A MAJOR change to Google’s search algorithm to weed out “low-quality” websites has hit investor relations departments as many hosted IR websites and the largest PR wire service appear to have had their rankings cut.
Company news releases on IR websites hosted by Thomson Reuters, PR Newswire’s Investor Room and to a lesser extent Shareholder.com now appear as far down the search results as the sixth page. Meanwhile, a German search research firm reported at the weekend that PR Newswire’s own website has also seen a 70% drop in its rankings for keywords after Google tweaked its formulas.
The potential consequences for thousands of IR departments include less traffic to their websites and less control over the format and usability of the information that investors access about them as Google’s results now give prominence to their news releases on third-party sites.
PR Newswire among worst hit
Last Thursday, Google announced that it had changed its formulas for determining which sites get ranked highest in its results to penalize so-called “content farms,” websites that produce vast amounts of low-quality content that targets commonly searched phrases and terms. It said the change impacts 11.8% of its queries.
The search giant said its goal is to “give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible,” to reduce rankings for sites that are “low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful,” while providing better rankings for “sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”
On Saturday, German search research firm Sistrix reported results of a before-and-after analysis of 1 million keywords to determine which sites were the biggest losers of the algorithm change. Among the top 100 domains that suffered keyword losses was PRNewswire.com, which was the 43rd biggest loser of keyword rankings with a 70% loss of keyword rankings. Since many companies use PR Newswire to distribute their financial news releases, any cut in the service’s rank could negatively impact IR departments.
Hosted IR websites relegated
It’s important to note that PRNewswire.com is only one domain and its clients’ news releases are distributed to hundreds of other websites, many of which now rank higher in Google’s results. However, companies have no control over how these other websites display their releases.
In many cases, the sites that Google is now ranking higher in its results do not format financial tables or links back to companies’ websites. This means that investors are not only being steered to less usable information, but it’s also more difficult for them to access the websites of companies that issued the news releases in the first place.
Making matters worse, Google’s algorithm change appears to have dramatically cut the rankings for IR websites hosted by Thomson Reuters, PR Newswire and sites that are hosted on the Shareholder.com domain.
In many cases, IR websites hosted on these services now appear on the second to sixth pages of search results, which means most people are unlikely to see them. Although part of the problem is poor website coding practices, particularly the lack of proper HTML page title code for releases on many company websites, even hosted sites that do have proper page titles are ranking poorly.
Example of Public Storage (NYSE:PSA)
The impact on IR departments is best illustrated by way of an example, such as the case of Public Storage, an $18 Billion market-cap real estate investment trust that issued its Q4 2010 earnings results on Friday via Business Wire in a news release headlined “Public Storage Reports Results for the Fourth Quarter and Year Ended December 31, 2010.”
When searching Google.com for that precise headline, the top result is a version of the release on The Street.com, which breaks it up across 9 separate web pages, a tactic some sites use to increase their page views but which hampers usability. For example, an investor wanting to review Public Storage’s balance sheet has to guess which of the 9 pages will contains the information.
The second result goes to a website called iStockAnalyst, which throws up a popup for a newsletter when users access the release. The release itself is incomplete and the financial tables are illegible because they bleed over the margins of the center content area.
The third result goes to a page on CNBC.com, which does not format links or financial tables for newswire content. This release is practically useless because none of the financial tables can be read.
Meanwhile, the release on the company’s own investor relations website, which uses Thomson Reuters’ IR website product, appears on the second page of search results. Any release that does not appear on the first page of search results is unlikely to be seen my many people.
There are many possible reasons why the version of the release on the company’s own website ranks so poorly. The most likely reason is that most Thomson Reuters’ IR websites are not optimized for search engines. For example, individual news releases don’t have unique HTML page titles, which will affect their ranking in Google’s index. Thomson Reuters IR websites also have unfriendly URLs and may be slower than other websites.
Example of Carriage Services, Inc. (NYSE:CSV)
The Carriage Services example is one of two we found that involves an IR website hosted on the shareholder.com domain. These are perhaps the most interesting cases because the releases do have proper HTML page titles, and the negative results are only experienced when companies use the shareholder.com domain rather than their own domains.
In fact, companies that use Shareholder but host the sites on their own domains typically ranked first or second in Google’s web results in out tests. This suggests that Google is either penalizing the shareholder.com domain or that it is treating IR websites hosted on the domain as just another source rather than the authoritative one.
Last Thursday, Carriage issued a news release via PR Newswire headlined “Carriage Services Announces 2010 Fourth Quarter and Record 2010 Results.” When searching Google for that precise headline, the top result is a version of the release on Yahoo!. The second result is for a version on DailyMarkets.com and the third goes to StockMarketsReview.com, which wouldn’t load when we tried it.
The problem is that neither PR Newswire nor the company’s own website is on the first page of results, even though they are the originators of the news.
The release on the company’s IR website appears only on the second page of search results. It is hosted at http://investor.shareholder.com/csv/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=552759
Google may be ranking the release on the company’s website lower than versions on other websites because it’s on a domain that isn’t owned by Carriage, or it may be that Google has identified the shareholder.com domain as low-quality.
What can you do?
Making sure that your news and other information on your IR website comes up first in Google’s search results is important for IR departments. If investors are being directed to other websites, then IR departments have no way to know what information they are getting and if the information is accurate and complete.
A major reason why other sources are ranking higher than companies’ own websites is because IR and PR departments are sending their information to these other sources by using PR wire services. Put another way, companies are paying PR Wires to boost the visibility of other sites that are much better at search engine optimization than they are.
However, if the primary source of a company news releases is its own website, as is the case if companies adopt Google’s website disclosure approach, then they will likely always rank highest in search engine results for their releases.
However, even without moving to web disclosure there are many things that companies should be doing to improve their search rank. For starters, they should be hosting all of their website content on their own domains, which is technically feasible no matter which IR website vendor is used.
They also should be optimizing their website code to be search engine friendly, including using unique HTML page titles, human-readable URLs, optimizing page load speeds, and using search sitemaps. Using social media to distribute links to releases on company sites is another effective way to increase search engine visibility.
At the end of the day, company investor relations websites have an inherent advantage over most other websites. They are definitive sources of company financial information and Google typically has recognized this.
If your website isn’t the first result for searches of your company name and financial information, it’s probably your own fault rather than Google’s.