Tom Foremski rattled a few cages in the PR world recently when he suggested that the latest Google webmaster updates on keywords in press releases and digital content were bad news for PR agencies.
The upshot of the Google Webmaster Tools update is that links that are used to unnaturally boost a site’s search engine rankings will be penalised (actually, this has always been the case). The area that’s attracted most attention – and is cited by Tom Foremski – is the use of links placed in press releases distributed on newswire sites.
Google uses the example of a company trying to unnaturally boost a link to a company that sells wedding rings.
My personal take is that if you’re distributing press releases this way, you’re asking for it, particularly if you’re using low quality distribution services (If you Google “free press release distribution” you’ll see untold number of services, many of which allow you to embed links into your releases).
Is this all bad news for PR agencies?
No, not in the slightest… for the majority of agencies. OK, PR has become a lot more about content creation in the last few years, but the primary aim is reputation-building, not link-building. In fact, most of what PRs do day-to-day is about increasing a company’s presence in “earned media”, not paid-for links.
Sure, there has been real natural search value in the content, such as press releases, that PRs create and I think most agencies will probably shy away from adding keyword links into press releases hereon, but I would be very surprised if Google started punishing companies for brand searches (e.g. in the wedding ring example, linking like this: “Hatton Garden Ring Emporium has announced…”).
Google’s search algorithm needs links to judge the merit of a website; it looks to me like it’s just sharpening up on link-building. In fact, the easiest way for Google to deal with the problem would be to punish the distribution services and newswires. Up until now, the best ones to use have been those with a high PageRank. Reducing every distribution service’s PageRank would negate the reason to use them in the first place.
DWPub’s Sourcewire, which I would argue has always been a press release distribution service, not link-builder, has made the move to make all of its links “nofollow” and therefore safe from Google’s link-building gaze. In a blog post last week, it said:
By switching to nofollow on links, SourceWire is complying with Google’s approved method of linking within press releases. We had been considering going the nofollow route for some time, Google’s clarification has allowed us to make the move with confidence.
It is worth noting that SourceWire press releases will still be indexed by search engines, will still appear in search results and links in press releases will still work. The nofollow tags indicate to the search engine not to pass PageRank from SourceWire to the destination page.
I remember asking one of my press release distribution services (not DWPub) about this around a year ago, and they couldn’t give me a straight answer (Google was silent about it back then), so it’s good that DWPub has taken the lead. I can see my other services – and indeed media sites generally – following suit with “nofollow” as standard.
Overall, I feel it’s good that Tom Foremski has raised the issue, even if I don’t agree with his hypotheses. It puts into question how far PR agencies go in terms of delivering SEO services, but the clarification on link-building is not an immediate threat. Personally, I think it is the SEO companies that should be worried, rather than PR firms.