Media relations

Are hyperlinks the enemy of journalists?

Is it the role of journalists to include hyperlinks in their articles to satisfy SEO PRs

It all began quite innocuously really. Lots of journalists use their Twitter feed to air their humorous or exasperated complaints about silly press releases or annoying PR antics, and nobody seems to mind much. But Deirdre Hipwell’s grievance about being asked to include hyperlinks in her copy really caused a storm last month.

On 7 November, Hipwell, retail editor at The Times, posted I have had two PRs emailing me today asking for a hyperlink to their company’s website in articles I have written. I wish this intensely annoying trend in [generally consumer] PR would STOP. Isn’t it enough the company is mentioned without trying to wangle free advertising too. Grrr.

Three days later the row which ensued was still going strong. Lots of her peers in the media weighed in to support her stance, some with anecdotes of their own.

David Lewis, head of digital at Original 106 FM, a radio station covering Aberdeen and North East Scotland, said: ‘Our website once reported about a robbery at a local William Hill. To which we got an email from a PR company a few weeks later asking if we could link the words William Hill to the William Hill website…’

Ed Wiseman, assistant motoring editor at the Daily Telegraph, added: ‘There’s been a resurgence, right? Feels very 2009. Got emailed by a PR who just wondered if I wouldn’t mind putting a link back to the Thames Clippers site in a story which mentions the river bus in passing. Apparently, it would be mutually beneficial for both of our websites.’

Adding a link is adding context, which in the eyes of search engines, is beneficial to your publication and the brand being mentioned

Overall, members of the media and many PR professionals agreed that it is not the job of a journalist to feed traffic to company websites, but to report newsworthy events and remain impartial. Furthermore, that it is not appropriate for someone promoting a company to dictate what a news journalist should include in his or her articles.

Others disagreed. Mark Rofe, a freelance SEO consultant based in Dubai, argued that journalists owe it to the companies they cover to include links. ‘If I am giving up my time to meet or speak to a journalist to help them to do their job, it would be nice (although I know not required) to get a link in return,’ he said.

Another replied: ‘You expect content and comments that take time and effort, and you won’t repay the favour with a link that takes seconds to add. Really nice of you.’

Others tried to justify the use of hyperlinks as being of value to readers. Ben Cook, who works in digital marketing, argued: ‘Links are what make the web a web. If it’s worth writing about, it’s worth linking to so I don’t have to go Google whatever you’re talking about.’

One SEO, Jenny Illman, wrote: ‘Adding this link is adding context, which in the eyes of search engines, is beneficial to both – your publication and the brand that is being mentioned.’

Jocelyn Brandeis, co-founder of New York-based PR consultants JBLH Communications was more forthright. ‘After 20 years, you’re still behind the times, not including weblinks? Shame on you, your editors and your publication! Get up to speed ASAP. This is not about free advertising; it’s about providing correct information. Do your job.’

But many journalists are adamant that providing ‘correct information’ in the form of hyperlinks is not their job at all. Simon English, City journalist at the London Evening Standard, says that these sorts of arguments diminish the value of quality journalism.

‘What’s the difference between ‘news’ and ‘content’? I guess if you are a search engine optimiser, a new breed of PR specialist sent from hell to destroy us all, you don’t think there is any.’

Geoff Ho, City editor at the Sunday Express, adds: ‘This practice is impinging on our independence. My aim is to be completely unbiased. If you are any sort of reputable news organisation, you are supposed to be impartial. When you provide links to a company or product, you are giving it your backing.

‘I do not think PRs should be asking me for links at all. If you want that, then you contact my commercial department, and they can overrule me if necessary. But I am not going to give away advertising space for free – you have to pay for that.’

This has all come about because of a change Google made to its algorithm which determines which websites appear at the top of the results list when you search for a particular keyword or phrase. Google’s algorithm for ranking results was originally based on citations in education. The more citations an academic received from other authoritative sources, the more authoritative they were deemed to be. So, when it lists results for a search, Google looks at the number of links a website has received from other sites.

Unfortunately, this proved easy to manipulate. Darryl Sparey, business development director at the PR agency Hotwire, who previously worked for an SEO agency, explains. ‘Some SEOs were spamming links from false websites or putting links in the comments sections beneath online articles, for example.’

