Episode 64: The state of link building in 2020 with James Brockbank

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook and James Brockbank discussing the state of link building in 2020, including: Is guest posting still worth it in 2020? How do you identify a toxic link? Is it possible to place a $ value on a single link? What tactics give the best value?

Show notes


MC: Welcome to episode 64 of the Search with Candour podcast. Recorded on Friday the 5th of June 2020 and it really is episode 64 this time. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and today we're going to be joined by James Brockbank, the Managing Director of Digitaloft.

James, thank you very much for taking the time to join with us. Do you want to give a little short introduction to who you are and Digitaloft and what you guys do?

JB: Yeah absolutely. So I'm James Brockbank, Managing Director and founder of a digital PR and SEO agency, based up north, called Digitaloft. We work with clients who essentially want to build great links through digital PR tactics, and support their SEO and organic search growth. I founded the agency, officially founded the agency, just over six years ago. Actually it became an agency about seven and a half years ago, I did a year and a half freelancing before but the agency's officially six, just over six years old and in that time we've done some fantastic work, with a great range of clients, and spent six years building up a really great digital PR offering.

MC: That sounds very polished. I was going to ask you about that, checking your site and it was saying it'd been going six years and then I saw that you've been there longer on your linkedin.

So today I wanted to talk to you about link buildings, I've called this episode ‘the state of link building in 2020.’ I've said link building, I mean I know we use terms like link acquisition, outreach, digital PR - I'm just going to use the base term link building to cover all of that.

JB: Yeah, good with me.

MC: We've spoken to previous people and we've had some people come to SearchNorwich talks and talk about link building, link acquisitions. We've had Jack Bamfield from Verve talking about outreach, Lexi Mills talking about digital PR, so really pleased you could join us because I've seen a lot of your work actually that you've put out there and it's definitely one of the agencies I'm more impressed with in terms of the content.

JB: Wow that's great to hear.

MC: It does get sent around our teams internally to say, look at this.

JB: That's amazing, great to hear.

MC: So what really kicked off the idea for talking about this is, i'm sure you've seen the twitter conversations about SemRush and their guest posting service.

JB: Yes I have indeed, who hasn’t?

MC: So maybe some people. So for anyone listening that hasn't encountered this, I'll just give you a very, very short background which is that SemRush who are best known for their tool SemRush, were offering a marketplace service where they were essentially allowing you to pay for articles they were then placing on websites to get backlinks. So SemRush's clarification of what they were doing was, “we create this unique article and place a bat link to your url, as to with other content like” - this is their tweet - “like research type or so on, to be as natural as possible. So what we offer is absolutely legal white hat link building tactic, here is how it works…” and they provide a link and the I think what drew a lot of attention to this is John Mueller from Google just replied to this tweet, very black and white, and just said “that's an unnatural link, the kind the web spam team might take action on. Make sure the links use rel nofollow or rel=sponsored and this would allow sites to get visibility without having to worry about manual actions.’ So i can imagine obviously it's quite disappointing when someone from Google comes and rains on your parade like that - if you look at the show notes for this podcast that are at, I'll provide a link to that tweet and as well to a response from SemRush that essentially just talks about controversy they faced with the guest blog post editorial and outreach service, that they've currently paused it and it was in their view a misunderstanding - they're aware guest posts can cause manual penalties and they're assuring people that we're not buying or selling links and this was where I wanted to start.

So this obviously generated a lot of discussion and people started talking again about guest posting as a link building tactic. Google reaffirmed their posts, again which i'll provide a link to in the show notes, uh which they originally posted in 2017 and they titled it a reminder about links in large scale article campaigns and I won't read it word for word, but essentially what they're saying in this is, Google's saying, they're not discouraging these types of articles because in many cases they inform users, educate another site's audience, or bring awareness to a causal company, however, what does violate Google's guidelines on link schemes is when the main intent is to build links in a large scale way back to the author's site and they give some factors when taken to the extreme can indicating articles in violation such as, stuffing keyword rich links to your site and your articles having the articles published across many different sites, or alternatively having a large number of articles on few large different sites, using or hiring article writers that aren't knowledgeable about the topics of writing on, and finally using the same or similar content across these articles.

