Evolution of a Press Release Freak Out

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Public relations professionals are paid to stay calm during a crisis. And that’s exactly what most of them did after Google’s recent link schemes guidelines update.

SEOs, however, flipped out.

And PR distribution services — who have been advertising the SEO benefits of using their networks for years — had to make quick decisions about how to react.

Here’s a recap of what happened, details on where the major PR distribution services stand now when it comes to links, and guidelines on how to use press releases effectively in a shifting landscape.

The back story

Search Engine Land versus PRWeb

Nov. 26, 2012

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land (SEL) publishes How PRWeb Helps Distribute Crap Into Google & News Sites. His article follows mainstream media coverage of a fake Google acquisition story — news that was distributed via a PRWeb press release — but Danny’s key point was that PRWeb’s claim of integrity for its releases was a joke.

Apparently Viagra spammers were using the low-cost PRWeb service to influence Google News SERPs and get links. He uses this release as an example (note its mind-boggling pull quote and logo):

Viagra spammers were using the low-cost PRWeb service

While wagging a finger at PRWeb, Danny slips in this statement:

Buying a press release through PRWeb is an easy and legit way to effectively buy links, a way that Google doesn’t penalize you for.

PRWeb apologizes, but it’s probably too late.

June 10, 2013

More than six months later, SEL follows up after PRWeb issues a press release that says this:

PRWeb (has) strengthened editorial guidelines, expanded the editorial review team, automated internal fraud checks and continuously banned suspect release categories over the past five months. The updates came shortly after PRWeb distributed a fraudulent release last November.

Wisely, PRWeb applies rel=”nofollow” to the anchor-text-optimized links in that release:

PRWeb no follow link

(Yep, Raven’s Chrome toolbar can tell you which links on any page are nofollow. Comes in handy.)

Time passes


It all goes Ka-BLAM!-O

Google does something

Sometime in June or July 2013, probably in the dead of night

Google Webmaster Tools updates its link schemes guidelines to prohibit “links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.” There’s some other stuff added and subtracted, too.

SEOs panic, write multitudes of blog posts

July 26, 2013

Menaseh Abramov asks on Google+ if anyone else has noticed the changes. Then, Barry Schwartz reports on SEL that Google Warns Against Large-Scale Guest Posting, Advertorials & ‘Optimized Anchor Text’ In Press Releases. (Barry gives a nod to Menaseh for the tip.)

July 29, 2013

Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller — a.k.a. The Most Accessible and Helpful Google Person on G+ — holds his regular Google Webmaster Office Hours Hangout on G+. Barry makes it his mission to clarify a few things about this new language from Google. Barry’s wearing his Google Glasses, so the fact he’s on a mission is really clear.

Barry's wearing his Google Glasses

July 30, 2013

Barry reports about John’s clarifications in Google: Links In Press Releases Should Use Nofollow Like Paid Links on SEL.

July 29-30, 2013 and beyond

SEOs everywhere flip their shit and write about the latest reason to hate, doubt or ignore Google.

PR networks don’t panic (publicly), write a few blog posts

Meanwhile, over in the land of public relations, PR distribution services rapidly are deciding what they’re going to do about this Google linking thing.

July 31, 2013

PRWeb, owned by Vocus, reacts nearly immediately. The blogs of PRWeb and Vocus publish Building the Press Release of the Future. “With this new update from Google, PRWeb has already added rel=nofollow attributes to all distribution links from PRWeb.com to protect our customers,” wrote You Mon Tsang, senior vice president of products at Vocus.

Automatic nofollows? Yes. Immediately.

August 8, 2013

Cision chooses overall vagueness about what their distribution service will and won’t do. It does offer specific advice on the new best practices for links in 4 Press Release Tips for Succeeding in the Wake of the Latest Google Updates. “You need to make sure your links now have the “nofollow” attribute or are coded so that they are inaccessible to crawlers,” the post reads. “The links you include will continue to inform your readers of where to learn more about your story, but links in press releases will no longer have an effect on search engine optimization (SEO).”

