Back to the SERPs: The (d)Evolution of Digital PR

Back to the SERPs: The (d)Evolution of Digital PR

27th February 2020

Digital PR has grown in recent years from ‘nice idea’ to ‘buzz word’ to fully fledged, integral element of any SEO campaign.

While Google’s ability to understand content across the web has improved, its inherent desire to surface the best of that content is still driven, primarily, by links. The more links to the site, and the better quality the links, the greater the propensity to rank higher in the search results. It’s a simple idea and one which has transcended many years of SEO development.

Links remain as important as ever, but the methods of gaining links have changed. The ideal is that websites earn links. That means gaining new links through being an all round great company, selling great products and providing great service for its customers.

The reality is, though, that (whether you like it or not), many webmasters now recognise the value of the links they point at other sites and as such, more and more frequently, we’re finding webmasters unwilling to include such links in their content – even when the link represents a legitimate ‘vote’ for the target site.

That’s where digital PR has really started to come into its own (and, unfortunately, where many in the professional have actually started to suffer the consequences of a more challenging landscape whereby the earning of links is perceived to be more difficult than ever). When done well, digital PR has the potential to earn new links by helping companies to invest in high quality content that is worthy of coverage.

And this is where we as digital PRs (and those investing in it) have the potential to claim our discipline as one which can achieve results that more traditional SEO link acquisition (you know the stuff – unlinked mentions, broken links, citations etc can only go so far) struggles with.

Revisiting the birthplace of digital PR

The digital PR industry has grown a lot in recent years and has increased in visibility across social media, at conferences and, most importantly, in the marketing budgets of marketers across businesses of all shapes and sizes.

Today’s digital PR campaigns are exciting, usually capitalise on broader benefits than just links and can even call on more traditional PR tactics, like product stunts, dream job style campaigns and even events.

Indeed, you could argue that digital PR has progressed beyond its simple birthplace of link acquisition. Which is great! It recognises the specialist skills of PR professionals working in this industry and that’s important.

But it could also be argued that digital PR has progressed too far beyond its birthplace. Meaning that digital PR, as an industry, has, in some cases, forgotten its roots. We’ve forgotten to tie it into SEO, which means we’re failing to capitalise on the most valuable aspect of digital PR – measurable gains.

Measurable gains in digital PR

“Measurable gains” is a term we’ve been using to express the difference between traditional PR and digital PR. As we meet with an increasing number of businesses starting to choose between traditional and digital – with the latter often coming out of the budget of the former, rather than from SEO budget – it’s become important to articulate why a business should invest in digital PR either instead or as well as traditional.

It’s also a term that meets the needs of our discipline well, as one which is still evolving within the digital marketing sphere. By defining the benefits of digital PR by the measurable gains it can bring, we become much more comparable to lower-funnel activities like SEO and paid media like PPC.

But what does it mean?

One answer to consider to that question is that “it depends”. It depends on the team/agency that’s carrying out the digital PR work. It depends on the client/business investing in digital PR and what they want to achieve. Because digital PR is still an evolving discipline, there is potential for those working in the industry to shape the answer to what ‘measurable gains’ means for them.

Another, more specific answer, can be provided by calling on the experience of myself and the team in which I work. Most often, we recognise measurable gains in terms of owned goals and shared goals.

In owned goals, we measure against our ability to deliver results in line with the things we as digital PRs can directly control, most notably the number of links, quality of links and placement of links.

In shared goals, we share in the broader aspirations of the business for whom we provide the digital PR work. For example, KPIs such as ranking positions, traffic and overall conversions are important to discuss and assess, while noting that links alone cannot achieve success across these factors.

We can go broader than that, too. Let’s say we’re investing in a larger scale campaign, maybe something with an interactive element or some kind of tool; this is where we explore the ‘broader benefits’ of what we’re doing. So measures such as traffic to the campaign page, size of remarketing audience built, conversion rate of remarketing audience and data capture such as email or social follow can be valuable contributions made to the wider marketing goals by a digital PR effort.

How does this all relate back to SEO?

The bond between digital PR and SEO is one that should not be lost, especially if we are to capitalise on this idea of ‘measurable gains’.

What is important to remember, then, is that the impact links have is dependent on a wide variety of factors, from the complexity of the target site and how link equity is passed, to the quality and relevance of the linking site (especially since E-A-T) and more broadly in the SERPs landscape overall.

One example of this in play can be found in Tom Capper’s research relating to the impact of links dependent on the ranking page of the site. In his experiment (which is arguably quite old in the world of SEO now, having been published in 2017), Capper found that links had the greatest impact on keyword rankings on page 2 and below. The idea, it seems, is that gaining links is only enough to get you a seat at the page 1 table, where factors like on page optimisation and user experience take priority.

Using this specific example, it would be remiss of us as digital PRs not to work closely with SEO teams to understand the ranking potential of various keywords and to tie our campaign ideation and goals in with that insight.

The key takeaway here is that digital PR, in my opinion, must strive for measurable gains in order to differentiate from traditional PR and to prove value to SEO. But even there, our goals don’t have to be driven by SEO or even by traditional PR metrics like ‘brand awareness’; by reinvesting in our own exploration of our discipline, we have the opportunity to identify new points of value. Let’s reduce the celebration of tabloid press coverage and increase the celebration of real, tangible business impact.


Written By
Laura is the Head of Digital PR at multi-award winning digital agency Impression. Alongside a team of more than 50 digital professionals, Laura provides marketing services including SEO, paid media, PR, content marketing and analytics. In her spare time, she is an international skydiving competitor.
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