I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy about a Google algorithm update as I’ve been with Panda 4.0.
Google rolled out the change on May 20. Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz noticed on May 29 that several major press-release websites were hit. PR Newswire announced on June 20 that low-quality content would be removed from the website and that new guidelines on keywords, links, and more would be implemented. Yahoo! stated on July 2 that Yahoo! Voices would be closing on July 31 and that the Yahoo! Contributor Network will do the same at the end of August.
All of these events are related, and everyone – from marketers to journalists to PR professionals – should be rejoicing. Everyone, that is, who is not a spammer or someone who facilitates spam (unknowingly or not).
But before I go into the greater context, it is important to understand what Google Panda seeks to accomplish.
What is Google Panda?
Google’s official description is that it is an update to lower the rankings of “low-quality” or “thin sites” based on this list of questions that humans subconsciously use to evaluate websites. In practice, this means that if your “SEO” strategy consists of writing short, numerous articles to target keywords on vast numbers of pages, you will probably get hit.
A brief example would be having two separate pages with the same, small amount of content – and the only difference being that one would target “buy sneakers online” and the other would aim to rank for “buy tennis shoes online.” (Google is now smart enough to know that those phrases mean the same thing.)
How Panda is Affecting News-Release Websites
Now, news-release websites got into trouble not out of anything they specifically did but rather because of how users used the sites. Too many “SEOs” – spammers, in reality – would write numerous fake and short releases and insert keyword-based anchor-text links into them. Sure, it worked for a short time years ago. But not anymore.
Google has clamped down more and more on that practice, and the press-release websites have had to respond. Jason Edelboim, PR Newswire’s senior vice president of global product, said this in the company’s press release:
Google’s recent algorithm update is essentially a technology-based editorial guideline for content quality, and PR Newswire is aligning our processes with those standards to ensure that press releases distributed are high-quality, authenticated content. Google’s recent action targeting low-quality content in the Panda 4.0 update affirms the importance of ensuring press releases and other content distributed via PR Newswire’s network are of real utility and interest to journalists and bloggers, as well as the general public. (emphasis added)
PR Newswire, and likely other similar websites, is instituting these guidelines:
- [Releases must have] insightful analysis and original content (e.g. research, reporting or other interesting and useful information);
- Use of varied release formats, guarding against repeated use of templated copy (except boilerplate);
- Assessing release length, guarding against issue of very short, unsubstantial messages that are mere vehicles for links;
- Overuse of keywords and/or links within the message
Personally, I’m happy for this development. As I said at SMX West and wrote at Moz, the purpose of press releases always has been and always will be to get coverage (that will then indirectly result in good links from quality, relevant websites).
When to Use Press-Release Services
Now, the lazy answer to Panda is never to use online press-release wire services. But lazy answers are usually the wrong ones – there are specific times when companies need to distribute information in such ways. For example: public companies are required by law (at least in the United States) to announce publicly what they are doing. Mass press-release distribution qualifies.
In addition, private companies that plan on doing IPOs are required to avoid inflating their future values artificially during what is known as the “quiet period.” So, if an average of two press releases had been issued globally per month before such a time, then doing three or more per month via press-release websites may violate the regulations. Slashdot founder Rob Malda summarized the two rules in his diary as:
- Don’t hype your company
- Conduct business as usual
Press releases can still be useful – when they are used in the correct manner. As David Rosen says in a comment on a Hubspot article by Dan Lyons that asks whether it’s time for the press release to die:
Genuinely newsworthy releases remain an important part of an overall communications and marketing program that must also include blogs and social media. Publicly traded companies still must issue news releases to comply with regulatory requirements. They are also effective in securing placements in local media. And they create a record of official announcements and newsworthy items that can appear and be archived on organizational websites.
There are other technical issues as well. I do not know if the news-release websites are doing this, but I would highly suggest that they implement the cross-domain rel=canonical tag and mandate that all websites that syndicate their releases use the tag to point back to the original URL at the news-release website. This will help both the press-release websites and the sites that syndicate their material by avoiding duplicate-content and other potential problems.
How to Tell if Your Website Will be Affected
Russ Jones provides a good set of questions at Moz to ask yourself to gauge your site’s risk of falling victim to a future Panda update, and I wholeheartedly endorse his opinion here:
Most of us don’t run sites with thousands of pages of low quality content. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be cognizant of Panda. Of all of Google’s search updates, Panda is the one I respect the most. I respect it because it is an honest attempt to measure quality. It doesn’t ask how you got to your current position in the search results (a classic genetic fallacy problem), it simply asks whether the page and site itself deserve that ranking based on human quality measures (as imperfect as it may be at doing so). Most importantly, even if Google didn’t exist at all, you should aspire to have a website that scores well on all of these metrics. Having a site that performs well on the Panda questions means more than insulation from a particular algorithm update, it means having a site that performs well for your users. That is a site you want to have.
This is true whether you run a press-release website, a site full of user-generate content, or anything else.
The Greater Context
“SEO” is a slang term for the results of doing an ongoing collection of best practices in areas including web development, content creation, social media, and PR that:
- Help search engines to crawl, understand, index, rank, and display a website in search results
- Build a website’s online brand over time so that it deserves to rank highly in organic search
- Guide the resulting traffic down a desired conversion path.
You do not “SEO” something. SEO is not a “bag of tricks.” You do not “do” SEO.
If you are using press releases to get links, you are trying to trick Google. If you are trying to get every link to you to use the same anchor text, you are trying to trick Google. If you are spinning different versions of the same articles and stuffing them with keywords, you are trying to trick Google.
Just stop. Stop it now. It’s not going to work. You are not doing “SEO” – you are doing spam. And you should feel bad. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
So, why has Panda 4.0 excited me so much? Simple. The Panda update as a whole is working to get rid of crap on the Internet. Both as an Internet marketer and as a person, I see way too much of it every day. And I’m sure you do too.
Google, thank you for killing “SEO” press releases. It’s a great start.