Online Press Releases vs. Social Media: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

By Max Thomas

Once upon a time, a press release and a social media profile challenged each other to see which could rank higher for a person’s name. They decided to call this their Online Reputation Management Challenge. Confident he would rank quickly, the press release submitted himself via a paid online press release service, and quickly shot to Google’s page 1 for searches for the person’s name. He didn’t make it to the top of the page, but he was still in the top 10. What’s more, the paid press release service he used submitted his release to many news sites. The press release was sure that he would be all over page 1 for anyone searching for the person’s name. When he saw rank #5, he felt confident he would win this challenge hands down, so confident in fact that he decided to stop working for awhile and take a break. This doubly made sense to him since he couldn’t find the social media profile anywhere near page 1, and this was only the first day!

Meanwhile, the social media profile set herself up as a branded profile using the person’s name. She picked a social media site with a profile URL Google indexed, as well as one where her updates were crawled by Google. Right away, the social media profile got busy making updates daily about events and happenings in her local community and industry, and shared her observations about what other social media profiles were saying. Her updates were so sincere and interesting that other profiles starting sharing and commenting on her updates. She could feel the love and felt good about this new community she was contributing to. Even so, if someone searched the person’s name, she wasn’t anywhere near Google’s page 1 and the online press release already had two listings there. While that might make some nervous, this social media profile was confident. She knew that the press releases might rank faster, but that social media profiles can stick around a long time.

A few days later, the press release decided to check in on Google and see how he was doing. He had been submitted to over 80 different news sites, so he was sure he’d be everywhere on Google. However, much to his dismay, not only were the other news sites not showing up, but was no longer on Google’s page 1, and only his original press release URL ranked…and it had dropped down precariously to the bottom of the page. “What is going on?!?”, he thinks to himself. “Well, there’s only one thing to do – submit MORE press releases!” So the press release created a new release and submitted it via a paid service. Since the person didn’t have anything really meaningful to announce, he made something up that sounded important but really wasn’t. Even so, his new press release ranked on Google’s page 1 again, a little lower than the first one, but he was still there. Knowing that the release was being resubmitted to many other sites, he felt better about himself and decided to take another break. After all, he knows that a watched pot never boils.

Meanwhile, the social media profile has been steadily building her updates and connections to other profiles and blogs in her community. All these updates and shares by other profiles are getting Google’s attention and her profile is getting crawled more frequently. In fact, just the other day a very important profile shared one of her updates with a link back to her profile! She was so excited to get the encouragement. She was even more excited when she saw that her profile jumped up to the top of page 2.

Knowing that he now had two releases indexed in Google, the press release decided to take a look at the rankings and see what was going on. His second release was ranking and he now had two URLs on the first page, even though they were towards the bottom. But wait! What’s that? The social media profile is at the top of page 2?! How did she get there? It was time to submit another release! So the press release decided on a double whammy strategy: he submitted another press release and also built links to his first press release (after all, it’s still ranking the highest). He wrote up another release about nothing in particular and then submitted short posts to article websites that included a link back to his first release. He kept this up for almost a full month. He was sure he would be at the top of the page 1!

Meanwhile, the social media profile kept going with her updates, sharing valuable content, getting shares and building out her network. She realized that she was doing such a great job that she’s now an extension of the person whose name she’s using. She has become a part of that person’s online brand. What’s more, she now ranks on Google’s page 1 and in the top 5 results!

The press release is in shock. Without warning NONE of his releases are ranking on page 1 (“must be that darn Penguin!”), and the release with the inbound links was only at the top of page 2. What’s more, the social media profile is ranking at the top of page 1, pushing him further down.

The press release decides he must submit even more releases and build more links. He gets back on page 1 but then drops down again, while the social media profile continues to stay active and maintain her ranking in the top 5, sometimes even going up to #2 or #3 (usually beneath the person’s primary website). In the end, the social media profile wins the Online Reputation Management Challenge!

What’s the moral of the story? Be careful using Aesop’s fables as inspiration for a blog post? Perhaps.

