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Google didn’t kill PR agencies, but it may have changed press releases

Posted by Ian McKee on 12th August 2013

Storm in a teacupThere was a minor hubbub last week following an article from Tom Foremski on ZD Net asking the question, ‘did Google just kill PR agencies?’.

Just to address your concerns right up front: the answer is no, of course they didn’t. The general consensus of the PR industry on Twitter was that Tom was somehow trolling us all. Even though I do find it hard not to take issue with the sensationalist message, it’s worth looking at the source of what he’s referring to, even attempting to see where his viewpoint has come from and what the changes actually mean for the industry.

The statements that started this debate are taken from Google’s webmaster tools page on link schemes. This is Google’s terminology for any kind of activity that is underhandedly attempting to build links to a site. The specific guidelines most relevant to PR are in the list of what Google gives as ‘examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking’:

“Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”

Further to this, Google listed some examples of  ‘creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page’, including:

“Links with optimized anchor text in articles of press releases distributed on other sites. For example:

There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.”

Link schemes

So there are several things we can extract from this. The first is the general issue of ‘link schemes’ and the fact that Google is onto these tactics. I’ve said before that the term ‘link building’ needs to die, as it generally promotes the wrong kind of approach. Google wants you to create good content that is getting linked to organically because it is good, not because any kind of shady tactics have been used.

Keyword rich anchor text links

In both examples, Google is warning off excessive use of anchor text links – the tactic of repeatedly linking to your site or page with a specific term as the anchor text. This kind of approach is clearly not a good idea in press releases (which we knew) and Google also warns against this practice in ‘large-scale article marketing’.

I’m not quite sure what Google considers ‘large-scale’, but either way we would hope that no decent press release or article would be littered with these kind of links. Keyword density is another term I called for the death of recently, as keyword stuff in this way is such an obsolete practice I’m fairly sure even the lazy SEO agencies have quit now. It comes down to the same old rules – write naturally, link where it makes sense and is helpful for your reader.

Editorially placed or vouched for

This is the next phrase worth paying attention to. PR is all about content that has been editorially placed or vouched for, which Google has clearly stated here is in the context of links, not what it considers to be ‘unnatural’.

There are, however, instances where PR content may not be editorially placed or vouched for – put a release on a newswire and you don’t have full control of where it gets aggregated. Interestingly, Realwire, in my humble opinion one of the best wire services out there, already ranks coverage from a release as ‘editorial’, ‘selective’, or ‘non-selective’. The ‘selective’ being where an editor or site owner has vouched for the content, and the ‘non-selective’ being the examples Google is concerned with.

Now firstly, Google is only concerned with these if you have stuffed your release full of half-relevant anchor text links, so if the release has been written naturally then you shouldn’t need to worry. But it does indicate how Google looks at these sites, and what may be in store for the future. You can fairly safely say that as far as Google is concerned, links from these sites are already worthless.

So why do they exist? Wire services may need to start being more selective about which sites access content, so it is no longer possible to automatically aggregate every release that goes out on their wires without some kind of human editorial input.

rel=’nofollow’

A more measured article on Search Engine Watch suggests adding a ‘nofollow’ tag to all links in press releases, essentially telling Google not to index them at all, based on some advice given by Google Webmaster Analyst John Mueller.

This would be the safe option. Press releases are of diminishing SEO value now so this approach just avoids Google’s wrath by not even attempting to garner whatever value is left.

But in my opinion it is probably overkill, the best approach would be to simply follow Google’s webmaster guidelines, which good PR should be doing anyway. Don’t keyword stuff, steer away from linking on anchor text in releases and create good, natural content that is placed editorially and isn’t duplicated across the web.

EDIT: 

So Realwire don’t hang about. The team over there have already implemented rel=”nofollow” on all links in releases hosted by them moving forwards, as well as applying it to all historical releases. This was the reasoning given for taking the more cautious approach –

“We considered implementing the guidance as it’s written, and limiting the changes to the types of links Google highlights, because such links appear so infrequently in releases we are asked to distribute. After all the kind of content that Google has been seeking to penalise with its recent updates e.g. Penguin and Panda, has been poor quality content that no one would ever find of interest, stuffed full of keyword anchor text links to try and game some ranking benefit. This simply doesn’t apply to the users of our service.

However given the quality of our client base, we know that any marginal page rank that might accrue from our site for the odd editorially relevant keyword will equally not figure very highly on your list of reasons for using our service, and hence we’ve decided to take this cautious approach.”

Fair enough, and good on them for moving so quickly. It also looks like PR Newswire have implemented something similar, adding rel=”nofollow” to links in releases distributed to third party sites, and Business Wire haven’t reacted directly but do give you the option to add the attribute to your links.

photo credit: Juliana Coutinho

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.

  • Adam Parker

    Hi Ian

    Great post. Covers all the key points I reckon and thanks
    for the compliment 🙂

    I’ve blogged about the reasoning behind our approach and
    related issues here http://www.showmenumbers.com/news-release-distribution/google-isn%E2%80%99t-killing-pr-but-it-may-be-applying-some-weedol.

    In my post I highlight two other points that are part of our
    thinking. The first is Google’s apparent preference for applying nofollow to
    all links that you refer to above. The second is recent research by
    Searchmetrics (a client of our service) http://www.searchmetrics.com/en/services/ranking-factors-uk-2013/download/
    that highlighted the increased importance to search rankings of having a mixture
    of backlinks, including nofollow links, and the reduced importance of links
    with target keyword anchor text.

    Combined with our view that the specific issue is largely an
    irrelevance to our particular client group anyway, we think that taking the
    simple approach is, on balance, the best. If new guidance is released, or
    feedback received, that lead us to question this conclusion we will revisit it.

    Thanks again

    Adam

    • Thanks Adam, agree with the points in your post too, and can absolutely see why you’ve taken the approach you guys have – it’s the cautious approach but think it’s the right one.

      As to the point about your particular client group, does make me think that some PRs have been the innocent victims here. Those who would never have been sprinkling releases with semi-relevant anchor text links anyway, now won’t be seeing any SEO benefit from releases because of the misuse by so many others. A lot of the SEO discussion around the topic has been about the press release as SEO tool, and I have an inkling that Google sees it that way, when I always viewed the press release as a PR tool with SEO benefits.

      That said I won’t be lamenting too hard – at least this will encourage people to use the press release as the tool it was originally meant to be.