Google Found Guilty of Buying Links, Penalizes Itself
It looks like Google is off to a rough—and ironic—start this year. The search giant, which is known for its strict policies against buying links and publishing low-quality content, was recently caught breaking its own rules, Search Engine Land reported.
According to the popular SEO blog on Monday, a search for "This post is sponsored by Google" returns over 400 pages, all written in line with a Google Chrome Marketing campaign. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan found that lot of these "sponsored posts" contained a video advertisement for the browser, together with supposed articles or reviews about Google Chrome. What's fishy about them though is that most of the posts contain "thin content" –the very type of content that Google's Panda update aims to curtail. The articles may have a sentence or two with the term "Google Chrome," but the essence of their content doesn't really say much about the browser. What's more is that one of the posts even contains a do-follow link to Google Chrome's download page. Uh-oh. A do-follow link on a sponsored post? This is obviously a direct violation of Google's no paid links policy.
So What Happened?
Naturally, this revelation made the SEO community turn to the search giant and ask what in the World Wide Web was going on. And in response, Google sent Sullivan the following statement:
Google never agreed to anything more than online ads. We have consistently avoided paid sponsorships, including paying bloggers to promote our products, because these kind of promotions are not transparent or in the best interests of users. We're now looking at what changes we need to make to ensure that this never happens again.
Apparently, a company called Essence Digital was contracted by Google to create a video campaign for Chrome. Once the video was produced, Essence Digital, in turn, hired a company called Unruly to promote said video. This is where it starts to get messy. Unruly implemented the Google Chrome campaign by asking bloggers to watch a video to see if they're willing to publish a post about it. Bloggers who agreed to do an article can write whatever they want—no linking required. If they do decide to add a link though, then Unruly requests that authors use no-follow links, to uphold best practices. However, every now and again, bloggers may slip and neglect to adhere to this request, in which case, the company would take measures to resolve it.
Unruly explains the company's process in more detail with this issued statement:
Unruly never requires bloggers to link to back to an advertiser's site. That's because we're in the business of video advertising not search engine marketing, so we couldn't care less about link juice. We don't ask for it, we don't pay for it, and we don't track it.
In line with FTC and EU regulation Unruly always requires that bloggers clearly disclose any post, tweet, or other reference to the video as being sponsored and we provide guidance on how to do this. We also request that if they do link anywhere they use nofollow, both because that's best practice and also because it's in their own interest to do so.
Unruly is committed to an ethical, legal, and totally transparent approach to online marketing. It's crucial that posts are clearly marked as sponsored and that links are marked as nofollow. And it's crucial that opinions belong to the author, which is why we never push an angle or opinion, and also why, occasionally, bloggers will unfortunately pen a post that deviates from our guidelines, as here. Where that happens, we're very happy to have it pointed out and will cure the infraction as fast as possible.
With situation being set straight, it's pretty obvious that Google wasn't directly buying links—the search giant was just unfortunate enough to be in the middle of the mistakes of their third party vendors. But should the company be let off the hook simply because its right hand didn't know what the left was doing? Of course not. For one thing, this is such a glaring act of inattention, on Google's part. For such a powerful company, you'd think that it would keep a close eye on what their own vendors are doing. Moreover, it really begs the question of why Google is even contracting other companies to produce and promote its campaigns. The search giant should already have an extremely competent video and marketing staff on board, right?
In any case, it's a good thing Google isn't going to let itself off the hook, either. Yesterday afternoon, the company told Search Engine Land that they "are taking manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome and lower the site's PageRank for a period of at least 60 days." This resulted in huge drops for Chrome in Google's Search Engine Results Page.
For the term "browser," the Chrome homepage used to hold the second spot, but has subsequently dropped to 73. Similarly, John Doherty relayed to Search Engine Land that for "internet browser" and "web browser" the rank of the Google Chrome page sank from 5th to 58th and 4th to 54th respectively.
Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google (and who happens to be on vacation) posted updates on his Google+ page about the incident. According to him, after the 60-day penalty period, "someone on the Chrome side can submit a reconsideration request documenting their clean-up just like any other company would. During the 60 days, the PageRank of www.google.com/chrome will also be lowered to reflect the fact that we also won’t trust outgoing links from that page."
What It Means for Internet Marketers and Small Business Owners
Of course, this heavy blow only directly affects Google and the vendors. However, Internet marketers as well as small business owners should definitely take note of this incident. May this serve as a solid reminder that the Web's top search engine comes down hard on those that violate its policies. (Remember what happened to JC Penney?).
With that said, it's best to make sure that all your Internet campaigns are in line with Google's guidelines. If you're hiring any third party companies to do your marketing and SEO for you, now would be a good time to double check their policies and terms of service. Be sure to dot your I's and cross your T's when doing this; after all, you never know when Google will issue another update or crack down on violators.
Image credit: toprankonlinemarketing on Flickr