Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants

Why your PR agency could be inviting a Google penalty

This post is by Mike Morgan, Founder and Director of High Profile Enterprises and Content Director for TrinityP3. Mike has been collaborating with TrinityP3 on a Content Marketing, SEO and Social Media strategy since early 2011. 

The convergence of SEO and Public Relations

There has been a lot of talk in the past few months about how SEO and PR are moving closer together and how collaboration between these traditionally separate elements is increasingly important.

Over the last few years SEO has become much more than the technical compliance and optimisation processes for websites. With the rise and rise of content driven marketing, storytelling and high quality in-depth content are now the foundations of an effective web presence.

Content must be sharable, comprehensive, well researched, correctly optimised and structured, entertaining or informative, and it must be promoted across all available channels from social media to direct marketing.

Content creation has often traditionally fallen to PR to manage and what is produced for offline purposes is also used online in many cases. As the technical needs of search engines have become entwined with this process the need for PR to factor in optimisation has become necessary to maximise effectiveness.

What is driving this collaborative relationship?

Google is driving this shift with a large number of changes to its algorithm to enforce what it has been saying for a number of years.

And that is “Create great content – content that people will find value in, content that people will reference by linking to it, content that is popular on social media sites, content that is unique and which brings new insights to the web…” (paraphrased)

Secondly, Google has been warning webmasters and SEOs for quite some time about using any techniques that could be seen as manipulating the SERPs (search engine results pages) by indulging in practices that are seen to be “un-natural”. Un-natural links are any that Google judges would not occur unless a person involved with the receiving website has intentionally placed them on another site with the express intention of passing PageRank.

In fact, Google has really hit this one hard in the past 18 months with two of the most important changes to how search works. Two updates in particular have penalised non-compliant tactics that are implemented to gain better search positions – the Panda Update and the Penguin Update.

The Penguin update has certainly uncovered a large number of sites which were using borderline or even Black Hat tactics and recovery from a Penguin penalty is a long and arduous process that you do not want to experience.

So, Google has identified and set its sights on a number of targets:

  • link farms
  • content farms
  • paid links
  • blog networks
  • webspam
  • sites with thin content
  • over-use of anchor text
  • links from poor quality sites
  • un-natural link profiles

And this recent addition – links that do not look like they are editorial or earned.

Some agencies have been found out for breaking some of the rules and I gave a guide on high risk SEO strategies in a previous post.

How do these changes at Google affect PR?

Unfortunately, it seems that many in PR do not stay up to date with Google’s frantic pace of change. Google makes over 500 changes to its algorithm every year and it would be unrealistic to expect every PR agency to analyse each change and test for its effects.

The ideal situation is for the relationship with SEO to become more than content optimisation advice. It should become a partnership whereby any major shifts in search are discussed and adjustments are made to strategy.

This is where the disconnect is at present.

Within a number of organisations PR and SEO are still operating in silos and the dangers this presents can be substantial.

There are two major changes to search that should have been widely discussed in PR circles. However, I am surprised to see that both of these are completely off the radar.

Lets start with one very commonly used strategy for PR.

The serious danger of Advertorials

This one falls into two of the target categories – paid links and un-natural links.

Back in February Interflora in the UK realised that their website had completely disappeared from Google. This set off a chain of events and much speculation within SEO circles about what had happened.

Google remained quiet about why Interflora had received this big penalty so it was left to Interflora and SEOs to analyse the link profile and any other data to find the trigger.

Google is definitely not averse to making an example of a big brand like this as was seen with the JC Penney penalty in 2011.

Google’s Search Quality Team has even penalised and removed Google Chrome from search for the phrase “browser” for breaching guidelines (I’ll bet those days saw a few very strained encounters in the Google Cafe!). The penalty dropped Google Chrome from position 2 to around position 50 for 60 days!

So, what exactly did Interflora do wrong to attract the wrath of Matt Cutts and his department?

In the end what came out was that Interflora’s PR team (probably with a bit of misguided help from SEO) had paid for a large number of Advertorials in a range of UK news publications. Because of the sudden increase in exact match anchors from online news sites this flagged Google that something was awry.

It did not take them very long to work out that Interflora were in breach of the “paid links” webmaster guideline and so the penalty was enacted. Interflora would have received a notification of the manual action through Webmaster Tools and I’m sure there would not have been any sleep going on in that company for the next few days.

Although this was post-Valentine’s Day, Mothers Day was approaching and online sales would have flat-lined.

Interflora had paid (probably a substantial sum of money) for advertorials on approximately 150 news sites. But they paid a much higher price than they originally anticipated.

