Optimize Episode 027: Andrew Holland on Digital PR, Building Backlinks, and SEO Ranking Factors

Join Nate Matherson as he sits down with Andrew Holland for the twenty-seventh episode of the Optimize podcast. Andrew is the Director of SEO for JBH, a Digital PR and SEO agency for consumer brands. He spoke at this year's BrightonSEO San Diego, is the author of The Value of SEO, and is the creator of the Growth Through Content newsletter. In this episode, Andrew and Nate dive deep into Nate’s favorite topics: Digital PR and Link building. The pair discuss the strategy behind crafting and executing a successful campaign, the value of quality backlinks, and the common misconceptions surrounding nofollow links. Andrew also shares his thoughts on the SEO industry, its saturation, and what lies ahead for organic search in 2024. As a special bonus, Andrew talks about the power of building an audience on LinkedIn (he has 50k+ followers now!) and how you can maintain authenticity on the platform. Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions! Closing out the episode is our popular lightning round of questions! For more information, please visit www.positional.com or email us at podcast@positional.com.

Dec 6, 2023

Resources:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrew-holland-seo/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Zooglymedia

Book: https://www.amazon.com/Value-SEO-ILLUSTRATED-STORIES-IMPORTANCE/dp/1399918427

Newsletter: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/growth-through-content-7026534593612664832/

Important Links:

Agency Link: https://jbh.co.uk/

What to Listen For:

02:57 Andrew’s Background and Intro

06:11 Andrew shares his thoughts on the current state of organic search & SEO

12:09 Is Digital PR just a fancy way of saying link building?

15:42 Digital PR: types of content and campaigns to create for your clients

20:56 Do nofollow links matter?

25:02 What happens when you don’t get a link back? Is there still a lift in metrics?

28:39 How long does it take to see results from link building and Digital PR?

31:10 When building links what matters more: Quantity or relevance and quality?

33:37 How to pitch journalists successfully

36:38 Does buying backlinks still work in 2023/2024?

44:07 Andrew journey to cross 50k LinkedIn followers

46:06 LinkedIn posting strategy and cadence

48:18 Lightning question round

Episode Transcript

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

00:00

From a data perspective, I can absolutely 100% tell you categorically that no-foul links in certain publications and certain websites matter and have incredible, almost near instant effect on the websites that they featured in. And I've seen that in the data. I've seen links power rankings within a day. So, you know, and we can see it. Nothing else has gone on. Link's been landed, huge impact. And in some cases, going from way down in the SERPs to page one, and for various keywords, there's a lot to it. There's more to it than we could possibly probably understand because we're not computer scientists and not based on Google. But I think generally speaking, it works on the fact of quality of page, quality of content, quality of the content, the journalist, the website, everything. I think the word quality runs out throughout it. So I think more about quality than the actual link being followed, no follow, if that makes
sense.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

01:00

Hi and welcome to the Optimize podcast. My name is Nate Matherson and I am your host. On this weekly podcast, we sit down with some of the smartest minds in content marketing and SEO. Our goal is to give you perspective and insights on what's moving the needle in organic search. Today I'm thrilled to sit down with Andrew Holland. Andrew is the Director of SEO at JBH, a digital PR agency, or in other words, an agency that helps clients in the consumer brand space build backlinks through compelling PR campaigns. In our episode today, Andrew and I talk about one of my favorite topics, using digital PR as a scalable way to build high-quality and relevant backlinks. We go in-depth on the processes that he and his team follow at JBH, including crafting compelling narratives, and graphics, pitching journalists, and the impact of digital PR on rankings and performance

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Nate Matherson (Speaking):

Andrew, thank you so much for coming on the Optimize Podcast. How did you get into the world of content marketing and SEO?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

02:57

Well, firstly, thank you so much for having me and for that fantastic introduction. I hope I live up to that introduction. Yeah, so my background in SEO is really weird. I first learned SEO in the police as a police officer. So I was a police officer for just under 20 years. I started professional, my professional marking career at 36, so quite old. And how I got into it is when I was about 23, I'm going to say 22, 23, I went into a department called covert policing. And my job was to recruit informants for the police and develop an intelligence picture around organized crime groups. And we did that through recruiting informants, but we had an internal search engine. And my job was to take intelligence, to create content from that intelligence and place it onto that internal search engine, build links to the various entities for those SEO people that are watching this and listening to this who love the idea of semantic SEO and entities and all that kind of thing. That's what it was. It was an entity-based search engine. And then I had to promote that content to various policing teams because informants usually paid on results and our department certainly needed the results to showcase our value. And yeah, and that's how I did it. And it was SEO, we didn't call it SEO, we didn't think of it, it's network science. And then I left that role on the promotion wagon and then I started just naturally building websites, get interested in social media for some reason. I was just like pulled in that direction, built a load of websites for myself, had some success, did a bit of affiliate stuff as everyone does. And at this time, you know, you have kids and life's going on and I'm just doing this, I have no particular agenda to be it, become an SEO or anything like that. And then I developed really bad asthma. So I left the police on medical grounds because they just didn't want me outside anymore because I was too much of a risk. And then I started freelancing. And weirdly, I took numerous paid courses and that led me to various paid communities, one of which was the Neil Patel Advanced Marketing Program, the other one was the Brian Dean SEO Works Program and the various courses. And I just ended up getting results and getting better results for clients and things snowballed. I ended up with my own agency and that was very successful. I decided to sort of abandon that and go in-house. I went in and out of a large agency for just about a year and then had hundreds of clients and then I went to another agency which is where I'm at now, JBH. And that's like fast forwarded through about 20 years of background information. But yeah.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

