The Role of Digital PR in SEO

Did you know that every single page that ranks in the top 10 of Google’s search results for ‘ranking factors in seo’ mention links? This is because links have long been known as one of the most recognised and powerful signals in how search engines rank their results.

However, how people and search engines view backlinks has changed dramatically over the years and that’s where this gets more interesting.

Eight of those ten pages all mention ‘authority’ as a key part of the algorithm, and seven mention ‘relevance’. Historically, this wasn’t the case. A domain’s ability to rank is no longer mostly dictated by the quantity of links it has, at least, that’s a dramatically smaller portion of the algorithm than it used to be (if at all). This has been the case for some time, but traditional ‘link building’ practises and tactics were historically more concerned with driving link volumes rather than authority and relevance. This is the key distinction between ‘link building’ and ‘digital PR’.

Digital PR is about gaining coverage in highly authoritative and relevant media. It’s also the reason it plays a key role in improving a website’s SEO performance because the output of digital PR is exactly what search engines are (now) looking for as part of their algorithms.

Old school link building tactics (some of which still hold a lot of merit) are and were more concerned with the number of links. The authority and relevancy of those links were of less importance. Digital PR is a by-product of this, separating itself from ‘link building’ because it focuses on those key factors: authority and relevance.

Evaluating Digital PR Links

To gain a sense of how different types of links have value and impact your ability to rank higher in search engines organic results, let’s compare the output of both ‘link building’ and ‘digital pr’.

Here’s an image I’m stealing from myself (I’ve upgraded it) that helps explain the flow of link equity and how each step in the chain should be evaluated:

Links are only one of the benefits digital PR can have for a website but because search engines still put a lot of algorithmic weight in links as a ranking signal, it’s the one that gets the most attention as an outcome of digital PR campaigns and activities.

Digital PR is the process of creating or using the news to gain coverage. Links are a by-product from there. However, the impact it has on SEO needs to be evaluated through the lens of ranking signals and how search engines decipher value from them.

To have the biggest impact on a website’s ability to drive more organic traffic and revenue (a result of improved keyword ranking performance) the factors above should be considered and this is what digital PR is so good at helping achieve.

Linking Root Domain

A Linking Root Domain (LRD) is the domain an external link is coming from. For example, say a writer for Forbes publishes an article and links to my campaign. Their article URL is likely along the lines of forbes.com/sites/author/date/name-of-article. Here, Forbes.com is the Linking Root Domain and the full URL is the referring page (discussed below).

Google (and other search engines) will already have an understanding of what Forbes.com is. They’ll know the topical relevance (business related mostly), which they’ve measured through crawling the types of articles Forbes publish and their own external factors, such as who links to them and the topical relevance there, and so on.

Search engines can then use this knowledge of Forbes.com and evaluate how topically relevant it is to my domain and the target audience we serve. If our core focus is based on a B2B service, they’ll see a large cross-over between the two audiences and, therefore, we’ll gain more of the benefit a highly authoritative domain like Forbes.com has to offer.

Referring Page

The referring page is the page where the link back to your site appears. This can also have a large influence on the amount of equity you’ll gain from the link and ultimately the impact it’ll have on your rankings.

Let’s say you sell iPhone cases on your website. Obviously it’s big business and you’ll want some of the best possible links and brand mentions around in order to make you more competitive for organic traffic.

That’s why contextual relevance is so important and so is gaining coverage in publications with high editorial values. By offering something new and insightful about iPhones, your brand will be surrounded by numerous iPhone related content signals. Essentially, your research, brand, comments, etc. become a key part of the story and the link between what you do and what the referring page is all about is undeniable.

For example, if you had produced a piece of research or uncovered something about Apple’s UK pricing for the iPhone and then reached out to a writer at Gizmodo.com, you’d be the star of this article:

I absolutely doctored this article btw.

Here, you can see the connection between iPhones in the content is obvious. It’s on a highly valuable domain, by an author who writes regularly about Apple, iPhones and mobile phones (Google know this because of their crawlers), and ‘your iPhone cases selling website’ has a link right at the very top of the page. High-fives all around team – great job!

On the flip-side, let’s look at the value of a referring page when the story isn’t a Digital PR piece but instead goes through a more ‘old school link building’ tactic. Link pages.

The above is a ‘useful links’ page. The type that many websites had years ago when exchanging links (or selling them…shh) was the thing you did. Here, the contextual relevance is actually strong. It’s about phones, so ‘your iPhone cases’ website is certainly at home here.

However, we’re one link of many. The referring page has a ton of links on, presumably attempting to send users to all of these websites that the editors here thinks will be worth their time. If we somewhat naively look at the page through that lens, we then must consider that not all users will go to every site linked to here, and therefore the value to users dilutes – and so does the link equity.

