SEO and public relations with Chris Lee

Chris Lee runs the communications strategy, copywriting and training consultancy, Eight Moon Media. He’s worked in the technology comms industry for 20 years as a PR and digital consultant, and journalist. 

His experience spans working with the likes of Xerox, Philips, Hilton and many others. Chris is also for the PRCA, The London College of Communication, Brighton SEO and a number of private clients. 

Podcast transcript

Stephen Davies: Today’s topic is SEO and how it relates to the PR industry. Your background is predominantly PR. How do you see the PR industry using SEO in 2018? Is it still a specialist skill?  

Chris Lee: Well, thanks. Great question. Obviously search engine optimization has been on the radar of PR agencies for around a decade or so since the since Google has been changing its algorithms to favour a lot of what we do, which is, of course, two functions: One to inform and persuade audiences and the second one defending reputation.

So if you think about the key elements of what helps things like inbound links like authoritative sites and rich content. These are things that obviously sit within the PR domain typically. As to your point whether or not this is built into a lot of functions. I think there are a number of agencies that have stolen a march on this and are building search into their offerings but I think there’s a lot of agencies also just talking a good game really.

So going back to thinking about those two core functions. Informing and persuading audiences, yes that’s something we absolutely do and defending reputation. I’ve been working with Grayling which people may know, it’s a global PR agency and we’ve just released some findings into online reputation. So obviously we’re talking about two different things here: One non-branded search, which is like, you know, ‘best coffee shop in Brighton’ which is a kind of a commerce objective, but when we think about reputation, branded search – when you Google the company and see what comes up it’s something that definitely should sit within PR and something that I’ve operated with them with the Grayling team on to putting together studies come out into the FTSE 100 companies.

“We’ve found that 80 percent out of the FTSE 100 have got negative content on page one of Google.”

Chris Lee

We’ve found that 80 out of the FTSE 100 have got negative content on page one of Google. So imagine that and bear in mind using various different calculations that have been out there on internet we’ve estimated that that would cost an average of 16 percent of website visitors. You go on to google the  company or read a bad write up on Wikipedia or Glass Door, or you read a negative news article about them that you found in their news carrousel then that would cost you their click effectively. Grayling estimates that’s about 15 million leads per month across the UK’s top companies in the FTSE 100.

SD: Wow. So they found that 80 percent of the FTSE 100 has negative first page results. And was that from news articles? C

CL: Mostly news articles but there are other elements to think about. Glass Door, which is the employee review site, and then there’s also things like Wikipedia which is extremely powerful if you’ve got a negative entry. Again that’s beyond the PR challenge if something’s factually correct you can’t go in or change it. Some brands have tried in the past and obviously Wikipedia is self-governing as a site but yeah from a news point of view we found it’s incredibly long term to overturn a lot of news in the carousel.

Some company’s news was over a year old and, of course, it varies from industry to industry. So when you’ve got things like poor financial performance being 41 percent on some of those negative stories or product or service at 22 percent of those stories and 17 percent being unethical behaviour, you can see actually when people do google they find a reputation issue.  Therefore, what your company does impacts it. PR can operate to help alleviate that terrible online reputation but it’s a bigger thing than PR if the company is unethical.

PR can only go so far and that’s why we should always have a PR person sitting on the board as you know so they can directly give their opinion on what the implications of certain activities will be from a corporate reputation standpoint.

SD: Absolutely and the first people go to these days whenever they’re doing any kind of research is Google, so how you’re featured on those first page rankings are fundamental to someone if they want to work for you, or become a client or partner or whatever. I guess going back to your earlier point when you said there’s only so much PR can do, how many PRs monitor their Wikipedia entry? 

CL: Yeah and you would have thought if you’re in charge of monitoring brand reputation within an organisation with your client side or agency side, regularly looking at Wikipedia is something you should have you on your radar. One other question you asked I haven’t addressed yet is around specialist skills. Is SEO a specialist skill? You certainly need some technical understanding to keep up with the latest developments. 

The algorithms that influences what ranks change on a regular basis. So I would definitely think a certain element of technical skill involved is needed. 

