This week, I saw an optimized press release blown away by Google News because it was mistaken for a social media press release. It fell under a hail of bullets, an innocent victim of a formatting decision. Before I share this tragic story, let me provide some background.
Two years ago, I asked, "Is the Social Media Press Release a Meatball Sundae?" I had just finished reading Seth Godin's book, Meatball Sundae: Is Your Marketing out of Sync?, which defined "meatball sundae" as "the unfortunate result of mixing two good ideas." And I answered my rhetorical question by accusing the "social media press release" alias "social media news release" alias "social media release" of being a meatball sundae.
I said the meatballs were the press releases, which should be optimized for news search engines, and the sundae toppings were the "Technorati tags, Digg buttons, del.icio.us bookmarks and other Web 2.0 features," which should be added to online stories and blog posts.
And I pointed out that adding Technorati tags to your social media press releases doesn't get them into Technorati, submitting social media news releases to social news sites like Digg was social media suicide, and using a jazzy new format that features bullet points and del.icio.us links wasn't going to make bloggers care about your content.
Six months later, I took a second look at the questions I'd raised in a blog post entitled, "Does Social Media 2.0 deserve a second life?" Instead of jumping to conclusions, I said the right approach to Social Media 2.0 was to test it, test it, and test it again.
Many of the new distribution options and PR measurement tools worked. But adding social media elements to press releases didn't. Blogs and other social media enable two-way conversation, but most press releases - even many of ones that use the social media format - are essays, not interviews; broadcasts, not conversations; lectures, not discussions.
One of the things that I didn't test back then was the suggested use of bulleted text in social media press releases, versus the narrative format of traditional press releases. Although I prefered the narrative approach, I figured that it was totally fine use bullets. I mistakenly figured that format isn't content, so it probably didn't matter.
Then, this week I drafted an optimized press release about an iPhone application for a client who shall remain nameless. As a courtesy, my client sent the draft to a third-party firm that had designed and developed the iPhone app. The final approved version came back -- with bullet points listing the key features.
Since it had already taken a month to get Apple's approval to even announce the new iPhone app, I didn't make a big deal about using a list of bullets in the optimized press release. Hey, I'm open minded.
But the next morning, I was shocked, shocked to find that Yahoo! News had indexed the optimized press release, but Google News hadn't. The optimized press release had top rankings for targeted keyword phrases in Yahoo! News, but I couldn't find it -- even when I typed the entire headline into the search box and hit the Search News button.
Now, Google News can be arbitrary, whimisical and capracious when it comes to crawling press release distribution services. For example, its automated system is currently best able to crawl headlines or anchor text links that have 22 words or less.
But, I already knew that. So, I talked with the technical gurus at my press release distribution servce. Then, I went looking to see if anyone else had encountered this phenomenon before, or if it was the result of a recent change to the Google News algorithim.
That's when found a post by Rebecca Corliss on HubSpot's Inbound Internet Marketing Blog entitled, "Study Shows Social Media Releases Are Less Effective than Traditional Press Releases." In May 2009, Corliss conducted a study comparing the results of social media releases and traditional releases by publishing them across five newswires.
As you can see in the graph to the left, the traditional release format performed much better.
And one of her findings jumped off the page. She said, "Don't use formatting. Many portal sites don't accept it. (For the technical folks, we're talking about XHTML.) Ditch the bullets, the itallics and bold type. It complicates the code and makes it more difficult for your release to be syndicated. "
Corliss added, "Use social media and multimedia elements in your PR strategy, not your press releases."
So, after conferring, conversing and otherwise hobnobbing with my fellow wizards, I decided that it was time to test the narrative format in a second press release versus the bulleted text in the first.
Now, I also made some edits to the headline -- changing "launches iPhone app" to "iPhone app launched by" -- and I revised the subhead and lead paragraph. But, these were just to put a fresh look on the announcement for Yahoo! News users.
The most significant change that I made was to rewrite the bulleted text into the narrative format.
Two days later, I submitted the second press release -- selecting the same news release distribution package -- and found that both Google News and Yahoo! News had indexed it. Oh, and it had top rankings for targeted keyword phrases in both news search engines. So, press release optimization still works.
But, what's the net-net? The excessive use of bullets can kill press releases. The Associate Press doesn't use them -- even for AP News in Brief. And according to Newsknife, the Associated Press was the No. 1 source in Google News for September 2009 as well as for the year to October.
So, write your next press release the same way that AP writes its online stories. Oh, and this isn't some dyed-in-the-wool defense of traditional journalism. Check out the number of YouTube videos from The Associated Press that appear in Google News.
Back on June 28, 2009, the YouTube Biz Blog invited any professional news outlet that is already included as one of the 25,000+ sources in Google News to become an official partner on YouTube and more easily share your news videos on both YouTube and Google News.
So, I'm all for innovation -- as long as it works.