How Google’s ‘In-Depth Articles’ feature could affect PR

It’ll be much harder for companies to move damaging articles off their results page, but the feature may make it companies and publications to promote long-form journalism.

Google recently introduced a new feature on some of its search pages that spells big changes in the way companies manage their online reputations and public relations strategies.

The feature, which Google calls “In-Depth Articles,” offers up links to a set of three long-form articles, usually at the bottom of the search results page. The articles are usually detailed profiles and exposés on companies and their leadership. Companies and high-profile individuals should take notice of this development and understand that it presents a number of opportunities, as well as some perils.

No one but Google itself knows exactly how these articles are selected, but the search engine giant has described them as “thoughtful in-depth content” that “remains relevant long after its publication date.” This is a major coup for traditional long-form publications such as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Fortune, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, as well as new online-only media such as The Verge, SB Nation, and Slate.

Even though the public has become accustomed to short, punchy articles and image-laden lists that can be easily shared and read in less than five minutes, long-form journalism has been creeping back into style. According to best-selling author and prolific sports writer Glen Stout in a recent NPR interview, “Readers are hungry for really good work…they are more and more likely to go looking for that work online, for something they can read on their tablet, or read on their phone.”

His observation may hint at why Google introduced the In-Depth Articles feature.

Consumers of online content, along with advertisers trying to reach them, have created a demand for lengthier, in-depth storytelling. Kindle Singles are a great example of this trend as well as the nonprofit investigative site ProPublica. A recent crop of startup companies has launched and succeeded in taking advantage of this demand as well, including Byliner, The Atavist, Epic and Medium.

Reputation management implications

To understand the implications of In-Depth Articles, we looked at consumer-facing brands within the Fortune 500 and uncovered some interesting statistics. Wikipedia ranks on the first page of results for 96.2 percent of these companies, while Twitter appears for only 22 percent of the group and Facebook ranks on the first page for only 16 percent.

In terms of pure media results that appear on the first Google page, The New York Times appears at least once for 32 percent of these companies followed by The Wall Street Journal, which appears for 20 percent, and Bloomberg at 18 percent.

We also found that, out of the total Fortune 500 companies, Google had added the feature for only 28 so far. Of those, we discovered certain publications including The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Rolling Stone had a much greater frequency than others. What’s more, many of these articles aren’t listed with dates; some go as far back as 2007.

These in-depth stories are not always the ones you want promoted. From our study of consumer-facing Fortune 500 companies, 65 percent of the newly designated in-depth articles were unfavorable. At least one in-depth article for AIG, JP Morgan, Coca-Cola, and Chevron would be considered very negative by any PR standard. Two articles about highly controversial Koch Industries come up negative. These articles can have a persistently debilitating effect on a company.

Given that Google’s algorithm has selected these stories as in-depth articles, these unfavorable results are unlikely to be displaced by tomorrow’s news. Increased activity on the corporate Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr accounts won’t displace this content either. The only things likely to move them are other in-depth stories.

What should PR pros do?

It’s not all negative. Armed with the knowledge that a specific media’s online content ranks well across hundreds of similar companies allows PR professionals to leverage this new metric—called Google stickiness—in their media outreach strategy. In addition to targeting publications that have the right readership and number of impression numbers, PR firms should reach out to these sticky publications to secure valuable real estate in their clients’ top search results page. Placing an article in a client’s top Google results has innumerable benefits to the client’s reputation.

Prior to the introduction of In-Depth Articles, most news stories didn’t have much staying power without a choreographed effort to promote them. To benefit from Google’s new focus on the long-form publication, companies and their PR agencies should be pushing harder for longer-form media placements, especially in the publications that Google seems to have targeted.

One insight we gained from studying the data was that targeting publications outside industry niches has the potential to grip the interest of readers in ways that trade publications or columns cannot. The longer form has the added benefit of providing an opportunity for PR firms and their clients to tell a longer, nuanced version of their story.

Of course, no publication worth its salt is going to publish a 4,000-word puff piece. Enticing publications with first-time exclusive offers to interview a CEO and being willing to admit mishaps and mistakes—as long as you have the opportunity to explain those mistakes—will yield more positive results.

Assuming Google keeps this feature moving forward, it’s easy to envision PR firms dedicating resources and creating long-form news bureaus as a boutique product/service. Google will likely keep toying with the algorithm to include and exclude more in-depth publications, including some online-only and newly formed investigative outlets. Keeping track of these developments; adjusting your strategy accordingly will be extremely important to any PR strategy.

David Andrew Goldman is the chief strategy officer at Five Blocks, Inc., a technology and digital consulting firm with a focus on online branding and reputation for companies and high net-worth individuals. Richard Dukas is the CEO of Dukas Public Relations, a financial public relations and communications firm based in New York.

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