SD: And the great thing about Wikipedia is it has a community of writers putting the articles together and doing it free of charge. And if you can prove to that community that you can provide additional information for your client you can get that entry changed.

So in terms of the types of SEO PRs are doing, is it predominantly link building, is it content creation or are they going down the technical route and looking at site architecture, tag optimisation and so on. I guess, from a PR point of view, they don’t really have that technical understanding so I assume they’re going down the content and link building point of view? 

CL: Yeah. And for anyone listening what we mean by link building is, when you run a website, the whole fabric of the internet is it works on being a an actual web by linking to each other. When we’re building links, what we’re talking about is trying to get diverse and authoritative sites to link to content on our website as it’s the ultimate vote of confidence. That helps raise the domain authority.

Going back to what you mentioned about, what are PR agencies doing. It could be a combination of all of the above but I imagine that it’s mostly content creation, definitely, and link building, definitely, because obviously, it comes from great media and influencer relations.

The key point is SEO cannot be done in isolation. Some agencies will say they’re full service and do everything which means they must have someone technical within their team that can run speed tests, will run Screaming Frog to make sure they understand where the site fails and where the broken links etc are. And other architectual issues and they’ll work with mobile developers to make sure it’s responsive for mobile, make sure it’s secure HTTPS which again is essential. 

Of course, they need to make sure the user experiences is good because, again, that is one of the key factors that Google is looking for. So it cannot be done in isolation, but I imagine that most agents will be doing a certain amount of overlap where they’re doing the content, the link building and they’re working with in-house teams who do more of the technical and architectural thing because often I’ve found there are security issues within organisations that are not confident sharing information about the website – certainly backend stuff and even Google Analytics has been hard for me to access sometimes because of security issues.

One thing PR agencies will do as part of the company’s content planning is be involved with the keyword research side of it. So Google search bots are so intuitive nowadays they understand the context of keywords so aren’t as important as they used to be in terms of where they appear. At the same time they are great for understanding context and search intent. When you’re looking to optimize so your SEO and content strategies you should always be aligned with search intent. That’s where the PR industry will come in. 

SD: It’s also content length as well. Four or five years ago it used to be articles that were 400, 500, 600 word article would rank, but now there’s so much content created online and Google’s changed the algorithm to favour content that is around 2,000 words and it’s got, you know, specific keywords and h2 tags to title each particular segment as well. But I just want to go back to what you said earlier about link building. Link buildings has been in the news of late from a PR point of view, and there was an incident with the Times editor complaining that PRs were asking for links in stories and she had a bugbear about that. Can you tell us what happened and what’s your view on it and link building a general?

CL: Yes, and this is the November 2018 tweet from the Times journalist who took to Twitter and made a complaint about PRs asking for links to their client sites that she mentioned in her piece. She described it as “trying to wrangle free advertising” which generated a debate which I welcomed because I recently wrote a piece on link reclamation about when you’re not linked to in the piece and the rights and wrongs for asking for one. 

I think the free advertising bit is what many may have objected to.  The brands had already received their publicity in the fact she’d already written about them in the piece and of course there is already implied links. The key thing here is just perspective, just for everyone here because no one has a divine right to link. It might be the publisher’s policy not to link out to brands that they mentioned in the piece. Often you’ll find them linking to other stories about that brand internally. 

I’ve blogged for, you know, 12+ years on various different topics. Currently, my extracurricular blog is which is a football culture blog and I quite often get pitched by PRs all the time. I can tell which ones are from a PR and which ones are from an SEO because PRs are looking for coverage and a mention and SEOs often don’t even hide the fact that they want a link. That’s really bad and it’s not a PR approach and I don’t know how successful they are with that because no one has a divine right to a link and PRs should focus on earning the link in the first place. 

So rather than getting the coverage and then posthumously going back and asking for the link, earn it. Make sure your content adds to the story and that it’s something they want to link out to so that could be research, infographics, exclusive content such as video that take it further. That way you’ve earned that link in an organic fashion. Links must be part of the story from the off and build that into your planning. In terms of asking for links after the story, how well do you know the journalist? How old is the story? There’s a certain time frame you have when asking for a link. 