05:26

Well, we're big fans of Brian Dean over here at Positional and on the Optimize podcast. And he's actually going to be a guest in a couple of weeks. So I'll have some interesting questions for him, hopefully prepared. And I might ping you after this if you've got one or two, I should definitely ask him. In this episode today, we're gonna talk about building backlinks through digital PR. It's actually one of my favorite topics and I think one of the most scalable ways to build high-quality and relevant backlinks to a website. And we've got a few questions to go through. We're gonna get pretty tactical and in-depth on the process that you and your team use at JBH. But first, before we talk about building backlinks, I do wanna ask you about all of the recent algorithm updates. I think there's been something like four in the last three months. What do you make of all of the changes happening in organic search?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

06:11

That is a challenging question. The way I would put it, and I would put it in very simple words, is I would describe the current algorithm updates as in progress. And something that at BrightonSEO San Diego where I was speaking at a couple of weeks ago. His name just escapes me and I know it so well, the Google search lays on-

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

06:31
Danny Sullivan.

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

06:32

Yeah, Danny Sullivan. That's it. Danny Sullivan spoke. And one of you said, he basically, words are like, get ready, more are coming. And it's quite clear that they can't roll out this improvement all at once because some of the results we're seeing aren't right, and I think we all know that. And I think there is anomalies out there and people celebrating their success. And I think Google's got a lot of work to do to improve itself as a search engine whilst battling SEOs who seem to take it upon themselves to actually try and destroy the search engine and how it works and manipulate it. So they're firing back. They've got to fire back. They've got to keep market share, they've got to keep people in search. And I understand that. And also, SEOs, as I put on LinkedIn a couple of weeks ago, you got SEOs who are moaning about all these updates, and at the same time, those same SEOs are going over to Twitter stroke X and talking about how they've just written 150 pieces of AI content, and they've uploaded to their site for $25. So we're on one, the right hand is moaning, and the left hand is the doing of or causing the problems. I think those updates are a challenge for us. But I also think that anyone who's only based in their marketing strategy around SEO needs also to consider other options. But I also see that people are winning and good brands are winning, good businesses are winning, good ethical businesses are winning, and ethical SEOs are. So it's not perfect, it's getting better. I think it will get better. I think we've got to, this is going to be a challenge for the effectiveness of SEO in a marketing format, and that's what I'd say.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

08:21

That was such an interesting conversation with Danny Sullivan. Maybe we can unpack a little bit more of that at the end of this episode in the lightning round, because there are a few things I think he said that I'd like to get your opinion on. And I promise in this episode, we're gonna talk mostly about building backlinks through digital PR, but I just have one quick follow-up. Did you see recently on like Twitter and LinkedIn that by word case study just go totally viral about like casual.app and like the, you know, AI-generated content strategy they use. And then did you see over like the last two days that the site has just been totally removed from the internet basically? It's like tanked. Like what do you make of that?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

09:01

Yeah, it's kind of weird really. So Jake Ward, I mean, listen, I don't know Jake Ward. I mean, we've messaged you a couple of times. I like some of the things that Jake's doing. I like some of the things he's doing with ByWord. I think there's definitely applications with AI content for in terms of he did a really cool post about baby names and stuff. Well, that's been going on for years, you know, dog names, baby names, data that's already out there that people use and put on websites, collections and things like that. It works. I think the problem with this case study is that I like the fact that Jake is pushing the barrier out there and pushing things. But what I think is this goes back to that Jeff Goldblum comment, just because we can doesn't mean we should
type of thing.
So the thing that I think that's happened here is that it's got the eye of search influencers who are probably well connected with Google. And also you've got a victim. And this is something we don't talk about with black hat SEO in terms of, or affiliate SEO or any kind of SEO tactics, is that we manipulate search. That's what SEOs really, honestly, do or tried to do, they manipulate search so to benefit themselves or a client, but it comes at a cost to somebody else because there's always a ranking issue. And what happened there is Jake used the words heist in his post, and then basically there was a victim who came online and entered the conversation. And that changed everything because all of a sudden we've got a crime and a victim and Jake's openly bragging about how he'd done it. And it's a bit like a bank robber bragging about how they broke in to the police. And it's a very interesting story. I am not anti-AI content. In fact, I'm very pro-AI everything. But also I think it brings up the conversations about responsibility and ethics. And also I think the traffic was junk for Causal because, you know, you've stole traffic, but it's got no meaning. And I refuse to believe any of that traffic added any value, any significant conversions. So I kind of think it was a wasted exercise, but good for the brand of ByWord because it got tons of views and attention. But equally now, that's probably burning them a little bit. So yeah, it's a tough one.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

11:11

Yeah. As SEO, we're all extremely paranoid. And the last thing I would want to do is like put Google on blast on social media to then have to go and take action. And if I'm causal, like I'm really pissed off. And if you know, Jake wants to come on the optimized podcast to talk more about this, we definitely can. But in the rest of our episode, I want to talk about building backlinks. I love building backlinks. I think they're super important. I tell like our early stage customers not to worry too much about building backlinks in the very beginning, because you need to do like the first two parts, right? You need to pick the right keywords, you know, create great content, but then building backlinks is kind of like pouring fuel on the fire and can just, you know, help accelerate traffic and rankings across the entire site. And I know that's what JBH spends a lot of time doing for its clients. My first question I have, JBH, they describe themselves as a digital PR agency. Is digital PR just a fancy way of saying link building or is there something more to this?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

12:09

Yeah, I mean, they describe themselves now as a digital PR and SEO agency, but yeah, a digital, I mean, this is quite a deep subject. So I mean, it's something that we can unpack if you want.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

12:21

We're going to unpack it.

