"It’s well known within PR circles that the best way to kill your chances of getting press is to issue a press release." - Bill Hankes
I know that for many readers this will be counter intuitive, but hang with me for a few minutes. In many cases, press releases are bad for PR. Not just unhelpful, not only a waste of time, but damaging to one of the most important functions of PR professionals – organic search. How can this be? The short answer is spammy backlinks. Here’s the longer one.
Once Upon a Time
Until a couple of years ago, press releases were thought of as one of the best ways to build credible links to a business website. Brands frequently focused on press releases over content marketing precisely because of the benefits of the backlinks they generated. It was really quite awesome. You could control the frequency of releases and the anchor text. It was just a matter of choosing the right distribution services and getting your release out there as far and wide as possible. Backlinks were a numbers game and PR pros played it well.
As has happened with every other strategy for gaming search rankings, people eventually took advantage of it, and now there are thousands of useless press-release syndication websites that just duplicate content across a wide spectrum of channels without adding any additional value at all (or connecting your content with actual members of the press).
Google set out to address this exploit with their Panda and Penguin updates leading Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, to write in a forum on December 26, 2013, “Links from your news releases do not have SEO value.”
So that’s a pretty clear argument that press releases don’t help SEO, but do they hurt?
Not All Backlinks Are Good
In addition to not rewarding useless backlinks and duplicate content, Google has started punishing them. When it comes to backlinks, keep in mind that Google is no longer very interested in how many backlinks you have. Yes, this is a massive change from the early days of SEO, but these days Google is much more concerned about quality over quantity. One big indication of quality is how natural the link is. SEO optimized anchor text in the same document that shows up all over the web is a huge red flag. Google wants to see natural links, built for real people, not built for it.
Another way that Google identifies quality is an evaluation of the quality of the site with the outbound link. Remember those press-release syndication sites I mentioned? Those are the opposite of high quality sites. It is also important that the site linking back to you be related to your site in some logical way. If you sell accounting software and Accounting Today is linking back to you, this makes sense and counts as a quality link. If TMZ’s linking to you? Not so much.
Google has another simple trick for sorting quality backlinks from useless ones. It knows if people click the link. Google tracks whether users click on a link and benchmarks that number vs. the number of people who visit the page. The more people that click, the better quality the link is. Duh. I guess we should have seen that coming.
If you’re still skeptical that spammy backlinks actually are penalized by Google, consider this. After it made a change to its algorithm to penalize bad backlinks, Google also released a tool for webmasters to “disavow” links.
Not All Press Releases Are Bad
We really love the way that Link Guru, Eric Ward put it. (Ward has worked with companies like Amazon, Disney, Discovery, NBC Sports, TravelChannel, Microsoft, BBC, The New York Times, and NASA.gov. to build their link strategies, so we’re inclined to trust him.) He said,
“ The press release is not a document that algorithms will deem trustworthy in and of itself. If a press release is announcing something truly helpful, useful, unique, etc., then there is a higher likelihood that someone somewhere online may see it and blog about it, write about it, link to it.
And it is from these secondary link sources where the potential exists for you to attract additional links that could help your organic search rank. The mistake people make is in their belief that the press release document is any different than any other document. And the syndication of press releases makes it quite easy to spot press releases, and ignore them from a linking standpoint. It’s what happens after the release, over time, that matters.”
In other words, writing a release and sticking it out on one of the distribution sites for syndication can be harmful to your search efforts. On the other hand, creating a compelling pitch in whatever form it takes, and getting it to the people who will find it of interest and write about it, is the path to getting high quality, relevant backlinks that can help enormously.
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