Long gone are the days when PR was simply about making a splash in the biggest newspaper or magazine around. No one would grumble at that now, of course, but the fast pace of the digital world means a little more is now required from the marketing discipline.
That’s where Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), the art of making a brand’s website appear higher up in the search engine result pages (SERPs), comes in.
How exactly SEO and PR are linked is precisely what we’re going to go into, in this whistle-stop tour of what exactly one has to do with the other.
How PR contributes to improved SEO
When it comes to SEO, there are both on-page and off-page tactics that can contribute to a website or page ranking higher up on Google result pages (and other search engines) for related key terms. On-page tactics include things like the quality of the content on your website (not only how well it is written and relevancy, but also using the ‘E-A-T’ principle of Expertise, Authority and Trust).
Furthermore, keyword optimisation and setting up title tags and image descriptions correctly all help, along with more technical tactics such as improving page speed, compressing images and such like.
PR, and specifically digital PR, is an off-page tactic that is incredibly important to a brand’s SEO efforts. Really, the two disciplines are one in the same; they both aim to increase brand awareness online, build brand credibility and drive traffic and sales. There is a specific method of using PR for SEO purposes, so what does that look like? Well, the simplest answer is links.
Building backlinks (that is, a live/clickable link from another website that leads to your own) through targeted media coverage is a super effective way of improving your site’s SEO; but of course, there’s a little more to it than just any old link.
Google has an algorithm that helps it decide how websites and specific pages should rank in its results pages. Whilst the algorithm is constantly changing and is fairly mysterious at times, one thing we do know is that Google sees links from decent websites to yours as a signal that your site is relevant, trustworthy and holds good authority.
The more decent backlinks you build, the more your SEO will improve. And the more your SEO improves, the better your brand visibility will be. Journalists will often include links in online pieces of coverage, especially if you give them reason to, which is why digital PR is so effective at building links and helping SEO efforts.
What is a good link?
Not all links are created equal, unfortunately for us PR folk, and although it may seem that all live links are the same, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst any live link is a nice-to-have because of the click-ability and traffic it could therefore drive, what you really want to get your hands on in that online media coverage of yours is a do-follow link.
Do-follow is a HTML tag in the coding that tells Google’s page crawlers “Hey! Over here! Look at me!”. Put simply, Google will take that link into consideration when deciding how it should impact the SEO of the website the link is for.
Another factor that makes a link “good” is the quality of the referring domain (i.e. the site that has given the link). SEO tools such as Moz and Ahrefs have their own scoring systems to demonstrate how authoritative/good a website is, called Domain Authority/DA (Moz) and Domain Rating/DR (Ahrefs). Both are fairly similar and are scores out of 100, with 100 being the best score. A website’s authority score is based on the state of its own SEO, such as its backlink profile, content and all sorts of other factors.
What you need to know in digital PR is that a link from a site with a domain authority of close to 100 is much more powerful that one from a DA 20 website. Thankfully, most top tier media titles have excellent DA scores and even more niche titles have decent scores too. It’s good to have a diverse backlink profile, but DA 50+ links are of course better.
You’ll usually need SEO tools such as the Moz bar or Ahrefs to determine the authority score of a website, but some media databases, such as Response Source, also pull in this information to show you.
A good link also needs to be relevant (to the content it features within and the anchor text used), natural (editorial, not spammy/paid for) and new (as in, you haven’t had one from the site before). Repeat links don’t hurt, of course, but they lose their impact once you’ve already ticked that site off your backlink list.
Types of links
A backlink may be giving the ‘nofollow’ attribute in the code, which usually makes PR people do a great big, disappointed sigh. You see, no-follow links used to signal “ignore me” to Google’s crawlers; effectively making them null and void when it came to having any sort of impact on the linked-to site’s SEO. It was originally created to prevent spammy links from passing on any ‘link juice’ and manipulating ranking signals unfairly.
Thanks to a Google algorithm update back in March 2020, however, no-follow links are now a “hint” for ranking purposes. Basically, they don’t ignore them entirely and they potentially have more impact than they once did. Don’t let that distract from the fact though that follow links still imply far more endorsement and credit, so therefore always win.
