Google Chrome’s ‘sponsored posts’ explained

January 3, 2012

This post has been updated.

Google has acknowledged that an ad campaign for its Chrome browser appears to have violated the company’s own policies, landing it in some hot water this week when SEOBook’s Aaron Wall and Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan highlighted some problems.

In a nutshell, it appeared that the Google Chrome campaign was doing something that Google has specifically banned in the past: paying bloggers for links that will help the company pad its search results for Google Chrome.

The campaign, run by Unruly Media, was supposedly not intended to do that, however.

In a statement, Google’s corporate communications team said that “Google never agreed to anything more than online ads. 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.”

According to Sullivan, it appears that Google contracted its Web ads out to a firm called Essence Digital, which in turn asked a company called Unruly Media to implement the campaign.

In a statement, Essence Media reiterated much of Google’s comment and added, “In this case, Google were 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. We apologize to Google who clearly didn’t authorize this.”

For its part, Unruly Media said that it requires bloggers to take steps to make sure their links to paid advertisers don’t affect search engine traffic.

“In line with FTC and EU regulation Unruly always requires that bloggers clearly disclose any post, tweet, or other reference to the video as being sponsored and we provide guidance on how to do this,” said CEO Scott Button in an e-mailed statement. “We also request that if they do link anywhere they use nofollow [which prevents links from affecting search rankings], both because that’s best practice and also because it’s in their own interest to do so.

“Unruly is committed to an ethical, legal, and totally transparent approach to online marketing. It’s crucial that posts are clearly marked as sponsored and that links are marked as nofollow. And it’s crucial that opinions belong to the author, which is why we never push an angle or opinion, and also why, occasionally, bloggers will unfortunately pen a post that deviates from our guidelines, as here.”

In the past, Google has criticized companies that have been a part of ad campaigns that used paid links to skew search results and has set up ways to penalize companies for doing so in the past.

Another major issue in all of this, Sullivan wrote in a subsequent post, is that the posts appear to have contradicted not only Google’s policy on paid links, but were also of such low quality that it’s exactly like the kind of “thin” content that Google has been trying to cut out of its search results. That is “just embarrassing to Google, when it has busy trying to prevent this type of content from ranking in its own search engine,” he wrote.

Related stories:

Chrome overtakes Firefox in global market share

Is Google profiting from illegal ads?

Google settles with Justice Department over pharmacy ads

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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