By Dan Thies

SEO Showdown: Real Results vs. the Straw Man

By Dan Thies

I am a little bit chapped today. Chapped, as in something has “chapped my hide,” cheesed me off, and generally irritated me. Okay, maybe a couple things. (There is a point to this, and a payoff for reading it, I promise!)

The first thing that irritates me is that the “new thing” in search engine optimization (SEO) appears to be press releases. Everyone is sending out press releases to get more links to their sites, their clients’ sites, etc. They’ll just make up any old thing and pretend it’s newsworthy, because it doesn’t matter. Nobody actually reads online press releases, do they?

The online PR thing is automated and all these press releases end up archived somewhere, with link popularity passed on indefinitely (maybe). But it’s only a matter of time before the PR wire turns into total spam, isn’t it? I can see it now, we’ll see days with press release titles like:

  • “Online Viagra Seller Offers Best Prices, Free Shipping”
  • “Web Casino Offers Gamblers $50 Free Just For Signing Up”
  • “Supermodel Has Wardrobe Malfunction, Photos Online Now”
  • “Search Engine Optimization Firm Achieves Top Google Placement for Highly Competitive Keywords”

Wait a second… that last one is from an actual press release. Maybe we have already reached the edge of the cliff on this press release thing.

If you want to go read that press release and come back, I’ll wait…

Anyway, to get to the point of this, I have to say one thing first. That is one silly press release. However, that is not the point I want to make today. The point I want to make today is about the criticism this firm has attracted from others in the search engine marketing world.

Some folks have argued that getting rankings for search terms like “Microsoft exchange hosting” is not any kind of achievement, because very few people are searching for that. It’s probably true that very few people are looking for that service, but the purpose of search engine marketing is to reach the people who are looking for what you have to offer.

If there are only a few of them out there, then you must target them precisely. Outside of search engine marketing, there are few ways to reach such a small audience effectively, so the channel can get crowded, and costs can get pretty high.

In fact, when I checked the maximum bid prices on the popular Overture pay-per-click (PPC) advertising service, I found out that the top advertisers for “Microsoft exchange hosting” are willing to pay $8.02 per click to get access to that small group of searchers.

Although this firm’s client is probably not getting a flood of traffic for their top rankings, the value of the traffic they are receiving is extremely high. If they only get 10 visitors a day from their organic search engine listings, that’s $2000+ per month worth of free traffic.

Since the cost of reaching those rankings was probably not terribly high, there’s a very good chance that their SEO campaign was a success. Worthy of a press release? Naw, I’m not going that far. But I’d be willing to bet that their client is quite pleased with the results.

Real Results vs. Straw Man SEO

Let me contrast the above case, where “unpopular” or “uncompetitive” search terms can deliver real business results, with the goofy methods some so-called SEO firms will use to promote themselves.

I’ve seen SEO “consultants” claim that their top ranking for “guaranteed top placement money back seo consulting firm” was a demonstration of their great abilities, when in fact, nobody would ever search for that, or try to outrank them. Claiming top rankings for meaningless phrases is like the “straw man argument” in debate, so I refer to it as “Straw Man SEO.”

Although our press-release-happy SEO firm could probably stand to ease off on the PR just a bit, they are not guilty of beating up a straw man. Any search term that costs $8 per click on the pay-per-click side is definitely competitive. Even with a low number of searches, gathering a few such search terms together can easily justify the effort.

Tomorrow, I’ll dive into a longer discussion of keyword metrics, including how we measure the competitiveness of a search term on the SEO side, and get a sense of which terms are really worth targeting.

To “tease” the topic a little bit, there’s more to that question than how much advertisers are willing to pay, or how many others are trying to compete. SEO requires more up front effort than PPC… but then you have to figure in longevity… wow, this stuff is complicated!

What we really need is a better model to help us understand the balance between SEO and PPC. We’ll start building that tomorrow.

  • Thanks for the article Dan. So, do you think that press releases to services like prweb.com are going to go the same way that comments to blogs went?

  • Yes, or worse. If all the search engines, and all the bloggers, implement Google’s “rel=nofollow,” then blog comment spam will become pointless. The PR services are already pumping out enough of this garbage, but it’s definitely going to get worse.

  • But, people are spamming the press release services because it works, right? Just like comment spamming worked. I wish the nofollow tag could be the silver bullet, but I doubt it will stop comment spam. PR services could also use the tag, but it’s not really going to stop the spammers, is it (rhetorical question)?

