Can Penguin save trade publishing and B2B PR?

As my colleagues will almost certainly corroborate, I can be quite grumpy. And, as my wife will attest, I’m often prone to jumping on my soap box. It’s not necessarily my best attribute and it can be written off both positively (he has passion) or more likely negatively (he’s just annoying and ranty). And this trait came out a few nights ago, while down the pub with a few rather excellent beers* in me and a fellow PR geek sat opposite.
The topic – links, SEO and Penguin.

Penguin has been out for about a year, it’s Google’s current algorithm and, in short, has been created to close a loophole. Inbound links are important in Google’s algorithm and, prior to Penguin, companies could place the same piece of content with links on the key phrases and it would boost you up the rankings. So, as Wikipedia states, Penguin was set up to “penalize websites using manipulative techniques to achieve high rankings.”

Google estimates Penguin affects about 3pc in English, German, Chinese and Arabic but a lot more in highly spammed languages.

From a PR perspective, this loophole used to allow you to write a well optimised press release, fire it out over Business Wire (other wire servies are available) and hey presto, 100 clips that virtually no one ever reads and a higher search ranking as a result. But fixing this loophole isn’t why I love Penguin.

No, for me Penguin is far more important than that. I personally see it as a potential saviour for the trade press.

Declining advertising revenue and staff numbers has led to, in many cases, an increased reliance on PR content. Smaller budgets mean editors don’t have the budget to commission independent pieces and smaller teams mean they certainly don’t have the time to do it themselves.

Effectively they’re in a catch 22 situation. The 2008 crash meant that it was a buyers market, so if they stuck to their principles and didn’t allow the PR content from advertisers then they got less advertising. And if they didn’t care about their principles and just used the PR content, then they would lose some of their credibility, lose the readers… and then (albeit a little later) lose the advertising money. Which is a shame because sticking to your principles and doing really good, unique and analytical content has paid dividends for publications like the Economist.

Now I’ve had many a conversation down the pub about this and (I’ll save you the soap box rant) this move to using PR content scares me. A lot. I love working within the geekery that is electronics PR but I don’t want to be in a career with a limited time span. And if there are no readers, then there are no advertisers, and that means there is no future. And, since this catch 22 isn’t limited to electronics titles – it’s in IT, it’s in telecoms and it’s in most others… I wouldn’t know what to do as I’m certainly not certainly not cut out for fashion PR.

So, back to Google Penguin.

Penguin is set to change all this. By closing that loophole, Google has effectively forced newspapers to create content that is unique. This means that simply reprinting a press release will down rank the page and (most likely) remove it from the all important front page of Google. Those that create new, interesting material can therefore take hold of the market.

This is a great thing and means the likes of Electronics Weekly or EE Times etc can focus on quality. Journalists can again be employed for their expertise in finding stories – interviewing interesting people that know what they talk about and spinning a narrative that explains (in about 1000 words) a problem affecting their readers and how to solve it – for a self serving example see here. And not just putting up press releases and bylined articles that have been written and then pushed around to several publications in different countries (and occasionally the same country with just a few tweaks).

I’m not saying that press releases and articles should be ignored altogether though.

What this means for PR is that we have to go back to the old school ways of doing things. If we want to have our news found online (and it’s a safe assumption to make) then we need to create content that can be easily made unique and work with fewer, more influential sites. We need to have unique copy on our website. And we need to support magazines and newspapers that do create interesting content by investing our time and energy in the key titles.

In the coming month or two, I’ll be writing (with considerable help from Jon, Publitek’s digital director) a white paper on best practice for PR and publishing post Penguin, please excuse the alliteration. To register your interest and receive an advanced copy before it’s even published on our website email [email protected].


* – the Box Steam Brewery’s Vanilla Porter, one of the nicest beers I’ve tried in a while.