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Digital PR Strategy: Building a Kickass Campaign

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Digital PR Strategy: Building a Kickass Campaign

Since Google News debuted in September 2002, I’ve created or co-created the digital PR strategy that produced kickass campaign results for various clients.

That list includes The Christian Science Monitor, Get City Dealz, Harlequin Enterprises, Parents magazine, Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference & Expo series, Southwest Airlines, and Rutgers University.

I initially used a five-step process for crafting digital PR strategies.

But, that’s evolved into a seven-step process as I’ve learned what worked (and what didn’t) from producing digital PR campaigns for clients with different business goals and marketing objectives.

Now, I wouldn’t describe this seven-step process as a digital PR strategy template.

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Why? Because one size does not fit all.

However, it’s a tried-and-true framework for helping a wide variety of B2B and B2C organizations to:

  • Create brand awareness.
  • Generate demand and/or leads.
  • Increase sales and/or revenue.
  • Support the launch of a new product.
  • Build a subscribed audience.
  • Drive attendance to one or more in-person or virtual events, or
  • Provide a return on marketing investment (ROMI).

Now, I wish that I could claim authorship for this framework.

But, that honor goes to Aristotle, who wrote his classic “Nicomachean Ethics” in the 4th Century BCE.

His “elements of circumstance” were: who, what, when, where, why, in what way, and by what means.

All I’ve done is apply them to craft successful digital public relations strategies and campaigns in the 21st Century.

Let’s examine each of the seven steps.

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1. Who Are Your Target Audiences?

When you create a digital PR campaign, the first question you should ask is: “Who are my target audiences?”

Your answer should include “the public” as well as “the press.”

Why? Because the best digital PR campaigns put “the public” into public relations.

Before the beta version of Google News was launched in September 2002, the press was the only target audience for traditional PR campaigns.

But, Google News did something that shifted the paradigm: For the English language, it crawled and indexed over 4,000 sites, including multiple press release distribution services.

That allowed the public, as well as the press, to use Google News to search for and discover product and company news based on their search intent and interests.

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It’s worth noting that the vast majority of Google News users are not members of the press. They are members of the public.

Over time, this ratio has tilted even more towards the public.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, “Newsroom employment in the United States has dropped by 26% since 2008.”

In 2008, there were about 114,000 total newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers – in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable, and digital news publishers.

By 2020, that number had dropped to about 85,000: a loss of about 30,000 jobs.

So, consider why your target audiences should include the public – consumers or business buyers.

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In April 2020, Rand Fishkin and Casey Henry launched SparkToro: an audience research tool that gives me crucial information about any online audience in seconds.

That information includes:

  • Demographics: Gender, age, and education.
  • Firmographics: Employment and skills.
  • Top words in bios: How they describe themselves.

For example, I used SparkToro and quickly found 844 people who frequently talk about “digital PR strategy.”

The tool provided a detailed breakdown of my audience by gender identity and age range.

Screenshot from SparkToro, August 2022

Beyond this, SparkToro provided me with data about my audience’s level of Education – whether they have an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s, a doctorate, or if their education is unknown – and their academic majors.

But demographics rarely tell the whole story. Fortunately, SparkToro also revealed this audience’s firmographics.

For example, 34% work in the marketing and advertising industry, while 31% work in public relations and communications. I can also see their years of experience in their respective fields.

In addition, 83% of this audience mentioned social media as one of their skills, 76% mentioned social media marketing, 74% mentioned marketing, and 73% mentioned public relations.

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Finally, 17% of this audience use the word “agency” in their bio/profile/about fields on social platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

And 11% use “digital PR,” 10% “marketing PR,” and 9.5% “communications.”

This gives me a clearer picture of who this target audience is.

And it works for other target audiences, too.

2. What Is Their News Search Intent?

Given the profile I’ve built of this target audience, they will likely know how to use Google News and Google’s other “news surfaces” to find press releases, images, and videos from some of the companies and organizations that matter to them.

