A long time ago, Google was the first search engine to truly recognize the value of links. A backlink was essentially one site suggesting another is worth visiting.
It would prove to be an input for a better way of helping people find information on the web. The more links back – backlinks – a website earned, the more fitting that site might be to provide in response to organic, or natural, search queries.
Today, Google is the most dominant search engine. It commands about 90% of the market share. Since most websites get the vast majority of website traffic from organic searches, Google has an outsized role in how much visibility any brand gets on the web.
Certainly, a lot has changed in search and backlinks aren’t the only factor Google considers. There are a rumored 200 such attributes that factor into search. No one knows for sure because it’s a corporate secret. However, we do know through testing and experimentation, with a high degree of confidence, that backlinks are still a really important factor to organic search.
The types of backlinks that affect search can’t be purchased. These are earned, much in the same way media relations outreach earns coverage. Many times these two coincide.
So how do you earn links? You have to have to produce something worth linking to – usually that something is new or interesting.
This falls into the classic purview of public relations. For those in PR with a bit of digital savvy, backlinks are worth pursuing, collecting, counting, analyzing and incorporating an overall approach to public communications.The types of backlinks that affect search can’t be purchased. These are earned, much in the same way media relations outreach earns coverage.Click To Tweet
1) Backlinks boost visibility
A backlink provides visibility always, but there’s something even more special when the link includes anchor text. Anchor text is simply the words where a link is embedded. Where those links are branded, as opposed to a keyword, the link inherently brings higher visibility.
Here are a few examples:
- Branded anchor text for this site: Sword and the Script Media;
- Keyword anchor text for this site: public relations; and
- Non-key word anchor text: Sword and the Script Media writes about public relations.
Key rich anchor text used to matter more, and some might argue it still does. However, Google is better today at understanding the context of the words around a link so that it probably doesn’t matter anymore.
To place this in perspective, if I had to choose between a mention without a link and a non-key word anchor text link in a news article, I would choose the latter, because of the value over time is far greater.
2) Backlinks are third-party validation
Media coverage brings an element of third-party credibility that other forms of marketing cannot. As the old adage goes, nothing you say about yourself is as powerful as someone saying it on your behalf. A backlink is (usually) like someone else complimenting your site.
Not all backlinks are created equal. A backlink from a news site is usually more valuable than a backlink from a website created yesterday. This doesn’t mean that newer sites don’t matter. A well-rounded crop of links earned from related sites of all ranks creates a better profile.
So how can you tell the difference? I like to use domain authority, which was invented by an SEO software company called Moz. Domain authority (DA) is a number on a scale of 1-100 that represents Moz’s best estimate of how well a site will rank in Google search results. The higher the number the more credible the site.
Here are some publications and DA numbers at the time of this writing:
To be clear, DA isn’t definitive, and it does have plenty of critics. For example, I’d argue this site deserves a higher ranking: It’s been publishing original content, including primary research, for a decade and has built an audience of regular visitors and subscribers.
On the other hand, if you’re familiar with DA, you’ll realize 45 is a respectable score. The marketing and PR space is highly competitive. So, all things considered, DA is a pretty good measure of quality, in my experience.
Moz will let you use some of its services for free with registration: Link Explorer is a useful tool and the MozBar is a browser extension with some of these capabilities.
It’s also worth checking out Ahrefs, which is a tool that competes with Moz (product review for PR pros here). Ahrefs also produces “a number” like DA but the calculus is different and largely based on what the company calls a “backlink profile.”
Both tools are solid choices but there’s an edge in PR, it goes to Moz. This is because some of the PR tech vendors that provide media monitoring products are integrating DA through a Moz API and using it as an indication of quality.
3) Backlinks send referral traffic
There’s a direct benefit to backlinks: referral traffic. A backlink isn’t just a signal for search rankings, it’s also a call to action.
Visitors traveling to your site through a referral link is a measurable behavioral change and an outcome. In some ways, a backlink is like an annuity payment because you can earn referral traffic for many years after a link is initially published.
In my experience, visitors that click through a referral link tend to stay on the referred site longer. In other words, the time-on-page increases because they spend more time reading and viewing your site. This makes sense because if some clicks through, they are explicitly expressing interest.
On the flip side, I’ve found fewer and fewer people actually click through. Even tippy-top tier media mentions don’t bring hoards of visitors. Still, I think it’s better that way, as you get real interest rather than window shoppers: qualify hard, close easy.
Those teams with good marketing or sales operations function will be able to understand where those visitors go afterward:
- Do they become repeat visitors?
- Do they subscribe?
- Do they download an asset, like a white paper?
- Register for a demo?
If this sounds like an exit for the other site, that’s not quite the way to look at it. There are many good reasons to include outbound links:
- Backlinks serve as a reference that is important for credibility and transparency;
- Backlinks add value for readers (or viewers) that want to learn more; and
- Backlinks attract visitors: people follow sites that filter and curate news and content that meets our informational (or entertainment) needs.
There is also evidence to suggest Google likes sites that link to other sites. After all, that’s how it got started.
4) Backlinks influence long term search results
Research suggests it takes about 10 weeks for a backlink to start affecting search results. This means the search benefit takes a while to feel – but it also has staying power and residual value.
First, organic search traffic that visits your site tends to be targeted. People search for answers and search engines try to suggest links that will be useful. That happens in a moment of need.
Second, organic search is like compound interest in a bank account. The more money you have in the bank, the more interest you earn, which in turn compounds annually. Generally, the more backlinks you earn, the more organic search traffic you’ll see too. A backlink continues to work for you whether you are thinking about it or not.
Finally, while PR measurement can be challenging, it clearly contributes to organic search can be quantified. For example, comparing organic search to paid traffic sources provides a fairly straight forward benchmark on a per click basis.
As with all thing search, there’s nuance and imperfection involved, but it’s still a good indication.
5) Backlinks build relationships
A backlink is like a virtual way of saying hello. What should you do when someone says hello? You say hello back!
If the site allows for comments, then leave one and say something thoughtful! This is spokesperson territory and you need someone with the right combination of wit, diplomacy and judgment.
If you need five layers of executive approval and hallway pass to do this…it’s never going to work. But the brands that hire people they trust and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs, have a competitive advantage.
If that site has a social media presence, share the content where you earned the link and tag the brand. If you can do both of these, you should – and then send a personal email to the author to say “thanks” and let them know you’ve commented and shared it on social media.
In just a few simple actions, you take an “engagement” and transform it into communication. It becomes a conversation, which is a prerequisite to building relationships.
If you are a brand and you do this you’ll stand out, because few brands do it and only a percentage of those do it well. It’s a tactical advantage that doesn’t require extra budget.
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If you aren’t looking at backlinks as a PR professional, you are missing an opportunity to demonstrate the overall value you deliver to the business. It’s as easy as adding a column to your tracking spreadsheet with a header “backlink.” More importantly, understanding how backlinks work and impact search will help drive both strategic and tactical improvements to your PR efforts.
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