We know from the countless instances of paid link penalties that Google doesn’t like it when you buy your way into organic search results, but Google has other financial transactions that influence some of its search results.
Last month, Danny sullivan and Pamela Parker put out an interesting report about Google’s apparent paid inclusion program, which comes in the form of sponsored comparison ad results. Google had referred to these as “a third kind of thing” between organic results and ads. They appear for certain types of searches like hotels, flights and financial products.
A Google spokesperson told WebProNews, “We’re changing the design layout of our hotel, flight, credit card and bank account results, which help users complete actions such as booking flights quickly and easily. We’ve always disclosed that Google may be paid when a user completes such an action; we want to be clear and consistent in how we do that.”
Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land posted a long report today about Google’s move from considering paid inclusion evil to embracing it on its own properties. As you may know, Google discussed paid inclusion in its IPO Founders' Letter in 2004, where it said, under the “Don’t Be Evil” section:
Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others. Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating. We also display advertising, which we work hard to make relevant, and we label it clearly. This is similar to a well-run newspaper, where the advertisements are clear and the articles are not influenced by the advertisers' payments. We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.
Sullivan quotes Google’s Amit Singhal from a conversation he recently had with him: “Fundamentally, time and time again, we started noticing that a class of queries could not be answered based upon just crawled data…We realized that we will have to either license data or go out and establish relationships with data providers...To be super safe, where we have a deal between Google and another party, we didn’t want to call those fully organic results, because they are based on a deal...After much debate, we said “OK, let’s be extra cautious. Let’s call it ‘sponsored’ so that we tell our users that there’s a special relationship that Google has established with someone.”
Google’s apparent view of the paid inclusion concept is pretty interesting considering its own quality guidelines around paid links. It’s interesting that Google doesn’t seem to have much issue with directories, for example, who offer paid inclusion without using nofollow on links, yet this very practice essentially equates to businesses paying another site to get links, most likely with the intention of getting better search engine rankings.
Sullivan brings up some interesting points about the FTC's disclosure policies. Apparently, while Google’s paid inclusion results are disclosed as sponsored in actual Google search results, no such disclosure is made on the vertical search products these results are drawn from (Google Hotel Finder, Flight Search and Advisor).
I have to wonder how many of these paid deals Google has, how many include businesses paying Google for listings, and how many include Google paying businesses for data access.