How PRWeb Helps Distribute Crap Into Google & News Sites

“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.

Distribution Time!

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.

Related Stories

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Features: Analysis | Google: News | Top News


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • MonopolizedSearch

    Google has become a toilet lately. Adwords shoved down users throats, Google shopping results consuming 20% of the screen, five year old YouTube videos outranking good quality sites and Google images shoving the only quality content derived from Google Search even further down the page. And if you are one of the lucky webmasters, you are not drowned out by domain crowding that is so excessive that 70 of the top 100 results belong to one domain.

    I do not pity Google. In their mad dash to shakedown webmasters for even the smallest of change, they lost their focus on quality. The new Google is all about money and crushing small businesses, just in time for the most important time of the year for etailers – the holidays. No pity whatsoever.

    No shopping for me through Google this year. And my family and friends have been warned too. If they get me ANYTHING from Google or Amazon, it gets returned. Period.

  • Markus Jalmerot

    Excellent coverage of PrWeb and poor quality in some recent news articles. Hopefully, PrWeb/Vocus will do more background checks in the future.

  • Carla Ackley

    About time. sales woman is totally rude and has a huge ego. Told them that one day the mighty could fall. I sent her a copy of this with her own words, ”

    You may want to show this to your clients if they are looking for a service to
    provide them with high quality results.” haha

    I like the service, and yes you can get get good coverage with the $159 basic PR.
    I dont like the disservice from the sales staff. They do not know how to treat a customer.

  • gregorylent

    google news at best is the prime example of life by algorithm, reinforcing lowest common denominator thinking, consensus reality, a simulacrum of reality.

    that it is gamed only increases its “worseness”.

  • ScottyMack

    Yep. I’ve often wondered why Google rewards these links. Perhaps because they are so much more expensive than your standard run of the mill links, Google accepts them as having been paid for by a legitimate company. Then, they actually reward the websites that use PR Web. Websites that are forking out the dough are definitely making it to the top of the SERPs. I’ve never seen a PR Web article that was anything but contrived spam. It’s shocking to me that Google hasn’t brought down the hammer on places like PR Web and websites that use them for their “press releases.”

  • Joe Griffin

    That was a smacking. Was needed apparently if that type of junk was being allowed in. Unfortunately QA departments will miss things, but the question is “does PR Web leadership condone those spammy releases or have they lost sight of quality as an oversight.” The latter is not an excuse but oversight isn’t the same thing as guilt. I know some good people at Vocus but PR Web is not a best of breed wire service, ie they don’t compete with the quality of say PR Newswire. Hopefully they will address quality. These release services can make a lot of sense if used and managed properly. There is no doubt that these services are being abused and clearly it isn’t being addressed.

  • Alan

    Google is probably not far off completely devaluing these types of links, if they haven’t done so already. The other link building method that needs to be put under the microscope is guest blogging. Want to build a private blog network that even Google can’t de-index just guest post!

  • Mike Melanson

    Bravo. That was awesome.

  • Jason Kintzler

    Finally. Thank you for telling this story. I’ve been trying to tell my PR industry peers for the past five years. Time for change!

  • Yousee

    Excellent observation and explanation. It seems Bing will soon overcome Google in the coming days.

  • Vinay Kudithipudi

    Very nice and insightful writeup Dan. Amazing to see how companies (ab)use legitimate services for spamming conent.

  • Mark

    With all due respect, you say Google News is screwed up, Search is not? hahaha … top 10 results for the online casino niche are flooded with spam, have a quick look on and search for ‘live casino’ for example, 2 domains from the top 3 have no content at all, redirect to this 1 site. Same thing is happening with loads of other related key phrases.

    It’s not just Google News, it’s Google in general which is messed up!

  • Don DeMaio

    So, given the above, what is my best source for online news today?

  • ilene Hoffman

    Great bit of research there. Good story!

  • Martin Woods

    We’ve had quite a few sales calls over the last 6 months, I think they’ve been selling it hard. I believe the last one involved me telling them we don’t use services that allow spam and not to call any more. A good rant article – 100% agree.

