Google was left rather red-faced on Wednesday after being caught breaking its own rules on “sponsored links”, the inclusion of a direct link to a download page in exchange for payment. The discovery that Google, through a marketing company, paid bloggers to post a video about its browser Google Chrome has led the search engine to downgrade Chrome in its listings.
The issue was first spotted by Aaron Wall of Search Engine Land, an online publication for the latest search news, research and analysis, when his search for “This post is sponsored by Google” produced over 400 blog entries featuring a Chrome promotional video for small businesses. These posts would artificially increase the popularity of Chrome in Google’s PageRank technology, which decides which sites top search results.
Not their fault? Google claimed no knowledge of the commissioning and passed the baton of blame over to marketing firm Essence Digital. Essence Digital issued a statement admitting, “Google never approved a sponsored-post campaign. They only agreed to buy online video ads…. We apologise to Google who clearly didn’t authorise this.” But was Essence just the middle man? It seems there may be another player in the form of UK-based marketing company Unruly Media, responsible for recruiting the bloggers. Founder and CEO Scott Button hasn’t exactly put his hands up: “Unruly never requires bloggers to link to back to an advertiser’s site.”
“Slapping themselves on the wrist.” Despite their pleas of ignorance, Google are not giving themselves any special treatment and have downgraded Chrome in their search listing for at least 60 days, after which a reconsideration request can be submitted. This is in keeping with the Google rule of excluding from its search results websites which provide only advertising rather than original content. Fox News highlighted Google’s historical stringency on this: The policy has previously been enforced with not just Forbes and JC Penny, but also one of Google’s own companies, Beat That Quote.
“While Google did not authorise this campaign, and we can find no remaining violations of our webmaster guidelines, we believe Google should be held to a higher standard, so we have taken stricter action than we would against a typical site”, said a Google statement sent to Search Engine Land.
Bloggers have a responsibility, too. The trouble began when the bloggers, or one blogger at least, went beyond the call of duty and provided a link to a download page for Google Chrome – without the crucial “no follow” attribute, which prevents the link from being picked up by Google’s ranking algorithm. Unruly Media’s defence is that they ask bloggers to add this message, but TechCrunch’s Josh Constine argued it should be mandatory rather than simply requested. He attacked the whole idea of sponsored links by claiming that authors have a responsibility to their readers to be genuine when reviewing products.
Waste of time anyway… Outrage has also been directed at the quality of the blog posts, which despite their subject, contain no details on Chrome features or how they benefit small businesses. On his CNET blog, Stephen Shankland (who describes the situation as “awwwk-ward”) questioned how the “low-grade content” of the posts would help Chrome even without the link to the download page. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land said, “That’s perhaps the bigger problem with this campaign, much more disturbing to me. Google’s paying to produce a lot of garbage.”
No publicity is bad publicity. In the midst of this controversy it was announced that Chrome is expected to become the world’s most popular browser by the end of 2012. Sam Gibbs on Gizmodo rather cynically asked, “Will it [the downgrade] affect Chrome’s visibility on the web compared to Firefox and IE? Probably not. But does it reinforce the ‘don’t be evil’ mantra? Yep, but only as long as someone’s watching in the media.”
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