And based on the keyword research and audience research that I’ve conducted, their news search intent is often different from their web search intent.

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For example, if you use Google Trends to explore a search term or a topic like “digital PR strategy,” you’ll see sporadic interest in the US over the past 12 months.

But, if you click on the web search tab and select news search instead, you’ll see, “Hmm, your search doesn’t have enough data to show here.”

So, what’s the alternative?

Go to Google News and start typing the same search term or topic.

Google’s autocomplete feature will generate predictions that help people save time by allowing them to quickly complete the search they already intended to do.

As you will see from the image below, people not only search for “digital PR strategy,” but they also search for “digital PR strategy template” because they haven’t learned that they need a framework instead.

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Google News autocompleteScreenshot from search for [digital pr strategy], Google, August 2022

But, it’s worth noting that many of autocomplete’s predictions are for variations of “digital marketing strategy.”

Why?

Because many educated and experienced users of Google News have discovered over time that there’s a dearth of relevant news or interesting stories about the topic of “digital PR strategy.”

So, they’ve learned to broaden their searches instead.

You can also use SparkToro to see a similar phenomenon.

Although the tool identified 844 people who frequently talk about “digital PR strategy,” when you examine the top hashtags that they’ve used on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook over the past three to four months, they are #digitalmarketing, #contentmarketing, #advertising, #branding, and #socialmediamarketing.

And the most frequently used phrases they used were “marketing strategy,” “influencer marketing,” “account manager,” “customer service,” and “marketing trends.”

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SparkToro hashtagsScreenshot from SparkToro, August 2022

 

So, you often need to go beyond what the keyword research tools can tell you when determining your target audiences’ news search intent.

Sometimes, you might go broader.

But, other times, you might want to remind yourself that 15% of searches conducted every day are ones Google hasn’t seen before.

Where do these brand-new search terms come from? Breaking news, most likely.

3. When Do They Conduct News Searches?

The next step in creating a kickass digital PR campaign is learning when your target audiences are more likely to conduct news searches.

One strategy is called “newsjacking.”

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David Meerman Scott coined the term in 2011, and the Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted it as one of their “Words of the Year” in 2017.

According to Scott:

“Newsjacking is the art and science of injecting your ideas into a breaking news story so you and your ideas get noticed.”

He adds,

“When there is news in your marketplace reporters and analysts are looking for experts to comment on the story. Newsjacking gets you media attention.”

If you want more information about this digital PR strategy and examples of how to strike at the right time, read Scott’s book, “Newsjacking.”

He explains when a digital PR strategist should newsjack, and why this strategy favors players who are observant, quick to react, and skilled at communicating.

Or, if you want a quick preview, watch this short video from his publisher, Wiley.

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Another strategy is to leverage the seasonal calendar that many retailers use to plan for the year ahead.

A typical seasonal calendar for U.K. retailers includes:

  • Valentine’s Day.
  • Mother’s Day.
  • Father’s Day.
  • Summer Sales.
  • Back to School.
  • Black Friday.
  • Holiday Season.

Or, you can create your own tentpole event to promote the launch of a new product.

Traditionally, tentpole events were used by movie studios to promote their big blockbusters each year.

But in July 1987, the Discovery Channel borrowed the concept to promote “Shark Week.”

My favorite campaign was: “Shark Week 2013 Promo – Snuffy the Seal.”

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4. Where Do They Conduct News Searches?

In the early days of what was then called “online PR,” the primary place where target audiences could find your press release was Google News.

Today, Google has several different “news surfaces,” including Google News, News in Google Search, Discover, News on YouTube, and News on Google Assistant.

If you want to learn how to optimize your news for each of these surfaces, then read Google News Optimization: How to Boost Your Site’s Visibility & Traffic.

But, when planning your next digital PR campaign, it’s wise to broaden your perspective.

