On July 18th, Google updated the “Link Schemes” section of Google Webmaster Guidelines. This section of their guidelines has been long overdue for a revision, as it had remained static throughout Google’s sweeping Panda and Penguin updates. Now, Google’s July update has many in a panic. The “unnatural links” section was updated to include:
“Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites. For example:
There are many wedding rings on the market. If you want to have a wedding, you will have to pick the best ring. You will also need to buy flowers and a wedding dress.”
The quick-to-overreact search marketing community summarily started planning funerals for popular press release distribution sites like PRWeb and BusinessWire. Unlike my colleagues, I am neither panicking nor planning to attend any funerals. The truth is, Google has been hinting at this for a long time.
Two years ago, Google’s chief spam-hater, Matt Cutts, implied that links on press release websites were not going to offer a ranking benefit. He was wrong. In numerous side-by-side studies, we saw a significant response from press releases and ranking increases that directly correlated with a strong press release. But Cutts reiterated this idea in March of this year, before the last Penguin update.
Here is the logic behind the rule:
1) Google does not allow paid links to pass PageRank. If you pay to advertise on a website, they are to use a nofollow tag. Pay-Per-Click ads that appear on websites all use nofollow tags so that the link appears as an advertisement, but offers no SEO value.
2) If you are paying to distribute a press release on, say, Prweb.com, Google has now clarified that they see that as a paid link, since you paid a fee to Prweb.com and now, through your content, they are linking keyphrases to your website from prweb.com.
Of course, Google still allows you to pay for listings on Yellowpages.com, Avvo.com, and other directories. These cross-referenced local directories are the lifeline of Google Maps, so it's unlikely they will change that rule anytime soon.
Press Releases Still Work
Here is the part that the worried masses are overlooking: Google has specifically singled out hyperlinked keyphrases. The targeting of keyword-rich links has been a recurring topic with the Google updates. They have made it clear that natural links don’t often come packaged in the exact keyword group you want, like “New York City Personal Injury Lawyer” or “Tampa Divorce and Custody Dispute Attorney.”
Unsolicited links, the kind Google is most interested in, usually come in the form of “read more,” “click here,” your law firm’s name, or just the URL, like http://lawexample.com.
Much like the content on your blog, the content on your press releases is most valuable when picked up and referenced by other sites. Google has gotten smarter and is simply tired of being told what to do. By seeing your law firm’s name, they know your URL (if you have a Google+ Local profile). By seeing your content, they know your keywords. And by seeing your law firm's name in a story or news releases that is about your area of practice, they understand your firm’s focus, and they use this information to rank your website.
Yes, hyperlinked keyphrases should no longer be included in your press releases without a nofollow tag (Bigger Law Firm magazine’s news partner, Law Firm Newswire has already complied with this in order to maintain their inclusion in Google News). But what press releases do offer is a way to gain traffic to your site, content that connects your law firm’s name with your practice areas using Google’s ability to read context – not just links – and the ability to link to your URL. While the press release website itself is not of much value to your ranking, the press release spreading throughout other networks is still (and always has been) what makes online news releases so important to your search engine marketing efforts.
Like many changes forced by Google, it’s no so much about stopping what you are doing, but more about learning to do it a little differently.