So what interested me actually about that advice and guidance from Google is they don't mention, at all, paying for links when they're talking about guest posting there. It seems they don't care whether you're actually paying the host site, they're just saying if you're doing this on a large scale, it's bad. So that's the background and James, this is where I wanted to get your opinion, I think a place to start is - I know you guys do more the digital PR side of things, we'll cover that at the end of the show - but first question for you is, in your opinion, are there any other types of link building that are worth investing in in 2020 outside of digital PR? So stuff like HARO, link reclamation?

JB: Absolutely yeah, absolutely. I mean I think whilst, yes we are a digital pr agency and I think digital PR makes up the majority of the link acquisition work we do, but I think there's certainly other tactics that are very effective, and a great example of that is actually we've been working on this past week with a client, working with a graduate recruitment specialist, and one of our key preliminary tactics for those guys was saying, okay actually we did a large link analysis with their competitors and identified that essentially the resource pages on the careers sites of many universities are linking to their competitors but not to those guys. These guys launched a great app and they do have a unique proposition yet, they weren't being linked to. So that's pretty much your bog standard resource link building and we do a lot of this, we do figure out how we can build links by placing our client or a piece of their content as a resource, and I think it's one of those tactics that's seen sometimes as the low hanging fruit and it often gets overlooked, especially in public conversations. But again, to me, it very much comes down to the purpose of link building and utilising links to add value and my take has always been that you should be building links by adding value, and you don't always need assets to do that. If the business is a resource if it adds value, in this case, students looking to go into graduate roles there is great value in the service and the app these guys offer, then it's of real value as a resource to, in this case, universities. We've seen this work for removals companies from locals councils, that sort of thing, and I think it's certainly one of the tactics that we always default to very early on in working with a client, in that it takes time to put together interactive assets, data studies, they're certainly not your quick win and our take is to have this always-on approach so we're always looking for, and you know what I will say is that the majority of the time we are being engaged by clients to build links. Yes, we are using digital PR as a tactic to do that and we refer to it, you know digital PR, is helping us to build quality links at scale for our clients, from relevant topically and relevant publications. But in many cases, we are being engaged to build links to drive growth and support in SEO strategy, so it’s looking for those quick wins, so resource link building absolutely.

Another almost quick win that we often do is we'll say okay if you're working with a pr team and it's really common that we find clients are working with say ourselves on digital pr for full link acquisition, but their PR team are also running more the traditional pr, but what we see a lot of the time there is that the PR teams will land brand mentions, and they're not chasing those up, so again for us from a link building perspective it's a really quick win. So a lot of the time we will say, what are your pr team doing, we will go and do that research piece, that analysis piece and if we can show - let's say when we start working with the client, in the past three months, you've had x pieces of coverage that do not link, that your PR team have landed. We'll open up that conversation and in a lot of cases we will say, okay we spent a lot of time figuring out the right approach to turning brand mentions into links, we will take on that as part of the link building strategy.

With HARO - it's funny you should mention - i think we go in phases on this. Haro’s often cited as a really sort of low level entry point into almost pr driven, now our take, we do monitor it very closely and same with things like JournoRequest, but it's understanding when you should and shouldn't put your client forward. So we have a policy at Digitaloft on HARO requests in that, we will only reply if the client is actually an expert on that; what I see all the time and we've run our requests to gain expert insight for various campaigns in the past, I think once you see the other side of it, you get so much spam. You see companies that are completely unrelated, running a quick Google search and essentially giving you a snapshot of what comes up on the number one results as a response. Now we've learned over the years that if you want to be successful for HARO, pick a very very small subset of the requests that come in every day. We say if the client is an expert on this. So I don't know, say we work with clients in the food sector and there are questions on food, then we have a client who has a chef Director, and we can go to them and get absolute bang on expert advice and insight, which can add real value, something that we couldn't just get from Google and that's how you should be approaching HARO requests and similar JournoRequest. If you are an expert you can get some great links. I remember way back in 2013, 2014, when I was still freelancing and in the space of about a week, I landed a client who was a mortgage broker on Financial Times, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, all through HARO and JournoRequests but what's happened in the sort of six, seven years since then is it's almost become - I don't know if you remember things like my blog guest where it's almost become a spammy platform to many and I think there's got to be that level of, are you really an expert? Should you really be responding to this? And if the answer is yes then you can get some great links and great coverage from that, but if you are just trying to piggyback on an opportunity, that you shouldn't really be commenting on, then you're just straight at wasting your time.