For example, SparkToro reveals that 52% of the people who talk about “digital PR strategy” are located in the U.S. It also breaks down where in the world the other 48% are located.

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If you’re planning to drive attendance to one or more in-person events, you should leverage SparkToro’s audience research to see where they’re located.

And you shouldn’t forget the press.

SparkToro discloses which press accounts this audience reads, YouTube channels they watch, and podcasts they listen to.

SparkToro podcastsScreenshot from SparkToro, August 2022

The tool also identifies the social accounts they follow and engage with most and the websites they visit frequently.

It often makes sense to pitch your story – under a news or press embargo – to these journalists, social media influencers, and other key opinion leaders – before distributing your optimized press release.

Why?

Because many of these news sources will honor the embargo to receive advanced knowledge of details and can prepare their reports to coincide with the announcement date and yet still “scoop” their competition.

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5. Why Does Your News Matter To Your Target Audiences?

The next question you should ask is: “Why would my news matter to my target audiences?”

In other words, is your subject line or headline newsworthy enough to get their attention, and is your pitch or story compelling enough to get them to respond?

In far too many cases, they aren’t – which explains why so few digital PR campaigns generate kickass results.

In fact, the Propel Media Barometer for Q2 2022 analyzed a sample of nearly 400,000 real pitches to figure out what makes up the “perfect” pitch today.

They found journalists open less than 36% of the PR pitches they receive. And, the press only responds to about 3 out of every 100 pitches they receive.

Although similar data isn’t available to the public, it seems reasonable to assume that your customers click on just a fraction of the headlines they find in news search results and respond to only a small percentage of the stories they read.

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So, you may need to conduct some tests to better understand why your news matters to your target audiences.

For example, we teamed up with Get City Dealz and Business Wire in 2013 for such a test.

We wanted to see which would generate better results for three local merchants promoting their best daily deals in New Orleans: an online video news release, a photo press release, or a release without multimedia.

The release with a video had 55.4% more release views and 36.1% more link clicks, and the release with a photo had 4.6% more release views and 7.1% more link clicks than the release with no multimedia.

That won us the award for the “Best Use of PR in a Search Campaign” at the inaugural U.S. Search Awards, as well as the “SNCR Excellence in New Communications Award” in the Visual Media Category of the Corporate Division for our “solid campaign with impressive metrics and accurate attribution.”

But, we could generate kickass results because the target audiences for all three press releases were more than 1 million tourists and 5,000 media members converging on New Orleans for two major events: the “Big Game” and Mardi Gras.

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We used Google’s Campaign URL Builder to add campaign parameters to URLs in the three releases, so we could measure our Custom Campaigns in Google Analytics.

That enabled us to see a 407% increase in organic search traffic in February over January.

We also saw an 85% increase in referral traffic in February over January – coming from news sites like Yahoo! Finance, Reuters, and social media like Facebook and Pinterest.

Plus, we distributed the releases on successive Saturdays, and the number of unique visitors to GetCityDealz.com on weekends doubled in February over January.

The online video news release for Jazzy Nola featured some unique wine tumblers made in a distinctly New Orleans style with a gold fleur-de-lis imprinted on the tumbler.

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The release helped sell out wine tumblers, which were great for tourists and visitors wandering the French Quarter during “The Big Game” or on the Mardi Gras parade route.

The online video news release also mentioned that Jazzy Nola was promoting their Roger Goodell (Commissioner of the National Football League) voodoo dolls.

At the press conference before “The Big Game,” the media asked Goodell about the voodoo dolls, and he joked that he’d read about them. They also sold out in a matter of days.

Who, what, when, and where often influence why your news matters to your target audiences.

6. In What Way Can You Change Hearts, Minds, And Actions?

In ”Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle said we must act voluntarily to be held morally responsible.

Today, your target audiences feel and think they’re in control of what they do.