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

12:22

Okay, I love it. So we've got the broad subjects of publicity, haven't we? And publicity has been around for a long, long, long time. And publicity is very effective to get the word out about your brand and tell people you exist. So at the core of all marketing, brands grow when they have sales and leads and profit. And they happen when you tell more people you exist. So that's at the heart of publicity. But the other side of publicity or public relations is improving the relationship the public has with your brand. And that's part of it. Now, you've got brand PR, you've got traditional PR. Where JBH has sort of found its niche initially is, I mean, it's been going for 10 years and they've done pretty much every type of work there is, but where it's found its niche is with this digital PR link building, as it's called. What I would say is that, yes, we do digital PR link building, and that's the main draw of what we do, but it's not just what happens with the links. It's more than that, and it's bigger. In fact, we have a little saying, we're more than just the links. And that's what we see happening with our campaigns. And digital PR is the fuel for your business. I always say SEO is like the pilot, and that's kind of my role with things. I help advise some of our clients, and we've got our own SEO clients. But the digital PR work with a lot of SEO managers and SEO seniors and things like that because they come in for backlinks. And it's quite interesting, the variations of views from the SEO managers that we've had work with JBH. And then, interestingly, across, when I speak to all the digital PR team who have been doing this for a long, long time, the variations of views and SEOs to them is even bigger. So it just sort of explains to me that we've got a whole multitude of views on links out
there. Some people view links as a numbers game still, some people view links as very binary, do follow, no follow, you know, that type of thing. And we see on the other side, we see data that's sort of changing our view on SEO and link building, and it's sort of aligning with what's happening with the Google changes and the improvements in Google as well. So I think I would say it's digital public relations, but the core result of what people come to us for is the link building, but realistically what they come for is the results. That's what people want. They want the increased rankings and traffic and brand awareness, and those are the things that we deliver.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

14:50

Yeah, at our first company, we basically on like a bi-weekly basis, we're publishing like a new survey or report or piece of data that we would then go and take to journalists to tell a story and pitch our brand and our company and our data to that journalist. And we use this strategy to get covered in basically every major media outlet. It was super successful for us in terms of building backlinks. And we always called it data-driven link building, internally at least, but I think it's the same thing as like digital PR. But it's been a few years since I've actually run like a digital PR, data-driven link building strategy. At our company, we always use data as like a way to tell stories. Has much changed in the last few years? Is like creating data and then pitching that data still like the core to a digital PR strategy? Or are there other types of content and campaigns you're creating with your clients?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

15:42

Yeah, of course. So, I mean, you've got different PR agencies and link building agencies approach it very differently. And I would say you've got reactive, you know, as people would call that harrow link building mostly in the US, there are other platforms in the UK and things like that. So you've got reactive where journalists are out there, you know, the general request on Twitter and things like that. You've got proactive where you're going to journalists with ideas and you've got big data campaigns like you're talking about here with the surveys. And then I'd also add in, you've got creative. So there's a lot of people doing this. We don't particularly do this, but there's a lot of people doing very highly creative campaigns, you know, and which are designed to get massive attention. But there's obviously a huge risk of failure if they don't take off as well, because they take a lot of work, a lot more money, a lot more budget, and a lot more risk. But I've always been a big fan of businesses taking risks with their marketing.
But yeah, you are right.
What I would say is essentially it's harder to get links. There's more noise out there. There's more people fighting for journalists' inboxes. There's more people who are onto this game. We know, I know a lot of people are faking it. There's a lot of black hat going on in digital PR now with AI. There's a lot of people using AI stuff. So like anything, the marketers ruin everything and SEOs, we definitely ruin a lot. And yeah, so digital PR is pretty much the same. I would think the creative side is probably bigger. But if I'm honest with you, all the things we're talking about were done hundreds of years ago anyway to do as part of publicity. We're not doing anything new. It's just the perhaps the mediums and the way the amount of places we can send that information is far bigger because we've got far more blogs, far more websites, far more journalists, far more platforms, whereas before there was only a few newspapers and radio shows and things like that. So the reason why I think digital PR is perhaps even getting more effective is because of the volume, but it is also getting harder.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

17:36

Yeah, so at our company, we kind of had like a factory line. Like, step one was to like identify a popular narrative in the media. So we tried to like tap into things people were already talking about. So for example, if it was like, you know, the start of the NFL football season and everyone was gearing up for fantasy football, we might want to do some sort of like survey or report or interesting graphic around like the fantasy football season. And we found that tapping into those narratives that people were already talking about led to more links, more coverage, and it was a lot easier to pitch that story to journalists. So we'd first come up with the narrative. The next step was either creating data by conducting a survey or finding data, and then creating a report in graphics and pitching it to journalists. That's how we did things. I'd be curious to learn more about the process that JBH uses with its clients when a new client comes in, they're like, hey, we want digital PR, we wanna build some backlinks. What does that process look like for you guys to take the client and ultimately get them to the finish line?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

18:43

I'm gonna be so SEO right now and say, it depends on the client. That is the truth. So you're right, first of all, what you've described is exactly digital PR, but everyone comes in with a different spin of SEO and that's part of the uniqueness of serving clients because you can have an SEO manager that comes in that is obsessed with do-follows, is obsessed with follow links, it's completely, doesn't even care about, it's not like, it hates them and that places a different challenge of what kind of campaign you've got to get. You can have another person come in and say, right, we want brand. Brand is what we want. We want to focus on brand. Yes, if we get links, brilliant, but we just want brand awareness and people to think about our brand differently and to learn more about us. So in truth, the process is you start with what the client wants, and then you have to ideate some strategies. And then it always falls back for us because we don't do the big creative pieces. It always falls down on those three categories of reactive, proactive, and data-led activity. And some people have just the reactive. Some people have reactive and proactive. Some people have all of it put together and they want the world, and that's fantastic for us. So I think the actual how we do things very much depends on what the client wants. But very often, and this is the weird thing, is that it's not based on anything other than what the SEO's world view of SEO is. And I'm not here to say what's right or wrong for SEOs out to think, because they ultimately have to dictate this to their bosses and performance and things. So they'll come to us for a certain type of approach or certain type of link or certain way in which they've got the idea of links. And then that's what up towards trying to deliver it through the media. And all digital PR really is, is trying to leverage the media to increase the exposure of a business and brand, whilst also gaining the SEO benefits that come from that relationship.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

