Google Ad Controversy Prompts Finger Pointing

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(click image for larger view and for slideshow)Google and marketing companies that it hired to promote its products are distancing themselves from an online ad campaign that violated Google’s ad guidelines.

On Monday, search marketing blogs SEO Book and Search Engine Land took note of a series of sponsored blog posts that identified Google as the post sponsor. Such attribution represents proper marketing disclosure and wouldn’t be noteworthy were it not for the fact that the posts linked back to Google and that Google discourages low-quality paid content. Because Google uses links in its PageRank algorithm, which determines where sites appear in search results, there’s an obvious incentive to attempt to manipulate Google’s system by creating such links in volume.

To discourage this practice, Google’s advertising rules state, “Buying or selling links that pass PageRank is in violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.”

[ Find out more about Google’s war on Web spam. Read Google Demotes Crummy Content. ]

Google does provide an acceptable path for paid links: They have to include the rel="nofollow" attribute in the anchor tag, which is part of the Web page HTML code. But the posts identified as “This Post Sponsored By Google” lacked the nofollow attribute. Thus, Google appeared to be doing just what it forbids other websites to do.

The perception that Google has a set of search advertising rules for itself and a different set for its clients is one that the company is particularly keen to avoid because it would make competitors’ complaints to antitrust authorities more credible.

So Google and its marketing hired guns are stressing that they didn’t ask for posts that broke Google’s rules.

“Google never agreed to anything more than online ads,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “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.”

Scott Button, CEO of Unruly Media, an online marketing company hired by Google, also denied that his company promoted search rank manipulation in a comment posted to the blog of online marketer Andrew Girdwood. “… Unruly never requires bloggers to link to an advertiser’s site, and we didn’t ask for it here,” Button wrote. “… As standard practice, we also ask that bloggers use nofollow if they do insert links in the article. This is as much to protect them as the advertiser.”

Essence Digital, another digital marketing company involved in the creation of videos promoting Google Chrome, issued an apology to Google through its Google+ account. “Google [was] 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,” the company wrote. “We apologize to Google who clearly didn’t authorize this.”

The embarrassment appears to have filtered down to some of the bloggers who actually made these posts. One post identified by Search Engine Land has already been removed. Whether bloggers broke Google’s rules out of ignorance, deliberately, or at the direction of someone in the marketing chain of command, we may never known for sure.

Google’s campaign to promote Google Chrome is one among many that the company launched recently to build brand affinity at a time when Google’s corporate image is being assailed by competitors and regulators. Google VP of global marketing Lorraine Twohill recently declined to tell The New York Times how much Google’s advertising budget had increased but confirmed a shift in strategy to reach out more effectively to consumers.

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