we call the internet. Semantic searching is all about getting computers to understand the language of content, then having the intelligence to create relationships between different datasets. Think of it as one step further than hyperlinking webpages together. It is a method of searching through the internet which is connected together by relationships. Do read W3C Semantic Web’s site as they can explain their goals far more lucidly than me.


In PR, it’s all about the birds

It’s no secret that sometimes it makes sense for PR campaigns to target ‘niche groups’. In the context of travel PR these groups could be walkers, photographers, divers or cyclists. For the sake of this blog post, this group are birders. Yesterday I embarked on a journey up north, all the way to Rutland Water Nature Reserve, for Birdfair 2013. It is the British Birdwatching Fair, widely known among birding enthusiasts and this year the event celebrated its 25th anniversary. I was there on behalf of three different clients.

When it comes to birdwatching, I only have very few experiences to go on. The strongest one being one of my parents’ friends looking out at our garden and shouting in exclamation, “It’s a parrot!”. Nonsuch Park has a thriving Parakeet population which looks very alien against a British backdrop.

Parakeets in Nonsuch Park

Birders tend to have extraordinary memories for remembering bird names – especially considering that birds often have two or three different names. Often locals will give their own birds different names to ‘get one up’ on any foreign birders visiting! Spotting an unknown bird is the real gold though and, I guess, becoming increasingly unlikely as websites such as Avian Web can tell you all the birding information about a destination before visiting.

Having spent the whole of yesterday at Birdfair I feel like I have a better understanding about what it’s like being a birder. Yes, Birds are the focus but wildlife is the passion. So as a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) member how could I not understand birders? I love nature and everything it comes with – birding isn’t a hobby but I appreciate nature. It’s the science behind nature that provides the real wonder for me.

Here come the selfies

Apparently selfies are being used to share intimate pictures, especially among my age group of 18-24 year olds. I’m not surprised; I took a sexy selfie of myself only last month.

I couldn’t resist

My selfie joins one of the million taken each day in the UK, with 18-24 year olds creating 75% of them. The mysteriously missing 25% probably can be attributed to naughty silver surfers. The figures from the HTC One Selfie Phenomenon report are impressive, especially considering that not everyone realises what a ‘selfie’ actually is.

What is a selfie?

A selfie is a genre of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. Selfies are often associated with social networking andphoto sharing services such as MySpaceFacebook, andInstagram, where they are commonly posted.

I shared my selfie on Twitter where only 9% of all selfies end up. 48% turn up on Facebook and interestingly, 17% are sent through text. This shows that even though we live in an age of social media traditional ‘digi’ technologies, such as text messaging, are still relevant.

The research also shows that of all the people who take selfies, 14% have digitally enhanced them in some way. If you are between 18-24, you are much more likely to have altered your photo – just over a third of people in the age group admitted to altering their selfies. I know it seems impossible to believe but my photo is entirely untouched. Dove would be proud.

I never usually bother sharing media release based stats but for the sake of this blog post… I sort of enjoyed it.

No Tom Foremski, Google hasn’t killed PR agencies

Having once worked in the same office as the Microsoft Bing team, conducted research into semantic analysis and spent time scripting basic algorithms – I like to think that I at least have a rough idea of how parts of Google search works. At least more of an idea than Tom Foremski, who in his latest article, ‘Did Google just kill PR agencies?’, made some gross mistakes and oversights.  For a man who has self-proclaimed himself to be “at the intersection of media and technology”, he has made some rookie mistakes understanding Google’s webmaster rules.

His month out-of-date article acknowledges that Google has updated their webmaster rules on link schemes, eventually concluding:

PR agencies face three big problems:

– Their current and former clients could become very upset with them because of perfectly acceptable prior PR practices designed to promote their business — instead of the viral, organic growth based on happy customers, which is what Google now wants to see. 

– PR agencies could be held liable for the damage they caused to the online reputation of client businesses through the execution of normal practices. It could lead to legal action and compensation claims on millions of dollars in lost sales. 

– PR agencies have to wake up to the fact that Google is now their competitor. How do they promote a client when Google punishes any form of paid online promotion? Good luck with that one.

