A well-performing website can become one of a business’s most valuable assets. Not only does it inform the public about your goods and services, but it also captures search traffic that you can turn into revenue. That’s why improving your website’s search position using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques is a crucial component of your marketing efforts. This process doesn’t happen overnight, however. Instead, appeasing the search engine gods takes time, discipline and plenty of technical know-how.
I’ve written before about how public relations (PR) has evolved to meet the information age. Practitioners have moved beyond red carpets and spin doctoring to embrace digital practices that boost our client’s public profile in as many ways as possible. For example, SEO-savvy PR professionals can leverage the work they’re already doing to improve their client’s search position significantly.
PR Work Generates High-Quality Links & Mentions
Whenever I bring on a new client, one of the first things I do is check their backlink profile and perform a branded Google News search. For readers who might not be familiar with SEO terms, backlinks refer to incoming links from other websites. Google uses the amount and quality of these links and mentions as signals to judge a website’s importance and where it should rank on a search results page.
As I’m building this picture of my new client’s online presence, time and again, I find that the best-performing backlinks and media mentions come from the kind of organizations PR professionals interact with every day. Even if they’ve never run a formal PR campaign, media coverage is already benefiting their website because Google places a high value on the traffic media domains generate.
When organized PR work kicks in, PR professionals strategically target media organizations with high-quality links and mentions for their clients. When these regularly end up on media websites, PR campaigns become de-facto SEO machines. It’s here where you begin to see the potential power PR has to score big points with the all-powerful search engines and positively impact SEO over time.
However, the search landscape is constantly changing. That’s why PRs must understand how links and mentions compare so they can maximize their outreach strategy.
Comparing Mentions and Link Types
Once, links were the most important goal for driving SEO growth, which led to a fraught relationship between PR and search. Back in the early days of SEO, so-called black hat practitioners tried to game the system by sending out low-quality press releases filled with spammy links. Aggregator sites would then blindly publish these releases — links and all — and violà, instant SEO juice. Google became wise to this tactic and eventually began penalizing websites that used this technique.
As search engines become increasingly intelligent, the relationship between links and SEO value has changed. Soon, I believe mentions will become just as valuable as some link types, especially when combined with contextual keywords. This new paradigm may already exist on websites with higher domain authority. So with this in mind, how do PRs prioritize their link strategy?
No-Follow vs. Follow Links
One way Google addressed the link-spamming problem was by creating the no-follow link class, which is supposed to delineate between paid and naturally-earned opportunities. Simply put, a no-follow link is a website tag that tells search engines not to follow a particular link to the original website because it’s the result of a paid partnership. While no-follow links function the same way traditional links do, Google strips them of any SEO value. By contrast, Google views follow links as having more weight because they were earned rather than bought. That’s why they’re more impactful on search results.
PR pros should pursue follow link opportunities first. However, if those are unavailable, a no-follow link or even an unlinked mention may still hold value on high authority sites. In fact, with schema markup and contextual relevance (meaning a brand mention, surrounded by context, e.g., leading digital PR agency Veracity says…), a mention without a link may be more valuable than a no-follow link. When you think this through, it makes sense. Because no-follow is supposed to indicate a paid link, a high-quality, unlinked mention is clearly an earned opportunity that should improve a site’s position in the digital landscape.
That’s why PR professionals should write their blog posts, quotes or releases with brand names and contextual keywords in mind. With a bit of extra thought, PR pros can provide an additional SEO bump by writing for editors, readers and Google simultaneously — even without a link.
Author Links are Less Valuable
Some publications offer guest contributors an author link. These usually occur within the byline and not in the body copy. Generally speaking, Google does not value these links as highly as a follow link in the body copy. However, author links can be a valuable component of an ongoing PR campaign as it supports broader SEO goals.
Links Behind Paywalls
Many businesses wonder if links that appear behind paywalls help their site’s search performance, especially as a growing number of media organizations move towards a paywall strategy. The answer is, it depends. If the site uses the correct markup, paywalls don’t matter in Google’s eyes. As long as Google can crawl the site and access its information, those links will show up in search results and benefit a site’s backlink profile. Most reputable media organizations, like city business journals, will mark up their sites correctly. Other publishers, like trade verticals, are less reliable.
With all the link types and mention opportunities available, it’s essential to understand your target publication’s link policy before making your pitch. If all else is equal, and one publication offers a follow link while the other doesn’t, you can make the decisions that will benefit your client the most.
Planning a Media List with Links and Mentions in Mind
Understanding the link ecosystem becomes extremely important when planning a media list. Before I start my content creation or outreach efforts, I see if a publication even offers links. If they do, I look at the type of links they provide and where they typically provide them. The answers to these questions help me prioritize my outreach efforts in support of the overall strategy.
Say, for example, that SEO is very important to my client. In that case, I’d prioritize publications that offer follow links in the body text over a publication that only offers author links. I’d probably even prioritize a branded mention on the right website over certain no-follow or author links. Conversely, if brand building is more important to my client, I might choose a publication with more esteem or a wider reach, even if the client doesn’t get the same SEO value in return.
Making the Most Out of Any Strategy
Every client has different goals when engaging a PR agency, and they often have nothing to do with SEO. But once a company starts doing real PR work, improved search results are often a really attractive added benefit.
With the right knowledge, the right agency can use traditional PR techniques that accomplish the client’s primary business goals while utilizing every SEO opportunity that comes up along the way. That’s why digital PR is about so much more than fancy dinners and press conferences. Instead, it’s about delivering as much added value to their clients in as many ways as possible.