updated 10:30 pm EST, Thu January 5, 2012
Will deliberately demote its own Page rank
Google's Chrome browser, just recently named the second most popular browser on the web, is playing a central role in a scandal involving the way Google boosted user awareness of the product. Despite claiming it has "consistently avoided paid sponsorships, including paying bloggers promote our products," the company was caught doing exactly that via a hired ad agency as part of an online Chrome advertising campaign, which violates its own guidelines.
Not only was the search engine giant discovered (by SEO Book writer Aaron Wall) to be paying PR companies and bloggers to spam the web with hundreds of automatically-written "sponsored posts" that promoted Chrome (mostly with inaccurate statements confusing Chrome with the internet and saying that the browser is good for small business), most of the posts contained a link to a YouTube video promoting Chrome, thus running up the "popularity" of the video artificially. The posts were clearly tagged with "this post is sponsored by Google Chrome" but the company now says it was unaware of the tactics used by its outside PR firms, a claim many find hard to believe.
Google itself has frowned on sponsored links on many occasions and taken action to reduce their use as a tactic to improve SEO results. The company told Search Engine Land blogger Danny Sullivan that it had paid ad agencies but "never agreed" to anything more than online ads, claiming it did not know that the agencies would in turn offer bloggers $40 Amazon gift cards in exchange for running generic posts promoting the browser.
Google said it is "looking at what changes we need to make to ensure this never happens again," but in fact Google Japan has previously been penalized for the exact same behavior.
It also leads to more questions, including why Google would hire an outside agency in the first place. The company has its own in-house video ad service, and is itself the largest advertising agency on the web by far. Google also denied that any of the sponsored posts had direct links to the Chrome download page, but examples that contradict this were not hard to find (see image below).
It also has a network of popular services and products it already uses to cross-promote Chrome, even extending into a default download of Chrome when users try to download other Google products such as Google Earth using another browser. Further, the idea that Google -- the largest and most intense data-gathering engine that routinely "spiders" billions of web sites daily -- would be unaware that some sites were running low-quality SEO-bait sponsored posts promoting Chrome is dubious at best.
Google has said that as "punishment" it will deliberately lower the page rankings for the Chrome download page in order to "penalize" itself for a unspecified period of time, but the error will likely increase scrutiny on Google from the FTC and the government as well as further damage its already-tarnished "don't be evil" motto. The sponsored posts have been conspicuously removed, but many were posted by so-called "mommybloggers" and others posing as regular bloggers and not paid spokespersons.