I won’t dive into all the differences between the domains above, but it’s key to consider how your brand mentions and links appear on a page and the little signals that cumulatively add up to generate perceivable value to the end user.

Target URL

Lastly, the target URL is the page the link refers to from the external publication. For example, the page where you published your creative campaign or the homepage of the domain.

When it comes to the value of Digital PR here, it’s worth highlighting the differences between this and other forms of link building.

Historically and probably for many years to come, people will want links back to their product pages because they think more links to my product pages equals better rankings for it directly. However, a link back to a product page needs to make sense. This is what Digital PR does and ‘link building’ doesn’t.

So let’s look at two examples I’ve found.

Here is a guest post. Guest posts, IMVHO, can have a lot of value. We’ve written for Moz numerous times, for Buzzstream, for Majestic, etc. and I’ll continue to do so in a heartbeat. I even wrote about the impact those exact links had on my personal website (spoiler: my organic traffic went lift off).

However, not all guest posts are created equal. Here’s a screenshot of one I found offering users the opportunity to read about everything they’ll ever need to know about foosball, on…articlecity.com:

In this comprehensive post about the history and rules of foosball, the author also decided readers needed a link back to one of their product pages, which so happens to target ‘stand alone foosball table’. 

Obviously it’s a blatant attempt at building links but the problem is – it just makes no sense. It’s too niche a request for someone reading this article to want a link helping them find the ‘stand alone foosball table’ they’ve been searching for all along. Not here…in this article…on this website. This is where ‘link building’ has failed in the past (and why the Penguin algorithm existed) and unfortunately, still does today.

Now, instead, what if you were able to work with a journalist in order to have your product featured in an article they were working on, or even had published previously, ranking the best products in your industry:

This type of link to a product page actually makes sense. This page is about the ‘best artisan chocolates’ and a user is obviously looking for help sourcing some chocolates they want to buy. A link to those manufacturers or shops just feels right.

The role Digital PR plays here is in working with writers in these scenarios. Providing value (products, comments, content, etc.) at the moment they are looking for it. The target URL then makes sense and as a destination for this writer on this page to link to, and that is a powerful signal of value for search engines.

Digital PR is a Cycle

Done correctly, digital PR is a compounding cycle of value but it’s a long game. Every flow around the cycle i.e. the number of campaigns and earned media tactics you attempt, have the ability to strengthen performance at each step. This includes a more recognisable brand, increased traffic and more competitive content.

Brand

Digital PR campaigns have the ability to put a brand and domain in front of large groups of relevant users. Strong hooks and headlines created through ideation, research and outreach put the brand on some of the world’s most visited digital publications, which can be hugely valuable, not only for the brand and having its name out there but also for search engines. This creates the potential to have multiple points of exposure to interested users.

Content

Digital PR can have a long-term impact on your content in two ways. 

Firstly, as campaigns are run and the domain starts achieving placements in authoritative and relevant publications, your website itself is starting to be seen as an authority and one search engines start ranking higher up the organic search listings. This strengthens your historic and future content, by making it more likely to rank in traffic driving positions and at a faster rate.

Secondly, some campaigns are run by publishing content directly on a website and then outreaching from there with a sensible source for journalists to refer to. Often, this piece of content is of interest to people, like a deep dive into a topic or a list of statistics others haven’t published before. This is particularly valuable when the content is targeting queries that have higher search volumes. Not only is content then of value to journalists but it also fulfils a need and this information can become a leading source of organic traffic in itself.

Traffic

The impact digital PR work has on a website’s traffic is its greatest strength. By achieving external mentions and links, and by publishing content people are interested in, digital PR campaigns are designed to help increase traffic over the short and long-term.

With increased rankings as a result of the external success a campaign can have, organic listings will start to increase, driving more traffic to the site. This can happen quickly and drive up traffic for all pages across a website, or in more competitive spaces, a campaign can be designed to thematically target a group of pages on a website (i.e. a subfolder) and focus more strictly on relevance.

Campaigns and digital PR activity can also lead to increases in direct and referral traffic. If a digital PR were to work on getting a product placement in a list or brand mentioned in an industry round-up, users will search the brand or click on the link to find out more. The reference then very much acts as a ‘vote’ for your brand and a signal of trust – a signal buyers rely on (much like search engines) – which can lead to higher conversion rates as a result.

Used in this way, digital PR tactics can have a huge impact on your ability to improve your SEO performance. There are still many factors at play, which dictate just how impactful the work can be, but by understanding how the flow of equity works and the cycle it creates, your digital PR efforts can hone in on what off-page SEO work.