20:36

I have four very tactical and specific follow-up questions. The first is no follow links. Like, you know, we're in this to build some links. You know, I like to follow links. I personally don't mind nofollow links. But in your opinion, do you think nofollow links are still somewhat valuable to build through a digital PR strategy?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

20:56

Yeah, this is a very timely conversation to be fair, because we have this conversation all the time with clients. So I'll say this on the record and publicly say, that anyone who's saying that nofollow links don't have value probably hasn't done enough SEO and deep enough to have that really stern view, and that's not me criticizing anybody, because everyone comes in at different parts. People fall into SEO and the only thing that you get with experience in SEO is data and constantly looking at data that changes your opinion, changes opinion. If you just go after do follow links and that's your obsession, you will always only see what do follow links do. If you go after links which are no follow, you will see what no follow links do and occasionally these data, these things happen. I'm in a really privileged position of working as an SEO inside a digital PR agency, so I get to see all the data. And I can tell you uncategorically that nofollow links, when they come from certain websites, have power. And it's more than just the nofollow, it's the page. It's the page, the quality, the journalist, the website. There's so much more than just the links. And I know Google came out and said, links aren't even in the top three ranking factors. And I thoroughly understand where they're coming from because it's not, there's far more going on with links than just follow, no follow. And we kind of, as human beings, as SEOs, we try to pull this down to its core part and understand that Google's a ridiculously complicated machine. So if we break do follow, no follow down, if, as something Rand Fishkin said years ago, in fact, it's about two years ago when he talked about the power of brand mentions. Now, brand mentions to me are the new backlinks, and that's what somebody actually said at San Diego recently, a language and LLM expert. The reason why I think what's going on here is, if Google gave the power of DoFollow and NoFollow, Follow, NoFollow I would say to SEOs, we could manipulate the web. And that's what's been going on on a paid basis. Well, that would manipulate, that's giving the power of Google's product to SEOs and in-house SEOs and things. That's a pretty powerful thing. What I suspect happens is Google has the right to ignore the nofollow attributes and do what it likes with the links. And it does that generally based on the source and a range of other page quality factors that go into this mix. From a data perspective, I can absolutely 100% tell you categorically that no file links in certain publications and certain websites matter and have incredible, almost near instant effect on the websites that they are featured in. And I've seen that in the data. I've seen links power rankings within a day. So we can see it. Nothing else has gone on, links have been landed, huge impact on the lead. In some cases, going from way down in the search to page one. For various keywords, there's a lot to it. There's more to it than we could possibly probably understand because we're not computer scientists, they're not based on Google. But I think generally speaking, it works on the fact of quality of page, quality of content, quality of the content, the journalist, the website, everything. I think the word quality runs out throughout it. So I think more about quality than the actual link being followed, no follow, if that makes sense.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

24:21

Totally. And you've stolen tactical questions two and three, but I want to touch on them really quickly. Tactical question number two was brand. Say we like, you know, create one of these data-driven pieces of content, or it's a, you know, a creative campaign, you know, intended to build backlinks, and a journalist, let's say, you know, Bloomberg, writes about like our report and our company. Still, they don't include a link to us, whether it's dofollow or nofollow, there's just no link. But they do write this really nice article about our brand. It sounds like what you're saying is that brand coverage would still have a positive lift on the overall performance of our page or our website. Is that right?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

25:02

100%. And there are loads of reasons for this. And so I think it was Brittany Muller pronouncing the name right. I'd have to go and try and find the name. But in Brightness of San Diego, she made a point where she said brand mentions are the new backlinks. And she talked about this because the LLMs are trained on the biggest websites in the world, and if you can get featured as a brand mention on those websites, they're going to be consuming your data to understand who you are. From a semantic sort of entity-based SEO side of things, Google wants to know who you are. Google wants to know what you are and repetition is everything. And also where your name is repeated matters, I've got no doubt about that because it's logical because you've got to tell people you exist and the only way you can do that is through marketing and marketing public relation digital PR is marketing. I think what there is, there is definitely some anecdotal evidence, we can talk about how ILMs are built and things like that that make the brand links are going to be, your brand mentions are going to be more important in the future. But generally speaking, it makes sense to get yourself out there and we use a metrical share of search, which is a leading marketing indicator, and we can do it on brand and buyer intent keywords. And what we tend to find is we see after successful PR campaigns, a huge uplift in brand search for some. I mean, some it's just 10, 20%, which isn't necessarily a lot, but what happens is you get a little bit of search and if you think to yourself, if you're like, let's say you're a product and it's Christmas, you get featured in a newspaper, you don't get the link, there's no link, it's just a brand mention, but your really cool product is talked about or your business, well, there's no way to link to you. What they'll do is they'll just, people open up a new tab and they look for it if it's something they want, or they really want that. So we definitely see as a result of no follows or even brand mentions, we see an impact, which is brand search increase. There's a direct correlation between the brand search and the public relations exposure. And we know Google's using traffic and click-through data. That's all come out of the trial recently that we talked about. So yeah, brand mentions do change people's search behavior, whether we like to admit it or not. And that search behavior, I believe, feeds into other ranking factors that we're not probably aware of. So, you know, ultimately I think it is all part of this nice picture where brand mentions, we try to break it down into follow, no follow, and brand mentions are a waste of time. But actual fact is I think brand mentions are incredibly powerful, but also not necessarily for the ways we think they are. From a ranking factor, I think they're gonna be more powerful in the future, I do think that. But I think what happens with brand mentions is they encourage search activity and user interaction, which changes things on an algorithmic scale for a website.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

