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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Quality Content for PR Impact Post Hummingbird

Even if most of your sales are done offline, there is almost always a point somewhere in higher value sales processes where the website is checked out. It may be the first time the potential customer finds you, or a double-check by a procurement or finance officer before you are short-listed for the contract, or the site is the primary source of information about the product or service you offer.

Regardless of when that search happens, the results served up by Google almost certainly have changed as Google has got much better at serving up relevant information. There has been a sharp decrease in the rubbish included in search results recently. Gone are the multiple entries from poor quality sites that auto-approve articles that are poorly written, and other spurious content. Finally search is about delivering what people need, not just page views and clicks. This may mean fewer people on the site, but if your web copy is really useful, you'll get more sales. The answer is to invest in great content, which Google has been saying all along - the difference is their huge investment in natural language parsing means they are much better at spotting quality content - and its opposite. With a background in journalism, editing, publishing, we are breathing sighs of relief.

Hummingbird  is good news as quality results will save everyone time and lead to more effective information gains. Quality is where Google is rapidly heading as it strives to deliver the best-possible answers to questions: to become in effect an answer engine rather than a search engine.

We've been watching what's been going on, and although I can see where it's going generally, there's not much in the way of an all-embracing understanding of what to actually do, post-Hummingbird. Maybe other people are much wiser than me, knowing that it's not possible to make sense of all of it. I doubt anyone can really, but I don't like working with publicity in bits and pieces: it has to a good mix of strategically sound activity designed to fit together into a coherent whole that delivers raised profile, interest, engagement, reputation, information and 1 to 1 conversions to sales or recommendations. Nor do I like great long convoluted book-length explanations.

So, for what it's worth, here is a long blog post, (but a short book) on what I think is going on - and it's a real seismic shift in online PR and content marketing. I offer it with the proviso that I am stronger on B2B PR than consumer publicity and I don't know it all: no-one does. I have been online since 1985 and actively learning as I go. But the more I know, the more I know I need to know...

Some of the observations will already be familiar. What to do about it in the round is, I think, the bit that has been mostly missing. Some of it is obvious, but in 26 years of running a business, I've repeatedly discovered that the obvious is only obvious when it is pointed out.

I've put in my Penny's worth. Your input will be much appreciated.

"Hummingbird has already had an impact on 90% of all search results"

The new Google iteration is called Hummingbird and it has already had an impact on 90% of all search results. If your own business traffic and sales / new business enquiries has not been impacted, then great. We seem to be performing as per usual for our main key search words. But a lot of businesses have been impacted. If that's the case with you, what can be done?

Recent copy seems to be much more valued now than older material, so if you haven't updated your site, or your blog recently, put plans in place to remedy that with good quality content on a regular basis.

Google's own advice is to write naturally, and they have spent millions on tools to parse language to pick up unnatural word groupings and over-frequent use of terms. Rather than absorb a gut-full of books on grammar, Google's advice is: read it out aloud and if it sounds stilted, rework it until it sounds more conversational. The good news is that, if you adopt this tone without resorting to sloppy language, it will be easier for your site visitors to absorb, so your sales conversion rates or new business enquiries may improve. One thought is to pile right into the spoken word and create your content using a speech to text dictation program like Dragon Naturally Speaking - you can pick up older, but still relatively recent versions that are pretty good if you just want the basic speech conversion facility. .

If your site is not delivering new business enquiries or sales, look at:

  1. Spell and grammar check, especially if you do use the dictation method suggested above.
  2. Sharpen up your calls to action on each page. "Click here" doesn't hack it. Give site visitors an incentive to click.
  3. Get someone who doesn't know your site to test it by performing the tasks you want customers to perform and watch what happens without helping. This will probably throw up unrecognised areas of confusion that sabotage your site. Don't help the tester(s). Just get them to talk you through their experience and be prepared to be surprised.

Have you been penalised?

If your ranking has unexpectedly fallen drastically and reworking the web copy hasn't helped, even after user-testing, then you may be getting penalised for bad links from known paid link sources or for obvious irrelevant / unnatural links to your site that appear to be there only to influence search engines. That's the reason better quality online press release distribution services now automatically convert links in press releases to "no follow" links, which tells Google to ignore them rather than incur a penalty. Certainly, if you get a notice from Google that your site has link problems, don't ignore that.

If you are not happy with your web performance, it would be worth using Google's free webmaster tools to examine your links. It is possible to disavow poor quality links if you can't get them taken down by contacting the site involved. If you are not sure whether something is a quality link, there's a handy web rank extension for the Chrome browser that can be set to show the page rank for the page or domain that you are visiting.

When you have cleaned-up natural-sounding copy and removed poor quality links, and have re-submitted the site to Google, and things seem to be improving, what next? 

More copy! In more formats and places. Regular updates are valued. 

Content Conversation is king! 