We can only imagine the loss of business caused by the ban from Google.

They immediately swung into action and contacted every site that they had paid for an advertorial on and asked for immediate removal. After a few days of frantic damage control their request for reconsideration was granted and they were returned to search after 11 days.

But, they were well below their previous search positions so there was some residual effect of the penalty.

Not so fortunate were the UK newspapers that ran the advertorials. Every one of them had their PageRank lowered to zero or at least substantially diminished. The repercussions in big drops in advertising revenue for these sites must have been a nightmare.

Even today Border Telegraph which previously had a PageRank of 6 has now only recovered to PR 4.

The Independent which crashed from PR8 to PR 4 has now recovered its rank.

This was a very strong message about paid links and Matt Cutts followed up with this tweet:

Matt Cutts Tweet


And he also followed up with this video which explains why they have begun penalising advertorials.

How do you avoid a penalty for advertorials?

If you are paying for advertorials they can not pass any PageRank to your site.

They are fine for driving visitors to your site so you don’t need to remove the links.

However, the way the links are managed is critical. You MUST add what is known as a “nofollow” attribute to the link. This is a piece of extra code in the link that looks like this:


What this does is tell the search engines that the link should only be followed by humans and that search engines should not pass any PageRank to the recipient site.

To be certain that you are not inviting a penalty you should also only link your brand name. You can hyperlink “Interflora” for instance but I would not recommend hyperlinking a keyword like “Mothers Day flowers”.

If the site offering the spot does not know about “nofollow” then I would avoid placing content there.

The risks are too great.

Ask your PR people whether they are using the nofollow attribute on advertorial links and ensure that this change to policy is made.

Can Press Releases get your website penalised?

In a word – Yes!

This is a relatively recent policy shift and it has caused quite a stir in PR circles.

Press Releases have been a staple of PR for many years – why would Google start penalising them?

Press Releases are designed to announce company news and are a great way to attract the attention of journalists and other influential people to help spread the good word.

So, why the sudden drop in trust?

There are a couple of reasons.

The first is the proliferation of low quality press release sites which fall into the “content farm” category much like the article directories Google hammered a couple of years ago. As Penguin destroyed a number of low-quality SEO techniques many of the poorer SEO agencies began targeting these sites to gain links.

Bad move…

The second falls into the un-natural links (and probably paid links) categories. If your PR people pay a “quality” press release site for a featured press release and the hyperlink is on a targeted keyword then you are breaching guidelines in two different ways.

Google’s webmaster support describes these as “link schemes”.

Although the example shown in Google’s support is at the spammier end of things, John Mueller from Google has been very clear in his advice. “Links In Press Releases Are Unnatural Links & Should Be Nofollowed”

Can you still use press releases or has Google just killed them off?

Yes , you can still use press releases as long as they are published for the right reasons.

Again the nofollow attribute needs to be used and you should only link from your brand name or website address.

See press releases as a means to gain the attention of journalists and to make announcements about your company but do not expect any SEO benefits from them.

Think about where you will gain the most valuable exposure – trade press, news sites, relevant blogs? And only approach these sites when you have a story that is really newsworthy and that their audience is likely to gain value from.

Steer clear of spammy, auto-approval press release sites and avoid paying extra for exact match keyword driven hyperlinks.

Future-proofing PR

Google is going to continue to implement changes to how it orders its search results. It is a game of staying one step ahead of the people who would hack their way to higher page positions.

Unfortunately, as long as loopholes can be found to achieve short term gain, people will test the limits and will develop tactics to manipulate Google.

Every time Google eliminates one of these commonly used practices there is a fair bit of collateral damage.

It’s Google’s sandpit and they get to make the rules. And we have to be agile in our approach to stay within the ever changing guidelines.

PR is going to have to get used to the fact that the game has changed. What worked a few years ago may now have devastating consequences for a business.

The only way to successfully future proof is to pay attention to what is going on in SEO circles. This may involve a closer relationship between PR and the SEO agency or if SEO is in-house then regular discussion about changes in search that may affect strategy must become a priority.

Silos need to be eliminated and the relationship between these two agencies or departments needs to be collaborative.

The outcome of this closer relationship will also bring a number of other benefits.

Content strategy and social promotion will be informed by technical compliance and important aspects like presentation of content and visibility will be greatly improved.

Is it time your PR people began talking to SEO?


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    Mike Morgan is a Founder and Director of High Profile Enterprises a New Zealand based SEO consultancy. Mike has been working in collaboration with TrinityP3 on an integrated Search Engine Optimisation, Social Business and Content Marketing Strategy since early 2011. Visit High Profile Enterprises here:

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