27:47

Yeah, this is one of those parts of SEO where there might be a direct correlation to a positive ranking factor, and then there's likely indirect correlations to other positive ranking factors. And as you described, like could Google's algorithms be seeing that brand mention generally as a positive ranking factor? Sure, but also like you described, like if those brand mentions are leading to more branded search, then maybe that is also a positive ranking signal and maybe those two things compound together. And then my third question, which you touched on briefly was timing. Like say we run one of these digital PR campaigns, we build a bunch of do follow, no follow, brand mentions. How long does it take to actually see a positive impact on the performance of our pages and search? Is it instantaneous? Does it take two weeks, two months? What's the delay, if any?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

28:39

On the data that I'm seeing on my side, some of it is instant. Some of it's weeks. Some of it's a few months. And bear in mind, once you engage in PR, I always recommend people go for always-on PR. So it's like not just you waiting four months for the next day's campaign, and you do something else. You're doing it every day. We're trying to get PR for people. And I think, you know, there's some kind of activity every month. And I think that makes it harder to see what's going on. Plus very rarely does an isolate act, sorry, a website act in isolation. There's always other things going on, which is the problem of unpicking this. But without a doubt, I can see in our data where we've added links, the next day there has been increases in traffic. And when I would say increases are, you would take someone from bottom of page one to top three. I see that all the time with even a single link. We've seen as few as four and six links take an entire category for a website, flying up the search engines to page one. That's an entire category page. And that's where a little bit more of the skill comes in a digital PR, getting linked to category pages. If people could see the data that I see, it would be really hard for them not to just say, right, okay, let's stop buying links, let's just hire a digital PR agency. But then we also know that digital PR agencies buying links. So it's like, we don't have that approach. We have a publicity first approach. The objective is to get publicity for businesses, but we know that not all SEOs can do that because of the limitations of the business and the circumstances they're in. And I get that as well. And the things we're seeing, I'm just blown away by the performance. And it's getting better. The performance is getting better constantly with every algorithm update that I'm seeing.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

30:19

Fourth question, tactical follow-up. And I'll preface this with a personal story. So back when I was doing like data-driven link building, digital PR, like we were marketing financial products. That's what like our website did. And we actually put out a survey on dating, you know, whether it was better to use like Tinder or like Bumble to find like true love versus like what was just an app for hookups. And I think we built like 200 links to this page on our website about dating when our website was about personal finance. So it was a totally unrelated report page on our website, but we did build a lot of links. How important is relevance when it comes to the digital PR campaigns you're running and then like the link relevance that you're ultimately getting from these campaigns?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

31:10

 I mean, for me, relevance is everything. But it changes on the sector if that makes sense. And the most hard is to build links to and the hardest to publicize. I get what goes on, and we all know the dark corners of the web and what they're like. But relevance matters. I think it matters more than ever. I think it matters. Certainly, it's going to increase in its worth because, ultimately, you want publicity. And if you want publicity in the right publications. So if you're just going to ask for the links, it doesn't matter. But if you've got so much resource, you want the most out of that resource, not the least. So you could argue that going links for anywhere isn't a great way of doing anything. And I think Eli Schwartz has a fantastic example where he got links from the White House that did absolutely nothing. So I think, when I've seen that before, I've had links from really high authority sites that haven't moved the needle. And I definitely think there's a relevance and page quality score. But I also think Google's far smarter than we think it is in terms of it understands the context of what a document is, what the text is, and how it reads it, and what the website is. So it applies some kind of logic to that. But yeah, relevance for me matters because I'm not just interested in the link, I'm interested in the performance. And that's why I don't buy links. I've been involved in this game for a long time, but that's why we don't do it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

32:30


We're gonna talk about that a little bit later. And for all of our listeners, we actually just filmed a Optimize podcast episode with Eli Schwartz on Product Lead SEO. And so after you're done listening to Andy's episode, go check that one out. And I don't usually try to brag on this podcast, but maybe just my favorite link that we've built that I can remember over the years was we built a backlink from the US State Department from just an outreach campaign. We emailed someone there and we were like, hey, can you link to us? And they're like, sure. And that was one of my favorite links that we ever built. But I totally agree that relevance of the sites you're getting links from and the context of the pages that they're then linking to you from is critically important. So I know I've asked like four tactical questions. I've got like a bunch more, so I shouldn't have limited myself at four. Tactical question number five, pitching journalists. Like how many journalists do you need to be pitching? Is it better to pitch like, you know, one or two journalists under like an embargo or an exclusive, or is it better to just email like 250 journalists and say, hey, here's what I'm up to?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

33:37

We've got teams that do that journalist outreach. I'm not in the dirt for that if I'm honest with you, so I couldn't tell you what results they're getting. What I can tell you is, again, it's quality more than quantity, but I know that, and also it's quality of idea that matters. And they send stuff out. And interesting, we've got at the moment, we've got a US-based client where we've been working and those links haven't been doing as well, but now they're all coming in at once. It's like there was a bit of a pause for whatever reason, Thanksgiving, who knows, but there's links coming in now in floods. So it isn't necessarily you send the email and then people act on it, journalists act on it, there can be a lag effect as well. So what I would say is the way they approach it is based on an efficiency and effectiveness process. You know, who is more likely to give you a link that they know, and that comes from their experience as digital PRs and their building of relationships with media. You know, like any profession, you become known to people. And if your email gets... We open emails based on who we know, really, don't we? You know, because we see someone we know and we like, we open their email and it's kind of like a similar thing. So they'll go after effectiveness first and efficiency rather than the shotgun approach, I can tell you that.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

