Guest blogger Jay Krall is a business development manager at public relations services and products firm, Cision. Krall’s work has appeared in PR Week, PR News and Bulldog Reporter covering topics such as social media measurement, healthcare and social media, and regulatory issues. Join his conversation on Twitter.

A couple of months ago, a public relations director for a city government approached me after a talk I’d given on social media marketing to say he was surprised by my heavy emphasis on blogger outreach. “I was pitching blogs in 2004,” he said. Hasn’t the real-time Web of instant tweets and status updates changed everything?

Indeed, at a time when Facebook accounts for every fourth page view by U.S Internet users, to some, blogs already seem quaint. Amidst a flurry of 110 million tweets per day, does the 300-word blog post now qualify as long-form writing? More importantly, are blogs worth the time and attention of harried public relations and marketing professionals if they’re being washed over by the wave of faster-paced social platforms that have come to dominate mindshare on the Web?

I contend that this critique gets the state of affairs precisely backward.

Blogs make strong connections

For as much as Facebook and Twitter have begun to dominate our digital lives, they also serve as the largest sources of referral traffic for a growing number of major Web properties, even outpacing Google. They’re so useful in part because they point us to deeper information elsewhere on the Web, the kind of information that drives decisions about what we buy and how we spend our time. Blogs remain one of the most vital, thriving segments of this layer of deeper information. Projects like Facebook’s Open Graph initiative, which has allowed millions of sites to integrate the Facebook Like button into their sites to the tune of billions of clicks per day, has further strengthened the connection between the rapid-fire, referential layer of the Web and the more in-depth layer.

The question of how many blogs exist on the Web has turned trivial (tens of millions? hundreds of millions?), and the answer has no impact on any meaningful communications strategy based on business objectives. In the age of sophisticated, flexible content management systems like WordPress and Drupal that have helped many blogs evolve into richer, more robust destinations, debating which Web properties qualify as blogs (is TechCrunch still a blog?) is similarly pointless.

All that matters is the blogs that generate significant impressions and engagement that also happen to discuss topics relevant to your key messages. Once that’s established, determining how many bloggers you have the time to build relationships with is the difficult part. Many PR and marketing pros wind up biting off more than they can chew and generate less buzz than they could have by focusing on a smaller, more relevant group.

Finding relevant bloggers

Defining the group of bloggers that matters in your space is easy with the right data points in front of you. I advocate for using a mix of traditional Web analytics such as counts of unique visitors and page views alongside engagement metrics such as inbound links (including those from tweets), comments, votes on social news sites and Facebook Likes. While I think it’s worthwhile to consult both types of analytics, over the past two years, engagement metrics have surpassed traditional, impression-focused metrics as a more useful way to identify key bloggers, especially in niche topic areas.

Bloggers who serve as thought leaders for a small but profitable cottage industry – eco-friendly footwear, for example – often live off the radar of the panels of Internet users that firms like comScore, Nielsen and Compete.com use to extrapolate their metrics. Still, determining which blogs perform best across a wide range of signals, reflecting both traffic and engagement, will give you the best insight into which blogs matter.

Of course, the numbers will only take you so far. Once you begin to explore blogs around a particular topic, you’ll begin to notice patterns of bloggers who regularly link and refer to each other’s posts. Try to identify a group of three to five bloggers who commonly refer to each other’s work. If you reach out to them individually and demonstrate that you’re not only reading their blog but understand its role in this mini-community of influential voices, you’re more likely to generate interest.

Blogger reach does not equate to influence

Many PR pros I talk to wish there was a standard baseline against which to judge a particular blog. Choosing blogs for outreach would be simpler if we could all agree to, say, ignore blogs without at least 10,000 unique visitors. The problem is, especially in a specialized topic – take one of the many varied specialties of lawyers who blog on topics like e-discovery or a particular state’s tax code – a blog with fewer than 10,000 readers may in fact serve as the tastemaker for the entire topic space. What makes sense instead is to judge a blog’s performance relative to its peers in the same topic area, and use its rank to determine whether it’s worth your time.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that here in 2011, a growing cadre of bloggers has now been at it for some time. Impactful bloggers are increasingly savvy with regard to affiliate marketing programs, requesting sample products for review, and other interactions you might associate with traditional media relations. Encouraging bloggers to disclose any freebies you’ve provided them with is best practice.

Blogs aren’t going anywhere. Besides that, the only safe bet is that their role in the social Web and best practices for engaging with them will continue to evolve.

Related post: 11 Ways to Boost Your Media Relations