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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  • Chris Barber

    I think that verified accounts are definitely what’s going to separate trustworthy vs. non-trustworthy websites. In many ways it already is. I’m seeing more and more websites requiring some form of verification that you’re a real person to sign up. Now that doesn’t mean they still can’t be fooled but I think it’s definitely going to get much harder than it has been to create and use spam accounts to distribute content.

  • Alex Grey

    Suppose, If I have a new site and I want press release. Should I distribute it through PRweb or not? and If I use PRweb for my site press release. It would be help me in SEO or not? Please answer my questions.


  • MrAndrews

    Precisely. PRWeb is only a distribution service and I’m not sure why a newspaper would treat press releases from PRWeb any differently than a press release individually submitted by the company that wrote it. I can only imagine the indignation and laughter if I walked into the San Francisco Chronicle and offered them $0.10 to publish a press release about my 100% all natural, herbal teeth whitening product for dogs.

  • Royal_Martin

    This article in my opinion is way over the top and ads a lot of discredit to a good service. I think you have done a great job of taking a few examples and using them to vilify PRWeb. If you want to talk about crap, look at Google search results. They are full of crap. How about doing an article how “Google search results are crap since the Panda and Penguin updates began”?

    Every service and system has examples that can be used to make them look bad. In a large company it is hard to control the actions of everyone. I for one use PRWEB to great extent and I get a lot of rejections for very small issues, so I do believe they are doing a “decent” job of keeping the crap out. You are focusing on the problems that get through which are much smaller than you portray the service to be.

    News agencies still give them some weight, today in fact we have the local TV station coming over for an interview and this is a result of a PRWEB release we did. To me, that is a great success of using PRWEB.

    Danny, you have a way of being over the top in your reporting. And that is one of the main reasons I do not read your posts regularly and this post is a perfect example. You have focused on issues with 2% of their content and have, in a round about way, titled the service as Crap and sparked a discussion for people to jump on the complaint bandwagon.

    We are all aware of how everything can be gamed. We are all aware of how things slip through the cracks. The world is not perfect and neither is PRWEB but in my overall assessment, they do a pretty damn good job considering what others in the space is doing, especially Google, the crap publishing king.

  • Ferrol Hunting

    We have a ton of super crappy backlinks in webmaster tools from when we were using PRweb so I would venture to say yes.

  • Peter Roesler

    Yes I think you should definitely submit it through PR web, it will help with your SEO, although not as much as you may want it to, but I am sure it will help I have tested the use of PR web on all my sites and my clients sites.

  • Tom Foremski

    Very true. So many newspapers are republishing press releases because they are desperate for page views. And the newspapers assume that press releases have already been checked over many times, by the company’s internal processes, and to a lesser extent, by the distribution service (businesswire, etc.) But the distribution service doesn’t check the facts of a press release, it just checks that the payment details map to the subject of the press release. However, with such low rates, PRWeb automates as much of this as possible and that means it can be gamed. I’m surprised that this type of thing happens so relatively rarely.

  • Tom Foremski

    There’s another aspect that could really hurt companies. If PRWeb content is routinely being used to provide content to spam sites, Google could penalize the company mentioned in the press release, thinking it is trying to boost its SEO rank. Who wants to take that risk? This could kill PRWeb and similar services.

  • Bryan Phillips

    This seems suspect. Even you though they had weight until doing some research. Is there any real proof of this besides the one comment Cutts makes in 2005?

  • John McGrath

    Point taken, and generally I agree. As someone who has been both a journalist and an entrepreneur (and in that capacity written press releases), I would love to see PRWeb and its ilk go away.

    But anyone who searches for “how to buy viagra” or even “vitamin injections,” deserves what they get. A somewhat better test would be to put out an obviously spammy press release that touches on legitimate topics, and see if it makes it into anyplace visible.

  • Kumar PBL

    Its not only PR WEB, Many PressReleases finds it as an Money Making Strategy. Who ever wants a decent traffic in their niche, is making a press release with a bunch of keywords. I wonder a ” How to ” guide will become PR?

    Google has clear indication about “how to” articles which are never considered as PR’s, but still they are allowing How to PR in the News?

  • Mary Kay Lofurno

    Kudos Danny as alot of fine SEO/SEM colleagues use PRweb and you probably cost your Third Door Media sponsorship revenue from PRweb. That said, this can happen at any news service really. I agree with Larry Kim. Are you sure you did not write this to stir up the blogosphere?

