By Jesse Stoler
23 Jul 2015

The Difference Between Link Building and Public Relations

Link Building

There’s been a debate brewing in the digital marketing community regarding public relations vs. link building.

Before I begin my analysis of the difference between link building and public relations, I want to issue this disclaimer: there was a small window of time in my life when I considered a career in public relations.

There’s been a debate brewing in the digital marketing community regarding public relations vs. link building.

Before I begin my analysis of the difference between link building and public relations, I want to issue this disclaimer: there was a small window of time in my life when I considered a career in public relations. This would’ve been back in college, when I couldn’t decide between my own handpicked menu of many options. That menu included everything from theater to political science to English to history. Ultimately, I picked journalism, which of course is considered the 200th best career… out of 200. Now I work in link building.

Nevertheless, public relations was one of those considerations as well. So I have absolutely nothing against those who work in that profession, and it’s not entirely impossible that I might one day work for a PR agency. I’m still young, and I’m certainly not opposed to the idea.

That said, the growing argument that good public relations trumps link building as a link acquisition strategy is starting to irritate me. PR has undoubtedly has its virtues, but if you want links, you need to build links.

Cutting Through the Noise

Links are incredibly valuable. Every website needs links. They’re the maltese falcon of the web. Because of this, webmasters are often inclined to Bogart all their link equity, and not eager to link out to other sites. Especially in an online climate in which Google has done an amazing job creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) around links. One of my favorite SEO tools, SEMrush, famously nofollows all of their links.

Webmasters aren’t going to link to you without just cause, especially if they can’t find you!

It’s safe to say that the early part of the 21st century will be remembered for intense media proliferation. That, and Beyonce’s ascension to become the first official queen of the world (I give it five years).

Websites are a key part of this media proliferation. Currently, there are more than 900,000,000 live websites, and that number is expected to eclipse the one billion mark this year. Sometimes people need a little push to find something.  

It’s an era of content shock; it’s becoming much harder to cut through all of the noise. But it CAN be done, through a combination of strategic efforts. PR and link building are two of those strategies, and they both increase visibility. Yet they ultimately target different objectives.

The Goal of Good Public Relations

For those of you among the uninitiated, let me attempt to frame the argument for good PR.

Let’s say you operate a site dedicated to gardening and gardeners. Your site publishes tutorials and sells supplies. The PRinciple of good PR says that you and your employees should engage in your community; do all the things that Rand Fishkin implies when he talks about “non-measurable serendipitous marketing.”  

Non-measurable serendipitous marketing sounds fancier than it really is. In truth, it’s really just an offshoot of good public relations. For our hypothetical gardening site, a PR representative might spend time perusing gardening forums online. When avantgardenerfan18 asks a question about the best time of year to plant roses, it’s the job of your PR rep to take time to answer that question.

The more you do this, the more you get your name out there. The more you get your name out there in altruistic ways, the more positive brand associations people will create. People will mention you/link to you as a signal of gratitude and/or respect, without having to be asked.

The daily tasks of a PR rep include issuing press releases about brand news, responding to anything that might be controversial for the brand, and to build a public image that consumers will respond positively to. PR integrates heavily with the media, often with the ultimate goal of brand/company mentions.

I LOVE this kind of strategy. When properly executed, good PR absolutely has the potential to bring in links.

But here’s the key word: potential.

Potential isn’t always realized to its fullest. I should know, I’ve been hearing about the potential of my beloved New York Mets for the last five years now.

Potential only gets you so far; it’s essential to have mechanisms that pick up the pieces and execute on potential.

Link building is that mechanism for PR, in terms of acquiring the most links possible.

Differing Objectives

PR and link earning are closely related. They’re branches on the same family tree at least. That means their drawbacks are somewhat similar.

The drawback of link earning--as most people know link earning, anyway--is that no one is going to link to you if they don’t know about you to begin with!!

Because links are so powerful in organic search, it’s impossible to rank highly without a profile consisting of authoritative, relevant backlinks.

Organic search, mind you, is biggest provider of traffic on the internet. Here’s a chart courtesy of BrightEdge that breaks down how online traffic is directed:


If your site can’t be found in organic search, you pretty much can’t be found. You may get the occasional random sighting, but so does Bigfoot. Bigfoot believers, of course, often invoke the “missing link” theory to support themselves. How appropriate then that a website’s rare pageviews can often be attributed to missing links.

The goal of a public relations campaign ISN’T links. Here’s an article written by Ronn Torossian, the founder of 5W, a reputable PR agency out of New York City.


Read the article. Reread the article. Okay good. How many times did you see the word “link?”


That’s right, zero. There was room for five goals, but not enough room for links.

The goal of a PR campaign is to build the reputation of a brand, to control the conversation about that brand, and to respond to relevant press inquiries.

If you need links--which you do if organic traffic is important to your site--you need to pursue a strategy that is link intensive.


Once again, PR is good. For big brands, PR is downright essential. But it’s not a strategy for links.

Links can be an ancillary benefit of PR, no doubt, but for every link you earn through good PR, there are plenty more worth building. Some people need to be pushed to link to your site.

On this blog, Meghan Cahill once compared link building to word-of-mouth marketing. Any marketer worth their salt will tell you that word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful form of marketing. My own personal experience tells me that I’m far more likely to invest in a product per a trusted friend’s recommendation, not a 30-second spot during the Knicks-Nuggets game.

She likened link building to word-of-mouth because link building is personalized, targeted promotion. Every website is different, and will be likely to link to you for different reasons. It’s a link builder’s job to appeal to these webmasters on an individual basis. PR doesn’t do that. PR disseminates a brand message to cultivate a certain character, with no clear link goal in mind.

That’s why it’s important to pursue links with link building. You wouldn’t plant tomatoes using the instruction manual for a desk, would you?

Jesse Stoler

Jesse Stoler has years of experience in the SEO industry. His hobbies include stand up comedy and pretending he has fans.