Data & Studies

Does Going Viral Help With SEO? Not Really

Patrick Stox
Patrick Stox is a Product Advisor, Technical SEO, & Brand Ambassador at Ahrefs. He was the lead author for the SEO chapter of the 2021 Web Almanac and a reviewer for the 2022 SEO chapter. He also co-wrote the SEO Book For Beginners by Ahrefs and was the Technical Review Editor for The Art of SEO 4th Edition. He’s an organizer for several groups including the Raleigh SEO Meetup (the most successful SEO Meetup in the US), the Beer and SEO Meetup, the Raleigh SEO Conference, runs a Technical SEO Slack group, and is a moderator for /r/TechSEO on Reddit.
    I wanted to find out how going viral impacts SEO for different businesses. I thought that with all the news coverage and links these sites received that their businesses would be booming and they’d be ranking for everything.

    Spoiler alert: I was wrong. 

    There has to be some merit to it though, right? Even Google’s John Mueller seems to be on board with digital PR.

    To learn more, I looked at dozens of sites. Some are from when I judged search awards. Others are from various Slack groups. I also asked for examples on Twitter. I found that going viral helps with their rankings a bit, but not as much as you may expect. 

    There are some examples I want to share with you. It’s also worthwhile to mention that going viral still helps with things like branding, awareness, leads, and possibly even new business opportunities. Let’s dive in.

    It’s been over two years since an infamous political press conference happened at the “wrong” Four Seasons. A presidential press conference was held at a Philadelphia landscaping company, Four Seasons Total Landscaping, instead of the Four Seasons hotel. 

    This was a case of reality being stranger than fiction. I don’t think this event would be believable if it were in a sitcom. If you’re curious about the story itself, you can read about it. In fact, there’s even a documentary.

    The results look good at a glance

    You can see the crazy spike in both traffic and domains linking to the company at the time of the press conference. It got another spike of links and traffic a year later as a documentary was released about the event and a lot of news outlets wrote about the story again.

    Overview of showing traffic and link spikes from the press conference and documentary, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

    The links look good—really good! The coverage of this event was amazing and generated the kind of virality digital PR folks dreamed about. 

    Below, you can see that most major news sites covered this story.

    Backlinks report for showing links from major news sites

    I’ve seen companies win search awards with campaigns that don’t have results this good.

    Most link builders would drool over these links. There are so many followed, high DR links. 

    Referring domains for showing coverage on major news sites

    If you saw this kind of link profile and the increased traffic for any local service business, you’d think it had won the lottery. With numbers like that, you’d assume it ranked for and could rank for pretty much anything it wanted.

    But did the links actually help its SEO? There’s more to this story. 

    Capitalizing on the fame

    Most of the traffic gains are for its branded terms or people looking for its merchandise. That’s right—there’s merchandise!

    Keywords is ranking for are mostly branded

    The most brilliant move from this landscaping company was how it capitalized on its fame. It sold $1.3 million in merchandise within three weeks of the event! It turned this publicity into a win.

    It originally had the merchandise on the website, but then later partnered with another Philly company to sell the merchandise on a different website.

    Overview report for showing traffic and referring domains

    It made a mistake here. It failed to redirect its merchandise pages over to the other site. The merchandise might have been even more successful if it had reclaimed these links with redirects. 

    Best by links report filtered to 404 showing many links that could be reclaimed with redirects

    What about the main business? According to an article a year after the event, the newfound fame had only netted them three new clients. I’m surprised it wasn’t more with this kind of branded traffic increase. But I guess the increase was from people interested in the story and not its services.

    Impact on its main keywords

    The links have some impact. The company is ranking better for its commercial keywords, but they don’t help as much as you may expect for a local business that has this strong of a link profile. 

    It hasn’t hit the first page for many of the terms that will likely bring it business.

    Organic keywords report for showing it doesn't rank well for non-branded terms

    For some terms, another local business is outranking it while having no links at all. 

    SERP overview for "landscaping philadelphia" showing a competitor without links ranking above

    Overall, it looks like all those new links from going viral don’t have much impact on its rankings.

    Next up is Gravity Payments. You may not know this name, but I bet you know the story of the CEO who cut his own salary so he could pay every employee $70K.

    The CEO was also involved with some scandals, which led to even more links. However, these links may have some negative signals attached to them.

    You can see at a glance that it got tons of links over the years. But that hasn’t really helped its traffic. 

    Overview of showing traffic and referring domains

    The links are from a lot of major sites, and they look great. Again, drool-worthy links for anyone doing link building or digital PR. 

    Referring domains report for showing great media coverage from major news sites

    But the impact on its rankings is minimal. Once again, most of the traffic is branded. It gets very little traffic for its main terms or its informational content. All of those links don’t seem to have helped. 

    Top pages report showing most of the traffic for is branded started during COVID to connect “laid off” people with hiring managers. It got another boost during the recent tech layoffs. At a glance, the results look great.

    Overview of showing organic traffic and referring domains

    Once again, we can see great links from great domains.

    Referring domains report for showing great links from media sites

    Diving in further, we can also tell almost all of the traffic is to the homepage.

    Top pages report for showing the traffic mostly goes to the homepage

    A lot of the growth is to branded terms, but one unbranded term sticks out: “layoff.” If you look at the SERP a year ago vs. now, it seems the intent of the query has changed from “what is a layoff” to news about layoffs.

    It’s possible that the popularity of this site changed the intent, or it could just be the changing environment with more layoffs happening that changed the intent. Still, this is the most plausible example I can find of viral links possibly helping—and even then it’s not so cut and dry.

    SERP comparison for "layoff" in February 2023 vs. February 2022 showing the intent shift

    I think SEOs may overvalue links from media sites. They really don’t seem to have much impact. 

    But is digital PR dead? Are HARO links a waste of time? I doubt it. They impact awareness, branding, and leads.

    Final thoughts

    From what I’ve seen, many SEOs want to skip niche and local links, which can be tedious and boring to obtain. They want to jump right into working on more interesting and creative digital PR campaigns. 

    I don’t blame them; digital PR campaigns are more fun and interesting. I just question the effectiveness of doing this after looking at dozens of example sites.

    If you have examples where digital PR links have made an impact on the business, I’ll love it if you share them with me on Twitter. I really want to find an example of these working well for a company.