Get ready for the most caveat-ed article you’ve ever read, ever.
Picture the scene… you’re working away, head down, when *ping* a client email drops into your inbox. And unfortunately, they’ve posed a somewhat tricky question that you’re not 100% sure how to answer.
In those situations, it’s easy to hand off the conversation to someone else and get back to work, particularly as a PR when the question looks too “SEOey” – and there’s no shame in that.
But why not learn how to confidently answer these questions – thereby improving your knowledge, allowing you to serve your clients better, and helping your colleagues. Win-win.
I recently ran a training session for the Screaming Frog PR Team on this topic, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. So, this article aims to share that experience with the wider industry, and acts as a cheat-sheet for all those awkward questions clients ask about link-building.
You know the ones.
By the end, you’ll hopefully have a better understanding of how link-building impacts a website’s organic performance, and be able to take a measured and thought-out approach to these questions as and when they arise.
However, we all know what SEO and Digital PR Twitter can be like. So, please take this as our first caveat – you may not agree with everything written here, and that’s okay. I’ve aimed to give a balanced overview of the context behind each answer and touch on different perspectives, so you can make your own mind up about what feels right.
I also recommend Senior members of your company discuss these topics with Junior team members to provide more context on why it may make sense to respond one way or another in each situation. It’s worth reviewing each question on a case-by-case basis as what works for some clients may not be appropriate for others.
Now that’s out the way, onto a bit of background…
How Does Link-Building Fit Into SEO?
Google’s algorithm uses hundreds of different factors to determine the organic search rankings.
At least one of these factors is relevant to backlinks, also known as inbound links, inlinks, or external links from other websites. Many years ago, Google introduced PageRank as a ranking factor, which outlined the concept that value (PageRank or, more colloquially, “link juice”) transfers from page to page via links, and the more PageRank a page has, the better.
The patent for PageRank expired in 2018, but the concept is still alive and well today, deep within the algorithm; Google has since transitioned to using terminology like “link value” and relate the impact of backlinks to “trust” and “authority” instead.
The general idea is that a backlink counts as a “vote” or recommendation for the linked page, and this forms a sort of trickle-down system. The more votes of confidence your page has, the more highly regarded it will be by search engines, and therefore the more likely it is to rank better. Links to a page will also help to increase the overall authority of a domain.
The concept of backlinks inferring trust and therefore transferring value has led to many website owners attempting to play the system by building links in bulk, typically through “black-hat SEO methods” like buying links or setting up interlinking Private Blog Networks (PBNs).
However, it’s become clear over the years that Google’s algorithm does not look at the overall number of incoming links as a ranking factor, but instead focuses more on the quality of these backlinks. In particular, are they coming from relevant and/or authoritative websites?
In addition to this, spokespeople from Google have suggested that backlinks are now a less significant ranking factor than they were in the past due to machine learning becoming more sophisticated, and therefore better at independently identifying high quality webpages.
Link-building is just one component of SEO success. Ensuring that content is high-quality and accurately answers user intent, and that your website is technically sound, is still highly important when wanting to rank well in organic search.
And now the real reason you’re here: how to answer those pesky questions.
Is Unlinked Coverage Worthless or Does It Have Value?
Whilst in an ideal world every piece of coverage would include a backlink, it rarely works out like that. But that doesn’t mean your hard-earned work is worthless, because unlinked coverage is still beneficial for raising brand awareness. This is vital as it typically takes seeing/hearing your brand name around seven times for someone to remember you.
Brand mentions can also lead to an increase in branded search. This means someone may read an article that mentions your client, and subsequently navigate to your clients’ website by typing the brand name into their preferred search-engine.
It’s difficult to say with certainty that your outreach and coverage was the cause of increased brand searches unless the queries also include something relevant to your article, but there’s every possibility that coverage on a national publication could lead to a clear uptake in branded search.
In 2014, Google filed a patent that mentioned “implied links”, which were defined as “a reference to a target resource E.G. a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource” – this appears to be an over-complicated way of saying “brand mention”. Google is becoming increasingly good at “mapping” content together, so it’s entirely possible that these “implied links” help Google to connect a brand’s name with their website – and may even become more influential within the algorithm in the future.
With all this information, some people argue that unlinked coverage is of SEO value, but not in the same way as a genuine link.
If you’re working with a client who purely came to you for link-building, this isn’t an easy conversation to have. Whilst they might appreciate brand awareness, it isn’t what you’re being paid for; handle this with sensitivity by acknowledging their concerns and sharing alternative link-building strategies you could try going forwards to show you’re aligned with their needs.
