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The fallout from Linkgate: SEOs vs PROs

It would be nice if everyone in the PR and SEO worlds completely agreed and got along, but that would also make the world a more boring place. The fact that there is some tension between the two sectors was highlighted by the amount of arrogance (and rudeness) some SEO people displayed in the Twitter debate on whether companies should expect links to be included in articles with Times editor Deirdre Hipwell. This was countered by many PR people who supported Hipwell’s view that no journalist should feel under any obligation to include a link.

Rudeness is unnecesary  

The differences in opinion between SEOs and PROs is summed up by Andy Barr, head of PR agency 10 Yetis: “The grief that Hipwell received was bang out of order and I would cite the old adage I always live by of ‘don’t be a dick’. No one deserves the criticism and rage that she faced. For me, it is quite simple; PROs and SEOs need to learn how to work better together. Both industries are increasingly coming under the same budget, but very few of us in PR land can do a SEO’s job as well as they can and vice versa. The only caveat to all of this is that it is not really new news. The SEO-versus-PR debate has been rumbling on for an age and threatens to become the next AVE-gate-esque industry topic of choice.”

Mutual admiration  

For the relationship between SEOs and PROs to improve, it is important that each respects the others’ areas of expertise says Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe: “Link building strategies are still an important part of SEO and there are some fantastic examples of SEO work that rival PR for creativity and content. However, if SEO professionals want to drive links back from what PR people would call ‘tier one’ media then they need to better understand that relationship building, as well as having great content, is key to success.

“I have always said that in an ideal world you would create blended teams of PROs and SEOs for ‘digital outreach’ campaigns because together they offer a fantastic mix of data literacy and creativity, but unfortunately this isn’t always possible. These clashes will become more frequent as brands invest more in SEO and outreach (alongside technical SEO) becomes more important. The issue is that brands themselves (in the most part) are not co-ordinating their SEO and PR programmes, which although may have different aims, are playing within the same channels.”

SEO demands

Not all SEOs take a dim view of journalists who eschew links. Victoria Carlisle, content and outreach consultant at digital marketing agency Builtvisible, says: “Working with journalists is part and parcel of our jobs as SEOs to achieve our aim of gaining coverage and links for our clients. I think the key word here is ‘with’, journalists have very different aims to SEOs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to make both our aims achievable.

“I don’t think journalists have an obligation to link – putting in a link to a product page into an otherwise impartial article would give the impression to readers that this was a commercial piece. It makes sense that journalists want to avoid this confusion. When SEOs understand this reasoning, it makes for a much more collaborative relationship where SEOs understand what type of content will earn them a link. In particular if we’ve provided the insight or the research they are looking for then it makes far more sense for them to offer a link back in return for the original data.”

Relationships with journos  

Another SEO expert who respects journalists is Dan Hart, CEO of digital agency Melt Content: “We followed the debate sparked by Hipwell’s tweet with interest. Bottom line: if you want a link, you have to be upfront and ask for it before publication.

“The relationship between journalists and PROs can be a valuable one on both sides, but it can be complex – and the same applies to SEOs. For a variety of reasons, you won’t get a link every time, and it’s important to be gracious when you don’t. And asking for a link in an article that’s already published is not something we’d encourage (unless you have an established relationship with the journalist).

“The best thing to do is emphasise early on, before publication, that you’re after a link. If the journalist doesn’t include one, hassling them is unlikely to get you very far. Acquiring natural links isn’t easy and you should have a contingency plan anyway.”

Below senior PROs suggest other ways to make links more appealing to journalists, although they also highlight that links are not the be-all and end-all..

How to get links included

You must earn links says Gareth Thomas, co-founder of PR agency Capella: “Journalists are not there to link to our clients whenever we ask. Why would a publisher, who is in the business of keeping people on its site, do this? It is our job to earn the right for our clients to be included in a story. The fact that we have to work hard to earn coverage is what makes media coverage valuable (it’s credible and trusted) and of value (it takes skill to understand what a journalist might find genuinely noteworthy). If we also offer something on our site that is interesting enough to also earn a link then that’s a bonus. But you don’t go asking for bonuses, they are earned on merit.”

Respect the editorial says Alex Judd, GCore business director at comms firm Grayling: “If your content is so engaging or useful that the reader must see it for themselves, then the reward is justified. Expecting a link because of a mere mention of your brand is, frankly, baseless. Journalists are trained in editorial integrity, they don’t need to be told.

“However, this is ignored for two reasons:

  1. Automation: Many SEOs use tools that track online brand mentions, highlighting those that don’t feature links and sending templated emails to the writer, requesting a link. This disrespects the writer, and damages the media relations industry.
  1. Link obsession: Yes, links are important, but they’re not the only way to influence search results. Media citations are valuable in their own right, and brand search volume (the number of people searching specifically for a brand) is fast becoming a vital ranking factor. Our industry needs educating, and the link obsession from PROs needs to stop.

“I predict links will become less effective at delivering search rankings over the next two years. The more people try to ‘game’ this ranking signal, the more Google will respond by focusing on more natural signals instead.”

Always put the audience first says Sarah Evans, head of digital at PR agency Bottle: “In my journalist-SEO-PR utopia, we all recognise that we’re on the same team. We should all be audience-first (guess what, so is Google). The problem stems from the assumption that links are the most important thing. I hope the future of SEO evolves past links – and quickly – as single-mindedly chasing them is so distracting and frustrating for everyone involved. Content suffers, relationships strain and the audience can be forgotten.  

“Journalists are the gatekeepers: they make us PR and SEO people more creative and discerning when it comes to storytelling and content, so that we don’t end up creating crappy infographics for the sole purpose of getting a link… but creating value for the reader that’s so compelling for their readers, they can’t not link. These links – the right ones – are better quality. They’re relevant and they’re more likely to get clicked on – they’re actually the type of links that are increasingly valuable and are more likely to influence your search rankings and make difference in an SEO strategy. And we should thank journalists for that. It’s imperative that our understanding and articulation of the value of a piece of coverage is so much more sophisticated than, “Was there a link in it, or not?”

Make a link irresistible says Andy Murphy, head of digital at agency Performance Communications: “My opinion is that it doesn’t harm the editorial to include a link, however I believe we should make that choice easier for journalists. PR campaigns shouldn’t be limited to a press release and a video. We should be creating supplemental content that adds colour to the story – That journalists want to link through to.”

Being aggressive is never a good way to approach getting your own way. SEOs need journalists just as much as PROs do, so treating journalists with respect is obviously the right approach. And I am not just saying that as a journalist… and by the way, all links are included because everyone asked so nicely!

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