Google Appears To Be Busted With Its Own Paid Links AGAIN

    February 26, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

It appears that Google has been caught doing paid links again. We’re still waiting for Google to provide an explanation, but the evidence makes it look like this is the case.

Our friend Aaron Wall at SEOBook has found some examples of an apparent “‘series’ of advertorials” for Google products like AdWords, Google Analytics, Chromebooks, and Hangouts. He points to content from The Globe And Mail and Edutopia that claim to be “brought to you by Google” and “sponsored by Chromebooks” respectively. He points to a handful of questionable links within the content.

Should Google penalize its own pages? It would seem like the fair thing to do, but at the same time, does this help the user experience when people are searching for the products in question? Share your thoughts in the comments.

“None of those links in the content use nofollow, in spite of many of them having Google Analytics tracking URLs on them,” Wall writes. “And I literally spent less than 10 minutes finding the above examples & writing this article. Surely Google insiders know more about Google’s internal marketing campaigns than I do. Which leads one to ask the obvious (but uncomfortable) question: why doesn’t Google police themselves when they are policing others? If their algorithmic ideals are true, shouldn’t they apply to Google as well?”

Wall makes a very good point, though Google (at least when it’s caught in such acts) does take action against itself. As you may recall, Google got some attention last year for a very similar situation, which it blamed on a different firm, who was working on its behalf. Google ultimately penalized its Chrome landing page in search results, and left it in the penalty box for the requisite “at least 60 days“.

But why isn’t Google catching this stuff on its own? Why does it have to be pointed out by others first? Google is pretty good at going after other sites that do it. Ask Interflora or JC Penney, or Overstock, who blamed Google for an “ugly” financial year.

The truth of the matter is that this whole thing exposes a flaw in the paid link penalty process itself. Nobody (other than those competing for the rankings) benefits from sites being penalized when those sites really are the best results for what people want. If Chrome, for example, is the best result for a user’s search query, should it be buried just because Google didn’t follow the rules? From a fairness standpoint, yes, but from a user experience standpoint? The same goes for any other site that Google may have penalized (like JC Penney, Interflora or Overstock). It makes sense for Google to discourage this kind of gaming of the system, but the problem isn’t necessarily made better by the penalty in all cases.

While Google has yet to comment directly on this particular case, it seems likely that it will follow a similar path to what it did with the Chrome situation. Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land shares this statement from the company:

We’ll investigate this report just as we would a report about any other company, and take the same action we would for any other company.

We’ve since reached out for additional comment, and will update if we hear back. Update: We got pretty much the same statement:

We’re investigating this report just as we would a report about any other company, and if we find evidence of violations of our guidelines we’ll take the same action we would for any other company.

As Sullivan notes, this is far from the first time Google itself has engaged in paid links. Even before last year’s Chrome incident there were other cases.

“Google’s also penalized Google Japan in 2009 for paid links, its AdWords help area for cloaking in 2010, and the BeatThatQuote service it acquired in 2011 was penalized on day it was purchased over spam violations,” he writes.

The timing of this new discovery is quite interesting. Google just (apparently) slapped UK flower seller Interflora for paid links, along with the newspaper sites who had the “advertorials”. Google did not specifically comment on this, but “randomly” put up a generic post about selling links that pass PageRank on its Webmaster Central blog just over that situation got some media coverage.

In Google’s post, Matt Cutts wrote, “Please be wary if someone approaches you and wants to pay you for links or ‘advertorial’ pages on your site that pass PageRank. Selling links (or entire advertorial pages with embedded links) that pass PageRank violates our quality guidelines, and Google does take action on such violations. The consequences for a linkselling site start with losing trust in Google’s search results, as well as reduction of the site’s visible PageRank in the Google Toolbar. The consequences can also include lower rankings for that site in Google’s search results.”

Google also put out this video of Cutts talking about the basics of paid links a few months ago:

“Whenever you’re paying for links that pass PageRank, fundamentally, you’re paying for something that manipulates search engines,” he says in that video. “You’re paying for something that makes a worse search experience for users, and that’s something that we consider a violation of our guidelines in the same way that people who would pay the radio to have their song played a lot, and not have it disclosed, nofollow or some attribute like that is our way of disclosing that that is paid, and so if you are buying a link, and you’re not making sure that it doesn’t pass PageRank, then it looks a lot like payola to us.”