34:57

Yeah, I've found that journalists are incredibly lazy and that if you can get your story placed in one like major outlet, for example, we'll use Bloomberg again as an example. If you can get your story placed in Bloomberg, like odds are there's like 20 or 30 journalists every day that need to write something and they will just go and write the same thing that Bloomberg did. So we found that like getting that first piece of coverage was the hardest and then it just kind of would often snowball from there. And when we were pitching journalists, we found that like the bar for sending a good email is actually pretty low. And in that email, you want to make it as easy as possible for the journalist to write about your story. So give them the key takeaways, the graphics, kind of everything at once, like a silver platter of here is that story you can write in 25 minutes. And that's what we found would often work the best. A lot of times I'll see companies do these digital PR campaigns with these very in-depth, heavy narratives and stories. And we just found that never worked. Like journalists want like the quick hitters, like bang, bullet point, that's really cool and exciting. I wanna write about that. I don't actually wanna read like a 25 page report and try to figure out what that interesting thing is to say. Anyways, sorry, this episode I've told like more like personal anecdotes than most. So hopefully our listeners find this somewhat interesting. I do wanna go back to the last thing you said, like about buying backlinks. And you said that like a lot of digital PR agencies will do this. This is not something that like JBH does. Does buying backlinks still work? Is it still effective in 2023, soon to be 2024?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

36:38

Buying backlinks in 2023, what left we've got of it and 2024 onwards. If you're buying backlinks, I think there is a question that has to come first. Why are we buying backlinks? That's the first thing. Why are you as an SEO signing off a backlinking budget? And that's the very thing you have to unpack. And that raises a load of questions. Okay, because we can't earn them. Okay, so why can't we earn the backlinks? Or are we doing it for an efficiency measurement? Or are we doing this for an effectiveness measurement? And then, you need to go back to your data that proves your story. And almost nine times out of 10, I'll tell you my experience. I've signed off six figures of backlinks. I've seen the performance of buying backlinks. In fact, we've got a client right now who spent $50,000 on buying backlinks, and the rankings did not improve. And we've worked with mega-brands that have come to us and NDAs and say, yeah, we buy backlinks. Many people put their hands up and say they've done it. Like you talked about your story on a previous podcast guest. And I think the issue with buying backlinks is this, is there's a rhetoric around buying backlinks. So why do you do it? Is it because you think there's a volume game attached to buying links? Or do you think that it's an effectiveness thing so we go and get them quicker? And all those things that people talk about, when you actually unpack them, that's a little bit mythical. Yes, buying backlinks, getting a backlink can work, but it's not gonna be as effective. And certainly, I don't think it's an effective use of budget because, at the end of the day, every brand, and we talk about brands, not publishers and things like that, but every brand or business wants to grow. And you only grow when you get sales and increase your profit. And if you wanna increase your sales and increase your profit, you've got to spend every penny of your SEO budget effectively. Now I had to block someone on LinkedIn the other day who told me that they spent $10,000 or £10,000 actually it was on a link. And I thought to myself, in a newspaper, I thought, really? You couldn't get that link through publicity? Are you kidding me? Because I could think, I know which link he was talking about and I know its website. I was like, that would have been easy to get a link for. So why didn't you? Is it laziness? Is it you don't want to hire a digital PR agency? Is it you don't believe in it? Is it because you've got some kind of game against you versus Google where you want to kind of do this a different way? Are you using your budget to the maximum? And when you get past that why people are buying links, that opens up a whole load of issues. And at the end of the day, you've got so much budget. Your budget should all be geared towards the same goals of marketing, and that should be to tell more people you exist. So spending money on links in websites that don't really do anything or aren't anything that will link to you or there's some blog that no one's gonna read, that doesn't really tell anyone you exist, and that's not really sticking the SEO budget, aligning it with what the company's goals are. If you're going to spend 10 grand on a link in a publishing outlet just because you can get that, well, if I'm honest with you, you'd probably best off spending it on an advertorial, one that probably will sell your goods and for the same price. And I also say, you're going to spend 10 grand on a single link or five grand or whatever is the crazy prices that are going on about that. I would also argue, well, that's a really inefficient way of using budget as well, whereas you can use publicity. Now, the comeback from this is that people always say to me and argue with me online and say, well, there's no guarantees with digital publicity. And that's right, there isn't. And that's why you hire professionals and they do their best to get you the work, but there's no guarantees in anything. But what I can guarantee is you'll have people trying to get you as many links as possible, trying to make your business have more awareness. So I just say to anybody who's buying links, you've got to unpack the reasons why, and nine times out of 10, they aren't valid reasons. Maybe there's some sectors there are where link buying is part of the culture and everyone's buying links in this culture, but that's not the same for the rest of the internet. And there are reasons why people buy links and the legitimate reasons. We know that. Google even knows it. There are people buying links and sorting out affiliate deals with products and newspapers. We know that. And I'm not really talking about that because it makes sense to negotiate some kind of fee to get you on the number one best Christmas toy present ideas, newspaper, that's a very different talk and conversation than buying links from some link seller in case of spending, you know, 10 grand a month with a link seller to get some guest blog somewhere. And it's a different conversation than tactically. But I always go back to that, okay, buying links, if buying links is people's default, you need to ask yourself why and could the budget be spent better elsewhere and normally the conversation, if you've got enough experience in marketing, say, well, yeah, we are better off spending elsewhere.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

41:44

I totally agree. $10,000 or even $5,000 for a link, a single link is an incredible amount of money. And yeah, we've always found that like, it's just not worth the cost. Because if you create one of these like, digital PR stories or campaigns or pieces of content, and it goes viral, you can build a couple hundred links if it does really, really well in the media. And so any one given link for 10,000 bucks, like, dang, that's a lot of money, especially before Christmas.

