But what exactly should you be measuring?
This post will show you exactly what to measure, how to create a solid link framework for specialists to work within, and how to talk about the complexities of those KPIs with a digital PR team.
By now you should know that digital PR is not just about link building—it’s about creating a “digital footprint” for your brand by conspicuously and inconspicuously inserting it into your customers’ digital experience on a variety of levels. Doing so will definitely earn you links, but links alone aren’t impressive to key stakeholders unless you know how to effectively report on their impact.
Establishing a link framework to build your KPIs
The first step to measuring the success of your digital PR efforts is figuring out what kind of links you need, where to get them from, where they should point to, and in what proportions—this is called your link framework. From there, you can assign a value to various links, mentions, and coverage, track their impact, and ultimately prove the real value of your digital PR (which you’ll realize spans well beyond the obvious SEO impact).
In order to establish a natural, well-balanced backlink profile, it’s important for your specialist and SEO to establish priority page categories, wherein you identify specific priority pages for link building. Here is a common example of a framework for a site that targets both on a national and local level:
This framework consists of links to core pages (top level category/product/service pages), local pages (geographically specific product/services pages), and editorial pages (typically hosted on the blog). For any websites only concerned with broader, national performance, your framework would only include core and editorial pages.
Although this framework generally works for most website types, the proportions of links needed to those categories varies based on the SEO needs at any given time. Here are a few situations where the needs may shift:
- If we need a high quantity of links to increase the site’s overall domain authority, we will ramp up production of editorial pieces in order to earn a lot of coverage in a short amount of time.
- If we’re slipping in rankings for a head term on one of our core pages, the specialist will build targeted, authoritative links to that page (although fewer, they’re powerful).
- If we publish new local product pages (or really any new pages), we know that they need a few links to start ranking, so we’ll have the specialist seek out local link opportunities.
In general, our specialists are expected to earn links to the pages within our framework from as many new domains as possible, consistently month over month. Every site needs a healthy blend of link quantity, link authority, and link utility.
Link quantity is self-explanatory. When I say link authority, I mean links from the sites that are the clear authority or thought leader in your vertical. When it comes to link utility, I am referring to the usefulness of the link. In my book, a clicked link is always better than an unclicked link, but we’ll go into this in greater detail below. Now a link from an authoritative site could prove to be quite useful to the user, meaning that it would solve for both the authority and utility link needs; these categories are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Now that we have a framework, let’s jump right into the primary digital PR KPIs.
This section breaks down the core KPIs and goes into detail about the complexities, exceptions, and considerations for each of them.
At Clearlink, we use three primary KPIs to measure the effectiveness of our 20+ Digital PR specialists and their impact on individual sites: links, referral traffic from links, and brand awareness.
Yep, links are still a primary ranking factor. If your goal is to get your site to rank in organic search, the main KPI for your specialist should be link numbers. Your link framework will create a clear space for your specialists to work within on YOUR site, but you’ll also need to assign value to different types of links in order to rein in specialists as they scour the web for opportunity.
Assessing link value:
There are a variety of factors that go into evaluating the quality of a link. These are important factors for your specialist to consider and measure when determining whether or not a link is worth going after:
Domain authority (DA) or domain rating (DR)
You can assess the domain authority of a site using tools like the MozBar or the Ahrefs SEO Toolbar; both rate a website’s authority on a scale of 1 to 100. It’s important to note that each of these tools calculate domain authority slightly differently, so determine which source you’d like your specialists to use and stick to it. Let’s use DA for the remainder of the post.
DA of a site matters if you’re trying to influence site rankings. As a general rule of thumb, use DA to get an initial gut check about a website as you’re prospecting, but it’s not the be-all end-all. Here are a few examples where DA can be tossed aside:
- DA might not matter as much to a brand who’s just trying to build awareness in small, engaged, niche online communities.
- There are plenty of relevant, lower DA sites that can have a significant impact on a page or a site. A new blog that’s publishing quality, relevant, fresh content consistently with high levels of article engagement—be it in the comments or on social—is not something to be ignored! If the blog continues on that trajectory, a link on their site in a popular post or resource page will certainly be valuable in time.
- If you’re a landscaping company in Austin, a link from the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association with a seemingly low DA of 34 will almost definitely give your site a boost, potentially even more so than a link in an article in Better Homes and Gardens, which boasts a DA of 86. Why? Well, it’s no surprise that an authoritative, big-name publication like BHG comes with a high DA, but it’s no secret who they’re really beholden to. Hint: it’s NOT always the user; it’s the advertisers. Google sees that. And you can see that by just looking at their homepage.
When in doubt, use the considerations below to add value to a link, no matter the DA of the site! But yes… at the end of the day, a do-follow link on a relevant site with a DA of 90 is still highly valuable and worth the work.
For the sake of building a natural backlink profile, the only thing that’s important to me when it comes to anchor text is that the link tells the reader what they’ll be getting when they click it. The more “clickable” you can make it with using click here, the better.
One exception to that rule is when your SEO specialist identifies a page that could REALLY use a couple anchor text specific links (or even branded home page links) to bump it up a position or a page. As far as reporting goes, we monitor anchor text but try not to make it a big focus for the specialists. This leads nicely into link placement.
Contextual, editorial links are easy to build and work into an article, but getting them to stick is a struggle. For that reason, placement is honestly low on my list of considerations given the following dilemma: if you’re building contextual links in contributed content, you don’t want the link to stick out like a sore thumb during the editing process. You want to blend it in all while making it helpful and useful to the user. If the specialist has any sort of control over this, I ask them to consider how well the words surrounding the link entice the reader to click on it and aim to place links closer to the top of an article where the reader may be more likely to engage.