More to the point, when it comes to online reputation management, press releases are like the hare that jumps up, then falls back, while social media is like the slow and steady tortoise that keeps going and, in the end, wins the race. In short, online press releases are not a long term tactic for creating strong online reputation management strategies.

While many online marketers and PR professionals know this, I still see questions on Quora and LinkedIn regarding whether online press releases really work. I also still encounter marketers and businesses that jump for pushing out online press releases for getting high rankings for branded URLs. In response to these, I’d like to address the efficacy of online press releases using data from 18 months of submitting online press releases as part of an online reputation management campaign. I’ll mention that the online PRs were a slice of the overall strategy and not the primary tactic.

While I can’t give specific details, I can say that the campaign was for cleaning up online rankings for a person who had a legal issue in the mid-1990’s that showed up on several authority news sites. Since nothing was submitted online using this person’s name for about 15 years, the result was that pretty much the only branded URLs that ranked (and even indexed) were the ones regarding the lawsuit. These results were on high authority news domains and included the persons name in the URL and title. In other words, there weren’t any positive branded URLs indexed. In short, we were starting from zero.

Among multiple tactics, we included online releases as a way to gauge how strong the existing ranking URLs were, and also to see if any of the press release URLs would stick, given that the URLs and titles would include the person’s name.

Overall, the online press releases worked in that they helped to upset the Google page 1 rankings, but the same online press release never ranked for long, and never ranked in the top 5 places. As with the fable above, the long term success came from leveraging social media profiles and journalist coverage.

The following chart shows the number of press releases submitted per month (in blue), the total number of press releases submitted (in red) and the number of Google page 1 ranking URLs (in orange). While this chart shows that press release URLs can indeed rank on page 1, it also shows the high number of press releases that have to be submitted to achieve those rankings. Likewise, it’s worth noting that the submission services (like Vocus, MarketWire, etc.) show that a release is sent out to 50+ news sites and online outlets. While that may be true, NONE of those ever ranked on page 1 (except temporarily) AND none of those resulted in journalist coverage. Lastly, the releases in 2012 were via paid submission services, which tended to stick around longer on page 1 than the free submission services (which were used for the 2011 releases).

The above chart does not demonstrate that the ranking press releases changed month to month. In other words, there wasn’t one press release that stayed on Google page 1 for more than 8 months (over an 18 month period) with the average being about 3 months.

Likewise, free or paid submission definitely had an impact on whether a press release would rank. As the following chart shows, a paid submission was 5 times more likely to rank on page 1 than a free submission. So if you’re going to pursue press releases for rankings, definitely consider paid. Note: The percentage below is an 8 month average calculated using data for this specific campaign.

In terms of top 5 rankings, none of the releases (including the paid submissions) reached that level, as the following chart demonstrates.

In closing, I don’t want simply to denounce online press releases. While they are not necessarily the best long term strategy, they can indeed rank, so they offer one way to get out a message (or announcement) quickly in the SERPs short term. Of course, strong social media still supports that goal too. It all depends on the campaign goals and strategy.

For helpful information on reaching journalists, I highly recommend Chris Winfield’s whopper post on maximizing press coverage, and stay tuned for Thunder’s upcoming post on connecting with journalists online. Likewise, for some great insights on Online Reputation Management, I highly recommend The Online Reputation Management Guide from the ladies over at Outspoken Media. As for using online press releases for link building, Tim Grice’s post on SEOmoz is a must read where he explains the misconceptions, realities and helpful strategies for leveraging online press releases.

Lastly, just in case you want to refresh your Aesop’s, here’s The Tortoise And The Hare.

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Max Thomas

By Max Thomas

Max is a nationally recognized digital marketing specialist who is an expert on search engine optimization and data-driven digital marketing who has spoken at SMX and SMX Advanced, LMA Southeast, LMA Tech in San Francisco, WordCamp and other industry recognized conferences. As the founder and CEO of ThunderActive, Max has lead his team (with offices in San Diego and New York City) to success for clients in legal, real estate, life sciences, consumer goods and new tech. A Columbia undergraduate with a Yale MBA, Max is an Impact Circle Member for The Trevor Project and is an advisor to start-up companies and angel investment networks, including Gaingels and Serval Ventures in New York.

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