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

42:14

That's what he said. That's what he wrote online. I mean, I haven't got the comment because I blocked the guy and deleted it because you're annoying me. But the issue I think is that I'm on your camp in terms of it's all about having the most effective and efficient use of your budget and I don't think that's buying links. I think buying links, if people are buying links and the link vendors will all hate me and I'm sure they will, but if you're buying links, I question now in 2023-24, are you really in SEO or you're in SEO from 2010 because there are more efficient ways to do things and what you're doing and that's really me putting some, I think the kids would call it shade on link buying, but it's nothing to be proud of. It comes with risk. It doesn't come with many gains. So I'm kind of totally against it.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

43:03

Yeah, at the Brighton SEO conference, I actually met a guy, I'm like totally forgetting his name, and the company who operated a link-buying marketplace. And you logged in, you picked out the links you wanted to buy, you set the anchor text, and you moved on. And I'm like, what happens once someone from Google registers for an account? Does that just blow up this entire thing? I don't know. But Andy, it's totally fine if the link brokers and vendors hate you. I don't think they matter too much anymore.

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

43:35

I know, they're my friends. So I can't say anything. Everyone's one big SEO community.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

43:40

Yeah, the SEO community seems to be like very pissed off at each other this year. Maybe that's my biggest takeaway from 2023 is everybody's just pissed off at everybody else. But I guess maybe it's always been that way. I have a couple more questions I want to ask before we get to the lightning round. LinkedIn, you've crushed it on LinkedIn lately. You crossed like 50,000 followers. Congrats on that. What's working on LinkedIn? How do you come up with fantastic content to post to LinkedIn?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

44:07

Okay, so the short answer is I have a course that I'm selling, which is like everyone does. And to be honest with you, the reality is I could grow that following a lot bigger. There's no doubt about that. I haven't done it. There are post formats and post types you can put out there that will grow your following. I'm not actually bothered about the numbers. I mean, I'll brag about it like everyone would. I'm a happy actor. It feeds the ego. It's not about the numbers. It's about the value and the quality of those links and the quality of those followers, I should say, and what they've done for my life and my career, and my network. I'm not a rich man, but I'm a guy who less than probably nine years ago was stood in the pouring rain in a street somewhere in Stoke-on-Trent, having to scrap with some drug addict or drug user who was trying to stab him with a syringe. That's the reality of my life 10 years ago. And I've seen every part of the most horrible nature of life so to come to work, to log onto a laptop and talk about SEO and marketing is like amazing, let alone to go on to speak at events like San Diego and stuff. So I owe a lot of that to LinkedIn. I owe a lot of that to my community that I had on Facebook and all those other places before that. All I've done with LinkedIn is share my thoughts every day. And every day, it's just the same as you don't get told to brush your teeth. I don't need to go and think to myself, am I going to share today? My job is to go out to the market with my ideas and my thought processes and my thoughts. Some of those get applaud, some of them get very little likes. The algorithm takes care of it, the algorithm rewards things. And a lot of it doesn't get read and not a lot of it is great. But the idea is every day I go out there to give people an option for thinking differently. Now that's it, that's my game, an option for thinking differently.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

46:01

Should we be posting on LinkedIn every day or is it better to post like every two or three days?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

46:06

It depends on your goals. My goal is to give people options to think differently daily. And I'm a big believer in frequency and I'm a big believer in sending content out there daily and it's only helped my career. It generates leads, it clearly does, otherwise I probably would have stopped it a long time ago. But I've posted hundreds of posts and no one out there really reacted. I've been doing this for a long time, long before everyone came off Twitter to come on LinkedIn and was doing those, I've made these my blog post templates that made me seven figures but we all know didn't. It's all those slide decks and all the copywriters that have come across and the freelancers. Long before that, I was posting daily and people were not interacting. I was still getting leads then because back in those days, less people engaged with your content, but actually came into your inbox. Today, I have a site, I can get engagement. And I know what to post because I've been doing it for so long, and I've got the analytics data that I use, Shield Analytics. I know which posts will trigger people. I know which posts won't. I know when I want to say something controversial to shake up the marketplace, it's genuine. And I'm doing it because, one, I think that I've been in this game long enough that I can share the things that I see on my journey. Some of the things I've written in the past, I don't agree with today. And that's just the nature of evolution, I think. And it's just part of me being authentic, me being me. And I think it's a real privilege to have a platform to be able to go out every day and post things. But equally, if nobody read my stuff every day, I would still post on LinkedIn because that's what I did for a long time. And also, writing helps me think. So a lot of my greatest sort of breakthroughs have come via LinkedIn posts, because I've had to think about what I'm going to write the night before, in terms of because what am I going to say? What am I thinking? What's changed me? What have I been through that I think someone could benefit from? So having that privilege to be able to do this is amazing in this world where some people don't have that freedom of speech at all and lives in societies and countries where they don't have this ability. So I'm going to take advantage of that and do it daily, sometimes three times a day. So if I feel, if I've got an itch to post, I'll scratch that itch, so to speak.

