Porter Novelli

Yesterday, Tom Foremski commented on some changes to Google’s webmaster rules –specifically, a new focus on links and keywords within press releases. You might have missed those details, though, if you stopped at the more provocative headline, “Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies?” Even the article summary oversteps a bit: “New webmaster rules target core PR practices.”

No. Do the new changes kill PR agencies? No and No. Well, maybe the lazy ones.

If your go-to tactic for PR is a link-stuffed release blasted across the wires, then you’re doing it wrong. Google views this as spam, and it hates spam, because, well, its users and advertisers hate spam. Google is (still) about helping people find the highest quality information that matches up with what they’re looking for, and spam gets in the way of that.

There’s a bigger trend here

This is only one of many Google changes we’ve been following closely and, frankly, getting excited about. Google is making Web content creation a real art, and good PR agencies can and will naturally excel at that art.

But it requires smart work. And I’ll make a pretty stark prediction myself: In the coming years, SEO spend will slowly but surely shift to PR agencies and firms specializing in publishing, because SEO will no longer be a purely technical practice. It will become more of what it always should have been: The art of creating good content targeted to specific audiences, optimized and standards-compliant.. My headline would be, “Google just reinforced the value of PR.”

The bottom line is that now, more than ever, we need to publish and promote quality content that searchers find valuable and are excited to share. Stop focusing so doggedly on linking and optimizing organic keywords. It’s short-term thinking. It’s not PR.

The only problem PR companies might face with these changes is that they are 10 years behind the Internet.

Let’s explain a little deeper: Where did SEO come from?

Before Google, people found content largely based on keywords. If you had good content with good keywords, you ranked. Then the Web exploded. Google introduced its PageRank algorithm in 1998 (named after its co-founder Larry Page) that was based on not only keywords but how many sites link to a webpage. Then SEO was born. And it’s flourished ever since, based on the core premise that if you can get websites to link to your content you’ll rank high in search engine results pages. Since then Google has made a number of updates that determine the quality of those links, things such as Project Florida, and they continue to do so as we are seeing.*


If you are overstuffing press releases with keywords and generating links in dubious ways, you are practicing the SEO of 10 years ago.

So we are already behind: It’s time to change

A regular industry benchmark concludes that about 42 percent of the factors that define SEO are links. But that part of the pie is decreasing quickly and being replaced by other signals, such as social shares and comments. Hello, Google+.

But why social media? Because it’s the strongest factor for credibility. And it’s organic linking. Social sharing has an exorbitantly higher correlation to better SEO than any other factor right now. If 100,000 people share your content on Twitter, it must be good – at least that’s what Google thinks.

Other credibility factors are entering the mix too – things like Google Authorship, which allows Google to associate content with an expert. If you publish a piece of content on the internet, you have 100,000 Twitter followers and 46,000 people in your Google+ circle, and you often publish similar content, you must be credible. At least that’s what Google thinks.

How do we evolve?

It’s really very simple: We practice PR and follow our model of brands as publishers.

SEO is incredibly important, and we know it drives sales and changes reputation. But we need to reframe our mindset and stop focusing on technical SEO factors, such as linking and keyword stuffing. I’ve seen plenty of great content on the front page of Google without any keyword optimization in it.

Focus on creating great, in-demand content first, then start thinking about the technical aspects of SEO. Typically, when your content is great, other factors fall into place easily.

Google is not our enemy. It’s a smart company that reminds us time and time again that people want great content, that brands need to think and act like publishers and should make stuff at that key intersection between audience wants and needs and business objectives – not just the latter, not just the former.

These changes by Google are important when taken in context. But if you focus on fantastic content and inadvertently over-optimize one press release, you’re not going to lose ground or reputation.


* Paragraph changed to correct factual error – hat tip: Martin Macdonald.


  1. Jesse Soleil

    Chad – great response. Make content people want to engage with and share, and SEO “magically” happens.

  2. Ashtan Moore

    Enjoy the note on “brands as publishers.” Regarding the bigger trend, it’s a not-so-simple process of thinking about your audience and sharing valuable, relevant content with them. Regarding the algorithm shift itself, it’s only a good thing – it means that content markets can focus on doing good work instead of worrying about the competition and their grey-hat link strategies.

    I just released an article on the topic myself, here: http://www.talentzoo.com/flack-me/blog_news.php?articleID=17997 — give it a read if you have any time and I look forward to any feedback!

  3. Lee Odden

    Great points Chad, especially on the value of content and the growing role PR will play. Also, anyone stuffing releases with keywords and links is indeed, as you say, practicing SEO from years past.

    For clarification: “Before late 2003, Google measured content relevance largely based on the keywords it contained.” This is simply not true.

    The entire premise of Google from the start was based on links as indicated in the original patent by Sergey Brin and Larry Page: http://www.google.com/patents/US6285999

    It should also be noted that social shares are still links 🙂

    While Google is no doubt doing it’s best to mitigate competition to it’s advertising by devaluing tactics like traditional keyword/links SEO, I wouldn’t dismiss technical SEO too quickly. Things like page speed, crawability, domain authority, flow of links in site architecture, etc are all functions that help Google do its job and can contribute to inclusion and placement in search results. Thus, often creating a competitive advantage when competition is tough.

    Create great content? Yes. Ensure it can be found at the moment customers, journalists or influencers are looking? Double yes. Leave search based discovery to chance based purely on a subjective measure of content quality? I’m going with “no”.

  4. Greg Dickson

    There has been a big shift in the SEO industry to get more marketing/PR focused. This has been happening long before the change in webmaster guidelines.
    2 years ago a series of algo updates changed the industry toward content marketing.
    I will politely disagree with you regarding you prediction of budgets leaving SEO to PR, as we saw the writing on the wall and changed tack. Unlike many PR firms 10 years ago.

  5. ChadHyett

    Thanks Martin – updated that part.

  6. ChadHyett

    Thanks for sharing – nice write up.

  7. ChadHyett

    I completely agree that shift has been well underway for a few years. Either way you look at it it’s about publishing and promoting great content in the end, whether you work in PR, SEO or other specialties.


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