Links can also be tagged as affiliate, UGC (e.g. links in comments) and sponsored (paid for) in the HTML code, which are all pretty naff for SEO.
To find out if a link is a ‘dofollow’ link, you can use paid-for tools like the Moz bar which has a handy colour-coded highlight feature, or you can try right click and ‘inspect’ on the link to analyse the coding. If you don’t see “rel=nofollow”, or the words ‘sponsored’ or ‘UGC’, and the link isn’t an affiliate one, then it’s a good indication that it’s a follow link.
If you’re wondering how unlinked mentions in online media coverage impact your SEO, which are also called “implied” or “inferred” links, this is a subject for much debate. Many SEO experts believe they are still important and may in fact be the future of off-page SEO. Big wigs at both Google and Bing have spoken in the past about the value of link-less mentions as a trust signal and it’s been said that the technology for search engines to know the sentiment and tone the mention is used in has been there for some time.
With Google’s algorithm constantly changing, it’s anyone’s guess how much of a ranking factor unlinked mentions will be in the future; and where brand awareness is concerned, the more mentions the better. Another point to consider is that if you generate media coverage with an unlinked mention, it could lead to copycat or syndicated pick-up of that piece that then might include a link. Links (and follow links specifically) are still a much clearer and effective ranking factor.
How to build links
Now that we know the basics of what types of links we need to secure in our online PR coverage, let’s move on briefly to how exactly to encourage those links. Journalists won’t always automatically include a link, so it helps to give them a reason to have to, or want to.
Typical PR tactics such as newsjacking, interviews, case studies, product/service mentions, thought leadership pieces and expert input to stories can naturally lead to the journalist linking, of course, but you tend to stand a better chance of getting a link if your story has a little something extra.
For example, it might be a great piece of data/research or a solid resource of information, or perhaps there’s a hero piece of content such as a video, online tool/widget or infographic at the heart of it.
Quirky stories and stunts can also do the trick, but the key is to have a dedicated page on your website that supports the story and acts as a hub for journalists to link back to, that will add more value to their story for the reader. Hold something back in your pitch that they can’t include in their piece and have to link to, such as a video or something interactive that they can’t just embed (embed links are not as good for SEO). If your story/campaign has an upload element (e.g. best job style stunts with an application page that journalists need to direct people toward), that works wonders.
Sometimes it can be a case of don’t ask, don’t get. It doesn’t hurt to ask for a link in your media coverage, even to add one if the piece has already gone live, but don’t be pushy and tell them you understand if it’s not possible. Some journalists can get easily annoyed by being pestered for links, questioning why the quality media coverage they’ve given isn’t enough, so it’s worth bearing in mind what your relationship with that particular journalist is like before you ask.
Digital PR is a great way to build quality backlinks, which directly has an impact on a website’s SEO. Follow links from websites with a high domain authority or rating are the most effective for rankings, and you can build those through high value, newsworthy content and campaigns.
Target publications that you know will give links (and ones that seem to give follow links more than ‘nofollow’ (in other words, do a little research on your target media sites before a campaign to see which the most link-friendly ones are and analyse the links they typically include in pieces to see if they are follow links).
You should still target media outlets that don’t give follow links often though, for example Mail Online and The Sun, because the coverage on them could lead to syndicated or copycat pieces that might then include a link. Besides, they can still deliver decent volumes of traffic no matter what the status of the link and with 2020’s Google update to class ‘nofollow’ links as a ranking hint, we don’t know what these will be worth in the future. The same goes for unlinked mentions, but follow links should always be your priority in your digital PR campaigns.
Finally, never do anything questionable or that feels dodgy in terms of link building practices in your digital PR campaigns. Don’t pay for links or use spammy link-building techniques in the hope this will improve your SEO. More often than not, it can be incredibly damaging.
Earn those backlinks in quality pieces of media coverage and later reap the rewards. Keep link building activity consistent, fresh and exciting and know that results won’t happen overnight. Trust in the process and enjoy the journey with bucket-loads of creativity, the determination to succeed and the tenacity to not give up!
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This is part of our Beginner's Guide to public relations