June 6, 2016

Why PR Is The Most Important Organic Search Skill You Can Have

Luke Budka, director at TopLine Comms, explains how improving your PR can improve your SEO

What do the following have in common?

Comment boxes
Guest blogs
Link wheels
Paid newswires
Reciprocal links
Online advertorial

If you’ve been involved in the SEO industry for a while, or you just have an active interest, then you’ll probably recognise them as ‘black hat’ link building tactics. Techniques SEO professionals used to use to help optimise websites for particular keywords. Why? In short because they worked. Links help companies rank highly for valuable keywords that generate revenue.

Unsurprisingly as Google (and other search engines) developed, they worked on ways to not only ignore these tactics but actively punish websites using them.

When it no longer works

However, in any situation where something that worked no longer does, there is typically confusion about what to do, and not to do, going forward.

At a fundamental level Google uses a link from website A to website B to assess the value of website B. If there are lots of links, from authoritative sites, pointing at website B then Google will assume it’s a high quality site and ensure it appears when users search for keywords it’s associated with.

It’s a little more complicated than that (website B also has to be a good website, optimised for users and search engines alike e.g. it should be fast, responsive, contain great content, be logically siloed – the list goes on – there are over 200 ranking factors) but when it comes to offsite signals indicating how important a website is, good links are up there. In fact, Andrey Lipattsev, a search quality senior strategist at Google, recently cited links as one of the top three ranking factors, along with content and RankBrain (the machine learning bit of the Google algorithm).

Links have always been important – that’s why so many popular black hat techniques revolved around creating them. But if Google now punishes sites that have spammy links pointing at them, how can organisations build great links instead?

To answer that question let me give you a little bit of background on the agency I work for, TopLine Comms. Back in 2008, when we started, we were a B2B PR outfit. Very good at getting our clients on message online and offline coverage. Great stories and good media relations were our day-to-day staples.

One day we were supping champagne from our new crystal glasses and thumbing through our initialled Moleskines when we realised a lot of the online coverage we were generating for our clients contained links to their websites. And the coverage was on really authoritative websites (any good vertical or national news website for example will naturally have great authority as it is itself the recipient of lots of links, it regularly publishes new unique content, and it’s very user friendly by nature). “By George,” our CEO exclaimed. “If we already know how to generate amazingly powerful links to our clients’ sites, all we’d need to do is work out the onsite, technical side of SEO, and we’d be able to offer a valuable search service that’d turn those dastardly black hat fellows green with envy.” That’s pretty much exactly how that conversation went. And thus we turned our PR agency into an integrated one, and it was good.

The point to that protracted explanation of our metamorphosis, is PR is now arguably the most valuable SEO skill. Yes you need to know how to properly set up your canonicalisation and hreflang tags, optimise your meta data and ensure your JavaScript and CSS isn’t being blocked from bots, but once that’s all done, and you’re boasting great, user friendly informative content, then it comes down to links, and the best links come from great PR.

Here’s an example.

We worked on a PR campaign for an e safety client (Impero Software – remember the name, it’ll be important when you Google ‘e safety software’ in a minute…) late last year. One of the things we were helping them with was the launch of their new anti-radicalisation keyword dictionary. Here’s some example coverage on the BBC from the campaign.

Over 18 months of work we generated 45 followed links (including ones from the best websites it’s possible to get links from e.g. semantically relevant sites and national newspaper sites) with an average domain authority (an industry metric for measuring quality of link) of 42. For those of you unfamiliar with these metrics, this is a great average. But the point I’m trying to make is, we weren’t briefed to create links – all of these were generated as a by-product of PR.

“But what difference do they actually make?” I hear you cry. In response, pretend you’re a head teacher looking to protect your pupils with leading e safety software – the coverage we generated on the issue has made you aware of the predicament young people are facing, so you go online and search ‘e safety software’ to find a provider. Top search result? Our client. The business result? Increased customers, revenue and profit.

Assessing the value of PR coverage has always been difficult. Yes you can look at share of voice metrics versus competitors, key message pull through into tier one media targets, or even overall business performance before and after a campaign – all valid measurements. But for the first time PRs can rightfully claim their place at the digital marketing table, and be proud of the discipline’s impact on organic search results. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see traffic to a site jump after links are secured; you can see keyword rankings blossom; and ultimately you can see inbound enquiries increase. Want to do better SEO? Do better PR and you’ll go a long way to achieving this.