What Are Followed Links and How Do You Identify Them?
By default, all backlinks are “followed”, meaning search engine crawlers use the link to travel to the linked page and potentially pass value to it, thereby making the link valuable from an SEO perspective.
However, publishers can assign attributes to links that may change this, as they give search engines instructions on how to interpret a link and what to do when their crawlers encounter it. The two you’re most likely to see are:
- rel=“nofollow” – Tells search engines not to count the value of the link within scoring (don’t pass value).
- rel=“sponsored” – Should be used to identify links created as part of advertising, sponsorships, etc. (anything paid for in some way) and passes no value. This helps to avoid brands with big marketing budgets dominating the search results.
If a link isn’t tagged with either of the above attributes, you can assume it is automatically “followed”. Google ignores rel=“follow” tags so these aren’t necessary, but some publishers still use them.
You can find out whether a link is followed by right-clicking on it and clicking “inspect” to view the page’s HTML code:
Alternatively, there’s a variety of extensions out there that can check link attributes automatically, or if you’re auditing links in bulk and a fan of our SEO Spider tool, check out our guide on how to audit backlinks using custom extraction and list mode.
Is There Value In “nofollow” Links?
There are conflicting viewpoints on this topic, mainly because Google have changed how they treat “nofollow”.
Historically, search engines created the “nofollow” tag to combat link spam and identify links that were paid for in some way, as well as so publishers could cite their sources without endorsing a particular website (E.G. linking to some statistics on a gambling website without endorsing the activity). For more information on how “nofollow” attributes should be used, check out Google’s latest guidance.
However, lots of websites started using this attribute for links that were not paid for, or identifying blanket “nofollow” tags to every external link. This is common on some media publications.
Speculatively, this probably happens for a variety of reasons. For example, some websites may be misguidedly trying to “hoard” link value in an effort to outrank their competitors. Alternatively, publishers may use blanket policies because it is a lower maintenance approach than checking individual links from a variety of contributors and monitoring how the linked domains change over time.
Due to the way nofollow is being used, Google now consider “nofollow” as a hint rather than a rule. This means that whilst a “nofollow” typically wouldn’t pass value, there may be times where Google does choose to consider the link as a “vote”, and follow it.
As with all backlinks, “nofollows” have the potential to drive immense value in terms of referral traffic. Users can click on these and land on your website, so getting links on websites relevant to your clients’ business and customers can result in increased web traffic, and potentially conversions, regardless of the link attribute.
It’s worth discussing as an agency how you want to report on the links you secure. From reporting on all links regardless of attribute, to making clients aware up front what proportion of your links are “nofollow”, or only reporting on followed links, there’s various different approaches you could take. Your approach may differ for individual clients, too.
What Are Syndicated Links and Do They Pass Value?
If coverage is syndicated, this means that all or part of it has been published across multiple other websites identically, sometimes even on the same IP address. If links are included in the original content, these links may also be syndicated onto other websites.
Google probably understands that content may appear on multiple sites for legitimate reasons. For example, a new product announcement will likely be very similar if not identical across several publications and platforms.
This content has not been created in order to manipulate the algorithm and get the same content ranked several times; it’s simply trying to get as many people to view the announcement as possible. At its core, this content has been created for users, not search engines – and that’s what’s important.
There is some debate as to how much value syndicated links really pass to the target page. In terms of referral traffic and brand awareness, the more links on relevant publications, the better.
However, syndicated links are likely to pass less value than an original piece of coverage does. Syndications from reputable sources like the Reach PLC network may offer some value, whilst syndications from low DA scraper sites will likely be ignored by search engines.
A good indicator of whether or not syndicated content is passing value is to check whether or not it’s indexed (whether or not it shows up in the organic search results). If the coverage is not being indexed in search engines, it may be a sign that it’s canonicalised*, low quality, or not unique enough. You can get a good idea whether a piece of coverage is indexed or not by doing a “site:[URL]” search.
If your sole aim with a campaign is to improve organic performance through link-building, then syndicated links may be of less value than those from original publications, particularly if they’re from spammy sites. However, if you’re running a PR and brand awareness campaign, or looking purely to increase website traffic from any/all sources, syndicated links can be very useful.
There’s been various experiments into the impact of syndicated links over the years and whether or not they pass value. Whilst these are certainly interesting, there’s no clear answer or guidance from Google on the topic, so it’s best to tread carefully.
To demonstrate through example, if you secured ten backlinks to your client’s site with a campaign, you may view these links in the following order of preference:
- Completely separate original coverage from ten different websites.