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For example, SparkToro shows us all accounts share stories from media sources and news websites with high levels of factual reporting, the credibility of information, and the consistency with which their content passes fact checks.

The people who talk about “digital PR strategy” have even higher levels.

SparkToro factual sharing statisticsScreenshot from SparkToro, August 2022

So, how can you ethically change their hearts, minds, and actions?

Start by reading What Is a Content Marketing Matrix & Do We Need One?

It explains that a content marketing matrix is a planning tool.

Below is one that I crafted and contributed to Guy Kawasaki, who included it in his book, “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions.”

Content marketing matrixImage created by author, August 2022

As you can see, this Content Marketing Matrix had only two dimensions:

  • Awareness to action on the horizontal axis.
  • Rational to emotional on the vertical axis.

And a digital PR strategist can use one to create news content that will enchant the press and the public.

Just use one of the four quadrants – educate, entertain, enlighten, and inspire – as a starting point for deciding if your content will enchant the press based on their beats and the public based on their interests.

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Now, this is a big idea. According to Kawasaki,

“Enchantment is not about manipulating people…. And when done right, it’s more powerful than traditional persuasion, influence, or marketing techniques.”

He adds,

“In business and personal interactions, your goal is not merely to get what you want but to bring about a voluntary, enduring, and delightful change in other people.

By enlisting their own goals and desires, by being likable and trustworthy, and by framing a cause that others can embrace, you can change hearts, minds, and actions.”

For example: In cooperation with the Ministry of Economy and various entities concerned with tourism, culture, and heritage, the UAE Government Media Office launched the World’s Coolest Winter campaign in December 2020.

They distributed a press release to educate the press and the public about the country’s first domestic tourism campaign, which highlighted the wide variety of destinations in the Emirates worth visiting – to offset the dramatic drop in international tourists due to the global pandemic.

As part of the campaign, the New Media Academy teamed up in January 2021 with Beautiful Destinations to create “Let’s Go – The Emirates.”

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The goal was to enlighten the public about the UAE’s hidden gems with beautiful cinematic videos, so they would take action.

I should disclose that I’m an instructor at the New Media Academy, and five of my students are featured in this video.

The second season of the World’s Coolest Winter campaign was launched in December 2021.

It expanded on the previous year’s campaign by targeting both domestic and foreign tourists.

The second year’s campaign invited citizens and visitors to share their most beautiful experiences, adventures, and memorable moments across digital platforms in various parts of the Emirates.

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The campaign also asked influencers to create inspiring photo and video content like “A Winter Through My Eyes” to inspire tourists to take action.

The video’s description asks,

“Can a country be truly enjoyed by someone who cannot see? As the United Arab Emirates, we believe in making what seems impossible, possible. And this winter, we gave a young child, Clara, the opportunity to experience and enjoy the World’s Coolest Winter in the UAE.”

That’s how you can change hearts, minds, and actions in an ethical way.

7. By What Means Can You Measure Your Results?

Aristotle also wanted ethical people to understand by what means or how they achieved their ends. And today, measurement is so much more than counting.

As Katie Delahaye Paine says in her book “Measure What Matters,”:

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“Counting just adds things up and gets a total. Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices.”

She adds,

“Measurement of your processes and results … provides the data necessary to make sound decisions. It helps you set priorities, allocate resources, and make choices.

Without it, hunches and gut feelings prevail. Without it, mistakes get made and no one learns from them.”

For example, the first “World’s Coolest Winter” campaign generated:

  • More than 2,000 media reports reached over 20 million people across the world.
  • 215 million views of videos that captured UAE’s beauty.
  • 950,000 domestic tourists in 45 days.
  • 66% hotel occupancy rate vs. 58% in the U.S.
  • AED1 billion (US$272 million) of revenue for the UAE’s hospitality sector.

So, the UAE Government Media Office went far beyond counting the number of stories that mentioned their campaign.

They worked with hotels in the country to measure revenue per available room (REVPAR).