MC: So I think an interesting point there, maybe for people doing SEO in-house or SMEs looking to do it, is that there is a lot of this, what we might call basic or bread and butter link building that SEO agencies are still doing that is effective, but not that many people talk about it because it's not as sexy as the really successful digital PR campaign, with a nice interactive piece. It's not, you know, as amazing from the outside just to be like, yeah we had a great resource so we just emailed a bunch of people a link to our competitors and they now link to us and we saw results from it.

One thing I wanted to mention there was you talked about, and this has come up before working with PR teams, where they're maybe getting brand mentions and they're not getting the link and I'm gonna take take a stretch here because I think it was you, it might have been someone else, so i apologise if it was someone else, I think it was you, I saw on twitter that was talking about that they were reaching out to a publication that had used some of their data and had mentioned the client, but hadn't linked to it and they chased it up, and asked if the asset could be linked because it was their data, and their response was that the author just deleted the whole mention.

JB: Yeah that was right, that was us.

MC: I'm glad i got that right, so my question there was and I've talked to a lot of people about this because I've seen journalists as well - there's been a few times where I've seen a lot of journalists complain about SEO people emailing them, just asking for links anytime they're mentioned, whether it's positive, whether it's negative - what's your view on how aggressive - I guess is the right word - you should be with journalists, getting them to link to you when they've mentioned to you? You know, what kind of policies, guidelines, do you have for that in terms of, if it's an old article, if it's a new one? Where do you draw the line there?

JB: Yeah of course, and I think what's really interesting there is, I mean I spoke over at Learn Inbound in Dublin last August and my talk was on how to turn brand mentions into links and essentially to get the data for that I went and I spoke with, on calls and face-to-face meetings, with I think about 50, 55 journalists and editors at top tier publications and what came back - so I posed a question to i mean so we were mid 2019 then, my question to them was “what makes you guys link out in 2019?” - a very open-ended question and what actually came back is that despite what some PR’s and some SEO’s think, most journalists aren't against linking out, yes there are sometimes a small number of publications who do have a more external link policy - they're pretty few and far between and what came back is that the link has to add editorial value, it has to make sense for them to be linking out, otherwise why would they?

I think the best example that I share in conference talks all the time, was one of the editors at the Daily Mail and he said, that the he's usually happy to link it out when a piece contained or a page or a link contains extra value, but they will not as a publication - that's the Daily Mail as a standard - will not link out to a brand's home page. The reason being that they are often pulled up on being an advertorial in disguise, and that a home page link very, very, very rarely adds value to an article and it was a really, really good point. It's actually something I've never considered in the past; the challenges that journalists and their editors and the publication as a whole faces in terms of, how does a link actually look to their readers? When you think about it from a home page link, which again is often where a PR, more traditional PR will start - they will go and chase home page links, it doesn't add any value and I think my take there is that if you are reaching out to try and turn brand mentions into links, there has to be some sort of editorial value there, why should that link be in place? And I think we work it into campaigns right from day one, but to address it as a wider topic, I think he's looking at it from that perspective and that angle on - why should that link be there? And certainly our approach to when we reach out to try and get a link added, and a brand mention turned into a link, it's really looking at it from that case on - if we can justify why that link makes sense to be there for their readers, for their audience, then you will land that link. We've had top tier - we've had The Guardian, The Telegraph, USA today, all our links into articles very, very quickly once we can demonstrate what that value is to their readers, to their audience, and I think that's where it's often overlooked in that a homepage link doesn't make sense, it doesn't add any value. A journalist, or their editor, or even their correction team, can see straight through that. But when you can actually demonstrate what that value is, why that link makes sense and how it enhances their readers experience, then you stand a much stronger chance of getting that brand mention turned into a link.

MC: That makes sense. So if we reverse a little bit, I want to talk briefly and specifically about guest posting.

JB: Of course.

MC: So guest posting as a tactic, the Google guidelines basically don't mention paid links but they say don't do it on a mass scale. So what are your thoughts on guest posting efficacy? Does it work? Is there any case where it's worthwhile investing in? Because I certainly see lots of people still doing it.

JB: Absolutely, I think we all do and I think my take on guest posting is that you should never approach any tactic as a do not do, every tactic has its place in a campaign for somebody, somewhere, but when we talk specifically about guest posting, i mean I look back to what I was doing in 2013 which was, you know funny we should mention it again, it was using things like my blog post joint and we all, once penguin hit, we all sort of shifted away from pretty dodgy link building, private blog networks, those sorts of tactics and I think as an industry, we then shifted to equally as spammy tactics but we tried to pass this off as guest posting.