  • Quickest Startup Pitch Ever!!!


    the Google’s total domination of the Web should anyway happen soon

    ps – what the web can do without p0rn and viagra? :)


  • Jeco

    Now Google has corrected it’s result with “ – Google acquisition release was hoax” in the first place. At least they do something. I’m sure Google team is working hard right now to solve it’s “BIG” hole on reputation and it’s system.

  • Markus Jalmerot

    Perhaps ? IMHO the articles from PrNewswire are more genuine and less ‘made for SEO purpose’.

  • Cody Sharp

    I’ve used both. In most cases, the “fact checking” they do is to spellcheck, make sure there is a person on the other end of the phone and try to upsell. The truth is that both work great for companies that use it appropriately. It also works great for companies that don’t.

  • Keith James Designs

    Google is slapping everyone for paid links but this is OK? How is PRWeb not just another link farm? Google de indexed all the little guys but still promotes PRWeb stories? Just think if all the companies using PRWeb had to disavow their expensive links.

  • AlfredoC

    Good article. I used PR Web once and found my story on a number of spam sites instead of where I wanted it to go. This however, does not absolve the tech media, who ran with the ICOA without apparently doing any verification of their own.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    The ICOA press release is a big, big screw up. Sure, even with the best safeguards shoddy press releases (like the viagra one) are bound to sneak through from time to time. But when something is fake news masquerading as a big break you’d hope that someone would do a little fact checking first.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ve written before about search in general, as well as specifically at Google and Bing, having problems. However, for the vast majority of people, both search engines clearly work well to help people find what they are looking for.

  • Danny Sullivan

    See my postscript in the story, Google apparently doesn’t count PRWeb links. Though it still considers the content relevant to include in Google News.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Online poker, clearly :)

  • andrefriedmann

    ““What’s the use of PRWeb?,” tweeted Megan McCarthy of Reuters”
    The short answer: Pump and Dump.

  • narg

    Wow, what a bitch this guy has. Makes me wonder what good has?

  • narg

    Most reputable news agencies always get at least 3 verifications on stories before letting them out. This was a wake up call for many on-line “news” (yes, notice the quotes.) web sites.

  • Pat Grady

    The PR emperor is naked!

  • gerrr!

    It’s why I block PRWeb from my Google News. I won’t stand for crap <– pun.

  • Larry Kim

    couple of comments here. (1) There are many legitimate companies that use PR Web, for legitimate PR purposes. (2) this kind of PR abuse (fake press releases) isn’t unique to PRWeb. for example, on August 24, 2000, Mark Jakob, a former employee, used Internet Wire (also known as MarketWire) to send a fraudulent press release to the news media. The press release falsely reported that Emulex Corporation was suddenly in dire straits; several news outlets picked up the story the next morning, causing Emulex to lose 62% of its value in morning trading.

    In summary: there are some bad apples but that doesn’t mean everything on PRWeb is crap.

  • Belize

    This is a big gaping hole that experts in the news jacking business have been promoting. A news jacking expert was flown in from the U.S. by the local tourism board here and one of the things he trained attendees on was to use press release companies to get placement on Google News. Now we have a multitude of hotels here pumping out advertisements as lame press releases and getting them into Google News. I wish there was way to filter P.R. companies from Google News to avoid the fluff.

  • Kevin O’Doherty

    Agreed Jason – I’ve been trying to do exactly the same thing. Thanks for this Danny!

  • Carla Ackley

    Yes, we do use for real news releases (mergers, new facilities opening, new product lines,etc..) No viagra stories unless it was truly newsworthy, not just spammy.

  • ebernet

    Thank you for this article! I am amazed by the number f times iPhone unlockers spam solutions using PRWeb and people send the companies money thinking these are legitimate services!

  • Dave Crader

    This is a great post. I get cold calls all the time from Vocus trying to sell me PRweb packages. It’s crazy! They’re always pushing the SEO benefits it will have as well. They don’t mention the backlink and anchor text capacity though. So, i’ll give them that.

  • Ryan Holeywell

    As a journalist, I blame the newspapers. I don’t know what PRWeb pays them, but I can’t imagine it’s enough to justify the hit to the credibility that comes with running paid-for, fabricated content under a masthead that is supposed to represent integrity.