(REVPAR is calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate.)

After analyzing these business outcomes instead of their PR outputs, the second “World’s Coolest Winter” campaign generated:

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  • 71,000 photos and videos on social media.
  • 3 million tourists, up 36% from the year before.
  • A hotel occupancy rate of 73%, up from 66%.
  • 5 billion (US$408 million) for UAE hotels, up 50% from the first campaign.
  • Plus, US$11.5 million for a new initiative called “Warm Winter,” which extended humanitarian support to more than 110,000 refugees and people in need in Africa and the Arab world.

Now, that’s how you build a kickass campaign!

But, as I said earlier, there’s no digital PR strategy template.

You need to decide what really matters to your organization.

If you’re looking for metrics that you can use as KPIs (key performance indicators), then you should read:

Why? Because the last step in building a kickass campaign is measuring your results.

More resources: 


Featured Image: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

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Measuring Content Impact Across The Customer Journey

Understanding the impact of your content at every touchpoint of the customer journey is essential – but that’s easier said than done. From attracting potential leads to nurturing them into loyal customers, there are many touchpoints to look into.

So how do you identify and take advantage of these opportunities for growth?

Watch this on-demand webinar and learn a comprehensive approach for measuring the value of your content initiatives, so you can optimize resource allocation for maximum impact.

You’ll learn:

  • Fresh methods for measuring your content’s impact.
  • Fascinating insights using first-touch attribution, and how it differs from the usual last-touch perspective.
  • Ways to persuade decision-makers to invest in more content by showcasing its value convincingly.

With Bill Franklin and Oliver Tani of DAC Group, we unravel the nuances of attribution modeling, emphasizing the significance of layering first-touch and last-touch attribution within your measurement strategy. 

Check out these insights to help you craft compelling content tailored to each stage, using an approach rooted in first-hand experience to ensure your content resonates.

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Whether you’re a seasoned marketer or new to content measurement, this webinar promises valuable insights and actionable tactics to elevate your SEO game and optimize your content initiatives for success. 

View the slides below or check out the full webinar for all the details.

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

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How to Find and Use Competitor Keywords

Competitor keywords are the keywords your rivals rank for in Google’s search results. They may rank organically or pay for Google Ads to rank in the paid results.

Knowing your competitors’ keywords is the easiest form of keyword research. If your competitors rank for or target particular keywords, it might be worth it for you to target them, too.

There is no way to see your competitors’ keywords without a tool like Ahrefs, which has a database of keywords and the sites that rank for them. As far as we know, Ahrefs has the biggest database of these keywords.

How to find all the keywords your competitor ranks for

  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Organic keywords report

The report is sorted by traffic to show you the keywords sending your competitor the most visits. For example, Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword “mailchimp.”

Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.Mailchimp gets most of its organic traffic from the keyword, “mailchimp”.

Since you’re unlikely to rank for your competitor’s brand, you might want to exclude branded keywords from the report. You can do this by adding a Keyword > Doesn’t contain filter. In this example, we’ll filter out keywords containing “mailchimp” or any potential misspellings:

Filtering out branded keywords in Organic keywords reportFiltering out branded keywords in Organic keywords report

If you’re a new brand competing with one that’s established, you might also want to look for popular low-difficulty keywords. You can do this by setting the Volume filter to a minimum of 500 and the KD filter to a maximum of 10.

Finding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywordsFinding popular, low-difficulty keywords in Organic keywords

How to find keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter your competitor’s domain in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis reportCompetitive analysis report

Hit “Show keyword opportunities,” and you’ll see all the keywords your competitor ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap reportContent gap report

You can also add a Volume and KD filter to find popular, low-difficulty keywords in this report.