- A mixture of original coverage and some syndicated coverage.
- Entirely syndicated coverage.
- Entirely syndicated coverage which is canonicalised back to one URL.
Again, this is something we recommend discussing internally to ensure your entire team are on the same page.
*A canonical tag is put in the code of pages with duplicate or very similar content to show which one search engines should view as the “main” page i.e. which one to rank.
Should We Count Syndicated Coverage and Links In Our KPIs?
It’s worth counting and recording all coverage achieved for clients, whether syndicated or not. This gives you an overall view of the results obtained, and you can use these to tweak your approach in the future.
When reporting to clients, there’s a variety of approaches at your disposal.
You could choose not to stipulate specific types of links when setting KPIs, as you typically have no control over whether a link is followed, or whether a site will syndicate your work. But if you’d prefer to only report on certain types of links, such as only reporting followed links and original (non-syndicated) coverage, that approach is perfectly fine too.
As you undertake outreach, you should consider the possibility of syndication regardless of your approach to reporting. Bearing in mind that syndicated links are potentially less valuable than non-syndicated links, the best option is always to push to acquire as much original coverage as possible.
Think of syndicated links as the “cherry on top” rather than as being integral to supporting overall results. Achieving only syndicated coverage may be disappointing for some clients, as they may see it as a single piece of coverage just duplicated across multiple sites. On the other hand, some clients may have no issue with syndicated coverage, especially when it’s on relevant websites.
A good way to sense-check this is to think about whether real people are likely to read the syndicated coverage, and whether it sits on a relevant and/or high authority site – this is where the value lies.
And as long you’re consistent internally and not intentionally misleading people, you should be alright.
What Is Anchor Text and How Should It Be Used During Outreach?
Anchor text is the visible words or numbers representing a hyperlink. Search engines (and users) view this as a strong indicator of what the linked page is about, and it can impact how well the page ranks for associated keywords.
Historically, an emphasis on high-value keywords was advantageous; Google has since devalued this as a ranking factor and it’s now important to have a “natural” and varied anchor text profile.
Excessive keyword-heavy anchor text is a clear signal of over-optimisation – this could have no impact, but in worst-case scenarios could result in penalisation; Google’s latest guidance on how to write good anchor text explicitly recommends avoiding keyword stuffing. A varied approach avoids this risk.
Within outreach, it’s best to carefully consider the best anchor text for each situation. Typically, using anchor text that is relevant to topic in question is a safe bet, as a project using solely commercial anchor text risks building lots of keyword-heavy backlinks in a short period of time, which could be an issue.
Your aim should be to improve your client’s backlink profile in the most “natural” way possible, and PRs and SEOs can work together to ensure content is outreached with a variety of relevant anchor text. But ultimately, a backlink’s anchor text is typically out of your control as journalists and publications may tweak the copy you’ve provided, so don’t spend too long worrying about this.
What Are Deep Links, Why Are They Useful, and How Do We Get Them?
Deep links are backlinks to pages with specific content “deeper” into a website i.e. not the homepage.
From a business or user perspective, the two main reasons for using deeper links are:
- To send users directly to commercial/lead-gen landing pages (where they can input information, sign-up for something, or buy something).
- To send users to a page that gives more information about a relevant topic.
As mentioned earlier, backlinks are one of Google’s many ranking factors; the more relevant and high-quality links your website has, the better chance you have of ranking highly in the organic search results (providing your content is good-quality, the site is technically sound, etc.).
So, transfer of value from page to page is great, as it helps out less prominent pages. But if we can send the most value straight to a key commercial page, that’s even better, because it’ll give that page’s performance a bigger boost.
Some ways to secure deep links are:
- Link to your client’s prior research when relevant E.G. “One study suggests…”.
- Link to relevant commercial pages on the brand name or relevant terms – speak to the SEOs responsible for the account for help identifying the most appropriate page and anchor text, but avoid coming across as too much of an advertorial piece.
- Make the link integral to the context of the sentence so it’s less likely to be removed – you could do this by including links to resources like downloadable templates that mean the sentence probably wouldn’t make sense without the link.
For more information, check out our in-depth guide to building deep links.
And there we have it, all questions answered and ready to go.
Feel free to adapt these to suit your approach to each topic or cherry-pick parts of the answers exactly as written next time one of these questions arises.
Remember to review each scenario on a case-by-case basis and make sure that your answers align with your agency’s approach and your clients’ priorities. Ensuring the PR and SEO Teams actively work together rather than simply existing alongside each other is the best way for clients to get the most value from both teams’ work.