So, in 2012, Google changed its algorithm to consider the quality of the domain each link was from. This means that getting links from ‘high quality’ domains, such as the websites of national newspapers, has become paramount.

‘The goal is to get as many links as possible from websites with a domain authority of above 90 – which The Times is, for example,’ says Sparey. ‘But SEOs don’t care if the link comes from The Times or the University of Sunderland, which is also above 90. And they don’t care who the readership is.’

Ho says he believes PRs and SEOs are also taking advantage of the difficulties many newspapers and broadcasters have found themselves in, in recent years.

‘Newspapers’ costs have been rising and their revenues are down. SEOs and marketeers know this. The practice of demanding links is exploiting the fact that newspapers are struggling.’ PR professionals claim this is the work of SEOs only.

As Sparey says: ‘This is SEOs trying to do PR, using the spray and pray method.’ Paul Beadle, who recently moved to the communications team at NFU Mutual but was previously at digital PR firm MRM, says: ‘There is a massive divide between SEOs and PRs on this. SEOs and digital marketing professionals have the view that everything on the web is ‘content’ and should link on to further ‘content’.

‘But I believe that a journalist’s job is to create news. It is very different to ‘writing content’ just to get a link back to your own website.’

Journalists have a different view on who, exactly, is doing this, however. Ho says this has become part of standard PR practice: ‘Sadly, I get this all the time and it’s the PRs that do it. I don’t hear from SEOs at all. It’s the second-tier PRs and below that do it – you won’t get Brunswick doing it.’

But should anyone be asking for links at all? David Fraser, who runs Ready10, a PR-for-SEO agency, says yes. ‘I take exception to the view that it is unacceptable to ask for a link at all; it is not an unreasonable request. ‘The World Wide Web is supposed to link resources, that is what it was created for – for sites to be able to link to other sites, so why wouldn’t you link to a company in a story?’

SEOs and digital marketing professionals have the view that everything on the web is ‘content’ and should link on to further ‘content’

According to Fraser, there is always a quid pro quo when a PR gives something – information, research or an interview, for example, – to a journalist. ‘I think journalists need to appreciate more that PR is not free content provision.’

This view is met with derision by many in the media, however. ‘The idea that links provide useful context for readers is hogwash,’ says Ho. ‘Clicking through saves the reader 20 seconds. As for the idea that I owe them something for giving me their time – if someone has willingly offered me their time or an interview, it’s because they are already getting something out of it.’

Despite all this, communications professionals say you can get links into articles if you do it in the right way. Paul Sutton, an independent social media consultant, says: ‘My view is if you are doing your job correctly, it shouldn’t be the case of having to ask for a link because the journalist would already want to include one.

‘This is about the way SEOs are trying to practise PR. You can just put out news, get the article, then ask for a link. But a better way to do it is to build something creative on your website, for example a report that can be downloaded, and then pitch that as the news angle.

There has to be a value exchange: you can’t ask someone for a favour without giving them a reason to do so

‘Then the journalist needs to provide the link for the purposes of the article. This is very different to just asking a journalist to provide a link to your website.

‘It is legitimate to ask for a link if there is a good reason for one. But you can easily tell if a journalist is likely to put in a link from what they have done before. If they are not likely to, then don’t ask.’

Sparey adds: ‘There has to be a value exchange. You can’t ask someone for a favour without giving them a reason to do it. Whether it is an SEO or a PR asking, there must be a reason or rationale to link to content on your site. For example, if you have a research report with lots of valuable data and the journalist is writing about it, there is a reason to link back so it is perfectly reasonable to ask for a link.

‘However, I have seen horror stories where people are pitching their own blog posts and asking the publication to link back to it.’

Some journalists are sympathetic to this take on the issue. Ian Cowie, former personal finance editor at The Daily Telegraph who now writes an investment column for the Sunday Times, believes links which provide value are worth including.

‘Saying you don’t want hyperlinks is like saying you don’t want advertising on the page. I have no problem with providing hyperlinks at all. It is helpful to the reader,’ he explains.

‘Advertising has been part of the mass media for 150 years – it is an important part of making it pay. One way or another, we can’t do this for nothing.’