Generate Awareness, Not Links, With Press Releases

awareness quote“Let’s be very clear.  Press releases have always been about generating awareness.”  (Tweet it) 

That sterling point was made by a panelist on a recent webinar, and he was bang on the money. Because before you get the audience to act, you have to first garner their attention.

Attention is best gained authentically, and brands derive more value when they earn their audiences’ attention by providing quality information.   Utility will trump a gimmick every time.

This brings us to an important change Google rolled out in the form of an update to their webmaster guidelines about a week ago, in which they explicitly advise against embedding optimized anchor text in press releases or articles that are distributed on other sites.

This was not a surprise, as Google has been increasingly valuing earned media and social signals, as signaled in their Panda and Penguin updates.   PR Newswire will soon be changing the structure of the links in the content we syndicate to comply with Google’s new guidelines, implementing nofollow links in our press release feed.

So why press releases?

Search engines need to deliver to their users accurate and useful search results, and they are continually updating and refining how they evaluate and rank content.  With their new guidelines, Google is discouraging the use of press releases for link-building. 

There is an important distinction here. Press releases are more than simple SEO tools. Press releases reach journalists, influencers and consumers.    The AP, Dow Jones, Reuters and Bloomberg, along with thousands of other major newsrooms worldwide, have feeds of press releases piped directly into their editorial systems. And almost eight thousand web sites, including some of the world’s largest news sites, publish PR Newswire stories.  Press releases drive social interaction.  They meet financial disclosure.   In short, they drive broad discovery of your message.  None of this has anything to do with linkbuilding and SEO.  This is all about building awareness.

Google is taking aim at a tiny slice of press release distributors with its new guidelines.

While most of the companies using PR Newswire (and our competitors) are doing so to build awareness of their messages, garner media pick up and to deliver their messaging straight to their target audiences, there is a contingent that are issuing press releases for the sole purpose of generating inbound links, and this is the practice Google is discouraging.

The sophistication of search engine algorithms today is breathtaking. They evaluate myriad variables like social signals and user behavior, and they can read natural language and ascertain context. It’s pretty amazing, and it’s no wonder that they now ignore factors that used to be central to how a piece of content was ranked and were once considered SEO best practices.  As a result, old school SEO tactics — such as repeating the same keyword over and over in a piece of content or stuffing page HTML with keywords — have fallen out of favor.    With this most recent change, Google has signaled that the distribution of optimized anchor text links has also fallen by the wayside.

No-follow links

Adding no-follow code to the links in press releases will not impact their discoverability — press releases will still be indexed by search engines and the links within them will still be usable to readers.  This does not mean that your press releases won’t show up in online searches anymore. The nofollow code simply communicates to search engines that the links ‘within’ the press release shouldn’t be read by search engine spiders and count toward the search rank of the page they’re linked to. (If it sounds like this is an SEO technicality, that’s because it is.)

This change will be inconvenient for organizations that were relying on paid links.  However, fewer and fewer organizations are doing so, as this tactic has already lost considerable value.

discovery value

The real value of press releases

Our advice to clients on the subject of press releases and SEO has been clear and remains unchanged in the wake of Google’s update to their webmaster guidelines.  Using press releases solely as a means to generate inbound links from third party sites to the press release issuer’s web site hasn’t been sound practice for years.

We believe the value press release distribution provides is in discovery, not links.  Driving messages deep into audiences and generating authentic reads, clicks and visibility among relevant audiences and social shares — that’s where press releases add value.

When it comes to building online visibility for your brand, think of press releases not as sources of inbound links but instead as means to drive discovery of key messages by relevant audiences who will provide the sort of organic, authentic interactions that generate qualified traffic.   Publish new and interesting content, use a variety of distribution channels to seed discovery, and employ press releases to build the awareness and attention that inspire the action that creates a loop of content > interest > social interaction > search power for your brand.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of content marketing, and is the author of the e-book “Unlocking Social Media for PR.”  Follow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik

23 responses to “Generate Awareness, Not Links, With Press Releases

  1. Looks like a move to protect context ads at the expense of user experience. Media not affected since the news are searched for separately.

  2. Hi, Sarah! Thanks for this amazingly well-done piece that is going to be my guideline and resource and reference as I write my take on this. I’ve been having discussions with youngsters that PR is NOT SEO. This is going to immediately prove the point.
    The link building from an on-page optimization perspective will still be useful; however, the news release has become so devalued with many SEO and internet marketers adding online news releases into their offerings without doing anything oriented to messaging and strategy.

    • Thanks for the note, Jayme. I’m thinking we should have t-shirts made, emblazoned with “PR is NOT SEO” on the front! Heck, I might even consider a tattoo …. But more seriously, this is an important point. While it’s easy to understand Google’s point of view and their reasons for the guidelines, fact is, most press releases are distributed for purposes other than linkbuilding. User experience is also a topic near and dear to Google’s heart – good UX is, anymore, crucial if you want your web site to rank. I would argue all day long that a couple well-placed links in a press release enhance the UX of that message. Clients tell us that they get a lot of traffic to the links they embed – and at this point in the game, they’re influencing outcomes, not search rank, with those links, when interested readers register for webinars, download apps and take all the other actions press release authors prescribe.

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  5. Sarah and friends, I agree that PR is not SEO but SEO does contribute to awareness and is an important function in this digital age. I am very unhappy with these changes. Media relations seem to be more of a 1-1 type of contact and I think press releases only play a small part in those relationships.

    I believe in the context of an important announcement you want to be able to use all of the tools available in a distribution system and links are necessary for having an impact beyond the media. Web traffic, search terms, keywords, links these are all extremely important to my clients and their consumers.

    If you have watched I think this is a relatively arbitrary move by the 900 pound gorilla in the room and I don’t understand why PR Newswire and the other Press Release distributors are not pushing back? Vocus is putting this “no-follow” in place today.

    I also do not understand the PR purist position that PR can only be about media? I find this short sighted on the part of the release distribution companies that have created an excellent high powered product for both the web and the media. These release distributions touched many other important digital/web aspects of announcements and gave them a unique power.

    A release, (as we knew it a few months ago) was a perfectly legitimate tool for small companies who cannot afford a $10,000 per month PR retainer. Now the “bang for the buck” (which is already expensive for my small company) is significantly diminished. As usual, a reaction to disrupt those grey and black hats has made it difficult for the rest of us.

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  8. Hi Sarah – Thanks for the timely post. We use PR Newswire for our press release distribution and currently I don’t see where we can add the no-follow code to press releases we upload to your site.

    My concern is that since none of us know yet whether we will be negatively impacted by Google for NOT including the no-follow code in our press releases, my plan is to include it. What is PR Newswire’s plan to enable this code to be added to our releases?


    • Hi Veronica – We’re working (quickly!) on a solution that will apply nofollows automatically to the whole newsfeed, meaning you won’t have to do anything different on your end. We’ll announce updates here on the blog.

      – Sarah

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