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To me it's not quite spam but its not quite an article either. In addition, PRWEB allows you to place an iframe at the end of the "story" with the originator's website. The stuff shows up through Google newsfeeds so it comes through my alerts.
Is this clever and effective marketing with some SEO benefit kicked in? Or will Google start seeing through this and devalue it (and maybe even penalize) in the future?
That is because they're press releases, not articles and they are made to promote (eathier stealthily or obviously) a specific company. If you take the time and effort to craft a good press release, you might get picked up by reporters (and in some industries, bloggers), which, IMHO, is where the real value comes from.
I believe Matt Cutts (google engineer) mentioned on his blog PRWeb doesn't pass pagerank.
I'd like to see that quote.
I spoke with someone from prweb at SES a few weeks ago about this issue.
Here's a test that I do to see if PR (and link reputation) is being passed:
1. Build an *orphaned* page on your site, "optimized" for a long word that you make up
2. Only link to it from the site you are "testing" for PR passage.
If, in a few weeks, your page ranks for your made up word, then you can assume PR is being passed. At the very least, link reputation IS being passed.
I'm planning on testing this on PRweb soon, as most of my clients use them for their releases. I'd be happy to report back the results.