Use press releases in your SEO strategy with this one weird trick

Don’t syndicate press releases.

…at all. Don’t ever add your release to a PR News site. With or without links.

The hysteria for the last couple of months surrounding Google’s labelling of PR sites as bad links has been blown way out of proportion because the sad truth is that we were getting brand anchor text press releases returned in reconsideration requests this time last year – and sadder still, using press release syndication as a link acquisition tactic has always been grey hat at best.

Putting a link – with or without anchor text – in a press release is implying to a journalist that you expect a link back to your site from this activity.

Talking to a site owner or contributor and pointing out that your business has done something that is worthy of a link is generally fine. When you do it right, it’s called outreach. With press release syndication this ‘transaction’ is carried out in a very public place and violates one of the most fundamental ‘unspoken rules’ of link building – the owner of the site is ultimately the person who decides whether you’ve earned a link.

The big difference between acquiring links through contributing to a site and acquiring links through press release distribution is the implication that you’re trying to get a quantity of links (after all, the content will be duplicated across the web) and that you’re trying to control the target URL and anchor text of those links. As a rule of thumb, if you can control the anchor text and/or target URL of a link and are trying to scale that, you should…just not.

N.b. if that’s the big difference, the small difference is that you can contribute to sites with a large readership of people who might buy from you whereas it’s debatable whether press release syndication sites got any genuine visitors…even before they all got wiped out by Panda last month.

Press release syndication is likely about to go the way of guest blogging; we’ve been disavowing PR syndication sites since 2012 and we still regularly get links from these sites flagged up in reconsideration requests when we’re winning penalty recovery projects.

It’s even easier for Google to target PR sites algorithmically: there are good blogs out there, but there are no good press release syndication sites. They’ve gone way beyond the stage of being on their way out (like infographics) to the point where they should be considered useless at best, and at worst, dangerous (like article marketing).

That doesn’t mean press releases are not useful. They can be a great way to acquire links on high authority sites if they’re not syndicated, but they have to be formatted correctly.

How to format a press release

The target audience for a press release is a journalist. If you’re syndicating your press release, it’s many journalists. Not all journalists are the same – different industries have different lexicon and journalists who cover those niches will expect different things from the press releases they receive.

For example, fashion journalists tend to like adjectives. More often than not, they want you to tell them how they (and their readers) should feel about your product or news. It’s the same with music journalists – they want to know why they should care because their niche is so subjective.

If you’re distributing a release about a financial product or business deal, journalists already know if they care. They probably want plain language and stats…

…and quotes! Quotes are press release gold…especially if you are leveraging press activity for SEO benefit. A quote says: “I’ve already written some of this article for you” and “this is how my company feels about this news, you don’t even have to contact me before you can start writing.”

A press release should contain clean, simple language so readers can establish the point as quickly as possible. When you’re creating a release don’t ask yourself: “Is this newsworthy?” – ask yourself: “What is likely to be taken out of this?” The sites that you want links from want stats, facts and figures. How do you get these across as quickly as possible?

Ultimately, if you want to get a link out of a press release you need to provide more value on your site than you are able to squeeze into a release. For an example of a press release done 100% right, look no further than Rand Fishkin and Sarah Bird’s CEO announcement earlier in the year. There are three main reasons why this was the way to go for these guys:

  1. A video makes everything much more personal, and Rand and Sarah show people how to feel about the news. And it’s embeddable!
  2. A transcript – added value, crawlable and indexable by search engines, means that this page will ALWAYS be considered the definitive version. This is where the news broke so that makes sense.
  3. Rand is a brand. A brand that Moz users have an emotional investment in. To protect its captive audience – which has to grow because Moz relies on subscribers – those users have to know that the brand they bought into isn’t changing completely. This video adds sincerity in a way that a few lines of text probably couldn’t.

Journalists are really busy

There are finite resources on news desks. A writer on a great site will get numerous tips and submissions every day of the week – they don’t need to trawl through PR sites to find a story. I gave a breakdown of my experience of a story going viral in my last post on – to summarise:

  1. I wrote about something on Branded3’s site that people happened to find newsworthy
  2. Someone who I had no connection with found it interesting enough to submit to Hacker News
  3. A journalist at the Verge found it and got in touch for more information
  4. Journalists at TechCrunch, the Guardian, Engadget, Valleywag, GigaOM etc. saw it on the Verge (or somewhere else) and wrote about it

The Verge ≠ PR Newswire, and I’m not the one who says that this is newsworthy or linkworthy. I didn’t ask journalists to link to me (until afterwards, if they didn’t link in the first place – and guess what? Not many of the people I followed up with responded. Real journalists are really busy).

What do you think your PR team is doing?

You might not agree with me that your link building strategy shouldn’t utilise press releases at all, but let’s imagine for a second that Penguin and the rest of 2012 didn’t happen and that there are SEO agencies and departments out there whose sole link acquisition tactic in 2014 is to syndicate press releases (there are).

Most brands and big businesses employ a PR manager or PR team…what do you think they do with their time? Maybe they employ press releases to gain coverage for the business – have a chat with them about what they’re actually doing to get features. The chances they syndicate 300 word releases are really slim. They probably stopped syndicating press releases when the SEO industry ruined this tactic for everyone 10 years ago.

I’m not suggesting for a second that there’s nothing more to PR than writing press releases – but there’s a lot more to SEO than that too. If your PR agency is getting your company covered in the Nationals but the best place you can build your links is PR Newswire, you’re going to look stupid.

A better way to promote a press release

If you’re going to write a press release, once you finish typing (if that’s how you’re doing it) the work isn’t over. It’s not as easy as syndicating – you can’t press upload and watch the links roll in.

If you’re sending your news to the right outlets (hint: directly to targeted influencers) you have to be prepared to pick up the phone, you have to be prepared to create more content, and you have to be prepared to offer more assets. This is how press releases were used before the internet.

Previously the criteria for using press release syndication to acquire links has been asking yourself: “Is it newsworthy?” …not “is PR Newswire a site I want a link from?” Nobody is likely to disagree that right now algorithms can’t decide what is newsworthy – only readers can do that. But Penguin can decide what is a bad link and those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

The format of 90%+ of press releases on PR Newswire et al is exactly the same. Minimum word count, with a link in it. If you saw a blog with nine posts out of 10 containing exactly 300 words and a keyword anchor text link you’d run a mile. So why do you think it’s OK for a PR site to host your great, newsworthy release when it also hosts so much crap?

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