Update 5:30 p.m.: Even though Google claims it didn't intentionally pay bloggers to talk up links, Google told Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan it would take "manual action," demoting Chrome's Google ranking. Currently, Google ranks at 9, notes Sullivan. Google told him it should be down by this afternoon. Yet, as of now, Chrome still shows up as the top hit on Google.
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Update 1:00 p.m.: Google has responded to the scandal, denying ever even paying bloggers to participate in the campaign, contrary to what Unruly Media, the company that worked with Google on the ad campaign, told AllThingsD's Peter Kafka earlier. Here's Google's the statement, via Kafka:
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.
This doesn't exactly match up with what Unruly Media told him earlier. Their statement indicated that Google knowingly worked with bloggers to spread the campaign.
We’re always completely upfront and transparent with bloggers that we are running commercial campaigns and who we’re working for. We always require that bloggers disclose any commercial incentive to post video content. We always require that bloggers disclose even on related tweets that they might do off their own bats.
Original post: There may be some reasonable explanations, but ultimately it's pretty clear that Google violated its own link buying policies with a recent campaign for Google Chrome. Yesterday, SEO Book's Aaron Wall discovered that Google search for "This post is sponsored by Google Chrome" brings up a host of blogs paid to talk up the browser, including a link and linked video commercial of the product -- without following Google's own paid-link rules. To add insult, these posts, which often read like @Wendi_Deng's tweets, defy Google's moral stance on low-quality link baiting to boost search rankings. (Think: Demand Media.) Unruly Media, the company that worked with Google on this campaign, has an explanation for the scandal, reasoning to AllThingsD's Peter Kafka that the paid links violation was a one-time oversight that Google fixed. "We don’t ask bloggers to link to the advertiser’s site. It’s just not part of our business model," he told Kafka. "We help advertisers distribute video content and that’s what we get paid for." Google is allowed to sponsor posts. But, that doesn't address the hypocrisy of the accompanying content.
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There are two big problems Google should have with Google's ad campaign. It's not so much that Google pays bloggers to talk up Chrome and insert its heartwarming video, which just got a big write-up in yesterday's New York Times. But, when referencing Chrome these posts either slip in a link, the Chrome ad, or both. And, as discovered by Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, some of these links manipulate search results by not including a "nofollow" tag or redirecting to a third party site -- which Google's paid links rules require. In other words, the posts trick Google's algorithm into upping Google Chrome's search rank -- something on which Google itself has taken a strong stance.
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Then, the other issue has to do with the content accompanying the video campaign. Google has made a big to do about burying sites with garbage text. These discovered posts aren't exactly elegant. An example from an offending blogger:
Having a small business, I have found Google to be a key element in getting my business out to the world wide community. I have put so much money into advertisements on various sites and my analytics have always shown that Google is still the top referrer to my business. After hundreds of dollars invested, that said a lot to me and so I began to invest a lot of time into SEO. As a small business, my voice is bigger and better because of Google. It takes me from just being a local business to working with clients world wide.
Google Chrome helped this small business in Vermont go global. What can Google Chrome do for your future?
That post came with a direct link to a Google Chrome download, sans "nofollow" tag as well as a Google Chrome video ad without redirecting to YouTube, but to the Chrome download site. And plenty of other posts like it come as top search results for "Google Chrome Benefits," notes Sullivan.
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Google has a strict zero tolerance stance on buying search rankings. For similar offenses, the company penalized JC Penney, Forbes, Overstock, and even Google Japan, pushing their search rankings down for gaming the system. Though Unruly Media's CEO Scott Button defends the rule violation as a one-time issue. Google still did it. As of right now, the number one Google result for "Google Chrome" surfaces a link to the browser download page. For others in similar situations Google has suspended their Google rankings, or pushed them down altogether -- it even with Google Japan and BeatThatQuote, a company it owns. For now Chrome still sits on top of search results.