With a title like ‘What’s the price of a link?’ this is probably the article you’re burning to read, but don’t want to get caught reading!
In reality, unless you’re doing your own SEO with no budget for anything vaguely marketing related, there’s a cost to any link created, whether paid for or not. The cost of time and resources for starters.
But there are three hidden costs that are often overlooked: the costs of buying links (beyond the cash transaction); the costs of free press release distribution services; and the costs of untrained staff.
When Google recently sanctioned itself for the use of paid blogs the penalty was seen by many as light. Two months sanction for a browser that doesn’t necessarily get most of its custom from search (it comes preloaded/people look for it specifically rather than keying in the search term browser) didn’t seem particularly heavy. Add this to the relatively light sanctions imposed on companies like JC Penney and BMW in the past, and many feel it’s still a risk worth taking.
But is it?
Let’s take a look at a couple of travel companies. TUI’s turnover is £24,908 million, of which travel, hotels and cruises – things people book online – make up around three quarters. Thomas Cook’s turnover is£ 9,809 million. Carnival (Cruises like Cunard) turns over £3,585 million. Don’t hold me to these figures – I looked them up online, and financials can be stated in numerous ways – but they are enough to illustrate the millions of pounds of turnover each month that are at stake from ranking on the Internet.
I chose travel as it’s easy to see the link between Google search and income, but I’ve equally heard figures running into millions bandied about by financial services organisations as the difference between the number one and number two spot on Google.
Whilst I imagine that these holiday companies have professional enough teams to never consider buying links, it’s these millions of pounds at stake that make people take increasingly desperate measures to create the links to make the rankings.
But a two month loss in listings or removal from the Internet, particularly in key trading periods, will, equally, have a dramatic effect that will hit hard in companies’ pockets, erode consumer trust in a company and risk the reputation of the bought link perpetrator – you – and compromises the person taking the payment.
Earning links, of course, comes with a risk too. If you pay for a link, you know you’ll get it. If you’ve simply given someone a story in the high hope that they’ll include a link, there’s something more of a link gamble (although you’re still likely to get slightly less measurable traffic, brand loyalty and other benefits from a citation). It’s almost the age old PR v. advertising argument replayed for a new millennium.
Yet there are excellent ways to improve the likelihood of link inclusion without paying. Any company’s products are there because they solve someone’s problem or feed a desire. On this basis there’s usually always something interesting to say about them. It’s worth the work to find out where those stories will fit.
The last of the three hidden costs is the potential cost of free. In my last State of Search article I discussed press release distribution services. Since then the guide has been created and distributed, and contains one, notable, omission: there was nothing in it on the free services. Despite reaching out to many of them, none responded to requests for information. (In fairness they weren’t alone in this. Some of the media databases didn’t either.) Almost to a service, the free services were hard to contact.
The free services fell roughly into four camps.
Firstly, there are those that charge for adding things like links and logos and imagery (so not really free). These have a clear business model. Secondly there are some, like the US based PRLog (which ranks reasonably well), which allow advertising on any releases that are entered free. The third type trace back to SEO and marketing companies, and the fourth to anonymous holding companies. (PRLog also offers paid press release services.)
Whilst the advertising option has some obvious implications (a client’s competitor gets a nice prime slot on your carefully crafted press release) it’s three and four that potentially raise bigger concerns. You could be handing your clients details or your credit card details over to anyone. Perhaps you can trace them using some clever forensics, but are you really going to try and take some obscure faceless company in the Philippines to court for a refund? Worse still, how are you going to feel when money starts to vanish from your account in a few months’ time, unexpectedly. Or a client leaves you for another agency.
SEO and PR professionals alike have run ‘tests’ on free press release services. Whilst most of these tests have faulty methodologies – once something is up on a site and indexed, the way that the Google algorithm views everything that follows changes, be it for being the first piece up or for the freshest piece available; and the content is a determining factor in success – none of the services that have been measured in any of the press release tests that I’ve seen have experienced any pick up by third parties beyond simple replication on other free sites. Can anyone really stand up for these services as a great way of distributing a story?
For many press release services, the only value in these services is the value of the link on the site itself. Before you whip out your credit card or deliver your details to these services, stop and think what the real cost might be. At very least identify who’s behind the service you’re using.
It’s easy to point at staff in agencies who have no idea that their misplaced release could get a company de-listed on the stock exchange. The damage that this could do to client and agency alike is easily circumvented with a little training. But they’re not the target of this hidden cost. Quite the reverse. Untrained staff start to cost very quickly.
The bigger issue by far is the lack of understanding of SEO at C suite level. The senior staff within an organisation can inadvertently create a situation where all of the above hidden costs/problems become very real risks.
In some organisations, for example, the SEO focus is so tight that junior staff have annual bonuses based on the number of links back to a site. This is driven and agreed by the CFO. Faced with this, who can blame them for risking paying for links?
There have already been examples of SEO companies releasing information online before the official releases had been properly ‘disclosed’. (I won’t point the finger. PR companies often fail to train their personnel properly in this respect – I was five years into my PR career before anyone explained disclosure to me, despite having worked for two larger PR consultancies). The duty for ensuring that anyone responsible for communications understands the stock market implications lies firmly with the CFO/Financial Director. How many understand what SEO people do well enough to include them as ‘communicators’?
Of course it’s more usually the Marketing Director with responsibility for SEO companies and their activities. So unless there’s a degree of transparency between the two C’s and a cross exchange of information, the cost of not training could be huge.
Unfortunately for SEO teams, this level of visibility is unlikely any time soon. The training’s simply not regularly included in courses available for C suite members. Don’t shoot the messenger, but the onus for letting them know the risks falls firmly on your shoulders.