From Link Love to Hate; Don’t Let Your Content Get Slammed by Google’s New Rules

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Did Google’s New Rules Just Kill PR Agencies?

Do you ever blog or guest blog? Comment on forums, blogs or social networks? Or use content such as press releases or articles in your social media marketing efforts? If you do, and include links back to you (or your client’s) website, you may run afoul of Google’s new rules and algorithm changes – and pay a search engine ranking penalty as a result.

This column highlights recent changes to Google webmaster linking rules. It explains and tries to clarify them. I report what Google has said, info from related articles, and cite interviews with experts. There are still many unanswered questions; however I want to call attention to the issue and share what’s known so far to help you maintain effective practices in your content and social media marketing .

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I lifted my head from my late summer daze to see a Facebook note from a colleague asking for my reaction to an article: Did Google just Kill PR Agencies?

The article was by Tom Foremski, someone who has covered the PR industry through the years (he famously wrote Die, Press Release, Die, Die, Die years ago; the anti-press release tirade that gave rise to the social media release). It was about new Webmaster linking rules that could pose a threat to common PR, social and content marketing practices like press releases, news wire distribution, article/content marketing and guest blogging.

I work in PR, social media and content marketing; but the agency I work for grew up as a PR firm, so the headline hit close to home. The news seemed relevant to anyone who practices social media / content marketing, integrated marketing, and cares about search engine ranking.

The questions I had were: how are these changes different from the earlier rules? Do they really mean the death of PR agencies and newswires? What are implications for social media marketing? Should we wave the white flag and give up on optimizing content? I wanted to find out, so I dug deeper.

New Rules

Foremski’s story featured a link to the new Webmaster rules, which I include here, as well as the following excerpts:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be … a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines… The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links
  • Creating links that weren’t editorially placed or vouched for by the site’s owner on a page, otherwise known as unnatural links [such as]….
    • Advertorials…
    • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites…
    • Low-quality directory or bookmark site links…
    • Forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature

It seemed clear that Google was trying to discourage promiscuous inbound linking from content that is self-generated / published. They want to favor content that becomes popular naturally; and place more weight on earned media, i.e. content and links that have been blessed by site or news editors.

It all sounds good, at least at face value; reward good content that is validated and penalize spamming. Where it gets more complicated are the gray areas, e.g. time-honored and otherwise above board practices like sending news over the wire; press releases can appear verbatim or, at best, very lightly edited on many sites. Also, many content syndication sites post the same article. Are companies that use newswires and article marketing services in danger of jeopardizing search ranking?

I Still Don’t Follow

Google can sometimes be opaque in their policies. Like Tony Soprano or the Federal Reserve chief, they set direction and issue edicts, trusting that others will fall in line – without getting too specific. It can be hard to get detailed answers from them (I did try, by contacting their PR team). So I checked around and found this Search Engine Land article which referenced a recent Google video hangout session in which John Mueller, one of Google’s lead Webmaster Trends analysts, answered some very direct questions about the new policy.

You can click on the link, read the article and also see the hangout session; I did, and agree with Search Engine Land writer Barry Schwartz’s summary (here’s an excerpt):

“Throughout the video, John Mueller equated press releases to advertisements. It was specifically asked if all links in press releases need to be nofollowed or just “links with optimized anchor text” in press releases need to be nofollowed. While John said it would be somewhat okay to have direct URLs linked within press releases that are followed, he did say to be safe, he’d recommend nofollowing even those links (i.e. the links that are not even optimized anchor text).”

The point made in the article, and confirmed by John Mueller, is that you should add a so-called nofollow attribute to the bit of HTML code surrounding relevant links if you want to be certain to avoid penalties when using the tactics i n question.  Nofollows are often used with text ad links (see this article for more info). They instruct Google to disregard – or not follow – the link when Google crawls the page. It is a way of saying: “Hey Google, we just ask that you disregard the link as it is bought and paid for. Please don’t hurt us (the site that the link points to) in the rankings!”

Experts Chime In

Nofollows, optimized anchor text; I was learning more, but still not satisfied or feeling quite right. In fact, my head was about to explode. I thought that talking to experts might calm me down and school me further. So I sought out some of the people from the field that Google is apparently trying to eradicate, yes, the SEO wonks.