Lightning Question Round:

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

48:18

Well, this has been such an awesome episode. I appreciate your patience with me because we've kind of thrown the outline out the window and we've just had an awesome conversation. If it's okay with you, I've got like a few questions I just want to ask during like a rapid-fire round. Is that okay?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

48:31

Of course. Yeah, fine, yeah.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

48:33

Very pointed. Do LinkedIn's algorithms prefer content from you every day or would they prefer content from you every couple of days?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

48:42

I don't know, but I would suspect they prefer content that gets clicks and likes. Not all my content is designed for that way. So if I was, I dare say I'd get a lot more love from the algorithm if I gave it what it wanted, but that's not what I want to say on that day,
if that makes sense.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

48:59

Danny Sullivan in that conversation at BrightonSEO, which we were talking about earlier, kept reiterating that SGE was an experiment. I know some SEOs, like me, are skeptical that SGE will actually ever be released. Do you think SGE is going to be released in 2024?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

49:19

This is timely because I'm writing an article right now for Marketing Week on this same subject. So basically, SGE is a good thing. Contrary to what people think, SGE will help people to make decisions faster. It will help people to get things done quicker and probably reduce decision fatigue, the period, the thing that goes on that Google knows happens between actually starting researching to buy into a category than actually doing the buying. There's a lot of blockages from everything from clicking on a website, waiting to get load, gaining information, gaining information that could have been given to you far easier than going on a website. So actually, I am actually pro-SGE. I think it's going to be a good thing if it launches and if it launches well. I also think a lot of people will hate it and a lot of people won't use it. I think maybe you'll have to click it on perhaps. I don't know what will happen with it. Will it get launched? I'm also skeptical of that as well, because if that, it being launched highly depends on its damage to that other areas of the business. You know, if you're losing a truckload of money through ads, you're not gonna launch a product that actually harms that no matter if it's an innovation, you perhaps launch it as a side innovation that people can activate when they want. A barred button or something like that, that you can just click. So in the police, I always say there is known risks, we used to say, and there are unknown risks. There are some risks we know, and that would be a defender that was violent and had a violent history, and then there were people who never knew about, who had no data on, and they were unknown risks. And I would categorize SG as an unknown risk right now. And I would say for people to not panic, I also think that it could alter SEO in a second it's launched. And at that point in time, the best SEOs will be the highest in demand. And we'll see a very big shift in the marketplace. But I also think that tactically, SEOs are probably using outdated methods to perform SEO and to think about how conversions happen and that they've got a very warped view about how real marketing works. So I think SG is the challenge that SEO needs and I'm excited for it when it happens.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

51:20

Predictions, it's almost 2024. Do you have one or two big predictions for the year ahead?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

51:27

Yeah, expect SEO to be even harder and more expensive. And also, agencies are gonna collapse because monetizing SEO is going to be more challenging.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

51:39

Are there just too many agencies?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

51:41

I would say, yeah. I think that's what's happened, by the way. I think there's, so post-COVID, so COVID caused an increase in everything online, and that increase is reduced. I mean, you've seen it with Palatine, everyone else like that, they planned for this. Many people thought this growth was gonna continue, it didn't. What happened is people went back to normal and to a degree, or the new normal, and things very drastically changed. A lot of agencies grew off the back of this growth surge and they aren't needed now and they don't need them. And I think the other part of that equation, which is subtle, is a lot of older SEOs more experienced and now becoming freelancers because they like the freedom of being at home and they can get multiple clients and make up quite a very good salary on a very small client base. So I think the sector is heavily saturated and it's ready for a Thanos style call, if I'm perfectly honest with you, and I hope I'm not part of that. But ultimately, we've got far too many SEO agencies that are built off the backs of inexperienced at high wages, who are literally just swapping, just, you know, they're getting revenue in from clients and delivering very little. We all know that because we all get to see the client when they leave them. And it's been going on for a long, long time. And I think realistically, we are ready for a shakeup as an industry and a bit of a wake up as well. So, but yeah, I think industry growth, everyone thinks they can earn money from SEO and that's why so many agencies get started.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

53:12

Yeah, there's a special place in hell for all of the SEO agencies that spend like four months doing a technical SEO audit to start off an engagement. Anyways, Andy, thank you so much for coming on the Optimize podcast. This was one of my favorite episodes and I appreciate your flexibility. I know I got kind of veered off course at moments, but we brought it back and I think this was a very interesting episode. And we will definitely include a link to you and your LinkedIn in the show notes. So all of our listeners should go follow you there. And we will also include a link over to the JBH site. So you've built at least one backlink from us today. Andy, is there anything else you'd like to say to our listeners?

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

53:50

Yeah.
So if you were interested in learning from me, obviously follow me on LinkedIn. I've got a book called The Value of SEO that is out on Amazon. Buy the paperback because the digital version is rubbish for some reason. I don't know why I should really take it up with people that did it. But yeah, buy the book. It's got some of my old, outdated thinking. It's got some of the things that are very relevant to that. But I'm told it's a very fantastic read. And actually, sales teams are training their sales teams and SEOs using that book, which is kind of cool. So it's a good read. And yeah, thank you so much for allowing me to be on this podcast. I've really enjoyed it. I'm really pleased that we've got podcasts like this that are out there raising the status of SEO, and I think that's what's important. As SEOs, we need to market SEO better. So thank you for building this podcast, and thank you for pushing the subject of SEO
out to more people.

Nate Matherson (Speaking):

54:39

Absolutely, and we will also include a link over to your book in the show notes as well. So all of our listeners, go check that out. It's a fantastic read.

Andrew Holland (Speaking):

54:47

Thank you.

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54:47

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As an SEO novice, Positional makes it easy. I can quickly go from keyword research, to clustering, to content outlines, then go focus on just making good content. I felt like it helped bridge the gaps between what would’ve taken 3 or more tools in the past.

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Head of Growth at Definite

The first time we used Positional's toolset was to revamp an older but important piece of content. We used Optimize for optimization, and Internals for internal linking suggestions. We went from position #6 to #1 with the changes and increased our organic search traffic to the page by 400%. Today, Positional is an integral part of our blogging strategy, from topic generation to blog renovation.

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