The new Google algorithms have been designed to cope with mobile search, which now accounts for the majority of searches. Since typing is fiddly on mobiles, search is increasingly being dominated by voice searches, which are longer and more specific than traditional typed keyword searches. Hummingbird caters for this, which means you need to add much more variety to the terms you use in your content to catch more detailed queries. The advice is to focus on the "long tail" - if niche keywords are the front end of a comet, the long tail is composed of the many and multifarious conversational snippets that people use to refine their description of what they want. Given that, it's not surprising that the new buzz word is "conversational search". 

Conversational searches are likely to feature a word or phrase that indicates intent, and that intent is now something that Google can pick up. Key in a search on cleaning a brass candlestick, for example. The old Google would have offered lots of sites selling brass candlesticks.  Now you are more likely to get appropriate cleaning products and methodologies coming up.  

If the variety of search words has expanded, so has the variety of places that you need to be found in order to be placed higher up Google's results. More use of social media and video, well signposted with long tail phrases, will all help underpin your offering. Plus a lot more content, posted regularly, re-purposed extensively and spread widely on social media, with engagement strategies to have 1-2-1 conversations with people, not search engines.

The advantage is weighted towards well-resourced brands and niche players....

If all that sounds like hard work: it is. I believe Hummingbird starts to hand the advantage back to the quality content producers and the big brands with their larger budgets and resources. The nimble-footed smaller company will find it harder to continue to punch well above their weight, as was previously the case if they were smart. It was harder for the big boys to be nimble, but there is more technology now that allows for better customisation, monitoring and targeting - big data crunching - plus pretty shameless data collection by social media sites on our preferences and interests. That all adds up to the big boys being able to get their act together. 

Smaller businesses can still nibble away at specific niches using their intimate understanding of their customers to generate lots of creative and relevant content with sub-niche variations, plus empathetic engagement. They can:

  • Put strategic joint ventures together faster to leverage contacts and devise win:wins for both parties
  • Make intelligent investment in content producers:  knowledgeable quality writing, editing, creative video and design. 
  • They can turn on a sixpence compared with larger companies. 
  • Niches, speed and flexibility are their trump cards, but there has to be a remorseless and relentless underpinning of content creation to make a mark online - or some good old fashioned lucky breaks with creative content - but luck is all about having put the hard work in first, with contacts, creativity and quality.

... and fortune favours the brave

Making an impact looks increasingly like it involves a lot more in-depth work and understanding. But it's easier than ever to harness resources online, including crowd-funding to by-pass conventional barriers to the resources needed to create more impact both on and offline. That's why I am bullish about PR and content marketing to drive the engines of post-recession growth. 

Local search for local people

Local search is another strong factor in search. In fact, local terms feature in 40% of searches. 
At the very least, include local maps and your address - a surprising number of businesses still don't say where they are on their website, despite that omission being the business equivalent of an unmarked white van on the road - not to mention breaching EU regulations for limited companies. 

All this localisation may seem irrelevant for e-commerce, but with the fragmentation of the package delivery market, P&P prices are increasingly variable with distance, size and weight impacting on the overall cost. For some e-tailers, the local customer will get the best deal and it makes sense to play up to that advantage.

Content, Content, Content

Do more with less. Focus on your best information and ideas. Re-purpose your best content into lots of different formats to appeal to the widest possible number of people, but avoid creating duplicate content which could be seen as trying to hoodwink search engines. 

Stimulate user-generated content and opportunities to engage. Reactions that bubble up from engaged communities. Explore which platforms are preferred by your customers, meet them there and experiment with what engages them. 

Consider producing:
  • User guides and data sheets - write individual ones for different niches if appropriate
  • Case studies
  • Demonstrations/how to guides
  • Tutorials
  • e-books
  • FAQs - add new ones every time you answer a question online or on the phone or face 
  • Instructions
  • Updates and news
  • Expert comment 
  • Expert Guides
  • Research nuggets, studies or papers
  • Company stories - we remember them and they are the building blocks of a memorable culture - a powerful differentiator. 
  • Polls involving your constituencies built up on social media, groups and forums, and/or through list-building, email or direct mail
  • Facts and statistics relevant to your niches
  • Press releases - quality media coverage boosts PR online and offline
  • Maps
  • News letters
  • Blogs
  • Webinars
  • Slideshows, 
  • Reports, 
  • Videos, 
  • Podcasts, 
  • Blogs, 
  • Newsletters, 
  • Landing pages
  • Info-graphics
  • Charts - comparisons, features and benefits, ranges, distribution, polls etc.
  • Testimonials
  • Groups and forums
  • Keynote speeches
  • Cross post to social media and engage to get user enthusiasm, ideas, feedback on new and existing offerings, sales boosts through multi-buys and discounts and other offers,  plus user-generated content

In a nutshell: 

  • Sort out your site to boost quality and conversational tone, plus sales conversion rates.
  • Work your content much harder with a much more varied set of key words and phrases, platforms and formats, as per ideas above
  • Plus PR online and in the media
  • Local mapping
  • Build communities and engagement to boost business and deliver user generated content . 

PR blog posted by Penny Haywood Calder at PHPR Ltd, Edinburgh, UK.


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