Tony Grass, a buyer-content optimization expert and CEO of E-Market Intelligence, said:

“This is an extension of the Panda algorithm change, which downgraded (or even penalized) SERPs (Search Engine Ranking Placements) for mass posting of created articles with little relevant content and lots of links. But the [Foremski] article seems a little hysterical, as it is too black and white and leaves out ranking realities for Google: All SERPs  are competitive. That is, you don’t have to be perfect, just more optimized than competing sites. Google has to fill a search page with something, and rank them somehow.

Link ranking takes into account contextual relevance. The most vulnerable are free standing press releases, and small websites with no page on the site that provides meaningful content relevant to the PR’s keywords.”

He offered the following advice regarding press release optimization:

  • Optimizing releases is still fine, but it has to be targeted, with keywords linking to highly relevant content. Use long tail keywords, i.e. ones with less competition.
  • Use just a few keyword links in press releases that stand on their own or are featured on the company’s site. Make sure the keyword link goes to pages (not always their home page) with directly relevant content for that keyword.
  • You can always link your company name to your home page, and executive, product or corporate announcements, etc., to their appropriate pages.
  • PR links in respected venues and publications should hold up well. Use nofollow links for free standing or non-contextual press release.

Eric Enge, author of The Art of SEO, and CEO of Stone Temple Consulting, said:

“While the publishing of the policy statement is not new, Google has always tried to ignore links included in press releases. It is important to remember that Google wants only to count links that have true editorial value, like an academic citation. I interviewed Google’s Matt Cutts recently, and we spoke pretty specifically about this issue.”

He said that he believed that the algorithm updates are Google’s attempt to close the gap between what they advocate and what they enforce; and that they are getting more specific with the webmaster rules.

We agreed that it was ironic: Google has said that they don’t want companies to do anything special to optimize content; we should write for people, not the search engines. Yet if you use a newswire and include links to your website, something that can be perfectly innocent and routine, you should take special measures (like adding nofollows) to avoid a penalty.

Final Thoughts

There are still questions, but a few things are clear: it is highly unlikely that Google’s intent is to eradicate the PR business, newswires, or content and social media marketing industries with these changes.

Produce quality content. Optimize with care, e.g. don’t stuff keywords and go link crazy. Mind your content distribution channels (advice that I gave in my post 9 Surefire Content Promotion and Distribution Tips). And I think you will be fine.

Bob Geller
This monthly Content Marketing and Social Media column is contributed by Bob Geller. Bob is president of Fusion PR, and has a background that combines a solid grounding in technology with a 25 year record of success in sales, marketing, and public relations. Bob joined Fusion in 2000, and has helped build it into a leading independent tech PR agency. He has led client teams that have achieved outstanding results in areas ranging from enterprise tech, to telecom, online, CE, financial and clean tech. Bob also helped launch Social Fluency, a subsidiary of Fusion that develops dynamic social media practices which are integrated with traditional PR efforts. Bob has provided critical commentary to publications such as CMO Magazine, PR Week, PR News, and Bulldog Reporter. He created and manages the influential blog Flack’s Revenge, and has contributed to Cision Navigator, Ragan’s PR Daily, and Handshake 2.0, among others. +Bob Geller
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  1. says

    Bob, thanks for your take on this issue which is certain to raise eyebrows in the PR and paid newswire biz. I can see Google’s point about link abuse in press releases, but I can’t imagine the public relations profession would be willing to turn the clock back to the pre-Web era of linkless (lifeless?) press releases. BTW, has anyone stopped by the Google PR zone to see what kinds of links are used in the mighty G’s releases?

  2. says

    Google’s intent is to eradicate any form of promotional activity that is designed to promote a site above and beyond it’s natural popularity. SEO does that, PR does that too, especially now that Google is looking at more than 200 signals, not just links. In that regard, PR is firmly in its cross hairs as it hunts for paid promotional activity – which competes with Google’s business. After all, it’s Google traffic, why should it give free traffic to businesses that hired a PR firm to promote it? Buy AdWords instead!

    • says

      What an honor, thanks for taking the time to read my post and add some thoughts. If you are right and they really do have it in for PR; well, they can’t take earned media away from us, right?

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