SearchEngineLand has a very good, long look at the recent fake press release announcing Google's $400m acquisition of WiFi company ICOA.
PRWeb distributed the press release and said it slipped through its internal tests for "integrity."
Danny Sullivan explains how PRWeb has become a popular distribution network for a lot of content, some of it shady, and how it ends up on well respected newspaper sites.
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.
Many newspapers have sections where they republish press releases, hoping to make a little money on the pageviews that this might draw. They don't check the facts in the release because they never have, even when writing news stories based on that information.
Newsrooms everywhere assume that the facts within a news release are trustworthy because the company issuing the release has passed it through many internal checks by its communications and legal teams.
Journalists also assume that the distribution service, PRWeb, Businesswire, etc, has verified the source of the press release, though not the facts in the release.
The "scoop" culture in rewriting press releases
This system works nearly 100% of the time. However, once a fake release has made it into this trusted network it can then gain wide distribution very quickly on highly ranked news sites, primarily because of a key vulnerability in many of today's newsrooms.
Lots of online news sites, such as TheNextWeb, Techcrunch, etc, demand as many as 6 news stories per day from each staff writer. They are under intense pressure to publish news stories within minutes of an announcement, which means they are rewriting press releases with no time to make calls.
Gone are the days of newspaper deadlines, when reporters had several hours to work on a news story before each edition hit the streets.
In this new newsroom culture, the first site to publish the rewrite of the press release is considered having a "scoop" even though the lead might be measured in seconds
[A scoop used to mean being the exclusive source of an important news story. It represented a lot of hard work by reporters cultivating networks of important contacts. Rewriting press releases all day long does little to help young news writers become effective reporters, who are skilled in interviewing senior executives, in making contacts, and skilled in the many ways of uncovering great stories and real scoops.]
The perils of broad distribution...
This incident highlights another valuable aspect of issuing a press release: it can help to maintain a high Google rank by increasing the number of links back to a company.
As Danny Sullivan explains:
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.
That won't stay true for long if PRWeb continues to distribute fake releases, or spammy, low quality content. And if PRWeb content is republished by large numbers of what Google considers to be low-quality sites, that will be a very large problem too.
There are a lot of web sites republishing press releases because the content is free and easy to find.
But there's a very clear danger here: Google's algorithm is increasingly focused on rooting out sites trying to scam Google into awarding a higher rank. Lots of links can harm websites because it is a red flag for Google. It could decide to penalize a site for trying to SEO it's way into a higher rank by buying lots of links on lots of low quality websites.
This is why many companies are trying to get web sites to delete links back to them because they are concerned that it is hurting their Google rank.
This "negative SEO" trend, where fewer links from top sites are better than lots of links from many sites, is resulting in a mass erasure of hyperlinks and threatens to unravel much of the commercial Internet.
PRWeb is popular because it can offer wide distribution for its clients' content which can lead to lots of backlinks from many sites. But if Google decides it doesn't trust those sites, or the distribution platform, it could boomerang onto PRWeb customers with a wallop, because of all the backlinks from low-ranked sites. Even if the content distributed is top quality.
And if Google decides that some content is low quality, then every website republishing that content, is risking its visibility within its search rank.
PRWeb is just an example of the challenges faced by all other press release and content distribution services.
So what's the best way for companies to distribute their press releases?
It has to be through trusted distribution networks that keep low-quality, spammy content out, and only to selected sites. Because Google will judge your business and your content on the company it keeps.