If I look back to guest posts that I was involved in, in 2013, and it was absolute garbage and then obviously Mike Cook at the time came out and killed it and said, look this will not work, this should not work and I think fast forward to 2020 and my take on guest posting is links should not be the number one goal of guest posting. Now, I write for Search Engine Journal, I write for the SemRush blog and as a marketer, I get great value from that, you know it’s my personal brand, it gives me a platform to share great content - that is guest posting, I am contributing content for somebody else's blog, somebody else's platform, but I do that as an expert in the industry, sharing insights. The number one reason I am doing that is to build my personal brand, not for a link - if I land a link as a result of that, then so be it, that's great, but I think when you consider guest posting, it shouldn't be seen as a link building tactic. Why? Because when you approach it as a link building tactic and my take is the reason that Google mentioned in their guidelines doing this at scale it's because actually - let's take the SEO industry as a great example, you know what I'm talking about, how many publications, quality publications, are there that take guest contributions? - Five/ ten probably, yes you could go to agency blogs, you could go down a tier, but there's probably five or ten solid publications, take that to any industry and you run out of opportunities very, very quickly and I think that's where this comes from, this whole at scale - guest posting at that scale should be avoided, because once you start to try and use guest posting as a tactic, to scale up link building, the only way that can happen is the quality drops, you stop being selective on whose audiences you write for, whose audiences you're educating and sharing your insight knowledge, and very quickly becomes a, okay we've explored the opportunities at five, ten, twenty sites now, what we have to do is take a step away from what we're experts in and try and shoehorn our content into somewhere else. And if we think of guest posting like that, there are fantastic opportunities for experts, and I will say experts, not SEO agencies ghostwriting, for experts to create and share great content that positions them and their businesses as experts. It is a great tactic when approached with a mindset, as if we get a link then great but the primary reason we're doing this isn't link building. and this has been going on in the PR world for years and I think that's the mindset you've got to approach it in, because when you're trying to scale ultimately quality, and topical relevance, and connection to the audience, that's where it suffers, and that's where you start almost doing it for the sake of it and that's where it starts to get dangerous.

MC: So you mentioned that one of the publications you write for SemRush and I actually read an article, by you, funnily enough, last April or April just gone about toxic links. So I think that's interesting to talk about in terms of things like guest posting, guest articles. So if you've inherited a client for instance - so we'll take this hypothetical, you've inherited a client and they say, yeah we did a whole bunch of guest posting with a previous agency and you know we'll say they haven't had any kind of manual action yet, how would you go about deciding which, you know, where you draw the line with those guest posts on? Which are bad? How do you work out what is a toxic link? Are there any particular tools you use and if you can, on the end of that, what's your view on third-party metrics? Because they obviously come in a lot when we're talking about links, so whether it's like Moz's DA or Majestic TF, or do you use some of the ahrefs metrics in your case studies. How do these all come into play?

JB: Of course, yeah. So in terms of the hypothetical solution of inheriting a client that has been using guest posts of scale, i mean i think the number one question i would be either asking or trying to determine is actually, where have these guest posts come from? so and i think the most common solution is that we see that these are guest posts that have been bought from one of the the few, almost widespread guest post selling sites, there's you know there's probably three or four of them out there and i'm not going to name names but it's it was pretty common that you can start to see a trend. Now what I will say is that I have been known to place orders with some of these guest post platforms, not on client sites, solely on test sites, so you can start to understand what these sites are selling. So we can start to understand what these links look like and actually, it's once you start to dig through a client's link profile, which is the first thing that we do in almost every strategy piece when working with the client link building, and I want to know where they've come from. So some clients will be open and say, well we bought them from x y or z, others will say that they used an agency and they weren't aware that it was a tactic that they perhaps shouldn't have been engaging in.

So I mean I think number one is, if possible, I want to try and understand where these links have come from because then you can start to see how they were acquired. In some cases you find that they say they were doing guest posting, but what they were actually really doing more of is PR, either an in-house PR team may have been doing almost expert profiling, you know that one of their specialists was contributing articles. Now my take there is that actually whether you're preparing a disavow file or whether you're watching a link profile, you can't beat manual analysis and experience. I mean, I know going back to sort of 2012, I will never forget spending tens, if not hundreds, of hours working through backlink audits on at the time on pure spam and I think it's one of the things that I often say to those who are just joining the industry that perhaps the best level of education in SEO came in 2011, 2012, 2013 when you could still get away with spammy tactics and then almost overnight things changed. So actually getting getting your hands dirty and auditing link profiles manually, and I think it comes back to that - it's the same approach we take with digital PR and almost justifying the existence of a link, and my personal take, the way I personally vet links in a link profile is, would you still want this link if Google didn't exist? So if links weren't a ranking factor at all what value does this link have to the claim?