SD: Does the Times actually link out anyway? I read the Times occasionally and I can’t recall seeing external links in their coverage. I don’t think the Guardian does either so asking a journalist when the publication’s policy is not to link out, then 999 times out of a 1,000 they won’t. 

CL: Which is why they need to check if it’s part of the policy. If they’re not linking then don’t even go there. You’ve got the publicity so don’t annoy the journalist by asking for a link if they don’t do them. 

SD: I from the same era as you and we got into this space prior to social media when it just used to be blogging and the currency of blogging was links. It used to be called Link Love, so if you found something of value  you’d always link back to the original source and you’d always provide further information in your blog post for the reader to go off somewhere and come back and that was considered the etiquette. But I guess when it comes to publications they generally want to keep people on their site they refrain from sending people elsewhere. 

CL: Yeah and part of your strategy and planning you need to think about where those links are going to come from  because if you’re not going to get them from national titles like the Times and Guardian then that’s there for publicity and brand awareness as a comms objective and other sites are there to help from a link building point of view. So that’s where you have to split the objectives of your campaign when developing your strategy. 

SD: I think while national publications don’t give out links, I think the future is going to be in brand from an SEO point of view.  While links will always play a role, Google has already stated that they’ll rank you for people searching for your name, bookmark your site on Google Chrome or typing your URL in the browser so what’s your view on brand as a ranking signal. I think it’s only going to be more important but it would be good to get your view on it. 

CL:  I think from a branded search vs non branded search. Then for branded search point of view you’d expect it to be that Google understands the context of search. So which particular brand is someone looking for because there are companies that have similar names. And location is going to be an issue because if you’re searching for a company that has multiple branches across the country then that’s going to be an issue. I don’t think brand is as key to Google as other bits like voice, links, content and also thinking about the user experience and if people who land on your site are getting what they want. 

SD: Some content in the marketing and PR industry is blog content. What’s your approach to optimising blog content for SEO? Some people say you should use the “Skyscraper Effect” where you create one massive long post and section it out and other people say it’s best to create multiple blog posts and have them all interlinking with one another. Do you have a view on this and what’s your best practice? 

CL: It depends what niche you’re in as Google provides different results depending on what niche you’re in and the user intent. If you’re familiar with the brand Searchmetrics, their CTO spoke at Brighton SEO in April and revealed some interesting findings that they had found into how results surface for different subjects. Things like dating, wine, recipes, fitness and divorce, you know, all these different things will be presented in different ways.

Niches like recipes come with a lot more visual and video related content. Whereas things that require more text-heavy advice like divorce are things that people are not necessarily going to share online. One of the things they looked at as well is the length of the post. If you were writing about one of those less visually friendly topics then yeah absolutely. In 2015, the average top ten post was 1,300 words, by 2016 it was 1,600 and by 2017 it was 1,900 so you’re looking at around 2,000 words to rank today. 

For things like fitness you’re looking at creating video because it’s more likely to surface and you need to be on YouTube really. It depends on what you’re trying to sell and what niche you’re effectively and have a look at the research to see what kind of content is more likely to surface high and then that should inform how you create your content. 

Also, long-form content improves two things Google is looking for. Bounce rate point of view, so people coming on a leaving straight away. So long form content certainly improves the chance of people staying especially if you’ve got more internal links going on in the internal link structure. Dwell time is also improved by long-form content but it’s got to be structured well. 

SD: A lot of people in the SEO industry are talking about the future of voice and how we’re increasingly using the likes of Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s Siri. They’re saying that voice is going to change the entire SEO industry because instead of typing into our phones or keyboards we’re going to talk into them and that’s going to change the syntax of what’s been said over what’s been typed. I’m more sceptical on this because I just don’t see voice being as big as what some people think. 

CL: What this reminds me of instantly is YouTube because on YouTube people always look for ‘how to’ content so when you’re creating this type of content you always optimise for what people are searching for. I think it’s similar with voice search and we’ll have to look for ways to create content similar to what users are looking for. We’ll have to look at all the ways people ask Alexa and may not type so we’ll have to look at the way we structure things but like you said I think it’s more a case of just keeping an eye on it. I don’t necessarily know but I think it’s important to understand when we will actually be using voice search. I think it’s going to be when we’re on the go and mobile and we need something answered really quickly or if it’s in the home it may be “get me a recipe for chilli con Carne” so we have to think about what setting we’re in and where it’s likely to be used.

