Image shows a writer whose typewriter is taking over the writing


At its core, SEO is about content and links, with an overlay of something Google calls E-E-A-T (experience, expertise, authority, and trust).

In this post, I argue that once you understand the Google origin story, you understand why links matter, what makes some links high-quality and others not, and why digital PR is your best method of building high-quality links.

My premise is that when you understand what it was about Google’s approach that caused Google to stand above all the other search engines which existed back in the late 1980s, you’ll understand why this is true.

Link building and digital PR

This blog post assumes you know what links and anchor text are, but in case you don’t, a short side quest is warranted.

Please read this post on the Yoast blog and return here: What is anchor text and how to improve your link text?

Links matter because they “carry” authority (or the lack thereof) from other sites to yours. And the “lack thereof” speaks to how not all links are good for your site’s SEO.

Link building is being proactive about obtaining links back to content on your website.

Digital PR is doing so through public relations strategies and tactics.

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The Google origin story is all about links

Since it happened in Palo Alto, CA, or more precisely on the campus of Stanford University in unincorporated Santa Clara County adjacent to Palo Alto, it was probably not a dark and stormy night.

A Computer Science Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University wanted to mathematically model the “value” of academic papers and their citations.

This concept is THE key to the birth of Google.

The value of a paper is derived from the values of the citations to it while the value of citations is determined by the value of the paper they’re contained within.

Apparently, the math for this was really tough, and as smart as he was, he needed help.

So he asked a buddy who was better at math for help.

They figured out the math and coded it into a computer program.

To test their ideas, they needed a large set of documents that cited each other, and fortunately for them, the World Wide Web provided the data set they needed.

So they wrote software to crawl the web and create a database of links.

It worked.

And then, a Stanford alumnus who had become enormously wealthy as one of the four initial cofounders of Sun Microsystems (Sun also started at Stanford and for those of you who don’t know, Sun stands for Stanford University Network).

This Stanford alumnus said something to the effect of “I’m not sure you guys realize what you have here”, and wrote them a check for $100,000 to help them turn their ideas into a business.

The guy interested in the mathematical modeling of the values of academic papers and their citations is Larry Page.

The guy who helped with the math is Sergey Brin.

And the guy who wrote that initial check is Andreas Bechtolsheim.

The rest as you know, is history.

By the way, an interesting tidbit: The initial Google algorithm was named PageRank because it was invented by Larry Page, not because it has to do with web pages.

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The “magic” of PageRank

Ok, so it’s just math, not magic, but that Arthur C Clarke quote comes to mind…

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The great insight of PageRank was that every link from one webpage to another was a “vote” for the relevance of that webpage.

And people noticed that the Google search engine produced demonstrably better search results than any other search engine, which is why Google quickly become dominant.

The “power” of backlinks

While the days of links being THE search signal are long over, no one denies that backlinks are very important to a site’s search ranking.

However, the idea that quantity overpowers quality has also been relegated to the dustbin of history. It was once true, and it is no longer.

Today, there are high-quality backlinks, low-quality backlinks, and harmful backlinks.

This is related to the ideas of natural backlinks vs SPAM backlinks.

What makes a backlink high-quality, and natural?

Google tells us they divide every web page into two broadly defined parts. The Main Content, and the Supplementary Content.

The Main Content is focused on “fulfilling the premise of the page’s title” and is the actual body of the blog post or article.

The Supplementary Content is everything else. Ads, the sidebar, the header, the footer, a related posts section, etc.

In general, high-quality natural links appear in the Main Content and make sense within the context of the article.

For example, if the blog post was about surfing, a link to a webpage about surfboard wax would make sense, whereas a link to a webpage about playground equipment or hair styling would not.

High-quality natural links boost the credibility of both sites.

Need to boost your topical authority?

What makes a backlink SPAM?

While there isn’t one universally agreed-upon definition, the main idea here is SPAM links come from SPAM sites.

If a site has “too many” inbound and outbound links that are not in the Main Content and/or are not topically relevant, you don’t want them linking to your site.

And when a link is not even close in terms of matching topics between the webpage containing the link and the webpage being linked to, it can be considered a “toxic backlink“. You definitely want to avoid this.

Enter, stage left, Digital PR

Before I talk about Digital PR, let me talk a little about PR.

Public relations is focused on getting press coverage, preferably positive press coverage.

This is done by staying in touch with journalists who need information for stories. The goal is that information about whatever matters to you is useful to some journalists and they mention it, reference it, and link to it, in a story of theirs.