Before I tackle his three conclusions we have to first understand what Tom Foremski’s idea of ‘PR’ actually is. Fortunately for us, he provides insight into this with his introductory sentence.

Google has updated its webmaster rules on links and keywords in press releases and it doesn’t look good for PR agencies. 

Tom, ‘PR’ does not stand for ‘Press Releases’, it stands for ‘Public Relations’. I do not work for a press release agency, nor do press releases form an overall bulk of my work. Quite the opposite, issuing press releases has become old hat as every company is a media company (EC=MC). Recognise this observation? You wrote it in 2011! This “transformative equation for business” is something that all modern PR agencies have adopted. Therefore, how you believe Google has killed PR agencies is beyond me – a title designed merely to provoke (it worked).

Most of the time we don’t bother issuing a journalist with a press release because it doesn’t guarantee coverage and our own publishing channels have a more engaged readership anyway. Heck, some agencies have even started publishing books to get their clients’ messages out there. Modern PR agencies understand that issuing press releases is one option in a much wider mix.

Publishing methods aside, even if we contribute to written content about clients on online news sites, blogs, forums or wikis (as you highlight in your article), this is just content creation. What Google’s Webmaster rules document relates to his using Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) methods designed to pass PageRank. Essentially promoting a website so that it appears higher in Google search results.

Quoted directly from the document:

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link
  • Excessive link exchanges (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) or partner pages exclusively for the sake of cross-linking
  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Using automated programs or services to create links to your site

Google hasn’t killed PR agencies; it has killed SEO-only agencies. Together these four bullet points are a crushing blow for SEO agencies who have taken plenty of money to manipulate their clients up search results. Often with methods that are against Google’s rules or, more likely, using methods which later get penalised by Google. This infamously happened with Google’s Penguin update in April 2012 (latest update happened May 2013) and many SEO agency clients have had their businesses crushed because of it.

So Tom, when you use the below example as a method of stuffing keywords into a press release, you have missed the point completely.

Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example: “There are many weddingrings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a weddingdress.”

Of all the writing classes I’ve been to, never has the above method been used. Most of the time our objective is not to raise the profile of a client’s website but rather share a fun story or news item. We want coverage, not to manipulate PageRank and we make an effort to write our releases based upon the publication they are being sent to. We regularly get advice from journalists to improve and write for people and publications, not search results – often this is an inevitable outcome of coverage.

So you really have missed the point here:

Most press releases are posted on numerous sites to get attention and to promote a business . This is now against the rules. Google doesn’t want to see any unnatural boost to the popularity of a piece of content. 

No, Google doesn’t want to see an unnatural boost of a website through SEO methods designed to pass PageRank. Not only that but you have directly misquoted Google’s rules:

You must, “Create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community.

It actually reads:

The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. 

This is solely about building organic links to a website, not just the merits of content creation. This creates quite a gaping hole in your argument as our purpose isn’t to build links, it is to get coverage. If your misinterpretation was actually put into practice then every news site would face a content crisis. Something that would actually mean Google removing content from online news sites off their search results. As it is, online news sites boast some of the best PageRanks on the internet.


Going back to your conclusions Tom:

– Their current and former clients could become very upset with them because of perfectly acceptable prior PR practices designed to promote their business — instead of the viral, organic growth based on happy customers, which is what Google now wants to see. 

This is true of SEO agencies but not for PR. Our objective is to build relationships, not to pass PageRank. We use content as a catalyst for organic growth.

– PR agencies could be held liable for the damage they caused to the online reputation of client businesses through the execution of normal practices. It could lead to legal action and compensation claims on millions of dollars in lost sales. 

Again, this is true of SEO agencies who may have used tactics which are now negatively impacting their clients. Your call for legal action and the claim of “millions of dollars in lost sales” is an exaggeration. Have you ever read the contract from an SEO agency? It covers their back, not the client’s.

– PR agencies have to wake up to the fact that Google is now their competitor. How do they promote a client when Google punishes any form of paid online promotion? Good luck with that one.

Again, this is “paid online promotion” with the aim of passing PageRank. Otherwise we’ll comfortable wack a ‘nofollow tag’ next to a link, safe in the knowledge that content matters, not PageRank. It seems sensationalist to say that Google is a competitor.