Last year, Cutts also shared an email he sent to a newspaper who was hit with a paid link penalty. Within that, he wrote:

In particular, earlier this year on [website] we saw links labeled as sponsored that passed PageRank, such as a link like [example link]. That’s a clear violation of Google’s quality guidelines, and it’s the reason that [website]‘s PageRank as well as our trust in the website has declined.

Is Google losing trust in itself? It is, after all, apparently a repeat offender.

It will be interesting to see how Google proceeds with the series Wall has brought to the forefront, and if Google comments directly on the situation.

How should Google proceed following this apparent debacle? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Image: Aaron Wall

  • Lester

    This may come as a surprise to many of you but that is how Google makes their money – by selling links! They have always been about “do as we say and not do as we do”. Google is not your friend and never has been and never will be.

  • BlokeToys

    When will people grow up? Google is a corporate scum bag, punishing others, policing the web without authority, and destroying their competition to become a global superpower.

    This is corporate business, and people are surprised that Google is being “unfair”? They are pretty much unregulated and unrestrained, OF COURSE they’re going to do all kinds of things to make billions while destroying others – welcome to corporate business!

    I’ll bet these same people discussing this are the same people “shocked” by the greed of bankers, surprised by oil companies polluting the environment to save money, or stunned when they discover that the food they eat from a chain corporation is nothing more than slurry.

    People need to grow up. The corporation doesn’t give a rats ass about you or your business. If Google could get away with it without a public backlash they would stage a freakin’ total internet takeover tomorrow.

    “Don’t be evil” is a myth. Google is a horrid corporation just like any other. They would tread on their own grannies to get another million.

  • http://www.rtwholesale.com Star Carlton

    Google is not this real trustworthy company some people make them out to be. If you set your adwords budget to lets say $150 a day – they will charge you around $180 a day. I emailed them and they said they have the right to send you 20 percent more clicks than your budget. So in other words – they can fleece you as they see fit.

  • http://www.corvisacloud.com This Company

    Well, it seems that Google is at it again. This reminds me of when Cutts had to explain his other paid links fiasco to a newspaper. LOL

  • http://reynoldspest.com Brian Reynolds

    I’m surprised there aren’t many more mistakes than what has already happened. The metrics on monitoring a company like Google must be mind boggling. Just the same, they do need to be accountable.

  • http://www.belfast-architects.co.uk Alan

    So what happens if the links are not paid for? Say I think there is a great article on heat pumps, by linking to that site am I damaging them and myself? Take it a bit further, say you have a site with contributors with their own websites, do I then have to discourage involvement by making all links no follow? Seems wrong to me, a successful company will generate attention why should they be at risk of penalisation?

  • http://learn-searchengineoptimization-searchenginemarketing-seo-sem.com/ joel k


    those who bash google for any perceived indiscretion (real or not) are the same people who love google if it gives them good pr & serp.

    google is the best at virtually everything it does, it’s your best friend on the internet, and it’s also imperfect – just like everyone & everything else.

  • http://www.trapezsacfiyatlari.net Trapez Sac

    I am not surprised to hear about the fact that Google is making its own rules and not following those rules like any repressive government.
    They have to make money sure but not changing the rules as they please like tax makers !

  • Brad

    Like all controllers and manipulators, when given enough rope they hang themselves because of greed and need for power.

  • jon

    It only goes to show how outdated and impractical the link measurement system is. If Google abandoned its much treasured page rank then SEO and certain black hat activities would be out of the window.

    What replaces links for assessing quality? Unfortunately the only true judge of website usefulness is the end user and the potential for manipulation is always present.

    If users are not asked to comment or vote on a website which is open to manipulation then the measurement system whatever it is must be secret. In such a case it would make sense to publicly say system X is used when really system Y is used but its doubtful whether Google could keep this a secret given staff turnover.

    The only metric that does not ask for user comment or voting that is remotely feasible at this point in time is to measure the time spent on site. This relies on the user returning to Google after the site otherwise they have no way of determining “finish time” (other than use of Google analytics where implemented). There are flaws – abuse – sweat shop surfers but geo lookup could identify hotspots and of course some really useful sites are used for short periods of time – for instance IT professionals often lookup a single function or CSS statement – dive in and dive out.