Digital PR is similar, but the focus is online, and the idea of who is a journalist has changed (and is still changing).

Bloggers, social media influencers, etc are now “journalists” for purposes of Digital PR.

And as Digital PR occurs online, it comes with high-quality natural backlinks.

Back to where we started

Or more accurately, to where Google started.

As the web is a set of documents that all “cite” each other, in your pursuit of backlinks from Digital PR, you need to publish referenceable or citation-worthy content.

As the Internet is (broadly speaking) “just” content and links, if you want links to your content, you must FIRST publish stuff worth linking to.

Some people seem to think you can skip this step. Spoiler: you can’t.

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Digital PR strategies for effective link building

Digitally “stalking” influencers is easy with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google alerts.

It’s a matter of simply following people and topics.

Then, when an opportunity arrives for you to add something to a conversation they’re part of, or to promote an article they’re written, do so in a way where you can mention and tag them.

The key here is to see some way YOU can be of help to them.

Over time, they’ll know who you are.

Then when you have something to say that promotes YOUR content, it won’t look like a pitch, as they’ll have become accustomed to seeing you say similar things.

Bear in mind, most journalists and influencers get far too many pitches, and if your pitch looks like those pitches it is very unlikely to be noticed.

Digital PR link-building best practices

This is definitely going to sound anti-climatic, but the best practices are:

  • Stay in the game as it’s going to take a while
  • Don’t cheat, it’s cost you later

Everyone says “Do this, do that, etc” but the reality is there is no magic, and opportunities arise opportunistically.

I’m again reminded of some quotes:

“The harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Thomas Jefferson

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

Seneca (a Roman philosopher)

While there are shortcuts, Google works very persistently to render them ineffective.

With every algorithm update, they make shortcuts less and less effective.

So if you “cheat” and use some shortcut that games the system, you may one day find your site ranking tanked overnight, and recovery takes months.

The only way to avoid this is not to cheat.

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Examples of how NOT to cheat

  • Don’t buy links. Sites that sell links are often SPAM sites.
  • Don’t swap links. This creates the “closed loop” issue where Google can detect that two, three, five, or even more sites are linking to each other.
  • Don’t target Domain Authority over website relevance.
  • Don’t ask people to link to crap content (it’s a waste of time and effort).

The future of digital PR link building

Due to the rapidity with which generative AI is being embedded in all kinds of software, generative AI will have an impact on digital PR and link building.

Exactly how is speculative, and here is MY speculation.

As content and links are really all the world wide web is, links will continue to be of extreme importance.

However, in the short term, as generative AI starts to provide direct answers to search queries without the need for users to click through to webpages, click-throughs will drop, and content creators will feel cheated, and appropriately so.

Google won’t care initially, as this will not threaten their advertising business as SERPs, or maybe answers, will still be provided and will be accompanied by paid ads.

But, content creators will be up in arms, that their content is being used in the Large Language Models without them being compensated in any way.

Some larger content creators will likely sue Google over this.

So, Google will follow Bing’s lead and start providing “citations” for their answers, effectively taking Google back to its initial roots of citations being everything.

SEOs will start to publish more “reference-worthy” content as that is what will be linked to more in the future.

And digital PR link-building will morph into an effort of becoming recognized as THE authoritative source (or at least one of the authoritative sources) for some specific answers.

So, the Marcus Sheridan philosophy of “They ask, you answer” will become THE dominant feature of SEO and link building will become more focused on TRUSTWORTHY link sources, over the NUMBER OF link sources.

Content will also, over time, become more entertaining as, let’s be honest, information-rich educational content can be pretty boring.

And finally, software tools to make “digitally stalking” journalists, bloggers, etc easier may become a thing.

In closing

As links are integral to what the world wide web is, links will continue to be extremely important, but HOW links will matter is changing and will continue to change.

Reference or citation-worthy content that also entertains a bit will rule the future.

Better content is harder to create, so content creation will become more expensive.

The entertainment value of future content will matter more, as there is so much content on the web that the more boring stuff will be less popular than the more entertaining stuff.

Digitally “stalking” journalists, bloggers, and other content creators may even become a bit of a cottage industry with companies creating software tools to make that easier.

Need to boost your topical authority?

Kevin Carney
Kevin Carney

Kevin "fell into" SEO by accident, like many others. The SaaS platform to help writers boost their topical authority came years later after various SEOs said it was something they would like to see.

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