Panda 4.0: Good news for content, bad news for link-stuffing

Will the latest version of Google's Panda algorithm kill press releases? No, but it will make them better.

Google’s latest Panda algorithm will not spell the death of press releases. Rather, it will ensure they contain higher-quality content that consumers and members of the media are looking for, say major wire services.

Google rolled out Panda 4.0, an algorithm designed to prevent sites with poor-quality content from ranking high in its search results. While the company has updated Panda several times throughout the years, a recent report by Search Engine Land claimed wire sites lost "significant rankings" on Google, between 60% and 85%, after the most recent update.

PR Newswire issued revised editorial guidelines this week in response to the update. According to Dave Haapaoja, SVP of global operations at the platform, the number of redirects coming from Google searches decreased after the Panda 4.0 release, and the drop was the impetus for the editorial guideline changes.

"We took a much stricter interpretation of advertorial kind of content as opposed to information kind of content," he says, adding that the impact Panda 4.0 had on PR Newswire was not "dramatic."

Representatives from other wire services broadly agree that press releases created with quality content in mind will not be negatively affected by the latest update. 

"Our site traffic has not been impacted by the changes because we have stringent control over what we do and don’t accept for copy," says Tom Becktold, SVP of marketing at Business Wire.

He says Business Wire educates its customers about the value of well-written press releases and waves a red flag if they contain link-stuffing or irrelevant information.

"If you are using the press release as an SEO tool, then we advise you to not use our service, because that is not what a press release is for," Becktold says.

Vocus, the company behind PRWeb, says it adjusted its content guidelines a few years ago, when Google made previous updates to Panda, and continues to regularly do so. It reviews releases distributed on its platform, making sure the content is newsworthy and removing irrelevant information and links that look like spam, says Peter Granat, CEO of Vocus.

He explains that it is too early to measure the impact of Panda 4.0, but notes that most reports have measured inbound traffic to PRWeb and distribution sites, which is only a small part of their utility.

"Quality content is important, and Panda is a good thing for the PR industry, which produces high-quality content and a bad thing for the direct marketing industry," Granat says.

Bill Gato, CEO and partner of Hispanicize Wire, says that because he and the platform’s other founders are former journalists, they view press releases as a reporter would, looking for a compelling story rather than SEO value.

"I never liked those gimmicky press releases that include back-linking. They have no value, no innovation, and no newsworthiness, so if Google is cleaning that up, that’s great," he says. "There is a lot of great content that deserves to be seen."

The Panda 4.0 update is far from the first time that marketers have had to adjust their practices to keep up with Google. Last summer, Google updated its webmaster guidelines on using links and keywords in press releases to dissuade the use of irrelevant links to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results.

However, many PR executives shrugged off the changes, saying they would only stop spammers and other black hat practitioners. For instance, Lewis PR digital marketing VP Stephen Corsi said at the time that the revisions only affected firms "that aren’t really providing much value from a PR perspective."  

In light of the most recent changes, W2O Group president Bob Pearson says communicators should think about whether their content is something people want to share. The more it is, the more it will be respected by the algorithm.

"Companies cranking out releases because they have to is not what people care about," he explains. "Beyond disclosures, the idea is that a release is a catalyst to bring you to rest of story."

Pearson further explains that PR pros and content creators should be incorporating rich media elements such as graphics and video into their releases to boost engagement.

In other words, despite years of predictions to the contrary, the algorithm update does not mean the press release is dead, says Blaise Lucey, content manager at March Communications.

"Press releases will still be around and more integrated as part of campaign that leads to calls to action," he says.

Lucey adds that Google rewards content that appears on trusted third-party sites, so while brands are acting like publishers by producing content, earned media still has an important role to play alongside owned.

"You have to have both parts of puzzle to create a brand story that is trustworthy," he says.

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