Veteran Silicon Valley journalist and tech industry watcher Tom Foremski stirred the pot recently when he blogged about the impact of Google's new webmaster rules on links and keywords in press releases.
Tom has been around the tech block many times and is always worth reading. As he points out, his 2006 blog “Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!” has become something of a classic and is now referenced in many PR courses at universities and colleges.
This latest article, on ZDNet, was provocatively titled “Did Google just kill PR agencies?” (Tom's headline by the way, not ZDNet's, though you wouldn't have been surprised if it was the latter), and it lays out the potential downsides to the PR profession of the new rules, which penalize links that are added purely to boost traffic or manipulate rankings.
Apparently, the piece has caused much gnashing of teeth and panic amongst some clients and PR pros, who worry their whole communications edifice is about to come tumbling down. And what, they ask, will be the impact on the wire services they rely on to distribute their releases in bulk?
This surprises me on a number of levels – and the short answer is that, for smart PR pros and in-house teams offering strategic services and counsel, the impact will be zero.
First, it has been a long, long time since the sole purpose of a PR agency was to bash out press releases for a living. All readers of PRWeek know the profession has moved on exponentially from those days, if indeed those days ever existed.
But let's also not kid ourselves that there isn't a market for syndicated press release and wire content in this age of resource-strapped newsrooms and automated online publishing. You only need to check your average regional newspaper website to see this. And the rise of content curation services means you could easily set up a media property now that just links to other people's content and doesn't have any journalists – indeed, many brand websites utilize such services as the basis of their content strategy.
And we've all been subject to the impact of search engine optimization, with journalists even being taught the rudiments at school so they can construct Google-friendly headlines and ledes, though I have to say I've always thought this risked resulting in the cart pulling the horse.
Either way, though, there is still a place for the carefully crafted press release with useful and intelligent links and additional material embedded. In fact, Tom's 2006 piece lobbied for a new structure for the press release to make them more user-friendly for the time-strapped journalist.
PR pros will only fall foul of the new Google rules if they try to gratuitously game the system and stuff their releases full of irrelevant or duplicate links, rather than providing good content and interesting client stories. If the new rules have the effect of hounding out those exponents of the dark search arts, then that can only be a good thing for the credible practitioners that remain.
Google's search guru is Matt Cutts, a controversial figure once dubbed “Evil” Matt Cutts by some in the industry who a few years ago even went as far as producing a spoof website under that name. But “Evil Matt” is another person well worth following if you want to ensure your search and press release strategy is on point and is going to prosper – which as we all know it must do as Google is still pretty much the only game in town.
It wasn't always that way. Back in the day, older readers will remember search was dominated by whoever had the most up-to-date search functionality, whether that was MSN, Lycos, Yahoo, Alta Vista, Excite, or whoever (I'm misting over at the memories of some of those long-lost dotcom names…). It was only after the dotcom crash in 2001 that Google really got up and running and proceeded to turn the search space into a virtual monopoly.
It might be difficult to imagine Google ever losing its preeminent position in search, but that could still happen if it diluted its functionality to such an extent it became second best. And it is one of the purposes of Matt Cutts and his team to ensure the credibility of the service doesn't falter, as well as, to be fair, to retain the underpinning that enables Google's paid AdWords and AdSense products, which provide a vast amount of the search behemoth's income, to prosper.
Cutts is a difficult character to “game”, but the objective of a modern, strategic PR pro and their agency or in-house comms department should never be to game the system anyway.
PR is much more than press releases, though there is still a place for smart media relations as part of the overall communications mix: just don't tar the industry with old clichés and confuse public relations for press release. Whether it's black hat, white hat, Cat in the Hat… that's just not what PR is about Tom.