So a great example I can talk about from recently is, we're working with a car finance brand and previously they have been buying links from one of these guest post platforms and they have links to used cars for sale on finance, with exact match anchor text, number one flag and they had links to bad credit card finance etc and they were on essentially mummy blogs, so they're not private blog networks but they are very low quality, and actually my take is that some of these mummy blogs as it were, are not too dissimilar to private blog networks that we were seeing in 2013/ 2014. You know badly done, public blog networks we should really be calling them and it's topical relevance - it's could this link send referral traffic from a target audience and that's probably my number one determinant as to whether a link should be disavowed or attempted removal.

Alongside yes, domain metrics, domain authority, domain rating. etc. play a part, but to me you can't beat that manual analysis on what value does this bring to the client, if we weren't simply looking from an SEO perspective? So analysing, going into Google analytics have any of these links sent traffic? How does that traffic behave? I think we have to go beyond simply looking at metrics because actually you can see, and I had an incident about a year ago where a client was advised - we were working on link building and they had another SEO agency working on the technical, more the seo strategy, and a piece of advice that came from the other agency was that they should be disavowing any links below domain authority 30. Now to me that's just pure idiocy, and it's a very outdated metric, a very outdated approach on trying to scope to link profiling what you want. You can have lower domain authority sites.

A great example is a digital PR campaign that we launched a couple of weeks ago, it got picked up on the company blog of a team of solicitors - now this was 100 topically related to the campaign, it made full sense their domain authority was like 22. It was a local solicitor, who had seen the campaign from a piece of top-tier coverage, we assume, and they'd covered it as part of a news piece they were doing and they linked to it. So if we looked solely on domain authority, domain rating, then that link would have potentially been disavowed if you took that that mindset and that is a real link, it made sense in context, it was just on a a low profile, small business, that doesn't mean it's a bad link - you know in many ways, that's a great link on the grounds that it was completely editorially placed, we didn't even reach out, that campaign was picked up from somewhere else and they worked it into a piece of content they were creating.

Now using domain metrics like that it's really really dangerous -you need to be considering the context of the link, and yes it is you know, if you are watching a link profiling and taking decisions you have to use, you know if the affiliate comes in and it is domain authority or domain ratings zero, they are typically always scraper sites now they're probably being ignored anyway, it's to me those links which are seen as potential manipulation, so if they have an exact match anchor text to a commercial page, that's where I would always start and try and figure out, okay is this a paid post, is this manipulative, and that's where i would start to place through a disavow file. But there's a lot of people talking about whether you should or shouldn't disavow at the moment, my take is that yes you should you still should, if there is a blatant attempt at manipulation through link building; if these are scraper sites which we see, we all see tens of, they're being ignored, we're in 2020 Google isn't daft, we don't need to be going to put in every scraper site that we see come through into a disavow file I don't believe, but if there is an obvious attempt at manipulation, then that's what should go into a disavow file.

MC: That was actually going to be my next question, how proactive you are or if you're an advocate of proactive disavow use, because I've seen a lot of differing opinions on that and I've seen Google's line has always been that they haven't apparently seen a case where there's been, for instance, negative SEO, where someone's had to use disavow and then there's the argument that if Google has decided the link's bad anyway, it's probably ignoring it unless it's seeing this aggressive manipulative pattern, which has sometimes made me think, well the two instances there is either they are ignoring it already which is fine, you know you're not getting any benefit from it, if it’s a scraper site or something and Google hasn't twigged that it's low quality that you would get some tiny bit of benefit from it and disavowing would take away from that. But then to add to the complexity, I did see, about a year later, Google saying that it seems they weigh up the risk of your link profile and use that to determine if they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt for the on the fence stuff. So if you've got a super clean link profile and then you've got a few of these dodgy links, they're like, well okay we'll give you the benefit of the doubt, whereas if you've got a lot of crap, basically the other kind of on the fence ones, you know they're going to say well from a probability point of view, we're gonna guess these are bad as well. So I think it's really interesting, maybe not a correct answer and it does come down to the sort of experience.

