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This past week there was a hot financial topic that got a lot of press and a certain site owner was quoted in hundreds of newspapers including the NY Times, WSJ etc. as being the authority on the subject. None of those articles actually linked to his site, but simply gave example.com within the text of the article. My reaction was to feel sorry for the guy from an SEO perspective (obviously his site got a ton of good press and type-ins I'm sure)b/c he probably picked up very few backlinks, but deserved to.
It seems to me that it is just as much of an authority indicator for a domain to be mentioned in an article as it is if there is an actual link. It seems SE's should give it some weight. I know it hasn't in the past, but is there any evidence to suggest that it does something beneficial today?
It seems clear that such mentions cannot directly help PageRank. However, I have clients whose rankings seemed to benefit from such domain name mentions in prominent media.
It could be that the stories generate type-in traffic, and some of that traffic likes what they see and decides to link. It also could be that press mentions for a domain are help to build Google's trust for a domain. I'd bet that both factors are at play. But I'd still prefer a link ;)
But on the other hand it defeats the whole idea of "no follow" in that if you mention a domain name and google is using that mention for ranking purposes, then you are more or less vouching for the site even if you actually say it's a pathetic scam site in the article. Plus you get the whole comment spam thing going again without the no follow.
So, my guess is that it doesn't help your site directly but I wish it would. Think how many mentions a site sponsoring an event or a naming rights advertiser for an arena would get. Example.com Stadium would almost pay for itself in the right vertical.