Searching the Library of Babel

Giant library stretches to infinity

You might have seen the analogy of the web as a library. After taking a search engine optimization (SEO) class, you will forgive us if we were reminded of the Library of Babel by J. L. Borges, filled with books with every possible combination of the same 25 symbols, including all the meaningless combinations but also one that tells your future with perfect accuracy.

“There are official searchers,” says Borges. Would those be your SEO pros? “I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs…” Yup, that sounds like SEO pros. One of the (pleasant) surprises of learning about SEO was finding out that pros seem to form a generous community that shares their practices and findings, which change constantly as the web grows.   

Vote of Confidence

One thing that SEO pros have established with some confidence is that an external website linking back to your website is a vote of confidence that can improve how you rank on search engines. This finding was quickly abused in the early days of the web by the practice of creating pages filled with millions of random links to make target pages rank higher (you can see why we thought of the Library of Babel). Google changed its algorithm to address the abuse, giving this now famous update the code name “Penguin.”

Google’s intervention rewarded the quality of backlinks and not just its quantity. SEO tools company Moz helpfully codified the quality in a metric they called domain authority (DA), a score of 0 to 100 which predicts how well a website will rank on search results based on the domains linking to it and other factors. Google does not use DA to rank your website, but Moz has been correct and DA correlates well with search rankings. You can see results when you aim for a DA of 50 or higher.

Comparing Link Building to PR

Verb’s DA was a dismal 11 last time we checked. To improve on it, you need a link building strategy, which sounds a lot like PR when you look at it:

Link Building StrategySimilar PR Strategy
Get your customers to link to youCustomer referral program
Build a company blog; make it a valuable, informative, and entertaining resourceCorporate blog
Create content that inspires viral sharing and natural linkingExecutive communications, spokesperson training, crisis management (when negative)
Be newsworthyPress release
Discover competitors’ common backlinksCompetitive media analysis, share of voice
Just AskPitching

We are not the first ones to find that link building looks like PR. Rand Fishkin says that the practice is sometimes also called “Digital PR.” Fishkin is the longtime founder of Moz, already back from searching the library as a profession when we got around to our SEO class, so we take him at his word. But imagine our surprise when we saw him grapple with the same odious problem of what to call important stuff in our profession:

Rand, don’t be too exasperated: we once were in a PRSA meeting where 400 delegates voted if our association should invite other professionals from disciplines in “communication” or in “communications” (in plural). Just today we had a long conversation about calling a campaign “sponsored content” instead of “syndicated content.” We feel you.

Beyond Link Building

More important is what business Fishkin decided to start after leaving Moz. His new company SparkToro wants to help you “instantly discover what your audience reads, watches, listens-to, and follows.” Audience targeting is at the core of PR too, so Fishkin’s new venture seems even more closely related to PR than Moz.  

SparkToro even has a “press” tab. Fishkin explains how to use it to Discover the Press/Media Sources that reach your audience. As Fishkin says, this can help PR people avoid the Wall Street Journal problem, when stakeholders want to appear in the same top media that everyone else wants to be in. Verb’s team is ex-Wall Street Journal, so we had our share of the question “Can you get us in the WSJ?” (Answer: “No.”)

Link building is just one aspect of SEO. Keyword research is another huge part of SEO, and there are others critical parts. For example, Technical SEO is an entire subdiscipline tasked with finding out how your site’s loading speed, URL structure, code, and other backend elements affect how much traffic you get from search results. Other parts of SEO show how the discipline continues to evolve.

Just Keep Moving Forward

One trend that SEO pros are following now is how Google uses “inferred links,” or the inclusion of related people, terms, and pages on search results without actual links between them, just by mentions in the content of websites. This alone is a great reason to buy a Verb subscription to get your company news out in a constant rhythm that keeps you on top of the news cycle.

Another trend that SEO pros are tracking is the rate at which people click on search results to visit pages outside Google. Since search results offer much richer information that they used to, you don’t often need to actually click on a link to find out the answer you are looking for. That of course limits the traffic that web pages get from search results. It’s yet another reason to offer answers to your audience’s current topics of interest in additional formats such as video.

Despite the constant changes, Fishkin points out that SEO remains the most popular marketing discipline compared to PR and others as measured by people’s Google searches. As the Library of Babel, the web might not be infinite, but it constantly recreates itself, keeping us all forever in motion.