The internet giant had been accused of paying bloggers to promote its 'Chrome' browser, but denied that it had authorised this activity. Google had contracted a marketing company to deliver a video advertising campaign promoting Chrome but a blogger who had been paid to feature the video posted a link to the Google Chrome website without placing restrictions on the way links can influence search rankings, according to two reports by Search Engine Land, a news service about internet search.
Google, the marketing company and the London-based business that implemented the video campaign all denied wrongdoing, but Google decided to demote the ranking of Chrome in search results as a form of punishment for the activity. Google uses technology called 'PageRank' to calculate where results should appear in its search indices.
"Google was trying to buy video ads about Chrome, and these sponsored posts were an inadvertent result of that," Mark Cutts, head of Google's webspam team, said in a posting on the Google+ social network.
"If you investigated the two dozen or so sponsored posts (as the webspam team immediately did), the posts typically showed a Google Chrome video but didn’t actually link to Google Chrome. We double-checked, and the video players weren’t flowing PageRank to Google either".
"However, we did find one sponsored post that linked to www.google.com/chrome in a way that flowed PageRank. Even though the intent of the campaign was to get people to watch videos--not link to Google--and even though we only found a single sponsored post that actually linked to Google’s Chrome page and passed PageRank, that’s still a violation of our quality guidelines. In response, the webspam team has taken manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome for at least 60 days. After that, 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," Cutts said.
Under Google's own webmaster guidelines the company can de-list results from its search index for "deceptive or manipulative" behaviour by web operators. The rules require companies to "make reasonable efforts to ensure that advertisements do not affect search engine rankings".
The rules, which the company said are designed to ensure a better user experience, prohibit operators from taking part in "link schemes" where operators may form agreements to link to each other's content in order to boost the position their own content appears in Google's search rankings. Google assesses the sites that link to content as part of the process of ranking where that content appears in its search index.
Paying others to link to content is also prohibited except under strict conditions. Links must be coded in such a way that prevents the information being used to manipulate search results.
According to the reports by Search Engine Land it appears that Google contracted marketing company Essence Digital to organise its video marketing campaign for Chrome, but that Unruly Media - a London-based business - actually delivered the campaign.
Essence Digital said Google had not approved a sponsored video campaign and had "only agreed to buy online video ads".
"In this case, Google were subjected to this activity through media that encouraged bloggers to create what appeared to be paid posts, were often of poor quality and out of line with Google standards. We apologise to Google who clearly didn’t authorize this," the company said, according to Search Engine Land.
Unruly Media said it implemented the campaign but had not asked bloggers to display a link back to the Chrome website.
"We don’t ask bloggers to link to the advertiser’s site," Scott Button, chief executive of Unruly Media, said, according to a report by news service All Things D.
"As far as I’m aware, there was one link in one post that was not marked nofollow [the link code that prevents links manipulating search results]. This was corrected as soon as we became aware of it. 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. It’s also a key part of how we operate that we don’t tell bloggers what or how to write. It’s really important that opinions expressed and the tone of voice belong to the author not the advertiser. Occasionally that leads to human error, as here, so we’re always really happy to have these kinds of example flagged and will sort them out as quickly as we possibly can," he said, according to the All Things D report.
Claire McCracken, technology law specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the case serves to remind organisations to ensure total transparency when formulating online commercial campaigns.
"Organisations should ensure that they are familiar with the relevant rules and, where there are several companies involved in putting together a campaign, should ensure that the roles are clearly defined to ensure that the actions of one doesn't have the potential to adversely impact others. They should also make it clear where any form of commercial incentive has been offered to bloggers and reviewers", McCracken said.