“What’s the use of PRWeb?,” tweeted Megan McCarthy of Reuters, trying to digest how that service ended up circulating a fake Google acquisition story. Come along, Megan and others, and I’ll explain one of the sorriest uses, getting crap into Google News and out into news sites.
For those who somehow missed today’s big tech news, PRWeb ran a press release saying that WiFi provider ICOA was being acquired by Google for $400 million. Plenty of outlets carried the news, until denials from both parties started circulating. Instead, the release appears to have been written by someone trying to pump up ICOA’s stock.
It’s a big embarrassment for PRWeb, which has now issued its own statement on the matter:
PRWeb transmitted a press release for ICOA that we have since learned was fraudulent. The release was not issued or authorized by ICOA. Vocus reviews all press releases and follows an internal process designed to maintain the integrity of the releases we send out every day. Even with reasonable safeguards identity theft occurs, on occasion, across all of the major wire services. We have removed the fraudulent release and turned the matter over to the proper authorities for further investigation.
Others will delve into what Vocus — the company that owns PRWeb — does to supposedly ensure that someone who says they’re posting news on behalf of a company really is representing that company. I’m going to focus instead on the idea that PRWeb is apparently reviewing all press releases to ensure the “integrity” of them. That will help explain why, in this day when any company can instantly issues press releases, a service like PRWeb still exists.
This Is Integrity?
It’s all about distribution. In the past, you’d get a press release out and hope newspapers might pick up the story, often using the release as a basis for writing their own stories — ones that might be fact-checked, or sourced with others, or get turned into something other than a promotional item.
Instead, with PRWeb and other services, you can get whatever you want published and distributed verbatim into a wide range of news sources. To illustrate this, let’s start with some published press releases that should all have the required integrity promised by PRWeb.
We’ll begin with a search for releases on the important news topic of viagra:
I’m going to focus on the third release listed, one headlined, “How to Buy Drugs – Lowest Price Viagra, Buy Levitra Viagra – Online Pill Store,” as you can see below:
There’s so much to love in this release. My favorite part is probably the pullout quote, “Levitra Buy Viagra.” But also, apparently the online pharmacy is both “trustworthy” and able to sell prescription drugs without customers needing a prescription. I guess that’s because it’s a “licensed and legal European” pharmacy, which is pretty clear given that big American flag and “American quality” logo in the press release image, along with a Canadian maple leaf and the words “Canadian Online Pharmacy.”
I have no reason to doubt all of this, to doubt the claims at all, because as you can see from the PRWeb statement, this release was reviewed to ensure it had the right “integrity” that PRWeb apparently feels it needs to maintain with its service.
Once the release was posted, it was then distributed to a range of outlets that PRWeb helpfully itemizes, including Google News and, if you paid extra, through the Associated Press and thus to news outlets like the New York Times to The Oregonian:
As it turns out, the Viagra release above didn’t make it into Google News, perhaps because only the “Standard” package of $159 was purchased. Google News and news search engines seem to require going up to the “Advanced” package for $199.
Injecting Integrity Into Google News
That’s OK, we can see how even a release that isn’t directly distributed on PRWeb to Google News can still pollute it, in the “how to buy viagra” search below in Google News:
All those sites marked “Hacked” are Google News sources where some or all of the entire article that Google News saw, when it visited the site, was completely different than what the actual article was about. If you’re wondering why Google’s “Penguin” spam fighting update hasn’t caught this, the answer is likely two-fold:
- Penguin is applied to Google Web Search, rather than Google News
- Google News is radically screwed-up
There’s an entire separate article we’ll get to eventually on how the relevancy of Google News seems to have gotten worse recently, with stories being surfaced that can be woefully out-of-date. The fact that all these hacked sites are showing up is just one sign that perhaps Google News needs more attention than it has been getting from Google.
Postscript: Technically, the Penguin update was aimed at fighting spam, not hacking attempts. That’s a bigger reason why Penguin isn’t having an impact on the hacking within Google News. But then again, the people hacking these web sites are doing so with the intent of spamming Google’s results. So, I still count it as a disappointment that you see so much of this happening.
Injecting Integrity Into News Publishers
But let’s move on to that “News Publisher” item. That, supposedly, is a story from the Houston Chronicle called “Levitra Buy Viagra.” It was indeed published by the Houston Chronicle, and it was a legit story in the sense that the paper wasn’t hacked. Rather, it’s a PRWeb distributor:
It looks to be exactly the same press release, from the same company, that I mentioned above. I haven’t done a word-by-word match, but at the very least, it’s virtually identical. Oh, there is one difference. This release was published at the end of October, rather than the end of November. I guess there was that much change with the company that it made sense to issue the same release again just a month later.
Try doing searches for “lowest price viagra” or “online pill stores,” and you can see similar things to what I’ve described above happening.
“But wait,” I hear you say, “No one searches for such things in Google News!” Maybe. Maybe not. But they search for many other things, both in Google News and in Google, where news results may appear. Say, for example, “vitamin injections,” which generates these results on Google News:
Plenty of news coverage on the topic from the San Francisco Chronicle. Er, make that from the San Francisco Chronicle running PRWeb press releases.
Injecting Integrity Into Bing & Yahoo
It’s not just Google, of course, that gets infected by this madness. Here’s the same search, this time at Bing:
Bless, at least Bing gives me an actual news story up top, sadly from the Daily Mail, but this is Daily Mail fare. But after that, it’s PRweb distribution taking over. I particularly like the stories tagged as being from Yahoo. This is a PRWeb twofer win!
You see, the PRWeb “stories” on vitamin injections got distributed to Yahoo (here’s one of them), where they became available to those searching on Yahoo News. But in turn, they also became fodder that Bing News carried.
The Legit Way To Buy Links
I haven’t even gotten into the other aspect of why people buy on PRWeb, which is to get links. Links are still an important ranking factor for search engines. Buying a press release through PRWeb is an easy and legit way to effectively buy links, a way that Google doesn’t penalize you for.
Postscript: Doing a little more digging, it appears that the head of Google’s web spam team, Matt Cutts, specifically said way back in 2005 that links from PRweb don’t carry credit. Of course, there are plenty of people who might assume they still do. It’s not like there’s any easy-to-spot notice informing people that Google discounts these links. And the “Advanced Package” that PRweb pitches as being “search-optimized” has “anchor text links” as a selling point.
Fake News About Google In Google
By the way, today’s fake press release that Google had to deny ironically got visibility through Google itself. That fake release generated stories that assumed it was true, and around 12:15pm ET today, when the denial stories were picking up, Google was still giving visibility to the incorrect stories:
Bing, on the other hand, got it right with the denial stories showing up.
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