UPDATED 5:40 p.m., Aug. 21:

Automatic nofollows? Sounds like no. I emailed Heidi Sullivan, senior vice president of digital content for Cision, and hope to update this with her comments.

Automatic nofollows? Not yet, but they’re coming. “At Cision, we are in the process of adding ‘nofollow’ attributes to all links in press releases on the Cision News website,” wrote Laurie C. Mahoney, director of product marketing at Cision in a comment on this post.

August 9, 2013

Marketwired explicitly states in Your Press Release and Google: The Brave New World of SEO: “We’re adding a ‘nofollow’ flag to all press release links to comply with Google’s best practices. These tags will be added automatically after you submit a release, so you don’t have to worry about taking any manual steps.”

Automatic nofollows? Yes.

August 10, 2013

Business Wire publishes Discovery, Not Link Building, is the Objective of Your Press Release on their blog. They assure customers that they’re taking care to add nofollows on all links and redirecting links to an intermediate page blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file. That must not have been too clear, because they followed up a few days later with Is SEO Useless for Press Releases? to say the same thing.

Automatic nofollows? Yes. Plus a redirect via a page with a blocked robots.txt.

Aug. 12, 2013

PR Newswire, the industry heavyweight (and new Raven integration partner), mentions changes on the blog in The Top 10 Reasons To Send a Press Release — “Over the weekend, PR Newswire made an important change to our feed, implementing no-follow links in all press releases distributed to third-party web sites.” — and then again on Aug. 16, 2013, in 5 Ways Press Release Writers Can Offer More Content & Guidance to Readers & Journalists.

Automatic nofollows? Yes. (We’ll just take this opportunity right here to tell you that you can order affordable PR Newswire press releases directly from Raven. Hop on that, would you?)

PR agencies pat themselves on the back

Although at least one other tech journalist reports on the news with articles titled Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies? and Google Is Forcing a Reinvention of PR, it appears that this is a watercooler conversation, not a crisis, for public relations professionals.

August 9, 2013

Chad Hyett of Porter Novelli sallies forth with a bold prediction for SEO and PR agencies in Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies? No. Well, Maybe the Lazy Ones.

In the coming years, SEO spend will slowly but surely shift to PR agencies and firms specializing in publishing, because SEO will no longer be a purely technical practice. It will become more of what it always should have been: The art of creating good content targeted to specific audiences, optimized and standards-compliant. My headline would be, “Google just reinforced the value of PR.”

The bottom line is that now, more than ever, we need to publish and promote quality content that searchers find valuable and are excited to share. Stop focusing so doggedly on linking and optimizing organic keywords. It’s short-term thinking. It’s not PR.

optimizing organic keywords - meme

August 12, 2013

MediaBistro’s PRNewser climbs on board the content train in Google Doesn’t Really Want to Kill Your Press Release. Writer Patrick Coffee puts it this way: “Google doesn’t hate PR agencies, they simply appreciate a job well done. The lesson is quite basic, really: earned links are far more valuable than paid links, good content always trumps lazy linkbait, and everyone in PR needs to take extra steps to convince the new-and-improved Google that they aren’t trafficking in paid links.”

August 16, 2013

Steve Barrett, editor-in-chief of PRWeek, points out in No Tom, Google Didn’t Just Kill PR Agencies that “the objective of a modern, strategic PR pro and their agency or in-house comms department should never be to game the system anyway.”

August 20, 2013

Then yesterday, the founder of Spin Sucks Pro, Gini Dietrich, kinda sorta implies that PR folks don’t even have game. “The old way of keyword stuffing and using optimized anchor text are bad practices. This is something bloggers already knew and something PR pros who don’t blog need to figure out.”

As the dust settles

The SEO echo chamber hasn’t really stopped writing about this, points out Eric Ward in an article for, er, SEL’s Link Week.

What is harder to find — and what I’m going to take a stab at — is further parsing the specific Google changes in a way that helps define what is and isn’t acceptable at the tactical level.