  • Jim Thornton

    That’s not really true. As the article said, Matt Cutts in 2005 explicitly stated that press release sites were treated differently than other sites. ie. they don’t pass link juice and they aren’t subject to the same ranking factors as other types of sites. ALSO, I talked to PRWeb when I had the same concern, and they said that you can ALWAYS remove a press release from their site after the fact if Google decides to change their mind and penalize PRWeb down the road. The problem then is all the low quality aggregatpr sites that scrape PRWeb press releases pushing thousands of links to your site and whether or not Google will penalize you for those links down the road.

  • Nick Cobb

    As someone who has handled press releases for a publicly traded company and has some knowledge of SEO, I don’t think any link juice is passed on by the various publishers of the press releases. Furthermore, Yahoo routinely deletes press releases (other media outlets do as well) after a given period of time.

  • Gary R Beal

    They will do RX but they won’t touch Bingo articles. My Grandma is so disappointed – My Grandpa is online. :)

  • Nick Ker

    Never did like those spam release services. But I had assumed PRWeb was still somewhat effective and relatively clean, compared to the steaming piles of spam release sites that seem to have taken the place of article marketing in the low end of the SEO spectrum. While the releases on PRWeb don’t count, they do get distributed to sites that do count. But then, if those are all duplicates, few of those will count (in theory).
    Since Penguin, I have seen a lot more spammy and frivolous releases, even on PRWeb. Things like “Company X Proudly Joins Facebook” – is that really news worthy?! Or when they say they have “partnered” with some service provider, but have actually only subscribed to it just like everyone else. I am posting a comment here which does add a little to the content – maybe I should send out a release saying “Nick Ker Partners with Disqus and SEL”.

    If the spammers continue to flood the press release services and the PR sites don’t police the content better, I expect them to go the way of article marketing sites and other SEO dinosaurs.

  • Chuck Robbins

    Wow 1 or 2 errant uses of a terrific marketing tool and PR Web/Vocus is suddenly terrible? Give me a break. Yes finally I don’t have to hire an SEO expert for thousands a month to help my clients make their way through the maze of Google, Bing and other search engine nonsense. I don’t have to painfully create link relationships that might change at the next algorithm revamp. Royal Martin has it right. I am a proud distributor of of the Vocus/PRWeb product. Maybe some of you have forgotten what it was like to send a news release 20 years ago. Finding media lists, stamping some crazy expensive promotional item to get the attention of a bored journalist. Now my small biz clients can do what only the big corporate clients could afford not so long ago. For every unhappy Danny, I’ll show you 20 happy clients using the service.

  • fakebuck

    Yeh, this article seems to be imbalanced and without reference to what goes on elsewhere. Why pick on just PRWEB?

  • Matt McGee

    The focus of the article is on PRWeb because PRWeb is what was used the day before to spread a fake press release about Google buying a small company.

  • Lenin VJ Nair

    Such a good coverage there, Danny. So sad search engines work so stupidly as compared to human beings.

  • John Pettitt

    Danny, the actual problem is two fold 1) is there person posting authorized to speak on behalf of the org in question 2) a separate issue – is what they are saying useful. The google example is the former, the viagra on the latter. The authentication issue is slightly easier to solve for those who want to put the effort in. It’s typically a one time thing setting up the account. The content issue is much more subjective, it’s really hard to write rules for lower level employes to enforce content standards (every social network has this problem). What’s interesting is that the PR world hasn’t adopted the social network solution – the “flag as inappropriate” button.

  • disqus_LfzEiDUbJ9

    As per Google News guidelines, various words / phrases as stated in the post above are objectionable and not out of their guidelines. Even though Google News picks such news from such PR websites. And interesting part is that, Google news lets you search for those keywords.

  • disqus_LfzEiDUbJ9

    Agreed, Google treats PR sites differently. But when such PRs are not following Google guidelines, those should not be picked. And if a website is pushing such PRs/Articles more often, the website should be penalized.

  • Angela

    I agree, PRWeb’s sales really sucks. Taylor was supposed to get back to me last week about my enquiry and he or she hasn’t yet. Instead s/he pushed me towards something else that I didn’t want and seemed really cross with me when I asked him/her to give me the details that I actually wanted. So.. curious to know any other better alternatives to PRWeb for international service. I know Business Wire and PRNewsWire are more US oriented.

  • Alex Grey

    Thank you so much Peter Roesler.

  • Adrian Kessler

    Here is another issue of Fake Releases getting approved, but this time the releases went through Marketwire and another new site.

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