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