Google's updated SEO rules far from an agency 'killer'

Google's recent update to its webmaster guidelines on using links and keywords in press releases won't have a major effect on the PR industry, especially on professionals who use ethical SEO tactics.

Google's recent update to its webmaster guidelines on using links and keywords in press releases won't have a major effect on the PR industry, especially on professionals who use ethical SEO tactics, say communications and search marketing experts.

The revamped guidelines state that press releases that are full of irrelevant links that try “to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's webmaster guidelines.”

Stephen Corsi, VP of digital marketing at Lewis PR, says the rules will only affect firms “that aren't really providing much value from a PR perspective.” Lewis offers SEO services for clients, as well as communications counsel.

“A really valuable PR agency is doing much more than just press releases,” he explains.

Corsi adds that the revisions aren't exactly new. Google launched the “Penguin” update in April 2012, targeting websites with a large number of manipulative or spam-oriented links.

However, the issue surfaced after Tom Foremski, author of the Silicon Valley Watcher blog, wrote a piece on ZDNet with the headline “Did Google just kill PR agencies?” He argued that the changed guidelines will make PR firms' jobs much more difficult, drawing responses from numerous communications practitioners writing on their agency blogs.

“All the previous promotional PR practices on behalf of clients will be judged by the new rules,” he wrote. “The damage is done, and it will be near impossible to undo.”

Judy Kalvin, president of Kalvin Public Relations, says the Google update “is not going to kill good PR agencies.” She adds that there is no substitute for providing good content to journalists and sharing clients' stories that will maximize their exposure and credibility.

Thomas Gensemer, who joined Burson-Marsteller as US chief strategy officer earlier this summer from Blue State Digital, says that whenever Google changes its rules, firms become concerned.

While some claim Google is at war with SEO experts, Gensemer disagrees. He contends that there is a variety of tactics that professionals can use and it's “not in Google's interest to oppose legitimate agency and corporate efforts to surface their promotional content in legitimate ways.”

One updated guideline says links that are not editorially placed should be tagged “no follow,” which means they would not boost SEO traffic of page rankings.

Beth Monaghan, cofounder and principal of PR and social content agency InkHouse, thinks that the industry should support Google's actions because the company is “out to stop spammers, not PR agencies.”

She adds that a goal of agencies is to help companies articulate their ideas to the market.

“Once the new ideas are out there, they have to thrive or perish on their own merits, and if they thrive, the search engine benefits are going to follow organically,” explains Monaghan.

Similarly, Craig Kronenberger, global MD of search and digital paid media at Edelman, notes that Google is trying to get rid of practitioners who want to game the system. Yet the majority of PR agencies, regardless of size, will not be affected by the changes, he adds.

However, Kronenberger notes that some clients still use the keyword-link tactic to drive traffic, which is why it's up to agencies to maintain best practices and “preach to clients the importance of driving high-authority content.”

Despite the recent buzz about the Google link updates, Ephraim Cohen, EVP of tech and digital content at MWW, says that putting quality content in press releases, blogs, and articles has been one of the most important tasks for the “professional PR industry” for years. In a way, he says Google is “catching up” with its new rules.

Press-release-distribution company Business Wire has had policies in place on “keyword stuffing and link spam” for several years. If a release has any of those elements, it will not be allowed on the service, explains Laura Sturaitis, EVP of media services and product strategy at the company.

Business Wire hasn't seen any negative effect in ranking so far from the webmaster rule changes, but Sturaitis says the company receives only a small percentage of releases that are optimized with anchor text links.

“Press releases and PR people are writing for both human beings and robots, in this case Google,” she adds, which is why PR pros have to be mindful of the links they use so they can attract consumers while still using best practices, such as no-follow tags.

PR Newswire has also put best practices in place to guide clients, says Victoria Harres, VP of audience development and social media at the company.

“We do not think that these new guidelines are an ‘indictment' of press releases, and we also don't think the guidelines will affect the industry broadly since the vast majority of PR professionals were not and are not sending out press releases for the purpose of link-building,” she adds.

When it comes to engaging journalists and consumers, Harres says links should prompt authentic interactions, so “valuable content, in turn, promotes discoverability.”

A Google representative said via email that the company's policy on these issues “remains the same.”

“When a company pays another company to put links up on a page, those links shouldn't pass PageRank, so if you pay to post a press release somewhere, the links should be marked as ‘no follow,'” the spokesperson adds.

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