  • Zach

    Ok, Google doesn’t count the link of i can understand that, but what about the links which are distributed on others site network such as yahoo, chron and many more sites? Does Google count those backlinks ?

  • samharrison

    Danny, you take aim at a sand pebble on the beach: PRWeb, BUT the real problem (the tidal wave big problem) is that Google is not accurate and its algorithms are nefarious. Unfortunately, we all have to suffer with Google’s garbage results. Maybe someday it will be beaten, just as Alta Vista, Lycos, Excite, Hotwired, Northern Lights, Webcrawler, GNN were.

  • sharithurow

    Does anyone remember when PRWeb was a decent place to distribute press releases? I actually remember the time….

  • Jake Neeley

    Best, and most truthful, comment yet. Although crap comes via PRWeb it most certainly comes from others. Does Search Engine Land put on SMX… looks like they use PRWeb…

    @dannysullivan:disqus I am also curious how you think PRWeb and others can verify the information in a press release, like that in the ICOA/Google release? It certainly wasn’t public knowledge and if they took the time to call all parties mentioned in a release nothing would go out.

  • Dan Hennes

    “Hopefully they will address quality.” This goes against their entire business strategy. If you buy an annual Vocus subscription, you get 365 free PRWeb news releases (1 a day). This does nothing but degrade the quality of their “wire” as most businesses have very little quality news to send in the first place.

  • Owen Engle

    Another group that publishes junk press releases is related to electronic cigarettes. Do a news search for “electronic cigarettes” a see the junk that shows up: free trial offers and 40% off xyz promotions! This truly makes me feel embarrassed about my industry!

  • Danny Sullivan

    Not everything PRWeb distributes is crap; plenty of legitimate people do use it. But it’s PRWeb that publicly said yesterday that it reviews all releases to protect “integrity.” Many in the SEO space are well-familiar that this simply can’t be so, given the type of crud that is also churned out along with the legit stuff. That’s what I was illustrating here. As for how they can verify if someone really represents a company, yes — they could establish trusted, verified accounts in various ways, if they really wanted and felt this was an important enough issue.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Good point. Potentially, yes.

  • Jake Neeley

    I agree that more could be done; to somewhat discount my point earlier about them taking longer to review, I believe they would receive more business overtime by developing that high “integrity.”

    I also think you owe your readers, those how trust your word, another chance to review the industry rather than specifically PRWeb. The title specifically—and the overall message—states PRWeb distributes crap when we both feel it’s not all that and not just them. I know specifically mentioning PRWeb gets eyes to the post in light of the recent events but I feel it would be still had the same newsworthiness had you added “PRWeb, and others.”

    Last thought; thanks for creating overall awesome content! Please don’t think, because of this one remark, that I will discredit your content; you’ve done awesome work and I really appreciate the useful information which I use/share/bookmark weekly.

  • Bruce Arnold

    We gave @PRWeb proof that their press releases from TelxWeb contained baseless claims & outright lies & #PRWeb refused to pull them.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Jake, there was an incident with PRWeb publishing a fake news release about a major acquisition by Google. It explained this away as if this somehow slipped through its usual quality assurances. The reality as I see it is that PRWeb lets a lot of crap routinely through these supposed checks. So, I think it’s fair enough PRWeb is the focus here. It’s not the only player in the space with this type of issue, and maybe in the future I’ll look at others, sure. But I think enough attention has probably been focused on it in general as well as specifically.

  • Dean Dawkins

    Fork in the road time for PRWeb – I’ve used them for many years now and they have been a really great service for SMB’s – nothing but good results personally – however, none of my clients were spamming, they were all “legitimate” news items, etc. Now PRWeb is going to have to tighten their standards, which will hurt sales – or – stay on their current path and put themselves out of business as a “real” option for PR for small companies. They are an easy way to get into Google News, and that’s the primary reason to use them, otherwise…what’s the point?

  • Dean Dawkins

    Five years goes by fast Shari….I still use PRWeb….It’s been a good bargain for my small business clients. The fee keeps most of the spammers out, and the relationship with Vocus/PRNewswire was always a bonus. They’ll have to tighten up their standards and slow down the sales machine, or head right over the cliff. If Google News stops indexing them, then they are done.

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