The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz has written a revealing column on the machinations he and his fellow reporters must go through to cause their articles to show up in Google search results.  We go through a similar process when we write press releases, and it can challenge a copywriter’s sensibilities.

Unfortunately for the Post, it also challenges journalistic sensibilities.  As Kurtz points out, Google trending is telling him his stories will be better read if he makes reference to Sarah Palin, Tiger Woods’s ex-wife, and Lady Gaga, all in the same story.  Not exactly Kurtz’s beat!

How does this apply to public relations firms serving businesses?

google top secret

Used to be, the people we wanted to reach were unwittingly exposed to a wide variety of subjects.  The daily newspaper, trade journal, or evening news supplied a global sampling of the state of affairs, sparking new ideas and new interests. A mile wide and an inch deep.

Today, these same people hand-pick blogs and Twitter feeds and e-newsletters that cover not just their industries but sometimes their distinct job functions in their industries.  Their information consumption is highly specialized – a mile deep and an inch wide. So how do new ideas, one or two standard deviations from a reader’s core interest, break through?

The answer is relevance, and Google serves a useful public service here.  Its algorithms, hated by many, actually create a road map for businesses to make their ideas and innovations relevant to target audiences who have chosen to specialize.

If we want hospital IT managers to pay attention to our client’s HIE (health information exchange) solution, and we know that hospital IT managers are busy doing searches on terms like “meaningful use rules,” then we had better be using those terms in our press releases, and posting them on wire services that are crawled by search engines!

It’s one thing for a press release to be read by a journalist – but if it can be read by a prospective customer, even better.

Now, one can get a lot more sophisticated than keyword selection. The point, however, is that Google is not causing people to specialize, it is that they are choosing to.  So marketing and PR professionals must tweak their content to be relevant to the specialized interest, and the keyword is one way to do it.

There are other ways too, some of them gimmicks designed to game the algorithms.  We’ve seen content farms where kids are paid by the word to scrape copyrighted news articles, pepper them with references to the corporations that are paying them, and repost them – all to fool search engines into ranking those corporations higher.  We’ve seen cases where well-meaning bloggers are duped into hosting linkbacks to other sites, to juice the other sites’ search engine results.

Ever do a search and end up on a page where the content seems relevant but just doesn’t seem to make sense?  Someone is getting paid to waste your time on purpose, to register another tick in their statistics.

For those of us in business-focused PR and marketing, we don’t have to resort to dropping Lady Gaga into our press release headlines to garner readership.  It would boost the numbers, but not of the right kind.  Rather, we have to be mindful of the fact that our target readership has chosen to specialize, and so as writers we must tap the language of their specialty to relate.  That is where Google’s algorithms can help us make the link.

Now I am going to go monitor my web stats to watch my online popularity explode as a result of this keyword mention of Lady Gaga.