The SEO and Referral Value of Press Releases in 2014

Google has been cracking down on press release sites with low quality, often duplicate, content, which is written solely for the purpose of populating the web with links. Sites like PR Newswire, which used to do well in search engine results and therefore used to provide valuable inbound links to websites, were hit fairly hard by May 2014’s Panda 4.0. Some have been struggling to regain their footing by tightening quality standards, purging offending pages and changing their rules in ways that they’re hoping will satisfy Matt Cutts and the rest of the Google webspam team.

But how widespread is this issue? Can we already see the impact of the penalties in the search referral metrics for leading press release websites?
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SimilarWeb PRO is reporting major drops in visits to the biggest press release sites in recent months

And what about the websites that were dependent on referrals from press release posts and from the link juice boost that these provided for so long? Data from SimilarWeb PRO demonstrates that sites which have historically relied heavily on PRWeb.com for referral traffic are now seeing drastic drops in traffic from the leading press release site, as well as general drops in referrals and search traffic. Although it’s possible that these metrics are not results of the Panda update, the correlation does suggest that Google is now “punishing” sites that have abused PR sites in order to rank better.

For example, in June, PRWeb referrals accounted for 3% of resourcefurniture.com’s referred traffic. This represents a 100% drop compared to May’s traffic to the furniture e-commerce site! And their referred visits total has dropped from 64,000 in May to 48,000 in June.

The impact of the penalty is even more dramatic in the case of websites that never had much value to offer visitors to begin with. Over at threehosts.com, a web hosting affiliate marketing presence, they’ve seen a 58.5% drop in referral traffic from PRWeb, with referrals from all sites dipping from 25,000 in May to 11,000 in June. Their search traffic has also dwindled over recent months, falling from over 4000 in December to less than 25% of that in June. Interestingly, PRWeb is still the website’s primary referring site, currently sending 87% of its referral traffic.

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Google is sending fewer and fewer visitors to threehosts.com, according to SimilarWeb PRO data

PRWeb-dependent sites without deep links or any dynamic content may be getting hit even harder by Panda. Looking at SimilarWeb PRO stats for osirismethod.com, a one-page e-commerce site for a gaming learning product, saw a dramatic drop in referred visits from PRWeb starting in February. By June the site had lost 100% of the traffic it had previously enjoyed from PRWeb. Its overall referral traffic has dwindled to an insignificant amount; in January it had 18,858 referrals and in June only 1,688, with 42% of that traffic coming from PRWeb.

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Overall referrals to osirismethod.com are headed downhill

With press releases no longer being the link juice wellsprings that they used to be, should search marketers still spend their time and money on them? Decisions like these come down to the relevance and volume of the traffic referred by these links. If the visitors you seek aren’t finding their way to your site as a result of your press release, then you’ve clearly wasted your time and money posting it – that’s where these Google penalties can make a real difference, and that’s why examining change in search referrals and PRWeb referrals is far more relevant than examining change in search rankings.

These companies have likely invested heavily in their search positioning, not realizing that the tactics their SEOs were using would eventually backfire. For example, a Minnesota real estate agency’s web presence, homedestination.com had built up its referral traffic from PRWeb over the months of March and April, only to lose more than half of it by June, according to SimilarWeb’s crawlers. 84% of the site’s referrals still come from the press release site, but the number only totals 5,000.

Let’s not lose site of the underlying principle here, though. The primary purpose of press releases is not actually for links at all – they are meant to serve as a way to disseminate news story ideas to journalists. If a company has actual news, press releases are probably still the best way to get the word out. In order to avoid being seen as spam, though, marketers should make sure to follow Google’s rules of SEO and, when in doubt, set all links to “nofollow.”

And sites that actually provide value to users via rich content strategies seem to be able to recover from their press release-related penalties quickly. An 85% drop in PR Web traffic was suffered by 10bestdesign.com, a review site of design agencies. However, it appears that these referrals are slowly regaining their traction. Total referrals are on the rise as well. According to the latest data, 20% of the site’s referrals are from PRWeb, but 10bestdesign enjoys a diverse link profile, which could be making a major difference in its rebound trajectory.

A tactic under fire

In retrospect, it’s clear that press releases should never have been thought of as an SEO tool. Instead, they should be seen as a branding and credibility tool. In addition to generating news stories, an interesting press release has the power to generate social media buzz and drive relevant traffic to a website. Press releases and press release-posting websites that provide the reader with useful information can still rank in Google and can still enjoy relevant referral traffic. The spammy ones are being obliterated by Panda updates – either directly by Google or indirectly by the PR site purges.

About the Author -

Natalie Halimi is the Head of Marketing Communications & Education at SimilarWeb. With over 10 years of experience in marketing, Natalie has promoted services and products in the B2C and B2B arenas, in various industries.

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