Did Google Break its Own Terms of Service?

In an attempt to promote its Chrome browser, search giant Google appears to have broken its own rules against buying links and using thin content to increase SERP standing. What’s going on?

Danny Sullivan reported the story for Search Engine Land. He noted how Aaron Wall, upon performing a search for “This post is sponsored by Google,” saw it return more than 400 pages. All of these entries appeared to be part of a marketing campaign to get the word out about Google Chrome. The links in the results led to a variety of blog posts with headlines such as “What Can Chrome Do For You?” and “Take Your Small Business to the Next Level with Google Chrome.”

Okay, by itself, this isn’t necessarily incriminating. But here’s the problem: these posts linked back to the Google Chrome download page – and the links didn’t include the nofollow attribute. Without that attribute, the links will pass PageRank, or “link juice,” reading in Google’s algorithm as a vote for the page. If Google did indeed sponsor these posts, then it effectively paid for those links – and whatever link juice they get from them.

I assume I don’t need to tell you that paid links are against Google’s own Terms of Service. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, made it clear nearly two years ago that Google frowns on sponsored posts that pass PageRank. As Cutts explains in his post, “Clear disclosure of sponsorship is critical, and that includes disclosure for search engines. If link in a paid post would affect search engines, that link should not pass PageRank (e.g. by using the nofollow attribute). Google – and other search engines – do take action which can include demoting sites that sell links that pass PageRank, for example.”

Google has taken action against websites before for this kind of behavior – even its own websites, when they get out of line. Sullivan’s list of websites that Google penalized for this conduct include JC Penney, Forbes, and Overstock, plus Google-owned BeatThatQuote and Google Japan. Does this mean that Google will have to ban the Google Chrome download page?

Possibly not. Of the posts he’s reviewed, Sullivan observed that “most do not seem to have links to Google or the Google Chrome page. In addition, I expect that Google probably never instructed anyone to directly link to anything.” That’s how JC Penney handled the PR storm when the New York Times article revealed how it managed to snag a high standing in the SERPs for so many valuable keywords during the holiday shopping season. The retailer claimed that it didn’t know that its SEO company was breaking rules, and never instructed the SEO firm to engage in black hat practices. What really bothers me about this, though, is that Google made the rules in the first place. How can any advertising company that’s dealing with any branch of Google NOT realize that they should avoid using anything that even remotely resembles paid links?

That’s not the part that bothered Sullivan the most, however. “Google’s paying to produce a lot of garbage, the same type of garbage that its Panda Update was designed to penalize,” he observed. He quoted one post in detail, noting that it never mentioned Google Chrome or how it helped small business, despite its headline: “Google Chrome Helping Small Business.” It was hardly the only Chrome-related post that came up thin on content. Even “reviews” offered no meat and all fluff. Sullivan summarizes thusly: “Google’s paid for a content-light post that’s not a review of Google Chrome, nor a review of how Google Chrome helps small business, pushing a video that also doesn’t show how Google Chrome helps small businesses.”

Did Google really intend to do this? Apparently not; you might even say that Google learned the hard way what JC Penney went through. In a follow-up post, Sullivan reported that yes, these posts were part of a Google campaign, but it didn’t think it was signing up for this kind of campaign. In its statement to Sullivan, Google said that it “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.”

So how could this happen? Well, Google apparently contracted with Essence Digital, which said (or at least implied) in a statement (on Google+, appropriately enough) that Google agreed to buy online video ads with them, but never approved a sponsored-post campaign. Sullivan found the idea that Google would need to contract with Essence Digital to run the ads “really weird” – after all, Google has its own video ad network. Why would it need to use someone else to place the ads?

Here’s the icing on the cake: Essence Digital didn’t even actually set up the campaign. Sullivan was contacted by one of the bloggers, who told him where she  got connected to the campaign. It looks like video promotion company Unruly reached out to bloggers through ads in certain online communities offering pay-per-post opportunities. Sullivan didn’t find an ad for making a paid post for Google Chrome, but he did find Unruly ads for other campaigns. The offers “asked that bloggers watch a video and decide if they wanted to do a post about it, saying whatever they wanted, and embed the video on their blog. Payment was $40 in Amazon gift card credit” in each of the ads Sullivan found. Sullivan also found wording in Unruly’s sign-up terms that “suggests that Unruly is indeed running campaigns with the intention of gaining better search rankings through paid links.”

As the third party in this debacle, Unruly’s existence in the chain gives Google a bit of wiggle room. Google can always say they didn’t expect or condone this kind of campaign. But JC Penney could make a similar excuse, and still saw its site penalized. The court’s still out as to whether Google will cut Chrome with the same sword (and penalties) it meted out to others. Since it has done that before, though, it would look downright hypocritical if it didn’t in this case.

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