JB: Yeah I don't think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer on it, I think you've got to look at the history of a site, to me that's the number one thing i want to know - what tactics have been used to build links, not just now, one of the questions I often ask is, have you had a penalty in the past, have you been negatively affected by Penguin, did you have a manual, because things are all considerations.

I remember the days of manual penalties that a lot of time was spent by, I think most of us, was recovering clients from manual penalties, removing manual penalties seven or eight years ago, and it always came back to that these things stick around a long time, even if you disavow, you've lost some of that link equity that was helping you to rank, but it all comes back to that history. As you say, if there's a very small handful of potentially manipulative links, in an otherwise great link profile, I don't believe you need to waste your time. But if you are working with a site that has a history of being hit by either Penguin back in the day or core algorithm updates and the gut feel is that that is related to web spam and i think it doesn't take long. I've worked with clients in the past who claim they're whiter than white, when it comes to link building, and they’re not.

I think it does come with experience, I often say I can spot a paid link pretty quickly, there are common signs. Yes, there are people who can get them through, who can disguise them very well, but I think there are common signs when you analyse any link source that is potentially questionable, that with experience you can determine whether that's a manipulated link or not and again coming back to exact match anchor text, that's one of the big ones, it's exactly much anchor text and topical relevance. If you are a car finance broker and you are getting links from mummy blogs that where the article has nothing to do with car finance, it is obvious where that's come from, nobody writes like that naturally and that link has absolutely no value to the article, so it's a pretty good indication that that's been paid for.

So my take there would be to put that link, that domain, through a disavow file, almost out of best practice in that if a site hasn't been negatively affected with a penalty, the manual or algorithmically, then there's a good chance it is being ignored, but you're probably going to do no harm because worst case scenario is that it’s going to have a negative impact in the future, best case scenario is being ignored.

MC: So with everything we've talked about so far, obviously Digitaloft focuses, mainly you're saying on the more digital PR side, do you want to talk us through the process you go through with the average client and what that looks like? Because I think, yeah a lot of SMEs we speak to, the bigger businesses when we've done this kind of work as well, it's still even in 2020 seems new to them, in that there normally seems to be two functions i've encountered internally which is, there's content people that just write content and it tends to be okay written content, but there's no narrative, there's no story there that anyone is particularly interested in, and then there's the PR side, as you said, which isn't quite fulfilling that function. So how do you go about that? So I'm interested in, what's the rough process you take with clients and where are you spending the time with them to make a successful campaign?

JB: Of course. So I mean I think the number one factor of digital PR, I mean essentially, to give an overview on digital PR really from our take as a tactic, we tell stories to the press to land great links and coverage, hopefully at scale. So essentially it starts with coming up with those stories and we take no shame in admitting that we approach digital PR story first - so the amount of ideation sessions that I've sat in the past where somebody goes should we create an infographic? Should we launch a calculator? Should we do an interactive asset? They're formats not stories, journalists want stories, they want headlines, they actually don't care about your assets in many cases and this has been an issue I've had for quite some time, in that when you approach things format first you go in to the ideation process with such a narrow mindset because you are thinking, what can we create an infographic on, what can we build as a calculator - that's a tool, whereas our take is that going story first means that we're always thinking from day one - what are those headlines? So it all starts with coming up with a great idea and coming up with a great idea to us, you've got to find those seed ideas of inspiration - so that might be a data set, it might be something that's been discussed in another article, that you could build a campaign around, it might be clients own data, it might be questions that are being asked online.

Whenever we launch a campaign, we come up with maybe four or five concepts; so if we launch a single campaign, we've probably put forward four to five ideas and concepts to the client that we fully validated. So by that i mean, we've come up with maybe 40 to 60 seed ideas individually, as team members, and then we group together to validate these concepts. So that's taking it from a seed idea, which could be we found a great data set on x y or z, we saw a great discussion on social media around this or we saw an article that had a really good great quote about x y z, as an example. Then we group together as a team and we start saying, okay well how can we turn that into a great campaign? So number one is what's the headline? If we can't prove what a headline is and three or four variants of a headline that we could see running on a top 10 newspaper, then that's what we've got to figure out first. We need to know that there is a pool of journalists out there - another big mistake is not knowing who you're going to pitch it to, even before we get anywhere near running with a campaign we need to know what's the size of the pool that we can pitch that into. How does it hook to the client? What we don't want is for a journalist to come back and say, please can you just explain why this client, this brand has launched this piece of content? That's often a blatant attempt to just land links through doing something almost unrelated. You need to be creating content that topically aligns and that you can always position as experts on.

