I was quoted yesterday in a BNet article about using press releases to boost backlink profiles. It's a good article with lots of useful information. Inevitably, as part of the process, lots of better stuff from the underlying e-mail interview got cut. Here's a fuller version of what I told the writer, the estimable Drew Kerr. (Questions are paraphrased; answers are verbatim.)
Q: What does it mean for a press release to be "search engine ready"?
Search engines put a premium on relevance, so the press release services work (to varying degrees) to make the release as relevant to the release's subject as possible. That means using the targeted keyword repeatedly, and linking to the site being promoted with keyword-y anchor text.
It sounds simple. It isn't. First of all, press releases are usually written with more care than United Nations resolutions. They're the result of endless rounds of writing, re-writing, negotiating and re-negotiatiating -- and it's worse if there's more than one company involved. By the time a press release gets to a distribution service, the competing interests have been balanced like a Wallenda. The distribution service isn't going to have any leeway to change words just for SEO purposes. The best they can do is stick a bunch of links onto the most promising text.
That's a shame, because most releases have been so acutely lawyered that they don't use words that most constituencies would want to search for. Press releases, of course, have multiple constituencies -- the media, the public, investors, competitors, government agencies, suppliers, consumers, the closely interested, the casually interested, and now search engines. They frequently will use different terminology to discuss the same thing; that's poison for SEO, which is most effective when the copy uses language that people are actually searching for.
For all of those issues, distribution services are a fine way for a site to to gain authority by building backlinks. Unless it is hopelessly ham-handed, a release about the latest frammistat from XYZ Corp. will inevitably use the words "frammistat" and "XYZ Corp." repeatedly enough to appear relevant for those terms in search engines. By including a few links back to the XYZ Corp. Web site -- particularly using the word "frammistat" as the anchor text (and, even better, linking to the frammistat landing page on XYZCorp.com) -- the release distribution service has cast a "vote" for the XYZ site. The more votes for a site on any given search term, the more relevant the search engines see that site as being, and position on search results pages go up.
But wait -- it gets better. Many web sites republish press releases put out by the distribution services. So if publication sites that search engines regard highly take the bait -- sites like Forbes.com, CNNMoney.com, whatever -- now *they* are linking to the XYZ Corp. Web page. The technical SEO term for this is "jackpot."
Q: How do people go wrong making documents SEO-ready?
Over-optimizing. It's true that repetition is your friend when you're writing copy that you want to be especially SEO friendly. But even though repetition is your friend, it's possible to overdo it. Repetition is your friend, but keep in mind that search engines understand that the Web is for people and not machines, and if you insist too hard that repetition is your friend you will write copy that no one will read -- and although repetition is your friend, search engines will understand that they are being pandered to. And repetition will no longer be your friend. Neither will anyone else.
Q: Does this work?
As noted earlier, it's very effective and it's an excellent way to start building a good backlink profile. But like anything that works, it's possible to overdo it to the point that search engine algorithms catch on and start devaluing those links. If the only sites that are linking back to you are news distribution sites, you need to rethink the way you're addressing the public. For one thing, if your only backlinks are from distribution services, it's a good indication that no one cares about the news you're putting out and search engines will understand that. At their core, press releases are a not-especially-pernicious form of paid links, which search engines -- Google in particular -- rail against. Like anything that can give a sugary rush, press releases should be a delicious part of a well-balanced SEO breakfast -- not the whole thing.
Q: Why are backlinks important to search?
Backlinks are important because Google sees them as votes of relevance. If one page has 1,000 backlinks from relevant pages and another page has 10,000 backlinks from relevant pages, Google sees the second page as being more relevant for a particular search term -- and will place it higher on the SERP (search engine result page) for that search.
Counting backlinks and judging their relevance is what Google's revolutionary PageRank algorithm is all about. But it's important to remember that PageRank is only one of 200 or 250 "signals" that Google uses to rank pages.
And it's also important to remember that only Google has ever said anything about how it ranks pages. Yahoo and Microsoft have never said how they build their SERPs. It may be some PageRank knockoff, or time-based randomization, or chicken entrails, or 5 million hamsters running on 5 million hamster wheels with roulette numbers randomly attached to them.
To searchers and readers, all that matters is that they get highly relevant results quickly. If Microsoft ever decides to reveal anything about how they rank the Web, you could expect SEOs to start optimizing more for Bing, which will increase the utility of Bing's index, which will draw more users, which will increase the advertising value of Bing's index.