    Ultimately this is the brick wall facing Google and others, the abusers get smarter and they need to try and keep ahead.

    I suspect at times Google are over loyal to page rank, I wonder if they would have stuck with it as dogedly if it were not their treasured little algoritm steeped in mythology etc.

    It does not help that Google is such a monopoly, if we had lots of different search engines using different metrics and reacting in different ways it would be a harder job to try and fool them all – in some ways Google monolith position is part of the problem. Microsoft screwed up the web by insisting on non-compliant browsers and Google mess up by simply being too big, too powerful and dictating terms – they are the ones who started the whole link craze in the first place.

    I suppose all we can hope is a new generation of social apps facilitate people who share a common interest being able to recommend to others and perhaps others can then vote on whether that person is seen as a reliable source of good links or just an opportun spammer who is just trying to promote sites. I belong to many special interest sites and I am able to promote my website at a modest level – its self policing – people only read my comments because I actually know something about the subject matter and because I dont have a reputation for being self promoting. Life in general works that way – you join groups but the group will reject you if you behave in a way that just does not fit in with their views. Of course big business tries to get in on the act but if the technology truely allows organic groups to evolve and dissolve then people will simply leave groups that feel “big brother” and re-group in ones that feel genuine. This doesnt help you shop for best prices etc so its incomplete but I do think we have to look out of cyberspace for inspiration on how society deals with similar issues – how some things get recommended and others get rejected – how can those mechanisms find their way online in a way that is difficult to manipulate?


  • Tommy

    when google put adwords at top10 of search results – it cheat both users and webmasters. Link passing PR (and what webmaster get paid for it) – it just free market, peoples agree to pay for it. Google trying to fight with basic rules of universe. Their end coming soon…

  • Tommy

    Google guidelines : you must follow all our rules but we can cheat you as we want. We not will explain you what you need to do on your website, what work now or not, put any links to your website, we will not tell you what the next ‘brilliant’ idea comes to our brain to penalize 99% of websites, we will put adwords & our minisites and youtube at all top10 organic serp.

    But you only allowed to pay for domain, for hosting, write some ‘extreme good quality’ content and wait when matt cutts allow you to get 10 hits per day from google.
    You not allowed to put any links to your website without nofollow tag (which is not ISO/standard), you not able to promote your website, you not able to receive money for any linking activity on your website.

    So you allowed only to:
    1. pay for content, hosting, domain
    2. pray to matt cutts & larry page gods to get few hits from google.

    • http://nobids.net mIKE

      You can of course pay Google for Adwords. That’s what it is all about isn’t it? Making sure Google shareholders are happy. After all, Google,as a corporation, has a legal obligation to ensure that they get as much money into their bank for their shareholders as they are able no matter how it effects others. To not do that would be a corporate criminal act.

  • Greg

    It’s Google Gibbon all over again. Us honest affiliates don’t stand a chance!

  • http://Mabuzi.com Kevin

    Who watches the watchers right?
    At least with some governments there are checks and balances but with corporations, whose sole purpose is profit no matter what marketing crap they spew out, there is none especially monopolies.

    Still though I am a Google fan, until of course first two pages of search become adwords only.

    • Tommy

      they make money only because at current time cheat:

      1. searchers. They think it organic sites that normally ranked at serp. It not true at current time and no real competition in google, all for big brands only.
      Searchers even unable to understand where in serp organic top 10 and ads. Adwords looks like organic top 10 for them, including google minisites (booking form, review minisites).

      2. webmasters. Google using your content, your photos and videos on their pages. Traffic from google images decreased, google show your photos/videos but not send visitors to your site. What peoples do in this case if other site stealing their pics? Fill the DMCA note. But google is so big, so many money for lawyers, so it just not possibly.
      Webmasters creating ‘extra quality’ content (how mc tell us), but what the results? Any article from wikipedia/ehow/livestrong is more authoritative than any doctor research.
      Here is lot of other examples.

      So google now make money because cheating searchers and webmasters.

  • J B

    I don’t know why I’m responding to such a stupid question.

    Google don’t apply the same rules for themselves as they do to their customers. So what? Why should they?