Only then, once we've got concepts and validated concepts and stories, do we start to think about the format. So we take a very open opinion on whether we use the right format to tell the story, we still do a lot of static visuals. We do reports which are hosted on our clients blog, almost long form pieces of content. We do interactive assets. We do build calculators, but we look for the most suitable format to tell the story. And again it comes from not being afraid to go simple, if we don't need to launch a big fancy interactive asset, why would we put the resources into that when that budgeted time may allow you to launch two simpler assets. It's all about being effective with resources and not just defaulting to something big and fancy, and I think the recent pandemic has shown that. We've had some great success pitching our expert opinion, you know almost without an asset or with tips and advice provided on a simple blog post. I think it's been a real turning point for the PR industry, the digital PR at least which I think has proven to a lot of us that it is story first and it's making that content relatable, not just jumping straight to a big fancy asset that takes tens of hours to design, tens of hours to develop and yeah it’s thinking that it's story first.

MC: James we're already at 40 minutes, I've got one question, I'm going to give you a tricky question to finish on. So I'd like to get your thoughts on, if it's possible to put a financial value on links? And I ask this because I've seen some agencies that specialise in link building, they charge per link and they use, in those cases, third-party metrics to give some kind of parameter for that and I've seen other agencies actually that are heavily digital PR agencies, that just guarantee a certain number of links from campaigns. So they say, if we do a campaign and it flops, we will just do you another one until we get these links, which to me it says there's some money being paid to them. They're guaranteeing a certain amount of links, so they've obviously got some kind of idea of what the value of these links are. From an outside view, how on earth do you put a value on a link?

JB: It's very very difficult. I think my take here is that no two links are valued the same, when you start to place a single value on a link it gets it starts to get very, very messy, on the fact that you could take a link that drives - I mean we fairly regularly see links on top publications that drive a thousand referral hits, two thousand referral hits, but then again what does that mean? What does that traffic then do? If I go back two, three years, we launched a campaign for - it sounds really boring - but a parcel folding company, we did a big, deep dive into their data and we identified that about 30% of their shipments were sneakers - it was essentially Americans buying limited edition sneakers from the UK, shipping them up to America. We run a pretty successful campaign around sneakers, to target that audience and to raise that awareness, and the actual conversions that came in when we took the campaign cost per conversion, from our campaign fee came in at half what an already very well optimised ppc campaign was because we targeted the audience correctly. Now that's almost a rare instance, but I think it goes to show that the conversions there didn't necessarily come from the top tier publications.

Placing a value on a link is very, very difficult and I must admit, I think we're quite aligned on that we would say here's a minimum KPI, if we don't hit this minimum KPI, then we will replace the campaign, but we try to band it within that. So we will band it and give example publications, so that is often using domain rating or trust flow and it’s saying we will commit to a KPI of x number of links of this quality, and I think it's the best scenario in most cases. You can get really complex, obviously certain agencies now have their own link metrics, and it gets really confusing because we have to talk in common language, and still to this day Marketing Directors etc. they are familiar with domain authority. My take is that it wouldn't necessarily be my metric of choice, but we have to talk in a language and i think also you know comparing it to link buying is really dangerous we have to almost admit that digital pr drives brand value, you know and brand is a you know various elements of brand are a ranking factor.

So to give a very simple answer you know i think it is really difficult to place a value on a link and the value of that link can be very different the value of a link on one publication could be very different to two different businesses and it's having those conversations with clients to understand, is this you know is your goal straight up seo? are you you know are you really using this as a link building tactic? or are you looking to build your brand? we see this all the time a spike in brand searches you know an increase in google trends for the brand searches and that additional value but it's hard to quantify and put that into a cost per link.

MC: I'm really impressed at that answer and especially impressive - bonus points that I didn't hear you say it depends.

JB: I don’t think I did.

MC: James, thank you so much for your time. This has been really fun. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

JB: Great. Thanks for having me!

MC: So Search with Candour, we'll be back next on Monday the 15th of June. You can get the transcription of this episode, the links to the articles that we've mentioned at As usual, if you're enjoying the podcast please do subscribe and I hope you'll all tune in next week.

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