In late July, news broke about Google's Link Schemes" updates in Webmaster Tools to devalue links in the anchor text of press releases distributed via paid services. Most PR or SEO practitioners who have distributed online press releases in the last 10 years should be familiar with the function. The point being, link-back to a page on your site with strategically chosen keywords and boost your natural search rankings. Higher rankings, of course, mean better visibility, more traffic, more clicks and more site-side actions.
“Some people had begun using guest blogging and paid distribution services, like press releases, to artificially inflate their keyword association through anchor link spam," said Vocus’ product marketing manager, Brendon O’Donovan. "Google made this change to protect paid distribution and guest blogging but requiring that they are used for its intent, which is content creation and dissemination, not link building,”
Google took notice of the individuals abusing this paid functionality. It also took everyone to task with an updated warning. “Our policy remains the same—when a company pays another company to put links up on a page, those links shouldn't pass PageRank," said Jason Freidenfelds, manager of global communications and public affairs at Google. "So if you pay to post a press release somewhere, the links should be marked as ‘nofollow’.”
The impact of change has brewed minor conflict between PR and SEO brethren, likely due to the main uses each respective industry had extracted from such links. Some SEO practitioners were legitimately using, not spamming, press release distribution to complement keyword campaigns. Most PR practitioners were tapping these traditional services for their primary function of delivering news. What began as an issue astutely picked up by SEO media and pundits continued with reactions from the press release distribution firms including BusinessWire, Marketwired, PRNewswire and Vocus/PRWeb, along with the PR community. Raven Internet Marketing Tools’ Arienne Holland’s humorous “Evolution of a Press Release Freak Out” write-up chronicles the saga.
Not surprisingly, the change has clearly affected individuals managing keyword campaigns more so than people managing news dissemination and placement. But perhaps the main issue at hand is still indeed one for communication. The initial shock and angst might be symptomatic of how Google told those affected, or not, about such a change. According to Dr. Pete Myers of SEO marketing leader MOZ.com, “I honestly think this devaluation has been going on for a while, and Google is just now telling us about it.” A lack of consideration for communication about the changes apart from the Webmaster Tools page and a Google Hangout might be to blame.
In fairness, maybe Google is still making best efforts to reach affected stakeholders. One way to let everyone know not to use services in violation of newly set rules is, well, to use the services themselves to show wrongful use. Send out a press release via BusinessWire, Marketwired, PRNewswire and PRWeb with an example of what has changed and what not to do rather than merely updating a few lines on a page.
While the onus is on everyone behind distribution, responsibility to implement the 'nofollow' directive rests on the industry’s press release distribution services. "We are committed to providing the best service to our clients and, on August 9th, added no-follow coding to all links within press releases issued following that date," said Victoria Harres, VP audience development and social media at PR Newswire. "This action guarantees that our clients linking practices within releases are current with Google guidelines and takes the burden off of clients,"
Nearly every one of the main distribution providers has since reacted to the rules change, but users should double-check their releases to avoid penalties for the organizations they represent. Quantifying how much and to what extent links are devalued remains unclear. According to Freidenfelds, though, practitioners can rest assured, “If you announce something on your own site or blog, that's not a paid posting, so it's fine to leave the links alone.”
Jeff Conlin is a Chicago-based communications and PR advisor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.