Eric drives a Humvee through the not-easily-defined words in Google’s updated linking language, such as:

  • Intended
  • May be considered
  • Excessive
  • Exclusively
  • Large-scale
  • Widely distributed
  • Automated
  • Low-quality

What to do now?

If you’re unclear on how to proceed, read the practical, no-nonsense 12 Ways to Optimize Press Releases & Avoid Google Penalties by Lisa Buyer, posted to Search Engine Watch. Besides the 12 dos, she also lists five don’ts.

And remember:

  1. SEOs: Press releases are for news. They get distributed to the news media and are published on news websites. If you don’t have any timely, relevant, interesting news for a member of the credentialed press, don’t distribute a press release.
  2. PR folk: You’re not off the hook if you know little to nothing about SEO. You’re 100% right about earned media happening mostly through building quality relationships, and that Google wants — needs — quality content. You’re dead wrong if you think you can use this as an excuse to toss SEO best practices out the window.
  3. Everybody: When in doubt, stick a rel=”nofollow” on it. In fact, if you’re in doubt, you’re probably thinking too much about this anyway. Do you think spammers think twice? Nope. That’s how you know you’re not a spammer.

22 Responses to “Evolution of a Press Release Freak Out”

  1. Great article and summary of the recent changes for press releases. Really, I think that the link(s) on the particular PR site (PRweb, PRnewswire, etc) should be followed but the various distribution sites should be nofollow if they just copy the content. But if they copy the content, isnt it just duplicate content and the back-links hold no value?

    Maybe the vast distribution sites should be run by actual people who read press releases on the main PR website and then write their own article about that “news”. But then is it just spun content? Maybe, but as long as its 85% spun, it wont bee seen as duplicate content. (that’s a joke).

    • RavenArienne

      Thanks! I like your joke 😉

      As far as whether PR links had any value in the first place, Danny’s first article mentions Google’s official statement (via Matt Cutts) that they don’t, as far as ranking factors go. Danny then demonstrates why releases end up at the top of the SERPs anyway.

      And Eric Ward’s article, mentioned toward the end of this post, directly addresses your thought that the sites that pick up the articles should be the ones to add nofollow. In short, many webmasters of many of those news sites have no idea what a nofollow is, and they definitely wouldn’t apply it on a case-by-case basis.

      I can understand why PR distribution services made their moves. They don’t want their domains to be penalized somehow. It’s a bit overkill, but considering the volume of content that runs through their wires every day, understandable if they don’t have a human being approving every release.

      Still, I blame spammers 😉 I mean, “Levitra Buy Viagra” is a crappy press release no matter who distributed it. It shouldn’t have been distributed… but it shouldn’t have been written.

      • 40deuce

        You’re absolutely right, Arienne. It is the spammers fault.
        Lazy PR people and even non-PR folks saw that by placing a bunch of links in a press release that was widely distributed looked a lot like a ton of backlinks coming in to theirs or their client’s sites. However, as Google has switched to algorithms that value real content and real people sharing content, those tricks just didn’t work anymore. We’ve always advised our clients that the key to a great press release is to have great content, not just a bunch of links.
        Links, however, can still be a valuable part of a press release. They can take the reader to your company site or to a related piece of content that they will hopefully share. By adding NoFollow to the links in our releases, we’re really just ensuring that our clients that don’t understand all of this SEO stuff don’t get penalized for a mistake (linking because they think it’s good when it’s really not). We did this to help protect the people we work with, not ourselves.
        But going back to the original point, it’s all about creating great content. That’s how PR started and that’s where it’s being taken back to. Thankfully.

        Sheldon, community manager for Marketwired

        • RavenArienne

          Happy to hear from you, Sheldon.

          I agree that links are still very valuable in a press release. Yes for traffic and yes for getting more shares. But as a journalist for a dozen-plus years, I can tell you links are handy for deadline reasons alone. They’re the fastest way to get information when you don’t have time to, say, look up a company’s product page. (Yes, it’s also the laziest way.)

