Link Building

SEO: Google Devalues another Link-building Tactic

Google’s search result quality mission stands seemingly opposed to the search engine optimization practice of link building. For years, SEO professionals have worked to increase the number of external in-bound links to a site in an effort to build authority and trust, thus boosting organic search rankings. One by one, Google has been devaluing these tactics, and press release distribution is the latest target.

Press Releases and Link Building

Until recently, optimized press releases were a legitimate if increasingly overused link-building strategy. Press releases are written as part of a company’s normal course of business, and links are naturally included in the body of the press release as they would be in any piece of content on your site. So far, no problem.

Then eager marketers realized that optimized links in press releases would pass link value back to their site when distributed via a press release syndication service like PR Newswire. Sites all over the world receive feeds from these distribution services and repost them on their own sites, typically with links still intact. Next came the spam: overabundant linking within the press release coupled with over-optimized anchor text.

According to Google, press release distribution for SEO benefit is just another source of paid links. You pay for the distribution service, and the result is (was) SEO benefit. In fact, PR companies openly listed SEO among the benefits of using their service. As with other forms of paid linking, Google is devaluing these links now. They’re also asking webmasters to nofollow links in press releases in the same way that links from advertisements should be nofollowed.

Many press releases will already have been actively distributed via a public relations service or copied from your site and posted on other sites. It’s not realistic to expect companies to chase all of these down and request nofollows, so Google will have to devalue those algorithmically itself. Releases distributed through the major PR companies will be easy to detect and devalue even if the PR companies don’t add the nofollows themselves.

For press releases hosted on a domain you control, nofollowing links in press releases is annoying but not impossible. For more information on nofollowing links, see Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Part of me wonders why webmasters should bother nofollowing these press release links if Google can devalue them algorithmically itself. More likely Google devalues what it can confirm to be press release links but has trouble catching them all. Asking sites to nofollow the links is an easy way for Google to limit the number of new PR links they need to worry about. It’s also an easy way to demonstrate to Google that your site is committed to following webmaster guidelines.

What the Change Means

Google is asking site owners to devalue their own links in press releases. But what if they don’t? And what about all those years of historical press releases floating around out there across the Internet?

When a search engine devalues a certain subset of links, it’s different than applying a penalty. In essence, the links that Google’s algorithm deems unworthy to pass link authority have their value removed algorithmically. Imagine that your home page has 1,000 in-bound links. One hundred of those links come from press releases, 100 from article distribution sites, 200 from directories, and 100 from another site you own. All told, that’s 500 links from sources Google would deem low value and would want to devalue algorithmically. So now, instead of having 1,000 links passing value to your home page, only 500 links are passing value.

Technically it’s not a penalty; it’s the removal of value that your site previously enjoyed by means Google deems unnatural. The impact feels the same, however: decreased ability to compete in organic search.

Devalued Link Building Tactics

Google’s latest link scheme guidelines named a few other link building tactics that have been sliding down the slippery slope to being considered spam.

  • Large-scale article marketing or guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links.
  • Advertorials or native advertising where payment is received for articles that include links that pass PageRank.
  • Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.

These join the category of link spam long-occupied by paid links, directory submissions, posting to bookmark sites, blog and forum comment spam, widget spam, and heavily optimized footer links across a network of sites.

The only old-school link building tactics that still have value are sponsorships and other high-effort, low-quantity opportunities that require lengthy research to uncover. This is not a coincidence. It’s Google’s plan for a natural link-centric approach to search.

Quality Content Attracts Quality Links

In Google’s ideal world, high quality sites rank well because they are shared across the Internet and naturally attract high quality links. From Google’s link scheme guidelines:

“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and the more useful content you have, the greater the chances someone else will find that content valuable to their readers and link to it.”

If you think Google’s view of popularity and authority on the Internet is skewed to major brands, you’re right. By virtue of their larger mindshare and bigger marketing budgets, big brands are talked about more, visited more, searched for more and linked to more. Searchers trust brands more, search for brands more, and click through to brand sites more often in search results. All of these factor into search engines’ preference for big brands in search results.

If you don’t have the luxury of working with a brand that’s already a household name, you can still take action to improve your organic search performance within Google’s ever-tightening link guidelines.

  • Think ahead to avoid future link spam. If you’re relying heavily on a link acquisition strategy that targets large quantities of links that are fairly easy to acquire, that strategy will almost certainly be devalued in the near future if it hasn’t already. It’s best to stop now.
  • Weed out the worst of your past link spam. Try to remove links that you know are considered spam now. For example, if you acquired some run-of-site links on topically irrelevant sites, request that those be removed. If you can’t have them removed, consider disavowing the most egregious of them.
  • Target keywords that large brands won’t. Typically there are some words that major brands don’t care to use because they don’t mesh well with their marketing strategies. However, searchers use these words, and sites that target these less desirable keywords can win search traffic for which the brands can’t compete.
  • Take risks with content marketing that large brands won’t. Big brands need to be cautious with their marketing efforts, perhaps more cautious than your brand.
  • Be nimble. Big brands mean bureaucracy, which hurts their ability to iterate in SEO. Jump on opportunities as quickly as you can.
  • Make SEO a priority. Emphasize SEO across your business.
Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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