Volume and KD filter in Content gapVolume and KD filter in Content gap

How to find keywords multiple competitors rank for, but you don’t

  1. Go to Competitive Analysis
  2. Enter your domain in the This target doesn’t rank for section
  3. Enter the domains of multiple competitors in the But these competitors do section
Competitive analysis report with multiple competitorsCompetitive analysis report with multiple competitors

You’ll see all the keywords that at least one of these competitors ranks for, but you don’t.

Content gap report with multiple competitorsContent gap report with multiple competitors

You can also narrow the list down to keywords that all competitors rank for. Click on the Competitors’ positions filter and choose All 3 competitors:

Selecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank forSelecting all 3 competitors to see keywords all 3 competitors rank for
  1. Go to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer
  2. Enter your competitor’s domain
  3. Go to the Paid keywords report
Paid keywords reportPaid keywords report

This report shows you the keywords your competitors are targeting via Google Ads.

Since your competitor is paying for traffic from these keywords, it may indicate that they’re profitable for them—and could be for you, too.

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You know what keywords your competitors are ranking for or bidding on. But what do you do with them? There are basically three options.

1. Create pages to target these keywords

You can only rank for keywords if you have content about them. So, the most straightforward thing you can do for competitors’ keywords you want to rank for is to create pages to target them.

However, before you do this, it’s worth clustering your competitor’s keywords by Parent Topic. This will group keywords that mean the same or similar things so you can target them all with one page.

Here’s how to do that:

  1. Export your competitor’s keywords, either from the Organic Keywords or Content Gap report
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
Clustering keywords by Parent TopicClustering keywords by Parent Topic

For example, MailChimp ranks for keywords like “what is digital marketing” and “digital marketing definition.” These and many others get clustered under the Parent Topic of “digital marketing” because people searching for them are all looking for the same thing: a definition of digital marketing. You only need to create one page to potentially rank for all these keywords.

Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"Keywords under the cluster of "digital marketing"

2. Optimize existing content by filling subtopics

You don’t always need to create new content to rank for competitors’ keywords. Sometimes, you can optimize the content you already have to rank for them.

How do you know which keywords you can do this for? Try this:

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  1. Export your competitor’s keywords
  2. Paste them into Keywords Explorer
  3. Click the “Clusters by Parent Topic” tab
  4. Look for Parent Topics you already have content about

For example, if we analyze our competitor, we can see that seven keywords they rank for fall under the Parent Topic of “press release template.”

Our competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" clusterOur competitor ranks for seven keywords that fall under the "press release template" cluster

If we search our site, we see that we already have a page about this topic.

Site search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templatesSite search finds that we already have a blog post on press release templates

If we click the caret and check the keywords in the cluster, we see keywords like “press release example” and “press release format.”

Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"Keywords under the cluster of "press release template"

To rank for the keywords in the cluster, we can probably optimize the page we already have by adding sections about the subtopics of “press release examples” and “press release format.”

3. Target these keywords with Google Ads

Paid keywords are the simplest—look through the report and see if there are any relevant keywords you might want to target, too.

For example, Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter.”

Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp is bidding for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

If you’re ConvertKit, you may also want to target this keyword since it’s relevant.

If you decide to target the same keyword via Google Ads, you can hover over the magnifying glass to see the ads your competitor is using.

Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”Mailchimp's Google Ad for the keyword “how to create a newsletter”

You can also see the landing page your competitor directs ad traffic to under the URL column.

The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”The landing page Mailchimp is directing traffic to for “how to create a newsletter”

Learn more

Check out more tutorials on how to do competitor keyword analysis:

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Google Confirms Links Are Not That Important

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Google confirms that links are not that important anymore

Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed at a recent search marketing conference that Google needs very few links, adding to the growing body of evidence that publishers need to focus on other factors. Gary tweeted confirmation that he indeed say those words.

Background Of Links For Ranking

Links were discovered in the late 1990’s to be a good signal for search engines to use for validating how authoritative a website is and then Google discovered soon after that anchor text could be used to provide semantic signals about what a webpage was about.

