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Google rolled out its latest Panda 4.0 algorithm update in May, which was again aimed at clamping down on sites with low-quality or thin content.

Once the dust had settled it seemed that press release sites had taken a kicking, with reports that PRWeb, PR Newswire, Business Wire and PRLog lost 60% to 85% of their search visibility over night.

This isn’t the first time that newswires have been targeted by a Panda update, and in summer 2013 we wrote about Google’s new rules aimed at punishing unnatural link schemes, which made specific reference to press releases.

Back then there were alarmist discussions over whether Google had killed the PR industry, though many people sensibly argued that digital PR is about far more than simply posting press releases online.

But while it will take more than an algorithm update to kill off an entire industry, it must surely be concerning for newswires that they are consistently being targeted by Google.

The search engine’s algorithm updates frequently target sites with thin or duplicate content, the latter of which is inevitable as newswires syndicate their content across thousands of partner sites.

However Rod Nicolson, PR Newswire’s VP of global reporting, argues that accusations that the sites have thin content are untrue.

We carry a ton of quality and newsworthy information from the world’s biggest companies around the world, so we have good quality content.

Nonetheless, the company is aware of potential penalties for breaking Google’s rules on duplication and dodgy links, so all content across PR Newswire and its partner sites is tagged as ‘nofollow’.

But with PR Newswire relying on search engines for around 60%-70% of its traffic, will the company be taking further action to placate Google?

The lessons from Panda 3.0

Nicolson was in charge of PR Newswire’s SEO when Panda 3 hit the company’s search rankings.

He said his interpretation then was that Google perhaps see the site’s content as being quite shallow, with no internal linking structure within the millions of press releases.

However PR Newswire actually did very little in response to Panda 3 and yet after three months its rankings had largely returned to normal.

Nicolson believes that Google's algorithm readjusted over time and took a more positive view of newswire content.

So for Panda 4.0, from what I’ve seen the reaction has been very similar. It’s not wise to make drastic changes after things like this, as you can actually make things a lot worse. It’s a case of taking stock, analysing data and putting in the right measures.

But what of the new guidelines announced by PR Newswire in response to the drop in rankings? Surely the implementation of stricter rules governing the press releases published on the site is a tacit admission that standards have been slipping?

Nicolson said that the company had been on the same course as Google for many years in regards to fighting spammers and the new rules are just the latest evolution of that policy.

While admitting that in the distant past the company had traded on the SEO benefits of its content, Nicolson said that PR Newswire now discourages clients from considering online press releases as a link-building tool.

Even so, with this latest penalty could it be argued that the days of PR newswires are numbered?

Do press releases have a future in digital PR?

As a hardworking digital marketing writer I am probably a prime target for PR newswires, however I must confess that I can’t remember the last time I visited one.

But then my inbox is overflowing with press releases anyway so I don’t really need to go seeking out additional ones in my spare time.

Also, at the time of the last Panda update I heard several PRs mention that they couldn’t remember the last time they wrote a press release.

Nicolson argues that online press releases still serve a valuable purpose in getting news out to the market or to specific audiences that businesses need to reach.

In this way press releases are useful as one facet of wider PR campaigns in which messages are targeted to key audiences by various means.

Nicolson even suggests that Google’s algorithm changes are a blessing in disguise as it means PRs can stop worrying about any perceived SEO benefits of online press releases and get back to the business of managing client and journalist relationships.

This is an argument supported by Lexi Mills, who is head of digital at Dynamo PR and has a strong SEO background.

Mills advocates the use of PR newswires as a way of targeting specific audiences and agrees that it's not worth viewing them as an SEO tool.

The key aspect here is that newswires are about speed of news delivery and reach, the benefit does not lie in the syndicated release. Equally some businesses that can not get a press release up on their own website benefit from being able to direct journalists to the release on the PR newswire site.

But whatever your views on the future of online press releases, ultimately it will be a waiting game to see whether press release sites bounce back from this latest Google Panda update.

David Moth

Published 30 June, 2014 by David Moth @ Econsultancy

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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