PR vs. Link-building: Which Do You Need?

While SEMRush declared a few years ago that PR is the new link building, I’d like to offer a slightly more nuanced take: PR and link building are related but separate disciplines.

Both can turbo-charge a startup’s marketing efforts. But before you pour your limited marketing dollars into either, it’s important to understand how they differ.

Here, I’ll explain how each works, what each can do for your business, and how to know where to invest your budget.

Link Building: An SEO Strategy to Grow Organic Traffic

Link building is exactly what it sounds like: convincing others to link to content on your website. It’s a key part of search engine optimization (SEO) because links from other websites to yours signal to Google that other people like and trust your content.

But… things are a lot less straightforward than they used to be. In the early days of Google’s algorithm, one link was equivalent to one vote, and the sites that got the most votes “won” by appearing at the top of search engine results pages.

People figured out how to game that system pretty fast, so Google and web publishers had to adapt.

Today, for example, many publications either don’t link out to companies or link with a “no follow” tag, which signals to Google that they’re not intending to pass any kind of authority to the destination page.

Still, inbound links are valuable even if they don’t get a site any “official” credit. Links to your content drive referral traffic to your website and help you rank better in search, which drives additional traffic, which can also drive additional links as more people find you.

So who can benefit from link building? Honestly, anyone with a website. But link building is particularly beneficial for those who…

  • Have a content marketing program. You can’t build links without something to link to. Once you have that something (content), more links = more conversion opportunities. Plus, the better your content, the easier it is to build links to it.
  • Have an ecommerce site. More links = more visitors = more potential customers.
  • Rely on high sales volume to be profitable. See above.
  • Can easily scale sales. SaaS companies may have a lot to gain from link building; professional services agencies may stand to gain less.

If your primary marketing goals involve increasing web-based conversions (newsletter signups, demo requests, social follows, chat engagements, report downloads, purchases, etc.), link building is almost certainly a wise investment.

Not sure where to start? Check out this excellent guide to running an effective link-building campaign from Moz (and note that this is link building in action; I searched for a helpful resource, found this, loved its content, and am linking to it to spread the wealth).

Now let’s take a look at public relations.

PR: A Strategy to Build Awareness and Credibility

Public relations is not quite as self-explanatory as link building.

A lot of people think PR involves nothing more than blasting press releases every now and then (and it doesn’t help that “press release” has the same initials as “public relations”).

In reality, PR is a discipline of relationship building.

PR professionals spend their days poring over news stories (in all media formats), engaging with the reporters who created them, and introducing those reporters to people and ideas that might help them meet their audience’s needs.

(Good PR professionals, that is. Just visit #PRfail on Twitter for an idea of what not to do.)

One thing that’s really important to note here is that PR professionals are typically not trained in link building. They’re not SEO experts and their main goal is not to ensure that a media outlet links to your website.

Rather, they’re trying to get human reporters who have human audiences to cover your business and its story – no small feat. Links are nice in part because they’re really measurable.

But remember: not everything that can be measured is important and not everything that is important can be measured.


Who can benefit from PR? Again, just about everyone (BIAS? WHAT BIAS?). But PR is particularly helpful for those who…

  • Want to introduce a new company, product, or service to a specific audience.
  • Are hoping to raise venture capital and want to establish credibility among investors.
  • Have recently rebranded or introduced a new product or service and want to spread awareness among potential customers.
  • Plan to hire employees and want to attract qualified candidates.
  • Want to boost morale among existing employees.
  • Want to speak at conferences or trade shows and are looking to establish credibility.
  • Want to win awards. 
  • Have a clear point of view that has the potential to change the way people look at an industry or product (and even influence whether they buy).
  • Want to build the credibility of one member of your team.
  • Want to move customers through the purchasing funnel.
  • Want to make the sales team’s job easier.
  • Want more content to share on social media.
  • Generally want more people (broadly or within a specific audience) to know about what they’re doing.

If your primary goals involve raising credibility for and awareness about your startup or innovative new product, PR is almost certainly a smart investment. (And if you’re short on cash, DIY PR is a great way to get the ball rolling.)

Despite their differences, though, link building and PR do have several things in common.

PR & Link Building: Neither Can Scale

I referred to PR as a discipline of relationships, but to a certain extent, link building is, too. Both of these efforts require a LOT of time and energy devoted to researching and conducting outreach. (When I led an in-house content team at Insureon, for example, we had an entire full-time employee dedicated to link building.)

And the thing about relationships is that they don’t scale.

Honestly, though, that may be a good thing. A lot of startups want the benefits that come from PR and link building, but not many have the resources or patience to do them right. And as Orbit Media’s Andy Crestodina likes to say, people who put in 10x more effort than average tend to see 100x better results than average

So the extra effort here may have a significant payoff.

The Glorious Overlap of PR and Link Building

Remember when I mentioned above that a lot of publications “no follow” their outbound links? As it turns out, that may not matter as much as it used to.

In fact, as search engine algorithms get smarter, unlinked brand mentions have started carrying weight in the way that links used to. In other words, Google is now smart enough to know when a site is “talking” about your brand even if that site doesn’t directly link to you.

In yet other words, the work of PR (i.e., getting third-party placements that mention your brand) can offer some of the same benefits as link building.

PR and link building support each other in other ways, too: you can’t do link building, for example, without having great content to link to. And you can’t create great content unless you have a valuable message to communicate. And if you have a message that’s important to your audience, you’ll probably want to get it out to as wide an audience as possible – which you can do via PR.

Still not sure whether you could benefit from PR or link building (or both)? Drop me a line – I’d love to help you figure it out.