    Google is a business, not a democracy, not a group of friends – a business.

    Anyone who thinks Google is their friend is delusional, but so is anyone who portrays them as an “evil corporation”.

    Google are in the market to make money. Their revenues go towards paying employees, paying taxes, returning a dividend to shareholders. Pretty standard stuff.

    I guarantee you that every person in these comments who complains about Google being “evil” or “unfair”, is complaining for one reason – because that person wants to make money from their website, and they feel Google somehow owes it to them to facilitate that.

    Google is in business to look after their bottom line. You are in business to look after yours.

    Complaining when Google does the same thing you do is hypocrisy.

  • http://saliu.com/ Ion Saliu

    How do I post a comment? I tried but got no results and no explanation. After I click Post, the text box is emptied and I and sent to the top of the page again and again…

    Ion Saliu
    (“Google Devilish Search Updates Panda, Penguin, 2012”)

  • Terry

    What about paying to be in a directory?, In a sense its paying for a link, but we are paying in hopes that customers can find us. How does Google know if your paying for a directory or just to get a link?

  • http://discoverqueensland.com.au/ Shay

    I really dont see whats wrong. This is exactly how the internet works and exactly what Google has preached all these years. Write good content – put in good links. Whats the issue???

    Too many Google haters out there – half of them wouldnt have a business if it wasnt for Google.

    • http://techlister.com pelister

      google wouldnt be there if we werent. It is a sort of Mutual relationship, which google have forgotten these days and continuing to play the fool of itself.

  • http://www.technoscore.net Smita

    Google is updating its working as well as our working method on daily basis. It should not happen as it impacts our hard work. Google should think for us.

  • Rob Crombie

    Google’s search results have been getting worse and worse.
    It appears impossible to give strict instructions as to what must appear in every hit.
    They should not be influencing/interfering with the results.
    And give us a decent advanced search page that works (does exactly what it is told).

    A Google employee once told them to not be evil.
    They ain’t listening.

  • http://www.eltalearning.com Jignesh

    If you check whole article, you will find this line at the bottom of that post “This is a non-paid placement.”

    I think, its just a post by Google.ca manager to spread awareness about Google adowrds.

  • http://www.gadgetscraz.com Govind malik

    hmmm its is very nice post
    thankyou alot of this kind of information

  • Brian

    Maybe Mrs Cutts can shed some light on this matter

  • cricket

    Google penalizes paid links but Google itself does paid links…. time to review its code of ethics.

  • someone

    FAIL: Once again Google reminds us that it will punish its search customers with poor results in order to punish a website!

    A search for interflora now results in me finding vouchercodes! Well done Google!!!! I am looking for a website and you send me somewhere else. Idiots!

  • http://www.dollarlinksdirectory.com/ dave beatty

    I own a general search directory. I found that google will not email me saying i have harmfull links but have punished me even though i have not spammed. This directory was getting 6 million a year. So now i have peaple emailing me to take their links down after spending 1000 and 1000 hours accepting web pages and making sure they are in the right category. So it does not surprise me that google does not reinforce the rules on its own sites. Some of these websites owners should get together and sue google.

  • http://www.dollarlinksdirectory.com/ dave beatty

    I own a general search directory. I found that google will not email me saying i have harmfull links but have punished me even though i have not spammed. This directory was getting 6 million a year. So now i have peaple emailing me to take their links down after spending 1000 and 1000 hours accepting web pages and making sure they are in the right category. So it does not surprise me that google does not reinforce the rules on its own sites.

  • Dumpy

    Google gets it right most of the time but as with most businesses, it’s when business relationships enter the picture that policy becomes, at best, selective. Mega publishers you know the ones that have hundreds of domains in their content portfolio, feed the advertising machine that is Google. G needs these publishers and is willing to look the other way if everyone else isn’t looking at these publishers.

    Here’s the most blatant paid link network example in the wild that I can find: autoguidedotcom. Go through the creative dofollow text ads disguised as banners on the side of one of its node sites: toyotanationdotcom, then scroll down to the footer to see the entire network. The scale of this paid link operation is staggering. But apparently not big enough for Google.

  • http://www.takemyway.com raj

    wow lovely
    i loving it 😛