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The role of traditional public relations in SEO
Modern link building relies on a traditional public relations approach. Columnist Jeremy Knauff and PR expert Cheryl Snapp Conner share insight on how to achieve success in this critical area.
If you’re doing search engine optimization (SEO) properly today, then a significant portion of your effort will overlap with traditional public relations (PR).
This is because over the last few years, Google has minimized the effects of easily gameable ranking signals and refined their algorithm to better represent user experience. In other words, websites that satisfy their users tend to rank better than those that do not.
Inbound links are still a critical component of any SEO campaign, but the easy link-building tactics of the past have been wiped off the board, largely thanks to Google’s Penguin update(s). This includes buying links, guest blogging at scale, embedding links in plugins or themes and more.
The only type remaining as valuable and effective over the long term are the proverbial Holy Grail of link building: natural editorial links from high-traffic, authoritative websites.
And therein lies the challenge: How do we earn these coveted editorial links? Well, it’s a two-part equation.
The first part is to produce amazing content. I know, that dead horse has been beaten to a mushy puddle of goo at this point, but the fact remains that without amazing content, no one will link to your website.
The second part is where traditional public relations comes into play, because all of that amazing content is useless if no one knows about it. And despite Google’s frequent claims, no, your content won’t just magically earn links by virtue of existing and being amazing.
Effective link building requires outreach, and that requires you to truly understand what motivates people — contributors and/or editors in this case. You have to introduce yourself, frame your pitch and demonstrate how you’ll make their job easier all in a couple of hundred words.
That’s no easy task, which is why most people do it so poorly. But once you master that skill, it produces tremendous leverage for your link-building efforts. When you’re featured in a major publication like Forbes, Entrepreneur or Fast Company, you tend to get noticed by contributors at other major publications, which makes it a lot easier to pitch them to be featured in the publications they work for as well.
Increased exposure typically equals other publications wanting to cover you, too, resulting in even more exposure and links. It’s a powerful cycle.
This works on the concept of social proof, which basically means that people see you as trustworthy and authoritative because they perceive others they already trust as seeing you that way.
The evolution of search algorithms has resulted in link building and public relations becoming incredibly similar today. In the past, link building was simply about building links. It didn’t matter if they came from obscure little blogs with zero traffic or from media powerhouses with millions of visitors.
Obviously, links from authoritative websites have always been preferred, but the goal for most link builders has always been to simply acquire more links to move the needle in terms of organic ranking. Google’s algorithm updates over the last few years — especially in regard to Penguin,
RankBrain and their growing use of artificial intelligence — have helped them move away from ranking websites based primarily on the volume of links, and instead base rankings on quality, user intent and user experience.
This is where public relations comes in, because it focuses on getting real humans who work at legitimate, authoritative publications genuinely interested in and talking about your story. It’s about truly adding value, which in turn tends to generate inbound links, as opposed to simply producing garbage links on websites that no one visits.
Part of the beauty of this strategy is that since your links are based on relationships, it will be more difficult for competitors to replicate them, giving you a more dominant position in your market.
If you think it sounds like a lot of work, you’re right! But it’s also well worth the time and effort.
Making PR work for you
So now the million-dollar question: How do we get people talking about us?
The first thing you need to do is find a newsworthy angle to your story. In order to do this, you’ll need to look at it from an outsider’s perspective, because frankly, no one cares about you yet.
Contributors are typically juggling dozens of deadlines while engaging with their audience on social media and keeping up with the content in their industry — so your self-serving pitch will get moved to the trash folder with the dozens of others they receive every day.
You may claim that you’re “the premier real estate agent in Tampa Bay,” but how is that newsworthy? (And what does it even mean, anyway?)
A few examples that might be newsworthy for a real estate agent could include:
- If a contributor recently wrote a story about falling home prices in the area, you could pitch them on interviewing you about inexpensive home improvement projects that have the biggest impact on how much a home sells for.
- If you’re a veteran of the US military and a real estate agent who specializes in working with fellow veterans (riches are in the niches, right?), then you could pitch a story about what veterans should expect when purchasing their first home as a civilian. (This transition is something that only a veteran can truly understand.)
- If your area has experienced an influx of millennials looking for housing, you could pitch a story about how to engage with them, since many older Americans seem to find that difficult and frustrating.
Cheryl Snapp Conner, CEO of SnappConner PR breaks it down:
“In all you do, add meaningful value. The writer’s only constituents are their readership (and by extension, the editors or producers they write for) — so knowing this, offer the information and angles that you believe will meet agenda for them. It’s that simple. Yes, you (or your client) will be cited and linked as the source of this information. But even better than getting the link, the link will be associated with high value add in an area that speaks to the value proposition of your product, your service or your area of expertise. This, in a nutshell, is the best of PR combined with the best of SEO. Furthermore, your willingness to add meaningful value and to follow through on commitments to the reporter will instill a trusted working relationship with that individual for the future as well.”
Conner speaks from a wealth of experience. In addition to being the CEO of a respected PR firm, she’s also a contributor to several high-profile publications, which gives her ample experience in both sending and receiving pitches.
Depending on the circumstances of your story, you may need to pitch a contributor cold. This will usually be the most difficult and least likely way to get you the coverage you’re looking for compared to the results you’ll achieve after you have an established relationship. That’s why I recommend being proactive and engaging with them long before you need anything.
You do that by first compiling a list of contributors in your niche who produce content that is valuable to your target market. Next, follow their work. When they share something that you find particularly valuable or useful, share it with your audience; when possible, link to their work from your own articles.
Over time, you’ll get to a point where they will welcome your pitches — so long as they provide value to their audience. It’s important to remember to treat them like humans, not objectives, because they will see right through that, and it will hurt both your personal and company brand. If you can’t do that, be a decent person and don’t waste their time.
In fact, Conner notes, if you are in a conversation with an editor and realize you do not have a fitting proposition for their need, you should ask two questions:
- Is there someone else you can suggest that I talk to?
- How can I help you right now?
Be generous with connections and support, even (and perhaps especially) in the cases where you have no direct benefit or vested interest. Your willingness to support even when it doesn’t advance your personal agenda will go far in reinforcing the working relationship over time.
Whether you’re pitching cold or warm, you’ll follow the same basic structure.
A short introduction followed by a value proposition — why will your story matter to their audience? Follow that with a little bit of relevant information for the story, and if you want to put some icing on the cake, mention that you’re happy to share the data you’ve already compiled on the topic to save them some time and work.
You should also include your phone number because they might prefer to simply call you rather than go back and forth over email.
But it’s not over once they publish your story, because you’re not like all the other self-absorbed marketers out there, right? So your next step is to share it on social media, link to it from relevant websites that you manage, include it in your social media share rotation going forward, and then continue engaging with that contributor and sharing their other content whenever it seems useful for your audience.
Link building today is a lot more like traditional public relations in that it is all about quality — in terms of publications, people and exposure, rather than just the volume of links. Approach it with that mindset, put in the necessary work that most others won’t, and you’ll enjoy the results that they can only dream about.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.