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It’s time we rethink how we measure influencers for SEO

Whether you’re an SEO, PR or a website owner, it’s highly likely you’ve come across DA (Domain Authority). The metric, created by industry-leading platform Moz, was designed to help search marketers understand the value of a domain, at a glance and compare it with others in the same industry or niche.

This was important for SEO, third party links have long been used to understand how “trustworthy” a website is and form part of Google’s “ranking criteria” (although their importance and how this works is a hot talking point in SEO).

Moz uses their index (or understanding of the web), to map out these links between sites and, alongside other factors, try to assign a “competition” score to each website they encounter. This can then be used as a proxy to determine the value of a said site.

Note: I have nothing against Moz. This piece isn’t in any way designed to be a slight on them or their work, but further insight and context into how to use the data they provide.

The eye-opener to follower deception

Last year, Social Chain opened marketers’ eyes to the murky world of follower deception. Many brands understand the importance of influencers to the digital ecosystem, but measuring the value that someone can bring prior to working with them is difficult and time-consuming. As such, often companies rely on metrics that symbolizes “reputation”, followers, engagement, and other similar indicators. However, as Social Chain asserted, the typical signposts do not always depict a true picture and if not completely understood or manipulated, can lead to large amounts of spend being wasted.

This is a common theme with SEO. Although it’s less a question of manipulation and more a question of understanding. In 2012, Penguin, Google’s “webspam” filter was rolled-out and assigned a positive or negative value to third party links. Prior to this, “trust” was judged on an arguably simpler set of volume-based criteria, but as the flaws in the system were exploited. It soon became clear that a more complex solution was required, to ensure the integrity of search results was maintained. Trust continued to be an important factor in success, but SEO’s had to start thinking more carefully about how they generated these. Here the connection between SEO and PR became more important as links could not be artificially built they had to be earned, naturally.

The two teams started to collaborate more closely, with SEOs providing PRs extra resource to contact a “lower”, but still valuable tier of influencer and PRs helping SEOs reach the higher, more widely trusted publications that they could not access before. Over time, the lines between SEO and other channels have started to blur – and as teams were pushed to operate across remits, PRs started to use SEO metrics, with DA taking precedence (as it was arguably the simplest to use), to understand more about the people they were contacting. With investment from brands increasing, more influencers started to appear, and from this grew an industry in its own right.

Fast forward to the present day

An influencer marketer will likely sit across content, Social, PR, and SEO, with the goal of engaging personalities to improve performance across all the channels they are connected to (based on the goals of the organization/campaign). For social and PR, engagement and reach can be more easily measured. But SEO has always been complicated. This is because “good SEO” has never been about links alone and the idea of a “link value” is entirely subjective, based on factors that change between industries, counties, and even search results. As such, the idea of using a single, links-based metric to determine the value a domain can provide for SEO is inherently floored – and yet, many marketers, influencers and PR teams still continue to use DA for this purpose.

To make matters more complex, the whole link-building ecosystem has been flooded with misinformation. I discussed this in a recent webinar with SEMRush, but it’s often been the case that the wider industry’s understanding of the link building practice has come through commentators on the practice and not the experts conducting the work themselves. This means, the influencers and PR teams, and not the SEO community themselves.

Why is this the case?

There’s really no simple answer, although, for a long time before the collaboration was mainstream, it would be a frequent occurrence for SEOs and PRs to clash over remit cross-over. In the agency world, this could have led to reduced budgets – why pay two agencies to do the work of one, although (from my experience), clients were very much open to creating a joined-up approach between both teams.

While conflict happened behind the scenes, uncertainty, and misinformation filtered out to the influencer market, with PRs and SEOs trying to show that they “knew enough” about the other to make a wider judgment on influencer selection for projects. This led to followers and domain authority becoming key metrics in this process which, although not unhelpful, rarely offered the truest picture of a website’s worth. In turn, this led to transactional relationships with websites, where links and shares were bought for a price that, once this became a commodity only ever increased. Instead of paying for the time and expertise of the people that were being engaged, their value became intrinsically tied to their reach or their link-equity (perceived through domain authority), two metrics that could be easily manipulated.

Now, the growing rumble of discontent within the influencer landscape has finally hit the headlines with a theatrical flourish. Unfortunately for many, this has come too late, with brands realizing the cost of investing in reach over expertise, most famously with the Fyre festival scandal. But, this doesn’t mean that influencer marketing isn’t valuable, as I wrote at the time, but that how and most importantly – the reasons as to why marketers engage with content creators need to change. We’ve seen publicly how using followers to measure reach can be folly. But there’s still time to take these learnings and apply them to domain authority too before something as equally damaging to the industry happens.

Latest developments

Recent legislation in the UK has started to pave the way for change in this field. It’s certainly made working with influencers harder, in large part to the ambiguity around the specifics of how the changes should be interpreted, I personally apply the principle of “better safe than sorry”, even from a search perspective. Every brand interaction should now be declared as an advert, including event invites and even in cases where the only “payment” has been a reimbursing of travel costs. With Google’s hardline view on manipulative link building, the practice of engaging “high authority” SEO influencers is slowly ending or at least, becoming incredibly risky.

Instead, we should look to engage influencers for their subject matter expertise and credibility they can lend to a story or campaign. In practice, this means killing the transactional “I give you X and you give me Y” type of relationships and seeing content creators as partners in getting your message out to the world. For SEO, this may mean using “no-follow” links (which, in basic terms, tell crawlers that they should not consider them for search benefit), but this shouldn’t be an issue. Sure, their direct value on search may be limited, but to think that the search algorithm considers the web in as simple terms as this would be myopic. There are some brilliant studies around the power of brand on search, which are worth noting in this context. Moreover, at its heart, a link is there to carry users from A to B. Adding a “no-follow” tag doesn’t stop this from happening and in this case, using domain authority as a metric often would lead to discounting a valuable traffic driving part of this ecosystem.

With this shift in the industry and better collaboration than ever between search and the wider marketing mix, the opportunity for content, search and marketing communication teams to unite is stronger than ever. So too, is the need for it, as achieving cut-through in the wall of digital noise is harder than it’s ever been. Campaigns, to be successful on all fronts, must genuinely inspire, engage or provide value to users and older-school tactics, such as product reviews and content seeding, have all but lost their ability to drive results. On this point, we simply must move away from using domain authority and followers as a metric in isolation, as neither is an effective gauge of how useful a site might be to its users.

Closing notes

I’d like to speak directly to influencers because without a universal change in mindset, we’ll continue to see the same practices continue and the channel will continue to be under-utilized. I’d impress upon them the need to keep an open mind and focus on becoming the best subject matter experts that they can. I’d encourage the end of any agonizing over “vanity metrics”, which are often taken out of context, and in place look to whether their users are genuinely engaging with their content, and how this impacts their value as creators. Importantly, I’d implore everyone, PRs and SEOs included, to have a little more fun, harness the incredible creativity that brand communications teams, content creators, and influencer marketers can yield and build something great together.

by Ric Rodriguez
source: Search Engine Watch