There are few companies or organisations that can come close to rivalling the power that Google wields over the internet and search in particular.
So when the search engine updated its rules on unnatural link schemes recently, making specific reference to press releases, it triggered a rather alarmist article from ZDNet asking whether Google had killed PR agencies.
The convergence of PR and SEO is something we’ve covered previously on the blog, with articles focusing on the importance of search optimised PR and suggesting seven SEO tools to improve online PR efficiency.
However the article on ZDNet understandably (and probably intentionally) ruffled a few feathers within the PR industry as it painted them as black hat SEOs, out to flood the internet with dull, keyword loaded press releases just so they could help their clients climb a few places in search rankings.
But in truth Google’s new update hasn’t really changed that much at all, as it’s just taken a few extra steps to clamp down on overly optimised anchor text, which is something Google has been doing for several years.
As a former SEO now working for Dynamo PR, Lexi Mills is probably more versed than most in the intricacies of search so I asked her whether she thought the updates would impact how digital-savvy PRs work.
Mills said it depended on the campaign objective, but she doubted that many PRs spin out press releases across newswires in the hope of gaining an SEO benefit.
I think that generally PRs are quite careful on where they place links. Personally I avoid anchor text, so for example I hyperlink ‘see here’ rather than ‘info on [company name]’. I think that we’ll probably see people writing out URLs a bit more as well.
Google has actually suggested that to be on the safe side, all links within press releases should potentially be made nofollow as standard. This would potentially be a bonus for PRs, as it means they can include important links without fear of being penalised.
For example Mills does a lot of work around Kickstarter campaigns and without hyperlinks it’s unlikely that journalists and, more importantly, consumers would be able to find the relevant webpage.
Is PR just about press releases?
Another problem with ZDNet's article is the suggestion that PR is all about pushing out press releases.
Ketchum's associate director of digital Danny Whatmough argues that it's incorrect to assume that PR is intrinsically linked to journalists and press releases.
PR has always been about building awareness of a brand or a cause and raising, upholding reputations. PRs have used an array of tactics to achieve this of which the media and organic/paid search are one.
In fact, Whatmough said that the new Google updates are actually of benefit to the PR industry as the increased focus on quality content presents an opportunity that plays to the traditional strengths of PRs.
One of the points made by ZDNet is that brands should focus on creating great content that their audience will automatically want to share, and Google should take care of the rest. So again, where's the threat to PR here?
Are all PRs aware of SEO tactics?
Unfortunately not all PRs will be as aware of how SEO works, so there may be some who come undone as a result of the latest Google update.
Mills said that the lines between SEO and PR have begun to blur, and PRs are now competing for part of the same budget as search marketers. Therefore PRs need to be careful not to lose clients as a result of badly executed attempts at SEO.
Having a limited knowledge of SEO is probably more dangerous than having no knowledge at all. If you put links in anchor text because you think it’s the right thing to do, that could harm you and your client. Modern PRs really have a responsibility to know about SEO in order to best serve their clients.
Whatmough agreed with this sentiment, pointing out that if PRs use unsavoury tactics, such as buying links or fans, then they will quickly become unstuck. However he said that's not what modern PR is about and it isn't what the very best PR agencies are focused on in 2013.
The best PR agencies are focused on creating new communication strategies that make the most of the vast array of channels and platforms out there. Yes PR has had to adapt and change to new technological developments just as many other industries have. But the opportunities are there for all to see. It’s why we see agencies from across the marketing sphere hiring PRs and content specialists.
Do you think Google has killed the PR industry? Let us know in the comments.