  • Sure, Peter. I understand that spammers will still attempt to spam blogs through comments and trackbacks, but it’s possible to make the impact on search engine results pretty minimal, very quickly.

    With press releases, that’s not a solution, because one of the things these PR services are selling is the link, the anchor text, etc. As long as they’re doing that, the silliness will continue to grow.

  • Good point there, Dan. I know a lot of search engine optimization companies that claim to get top results in couple of weeks, which they do but for keywords that no one is searching for. I actually worked for one of these companies and such business practices were the reason I quit that job.

  • SirJonathan

    Great stuff Dan :). Thanks for sharing and I’m looking forward to reading more! SEO is such an interesting topic..

    ..and while it can be argued that any form of “optimization” could be considered manipulation in one form or another, its still something we all do. The results are what count :).

    Keep up the great work, looking forward to your next entry!

    -Jonathan Wold

  • FunkingFunky

    well what can i say. Very interesting to say the least. Ive been designing websites for a long time now, mostly as a hobby but id love to take it further, i feel ive honed my design skills – to a degree! and im now looking at seo… your explanations are fantastic, no gobbledy gooch and its easy to read (as i am dyslexic) il look forward to your next post… so far so good, keep it up dude!

  • incrediblehelp

    I am so happy someone is finally commenting on these ridiculous press releases!

  • steve gill

    I’ve just subscribed to your blog’s feed and eagerly await your future posts!

    re: the SEO company’s press release you mentioned… it was written just 3 days ago, but looking at google now their client does not have a top 5 result for the only term I checked for that’s mentioned (‘exchange hosting’) – their client is #8 or #9, depending on how you look at it.

    Plus, if they knew anything about Google, they’d realize rankings have been flip flopping around since at least the beginning of the month. (I don’t know if it’s a dance or what…maybe you could post something about that?)

    Additionally, and to support your comment, Overture doesn’t show ANY searches for that term, although Wordtracker does show a few.

    Again, I look forward to your posts and welcome to the blogosphere!
    And now I’m off to write up a few hundred press releases. ;)

    -Steve Gill

  • Maybe, but they’re listed in the #2 spot on MSN’s search (which these days, seems to be more accurate than Google, given all the stuff they’re doing to their algorithm)..

  • merrick_lozano

    Dan I agree that the press release in question does not seem all that newsworthy, especially to SEO’s who achieve similar or better results all the time, but who knows how someone in their clients industry would feel about those results?

    What really took me by surprise was you irritation about press releases. They are an effective vehicle to get a company’s message in front of its target audience. I can understand if you are irritated by spamful press releases, but press releases as a whole serve a real purpose. For example, publicly listed companies use them to release their earnings announcements. Organizations of all types use them to get their message out to the media and because of online newswires directly to their target audience. Journalists, and now citizen journalists, use them to assist them in writing their news stories.

    I am definitely partial here, I co-founded PR Leap two years ago as the first newswire to focus on search visibility for press releases. Because of this I have first hand experience watching this space.

    We have noticed more news releases with questionable news value being submitted to PR Leap, but I would not agree that all newswires will become full of spam. It is up to the newswires to work with their members and help them write more newsworthy news releases.

    With 30% membership growth every month we definitely receive more press releases that are borderline spam or not newsworthy, but proportionately this number has not grown by any noticeable amount over the last year.

    What has grown is the value of using services like ours, especially with the proliferation of RSS aggregators, and use by consumers and journalists. What other method do you know can get your message in front of your target audience in such a short amount time with a comparable amount of effort and resources?

  • Dorsey

    It sounds to me like the press release is a clever way to get attention from an SE, just as it is with printed media. If it weren’t for press releases picked up and printed by news media, many business stories would go unreported. Seems like an analogy to an SE picking up a new site that would otherwise go unnoticed.

  • Anthony Parsons

    We definately already see these press releases now… When will people just stop trying to find the easy way and do it properly, the first time and save themselves a lot of grief?

  • Tecknowjnkie

    Going to jump in on this one:

    “When will people just stop trying to find the easy way and do it properly?”

    I agree with Anthony and this is the key to page 1 (IMO).

    Optimization = accessibility + usability + relevant unique content.

    There are no shortcuts, period. Ways around this do exist but you will not be rewarded with a solid SERP ranking and will die fast.