One of the most important research papers was Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment by Jon M. Kleinberg, published around 1998 (link to research paper at the end of the article). The main discovery of this research paper is that there is too many web pages and there was no objective way to filter search results for quality in order to rank web pages for a subjective idea of relevance.

The author of the research paper discovered that links could be used as an objective filter for authoritativeness.

Kleinberg wrote:

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“To provide effective search methods under these conditions, one needs a way to filter, from among a huge collection of relevant pages, a small set of the most “authoritative” or ‘definitive’ ones.”

This is the most influential research paper on links because it kick-started more research on ways to use links beyond as an authority metric but as a subjective metric for relevance.

Objective is something factual. Subjective is something that’s closer to an opinion. The founders of Google discovered how to use the subjective opinions of the Internet as a relevance metric for what to rank in the search results.

What Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and shared in their research paper (The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine – link at end of this article) was that it was possible to harness the power of anchor text to determine the subjective opinion of relevance from actual humans. It was essentially crowdsourcing the opinions of millions of website expressed through the link structure between each webpage.

What Did Gary Illyes Say About Links In 2024?

At a recent search conference in Bulgaria, Google’s Gary Illyes made a comment about how Google doesn’t really need that many links and how Google has made links less important.

Patrick Stox tweeted about what he heard at the search conference:

” ‘We need very few links to rank pages… Over the years we’ve made links less important.’ @methode #serpconf2024″

Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted a confirmation of that statement:

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“I shouldn’t have said that… I definitely shouldn’t have said that”

Why Links Matter Less

The initial state of anchor text when Google first used links for ranking purposes was absolutely non-spammy, which is why it was so useful. Hyperlinks were primarily used as a way to send traffic from one website to another website.

But by 2004 or 2005 Google was using statistical analysis to detect manipulated links, then around 2004 “powered-by” links in website footers stopped passing anchor text value, and by 2006 links close to the words “advertising” stopped passing link value, links from directories stopped passing ranking value and by 2012 Google deployed a massive link algorithm called Penguin that destroyed the rankings of likely millions of websites, many of which were using guest posting.

The link signal eventually became so bad that Google decided in 2019 to selectively use nofollow links for ranking purposes. Google’s Gary Illyes confirmed that the change to nofollow was made because of the link signal.

Google Explicitly Confirms That Links Matter Less

In 2023 Google’s Gary Illyes shared at a PubCon Austin that links were not even in the top 3 of ranking factors. Then in March 2024, coinciding with the March 2024 Core Algorithm Update, Google updated their spam policies documentation to downplay the importance of links for ranking purposes.

Google March 2024 Core Update: 4 Changes To Link Signal

The documentation previously said:

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“Google uses links as an important factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

The update to the documentation that mentioned links was updated to remove the word important.

Links are not just listed as just another factor:

“Google uses links as a factor in determining the relevancy of web pages.”

At the beginning of April Google’s John Mueller advised that there are more useful SEO activities to engage on than links.

Mueller explained:

“There are more important things for websites nowadays, and over-focusing on links will often result in you wasting your time doing things that don’t make your website better overall”

Finally, Gary Illyes explicitly said that Google needs very few links to rank webpages and confirmed it.

Why Google Doesn’t Need Links

The reason why Google doesn’t need many links is likely because of the extent of AI and natural language undertanding that Google uses in their algorithms. Google must be highly confident in its algorithm to be able to explicitly say that they don’t need it.

Way back when Google implemented the nofollow into the algorithm there were many link builders who sold comment spam links who continued to lie that comment spam still worked. As someone who started link building at the very beginning of modern SEO (I was the moderator of the link building forum at the #1 SEO forum of that time), I can say with confidence that links have stopped playing much of a role in rankings beginning several years ago, which is why I stopped about five or six years ago.

Read the research papers

Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment – Jon M. Kleinberg (PDF)

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

Featured Image by Shutterstock/RYO Alexandre

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