          And I understand what you mean about the PR distribution agencies taking this step to protect customers, not themselves.

          It reminds me of email marketing, though—that’s what I was thinking about when I mentioned PR domains. Many modern email service providers (ESPs) require a double-opt-in process for all subscribers from online forms. This protects their not-spam-knowledgeable customers—who might know little to nothing about email marketing, for that matter—from getting sued or having to pay big fines for spam complaints. But it definitely protects the ESP, too. Because too many spam complaints = ESP servers getting blocked from delivering emails. And if you can’t deliver emails, you’re not going to have very many customers for very long 🙂

  2. Laurie C. Mahoney

    Hi Arienne – In the interest of full disclosure, I am the Director of Product Marketing @ Cision and wanted to take the time to respond to your question. The answer is yes! Cision is currently partnered with Marketwired for press release distribution. Marketwired recently put up a blog post in which they let our clients know that they are now “adding a ‘nofollow’ flag to all press release links to comply with Google’s best practices. These tags will be added automatically after you submit a release, so you don’t have to worry about taking any manual steps.” Additionally, here at Cision, we are in the process of adding “nofollow” attributes to all links in press releases on the Cision News website. Hope this helps to offer some clarification on our practices.

  3. The outburst from the SEO community and finger pointing at the PR industry following these changes was quite funny from my perspective.

    As an SEO working in the PR industry, my first thoughts were the exact opposite of much of the bluster: it was clear that, if anything, this hurts SEO agencies hardest, not PR firms. It’s been fun to watch segments of the SEO industry limp somewhat painfully toward the same conclusion over the following weeks.

    • RavenArienne

      Hypothetically, I might have been watching from the sidelines exactly the same way… Also hypothetically, there might have been a subhead in this post at one point that said “PR Firms Wonder What’s the Big Whoop? If They Even Heard the News, That Is” 😉

      But a bit of a PR tizzy *did* start after the “Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies?” article ran. If I ran a PR agency and my future was question I would have a reaction to that, too.

      It’s the tone of some of those reactions that concerned me, though.

      Some (many?) PR professionals never understood the benefits of press releases (or anything?) that were also optimized for search engines. And some of those who did often seemed to resent it. So I’m disappointed—but not surprised—to see a few PR influencers taking this opportunity to say, essentially, “We told you so.” IMHO, no, this does not give you a pass to sweep all that SEO stuff under the carpet and pretend that you have been preaching “good content” (with that exact phrase!) since PR came into being.

      Anyway, there’s still so much value in an online news release! For journalists and potential customers and the marketers who publish them—be they SEO or PR or any stripe of marketing agency. And Lisa covers so simply in her article what that value is. In 12 bullet points.

  4. in short this post should be renamed matt cutts pr coolaid drunk. what you should do and what you can do are two different things. Yes SEO needs to be careful and futureproof campaigns but if you drink all of matt cutts coolaide then youd go out abd physically build ZERO links. he doesnt like guest posts, forum posts, directories, pr, infographics, top lists… theres no room for proactive link creation in his preferred strategy.

  5. Spook SEO

    Awesome article Adrienne. I think a lot of people are getting paranoid with press releases when they actually shouldn’t. Provided that they use the right techniques, focus on quality and do not spam, chances are they won’t be penalized.

    • RavenArienne

      Yes, David, it absolutely can. That’s perfectly OK.

      What’s different: That link won’t influence Google search engine results if you’re using any of the PR distribution services mentioned above. They are automatically taking care of the code that Google wants now. It’s simple as that.

  6. Very comprehensive article Arienne.

    Nofollowing *everything* seems like a massive over-reaction on the part of the PR wires IMHO if the only problem was over-optimised anchor text.

    Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…

  7. Actually, I can guarantee spammers are thinking about this in far more depth than anyone here. They are the cause of Google algorithm changes. Spammers suck, but real spammers are very intelligent. They are the hackers of the marketing world.