    Here is some quick advice to newbies in this arena. Stay out of this blog and focus on every other blog that allows you to learn the 3 parts of the equation above.

  • Tecknowjnkie

    I read my post and do not want to sound like a know it all. My advice to newbies is not to spend so much time trying to figure out the tricks when all that is truly necessary is the equation.

    If all three parts of the equation are present in your website; you will begin steadily climbing up the serp and be rewarded with people that link to you organically.

    Once the above occurs it is now time to start spending some time in this blog and learn how to turn the dial to increase or decrease your upward movement.

    Any new site will be dare I use the term “sandboxed” in Google, that is, for at least 6 months so spend this time building for the user and it will all fall into place naturally. There is NO fast track unless you have deep pockets and those avenues are shrinking with each update in G. All of the above is my opinion through years of my own testing.

  • Merrick,

    While I think that was a very goofy press release, I understand the value of the press release as a promotional tool. What really irritated me about the situation was the reaction to the release. To criticize the press release as “not news” is one thing, but folks were suggesting that the firm hadn’t done something very good for their client, and that’s clearly not the case, QED.

    I don’t think that the PR wires will become overloaded with spam either, because if the signal to noise ratio moves too far in the wrong direction, distribution services will be forced to exercise more editorial control up front. But we’re at the beginning of a curve here, and there will be a lot of spam headed your way once the marketeers get hold of it.

    Ultimately, this will drive the cost of services like yours upward, but it’s still going to be one of the most cost effective promotion methods available. If I have a “real” news release, it’s easily worth 10x what I pay now to get good distribution, so the market can absorb a lot of spam control if it becomes necessary.

    PR channels will only become more useful over time, as PR services give content publishers more ability to control the content of the headline feeds they carry, and individual users take advantage of RSS capabilities within their desktop and browser. You’re in a good business.

  • St0n3y

    I know I’m a bit late to respond here but I feel a bit of damage control is in order.

    First, I want to thank you, Dan, for directing me to the High Rankings Forum where this press released was discussed (and shredded), allowing me to chime in. I’m a bit perplexed, however, why you didn’t allow me the same courtesy here. Not only that, but we had been in email communication at that time and you certainly could have gotten (and posted) some of my own feedback.

    Let me agree with you that the press release was “goofy”. I realized that in retrospect (hind site is great, ain’t it). This was a first release for us and we did not do a substantial enough job at a) creating the release and b) releasing something more relevant or substantial.

    I do want to say that we did NOT submit that press release for any possible link benefit. We created a release for the sole purposes in making an announcement about our services. My firm is not a spam firm in any way. In the course of business we all make errors, and this was certainly one of ours in the ways mentioned above.

    All said and done, it’ll be done better the next time around.

  • Tiger_Tom

    What I want to know is whether journalists have a way of filtering the ‘bumph’?

    I did a press release a few months ago that got me a radio interview, and a piece in a national newspaper.

    Why? Because I tied it into an existant news story, and made it relevant to a particular audience. A journalist saw my release on PRWeb.

    I would hate PRWeb to be discounted by news agencies because of press releases that aren’t new(s) at all.

    I feel I have been give a means to reach out to the world, and would hate it to be drowned in junk the was Usenet is/was.

    Any ‘real world’ journalists out there able to comment?

  • Apologies to Stoney for replying so late, I didn’t see his comments until today.
    [QUOTE=St0n3y]I know I’m a bit late to respond here but I feel a bit of damage control is in order.[/quote]
    I disagree… while it’s a goofy press release, my point in commenting on it was that your firm had been unfairly criticized. What many portrayed as incompetence was, upon examination, an excellent example of professional search engine marketing.

    I want to thank you, Dan, for directing me to the High Rankings Forum where this press released was discussed (and shredded), allowing me to chime in. I’m a bit perplexed, however, why you didn’t allow me the same courtesy here.

    I did send you an email on my blog post, not sure why you didn’t see it.

    Let me agree with you that the press release was “goofy”. My firm is not a spam firm in any way.[/QUOTE]
    I don’t think I commented on it here, but your release didn’t even carry links, so obviously wasn’t intended to garner link popularity. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, you got some leads out of it, so it was clearly effective as a promotional vehicle.

    It just really chapped my hide, and still does, that so many folks in the SEM business didn’t take the time to consider why a top ranking for “microsoft exchange hosting” would be extremely valuable to your client, and difficult to achieve.

  • Bob

    Yes nice article

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