It used to be easy to game the Google search engine ranking system by posting comments on forums and websites full of keyword-rich links. But as algorithms changed and Google’s Webmaster Guidelines became more stringent, some search engine marketers have been using sneakier methods to avoid playing by the rules.
BuzzFeed recently reported that the CEO of a link-building and content marketing agency wrote more than 700 articles in legitimate news outlets such as Business Insider, NBC News, Mashable, Time, TechCrunch, and even the Wall Street Journal in which he included paid “brand mentions” that he never disclosed. The report shook those in the publishing and PR worlds, only exacerbating the cynicism surrounding journalistic integrity in today’s climate. But while the concept of a high-profile contributor receiving client kickbacks in exchange for brand references and links within their articles is certainly shocking, for those in the SEO industry it’s even more surprising that it took this long for him to be discovered.
This recent sequence of events illustrates the tide shift that has been taking place in the SEO community over the past few years. Google’s ranking algorithm has become exponentially more intelligent and harder to manipulate, with low-quality tactics like comment spam, blog networks and paid links leading to stagnant ranking movement, or even worse -- ranking-, traffic- and revenue-killing penalties. Now, building safe and effective links is more difficult than ever. It takes fewer, better links to rank a website and in order to generate those citations, you have to actually earn them by creating excellent content or by doing something interesting enough to get people to talk about you online.
The struggle that many SEO firms have faced, is the client expectation that link-building is more predictable science than art. Many firms have aggressive link goals that are consistent month-to-month and, sometimes, the only way to achieve them is to resort to risky tactics or jeopardize a client contract. Undisclosed paid links have been a “black hat” SEO tactic for years, but Google has forced these tactics to become more sophisticated in order to fly under the radar and avoid the fate of brands like JCPenney and Interflora.
This shift has led some experts like the marketer in the BuzzFeed report to become both the buyer and the seller by establishing his own link farm for his portfolio of clients. The irony, is that the websites that many companies were willing to pay thousands of dollars per link on for their SEO value, are standard deliverables in a great PR program.
SEO isn’t going anywhere, nor is its importance less critical in the marketing mix. What is changing is the way those results are achieved and the partners that are involved in taking on that challenge. As it stands, PR is often disconnected from marketing, but by letting PR teams into marketing and search strategy discussions, earned media and content marketing can be integrated into a broader strategy to support SEO outcomes.
For instance, a company we’ll call “Bank A” might have a goal to rank their website for keywords related to “small business loans” because they see a large traffic and revenue opportunity. A significant ranking factor is the quality and quantity of referring domains (links) back to Bank A in conversations related to small business loans. These act as votes of confidence in the brand, establishing that they’re seen as an authority on that topic.
In parallel, Bank A is working with a PR firm to get media coverage positioning themselves as thought leaders in the financial industry. Content related to small business financing could be woven into the PR program -- think a survey, infographic, or something similar that touches on a topic related to the small business community. When that content is shared, citations are naturally given. When links aren’t included initially, you can request them where they make sense -- a common and very effective link-building tactic referred to as "reclamation."
Bottom line: Content that is authoritative, thought provoking and helpful has the capacity to spark conversations across a variety of channels that expand beyond the press and into social media and the blogosphere. When those conversations relate to keywords you care about, you can create significant ranking impact by earning valuable links the way they were meant to be generated, without risk.