With standard resource list link building, a good specialist can sweet talk a webmaster into putting their link at the top of a list of helpful resources, but in general, prime placement will come with better relationships where trust has been established.
I don’t give new specialists any link targets until they earn their first handful of links. At that point, I show them their site’s link framework and make sure their SEO is updating their list of “target link destinations” for them to focus on. Again, relevant links to random pages are great for boosting overall domain authority slowly over time, but a relevant link to your money-making pages is gold.
With Google’s core algorithm straight-up ignoring (rather than penalizing) sites with shady or questionable links, I say relevance or bust when it comes to link building! Don’t let your specialists waste time earning irrelevant links to hit their link numbers, even if it’s a top-tier link.
Follow vs. no-follow
Follow links are always preferable for SEO’s sake, but if your no-follows drive any sort of qualified referral traffic, I say keep ‘em comin’. This role is a PR/SEO blend, afterall. Don’t forget the PR part!
Links don’t have to be clicked to be valuable, but how could they not be considered more valuable if people actually use them?! We’ll talk more about referrals in the next section.
My general sentiment around links? When the barrier to entry to earn a relevant link on a trustworthy site is high—i.e. the site has a strenuous editorial process or you really had to advocate for the placement of it—it’s worth going after!
Just my two cents: Your SEOs shouldn’t be building your links! Not only is the skillset of an SEO vastly different from that of a digital PR specialist, but digital PR is a full-time job, and once again, it’s not just about link building. Let your SEOs focus on the technical optimizations, and get your digital PRs to focus on research, relationships, writing, content creation, and affecting the linkability of your core content.
2. Referral traffic from links
Qualified or unqualified, referral traffic is a little surprise that good digital PR and content promotion will earn you. Google’s goal has and always will be to provide users with the most relevant and useful information, and as such, we need to create relevant, useful content and earn relevant, useful links to that content.
If you do that, you should naturally earn referral traffic, right? Not always. You need something to facilitate that connection between your brand, your content, and the places online where your audience is living and engaging (ahem, it’s called digital PR!).
Short story: In my link building days of yore, nobody cared if people clicked our links. All we ever talked about was link quantity, anchor text, and PageRank. So when one of my guest posts (the good kind, calm down!) drove 100 referrals to my brand AND the users stuck around on the site for more than a minute, I was thrilled. In fact, I [naively] thought I’d cracked the code on outreach, officially turning it into a direct revenue driving channel.
Well, not quite. Here’s what to expect and measure on the referral traffic front.
Referral traffic from contextual links
High-quality guest posts or “contributed posts” (better?!) can drive decent amounts of referral traffic to your site, but it’s sporadic and not a traffic source you can depend on. When it happens, great! Analyze the heck out of everything from the publication’s audience, to the article title, to link placement, to anchor text and destination URL, and the number and type of other outbound links within that article.
Use that information to help you improve placement in future contributed posts. Again, where there’s significant, qualified referral traffic, DA doesn’t mean diddly squat! There is authority in utility, and those are two of your site’s core link needs!
Referral traffic from content promotion
The majority of our referral traffic from digital PR efforts comes from content creation and promotion. This is when big publications pick up our content and users click to view the original source of the piece.
This traffic is only as qualified as your content is relevant to your products and services. What makes content appeal to the masses and the journalists who have access to them isn’t always as closely tied to your products or services as you’d like, and that’s okay. Even if the traffic isn’t 100% qualified, referral traffic from coverage means that the links exist and they’re drawing people to your brand one way or another.
3. Brand awareness
Ok, I lied. This isn’t a KPI that you can always effectively measure. It is, however, something that just happens if you optimize your site well for the terms you need to rank for and then activate a digital PR plan that focuses on KPIs 1 and 2.
While accurate attribution to digital PR efforts is an ongoing challenge, consistent content creation and promotion will likely result in increases in direct traffic over time.
Another way to measure brand awareness, aside from monitoring rankings, is to track search volume for your brand, domain, or product over time. Keep in mind that this isn’t a reliable measurement for all sites, especially not young brands or those with keyword-based domains, like Reviews.org.
4. Tracking & reporting
If you have more than three specialists doing outreach, I recommend a tool like Buzzstream to keep track of your links and the relationships built to earn them. If you have less than three digital PR specialists, you can just use a master Google Sheet that is split up into tabs by brand.
Link tracking document:
Individual monthly reporting:
Each specialist is responsible for reporting on their monthly links and referral traffic numbers by the first week of every month.
Managerial monthly reporting:
*Estimated market value: As a way to quantify the value of digital PR and the estimated market value of the links we build, we assign an estimated market value to our links. A quick Google search for ‘link building services’ will point you to many vendors building links for hire. Through some industry research of our own, we have looked at local and national link vendors’ pricing and assigned an average dollar amount to links in three categories: low, mid, and top tier.
This helps marketing managers and senior leadership grasp the value of our links and the total amount it would cost if we were to hire a link vendor to do the work for us. For example, in 2017 our digital PR team built a total of 6,717 links with an estimated market value of $5,547,000, which doesn’t even come near the cost to employ those 20 specialists!
To conclude, the way you measure and celebrate the success of your outreach efforts—and the words you use to do so—will change the way your digital PR specialists work and the lens through which they view success.
As the search landscape evolves, so too will your KPIs. Ensure that your digital PR and SEO teams are linked at the hip, constantly re-evaluating what to measure and why so that both teams have a clear understanding of their actual impact on the bottom line.