Google hasn’t killed PR agencies. It has killed SEO agencies.


Alastair Campbell is right. PR has changed, but now what?

You may not realise this but Alastair Campbell isn’t just a brilliant speech writer, he is also a novelist. I first had the opportunity to see him in the flesh at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2008, where he gave a frank and candid account of his experience with depression (going far more in-depth than Wikipedia). His book ‘All in the Mind’ is a tragic comedy, highlighting the relationship between ordinary people and the doctors who treat them. It’s worth a read.

When I reached the front of the signing queue, with my freshly printed copy of his first novel, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought was currently the most important area of PR. It didn’t take long for him to answer; “digital”. Five years later digital communication has become my full-time job, although my entrance into the profession is fairly unique. I was once studying a Cisco Network Engineering Course. You can’t predict your future career.

It seems, neither could you have predicted the evolution of the PR industry in the 21st Century and the revolutionary impact this has had on the media industry. In Alastair’s Huffington Post article published in June he was quite clear on how the world of PR is changing.

In a world of greater chaos, people search for greater clarity. In a world of ceaseless innovation, people take comfort from the known and the familiar. In a world of more negativity, people look for more hope. But in a world of more choice and more information, people are getting better at knowing reality from spin, separating good from mediocre, they’re faster at making judgments at which is which, and often they are right.

With more choice and information, people are searching for the reality of situations and are getting better at recognising spin. The idea that PR is to “get good press” is redundant. Can you guess where that has left spin?

…the real spin doctors in the modern world are journalists, broadcasters and bloggers, and they want their readers, viewers and listeners to think they have the monopoly on truth, and so subtly and not so subtly suggest people ignore everyone else – politicians and their spokesmen, companies and their advisers, countries and their brand managers.

No matter what your personal opinion of Alastair is, I believe his opinion sways a lot of weight. Yet it is written in the context of public affairs. I’ve found bloggers in other areas of the industry to be far more amenable, accepting that even though I am a PR professional, I am still telling them the truth. The integrity of the PR industry may be questionable, along with public affairs but credit should be given to individual practitioners; integrity speaks volumes.

Digital has firmly placed the rocket up the anus of the communications world and some big changes need to be made. Upgrading the CIPR’s definition of PR (which has been a source of incongruity for many years), conducting training measuring sales success through PR and firmly denouncing the alarmingly amateur efforts of SEO-only agencies would help. Never has there been more competition in PR because of digital.

PR Professionals, even if they once were ‘Spin Doctors’, no longer hold any authority to be named by that title. We need to be platform agnostic instigators who are on social media to take part in conversations; transparency is so important.

Plague Doctor
The all knowing Spin Doctor? This painting of a Plague Doctor was designed by Frank To.

I’m fortunate to have a close working relationship with David Phillips, co-author of Online Public Relations (new edition out later this year), where he outlines the distinctions of transparency rather well. Particularly radical transparency; making organisations completely transparent about their operations and products. Not brave enough to adopt this? Too late, a blogger has just published all of your organisation’s details already. This is the age we live in.

I could go on about where the PR industry is heading forever. Alastair Campbell has summed it up well in his article but it’s nowhere near the full picture. The relevancy of our industry is reliant upon its workers to keep up-to-date with the times. This is more than using the latest social media sensation. This is about developing new tools which allow us to carry out our jobs in a quicker, more concise way. Forget campaign creativity – our industry has enough of that. We need data creativity and until we find the right person, our days as PR Professionals are numbered.

That is currently the future of the PR industry. Now what?

How do you have conversations with strangers?

As children we’re told not to talk to strangers, so it’s no surprise that when it comes to communicating with them, some of us find it difficult! This particularly becomes troublesome when taking part at exhibitions. No matter how big your stand, talking to strangers is crucial; you need to stop them, engage with them and invite them onto the stand.

Today the agency I work for, Keene Communications, has just published its first eBook! The aim of this eBook is to quite simply show you have to have great conversations at exhibitions. It will give you some new ideas about what you need to do to prepare your company and give you an advantage over your competitors. It has been written by Keene Communications’ Associate, Richard John, whose lengthy track record in the events industry has provided him with insights which he’s happy to share.

You can read the eBook below or download here.