SD: We’ve talked a little about keywords and a question I had for you is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rank for certain keywords because there is so much content out there and millions of articles that are being created every day, how does one get on top of the search results.

CL: This is where keyword research is really important because, like you said,  you can find those niches that people are looking for and try and win the Long Tail effectively. Especially if you’re a small start up and you’ve just go your website up and running and you want to become an expert and known in a certain field and get linked to and you have to do it all from scratch. Plus you’re up against websites that have been there for 20+ years it will be difficult to try and displace them so that’s where the niche comes and working on video and snippets come in to help you stand out. And yeah look at what works in your niche and using that to inform your strategy as well as using tools like Google Trends with keyword research planner and Moz’s keyword tool is good too. You can go out and find what people are searching for but ultimately it’s finding your tribe, finding your niche in the short term and as you become more powerful you’ll have to pivot accordingly. 

SD: Speaking of tools, what are the recommended tools you’d suggest a beginner should use? 

CL: I’ve broken this down into different stages because obviously with SEO what we need to be concerned with is the full journey of the searcher so we’re not just helping our content surface when they’re looking for it, but we anticipate their need, answer their questions, take them to through the entire website experience until the point they’ve got what they need. Whether that’s downloading your report, whether they signed up for your newsletter, whether they bought from you, whatever it happens to be. You have to answer those questions and give them that seemless experience from start to finish.

If you look at the content planning side, I love keyword tools such as Keyword Planner, Moz’s keyword tool‘s good, SEMRush has one. I use Answer The Public which is a free resource which gives you lots of questions and context around particular subjects. Google Trends as well to see what time of year or change in seasonality and terminology people are using. So that’s the planning side of things. For technical, Google Analytics and Google Search Console are very important as is Screaming Frog from a backend point of view. Then looking at speed tests, you’ve got tools like GTmetrix to make sure your site is operating as fast as it could be. From a creation point of view, I love tools such as the Coschedule headline optimiser which helps you work out what’s really impactful because people will vote on that headline. And then Hemmingway app which is really important for making your content legible and readable which is another Google signal which we have really talked about.

You can’t put unreadable waffle down there, it’s got to be readable content for the reader as they’re likely to be reading it from a mobile or tablet device. And to see the impact of that, again, we use Google Analytics and Google Search Console to see where you’re ranking and where you’re getting click-through rates from. SERPWoo is another one I like because it’s like a league table where you can see where you rank. You can see over time what kind of fluctuation there is with your competitors. OpenLinkProfiler is good for understanding which links are coming into you. 

For link building, I love using the Moz toolbar as that tells you what domain authority the sites you’re targeting have. 

SD: A bit of navel gazing, looking into the future, SEO is quite an old industry from an internet point of view, where is the SEO industry heading into the future?

CL: I think we’ve covered quite a few and I don’t think anyone can see that far into the future. I think the key thing is to get the basics right. You can have all the link building you like but if your website is poorly designed it won’t help the user find what they want. Voice, we spoke about, I think we need to keep an eye on it and I would think about experimenting with question and answer type content to help with voice search. Obviously artificial intelligence and RankBrain is going to help Google from a semantic search point of view then we need to understand how that evolves and keep on top of it. Snippets again are important and how you structure content. As far as I see it , it’s about keeping informed and be ready to pivot because you have to be really informed with SEO from both a technical point of view and a content strategy point of view as well. 

SD: Last question, I always ask this one at the end. What’s the one book you recommend everyone should read. 

CL: I’m a fan of Latin American literature in particular because I always find it very illustrative so I’m a big fan of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez which is in Colombia in the 19th century. 

SD: Well thanks for the time Chris. Where can everyone find out more about you? 

CL: You can find out more about me at and find me at Twitter at @CMRLee


Written by Stephen Davies

I’m an experienced strategist working at the intersection of public relations, digital marketing and social media based in London. You can work with me here or drop me a line here.

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