Earning Links in Online Editorial

I recently fell back down the rabbit hole of a 2018 tweet from a journalist at a leading national newspaper, who found it ‘intensely annoying’ that PRs would ask her to include a link in her articles. What followed was a tsunami of hundreds of tweets from experts across the industry all trying to get their point across. If you haven’t seen this thread before then it is well worth a look. Get yourself a tea (or some popcorn) and settle in.

Traditional vs digital

More traditional PRs replying to the journalist declared it ‘shameful’ to ask for a link and agreed that a ‘brand mention should be plenty’. SEO experts appeared appalled by the lack of SEO understanding among so many leading media publications, but did their best to explain why they were being asked in the first place.

Many digitally-focused PRs – the berated link-requestees themselves – said they ‘weren’t trying to annoy anyone’, were ‘just doing their job’, and that they understood that links had to be ‘earned with good content’.

Both PR practices and journalism have moved on somewhat since 2018. Hopefully, if the same tweet were to go out today there would be less intense division between the ranks. I suspect, however, another heated debate on the topic would ensue.

SEO and the media landscape

More and more leading news websites are bringing in dedicated SEO Writers. And many are evidencing a greater understanding of SEO practices by intentionally creating content they want to rank for high search volume terms/topics. However, there is still a very large number of talented and experienced journalists who see links, and requests for links, as enormously irksome.

As it stands, the formula for earning links within online editorial involves:

  • A combination of a good news story/contribution (nothing new there)
  • Relevant and useful onsite content (helps to earn the link but doesn’t guarantee it)
  • Patience
  • Solid relationships with the media (again, nothing new)
  • And – to be entirely honest – a bit of luck

For as long as I’ve been in the camp of the digitally focused PRs (I was in the traditional PR camp for the first half of my comms career, so I see both sides), I’ve wanted to do a comprehensive research piece with the media from the top 500 (ish) editorial websites. This piece would be to try solve the link builder’s enigma of ‘what the heck will make the press include a link, every time’. Ambitious, I know.

I want to find out something more concrete…

  • What their understanding of links are
  • If they’ve been told there is a no-linking policy at their news site, and any explanation for why this is the case
  • If they are personally happy to include a link, and any limitations on this
  • What they believe is link-worthy content and so on…

However, after a recent, albeit brief ‘test’ exercise with a few more friendly media contacts, it seems that even among the editorial team of one news site, you get very differing opinions and even varying linking policies. Trying to run this research more broadly would be fascinating (it’s still on my to-do list), but I suspect the main outcome would be that, when it comes to links, levels of understanding around why they’re useful to the reader remains massively varied.

Education is key

Reading between the lines, it seems there simply isn’t the time for publishers or editors to set or amend link policies and educate all of their hard-working journalists on the latest algorithms. The news won’t wait. Of course, while lack of resource and time is, in my opinion, a key reason for this, some media publications do remain staunchly averse to learning more even if, or when, the opportunity arises. Forgive me… the journo-saurs.

SEO experts looking to drive fresh links should not assume that just because they are up-to-speed with the latest Google update or statement on links, that the media is too. We’re fortunate that our SEO team is very savvy in this area, but it’s a battle I’ve come up against many times before.

On an associated topic, promising any link within any piece of earned, online editorial is akin to promising it’ll be sunny tomorrow. Sure, we’ve done our homework and the forecast looks hopeful, but at the end of the day, we don’t control the weather. PRs, however experienced and well connected, do not control the news landscape, a publication’s linking policy (including if a link is followed or no followed) or the mood of the journalist or editor on a given day. I have been told previously that a particular media contact wouldn’t add in a link because they were ‘tired today’. I did consider biking-over a strong coffee.

When it comes to earned links, I’m a big believer that if you take the time to learn and to do good work then you should be optimistic, but never over-promise. Expectations should be managed.

Providing the best story

As always, it is the role of the PR to ensure we’ve got the best possible story or contribution to earn editorial placement to begin with. Afterall, you need the coverage to get the link. We should not undervalue coverage earned and must continue to build relationships with journalists, by being helpful and reliable. Google has said that it considers brand citations to be ‘implied links’ and while the added value is lesser in terms of influencing rankings, there is still value that supports both brand and SEO goals. Again, we’re fortunate to have an SEO team that reinforces this message.

We also have a role in helping to educate and explain to some media where appropriate. We can’t turn people’s opinions around every time. As I said, some remain staunchly averse to learning more about links and SEO. I also tread carefully in general, as I don’t wish to ruin our chances of earning future coverage. However, contributing to digital debates on the topic in a polite and helpful manner should, in my opinion, be encouraged.

Perhaps in another two years we’ll see further progression in this area, with effort from all camps to better understand the reasons, the benefits and the challenges. As SEO and link knowledge cultivates within the media, and an understanding of the media landscape advances among SEOers, we may even be in a position to tackle the topic of no-follow links. One step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

If you want to work with Cheryl and find out more about our Digital PR team, get in touch today.

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