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Will Google Penalize Chromebooks, Google Analytics, AdWords & Google+ For Using Advertorials?

Google Penalty

A day after warning publishers against advertorials, will Google’s search team now have to penalize parts of its own company for running advertorials? Perhaps, and if so, it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s also another absurd chapter in Google’s war on paid links.

Google Says: Advertorials, Beware!

After news came out yesterday that Google had apparently penalized Interflora for running advertorials — and also reduced the PageRank values of many UK newspapers that carried these — Google finally blogged a general warning against such practices.

From its post:

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

But as Aaron Wall at SEO Book covers today, examples of Google running advertorials could put itself in violation of its own policies.

Google’s Own Advertorials

Wall notes two cases. The first is from the Canadian newspaper, The Globe & Mail, which appears to have been running Google advertorials for some time. Wall talked about them two years ago on Twitter, and several of them remain, dating back through 2010 and running until mid-2012.

For example, this one was written by Brett Willms, identified as the country marketing manager for Google Canada:

Someone is on your landing page. Now what? - The Globe and Mail-1

At the top, the first arrow identifies this as a “special information feature brought to you by Google.” That’s the type of disclosure that media companies often want for human readers, so that they know whether something is written by their own staff (editorial content, typically not influenced by payment) or an advertorial (something that looks like editorial content, but where the content may be written or directed by an advertiser).

This particular disclosure could also be interpreted as editorial content that is sponsored by Google, in the way that many sites are supported by ad sponsorship generally, but where the ads don’t dictate the coverage. If that were the case, this wouldn’t be an advertorial. But since this piece was written by a Google employee, putting it in the advertorial category seems pretty safe.

Why Google Wants Advertorials To Block Links

Google’s search quality team — which tries to protect listings against spam and irrelevant content — doesn’t really care about that visible disclosure. Rather, it’s concerned about advertorials because they can be a way for people to buy links, which in turn might end up being considered a “vote” that helps the page getting the link to rank better in Google (see also Links: The Broken “Ballot Box” Used By Google & Bing).

If the links are prevented by passing credit — typically by tagging them with a bit of code known as the nofollow attribute — then Google’s search team isn’t worried about advertorials. So that second arrow in the screenshot above is important. If that link is passing credit to Google, then Google is violating its own policies against buying links.

Google Buys Links

It apparently is passing credit. The page is listed (along with others) in Google, so Google’s seeing the links — and there’s no apparent blocking associated with it. Similarly, this page has a direct link that passes credit to Google Analytics, as well as the AdWords Help Center.

Meanwhile, this page has links that arguably might have helped Google content rank better for generic terms like “driving directions” and “coupons,” as you can see:

Put your business online today at no cost with Google Places - The Globe and Mail

Well, that is if the links still worked. The driving directions link leads to a now-broken page at Google Maps. The other link is still valid, pointing to a help page about Google Places.

It’s unlikely Google was intentionally trying to rank that help page better for “coupons” with this advertorial, but that will be beside the point. Google should follow its own rules.

Chromebooks Get Paid Links

The other example Wall points at is over at Edutopia, the non-profit education group backed by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The group has at least two pages with a notation saying they’re “part of a series sponsored by Chromebooks,” as you can see below, from one of the pages about using Google Hangouts:

Using Google Hangouts for Teacher Development | Edutopia-1

While other links in the article have a nofollow attribute attached to them, this link does not. In fact, the link even carries tracking codes, making it clear that someone at Google wanted to know if this link was driving traffic to them:


The article itself perhaps isn’t considered an advertorial in that it wasn’t written by a Google employee, as the first arrow below points out. But it’s clearly content that’s happening because Google is doing more than a general ad buy.

That, combined with direct links to Google products like Chromebooks or the Hangouts plug-in page that the second arrow below points to, probably violates Google’s guidelines on paid links:

Using Google Hangouts for Teacher Development | Edutopia-2

Again, I doubt the intent was by Google to actually sponsor these posts in hopes of buying links. I certainly don’t think Edutopia believed it was selling links or trying to do anything against Google’s guidelines (I’ve done a couple free consulting calls over the years on general SEO issues to help the group, and it’s a nice collection of people trying to help educators).

Postscript: Edutopia told me there was no editorial involvement from Google reps with the articles. However, it is going to review its internal sponsorship policies moving forward, to avoid the perception of buying paid links when a sponsorship is so closely related to a product.

Google Largely Ignores Intent, Punishes For Technicalities

But Google doesn’t have rules designed to assess intent. Instead, it focuses on techniques, much to my disappointment. As I wrote on this in the past:

I’d argue that the “Be Fair” mantra means looking at intent, rather than tactics. Being fair means you don’t ban either a big company or a small company because they violated a technical guideline. You punish them because they intentionally worked to harm the user experience, in your opinion.

So what’s likely to happen here? The Globe & Mail and Edutopia will probably get a PageRank reduction, which is largely meaningless. Potentially, they might not rank as well for some things because of this. But that’s really a deterrent to people who are trying to buy links from sites with high PageRank values, as those links are deemed more valuable. Since neither was likely intending to sell links, it’s no real loss for them. It’s a light penalty, because while Google doesn’t assess intent in deciding what’s right and wrong, it does take that into account when deciding how to punish.

Google Likely To Penalize Itself, Again

There’s an excellent chance Google’s going to have to penalize Google AdWords, Google Analytics, Chromebooks and Google Hangouts. When in doubt, it tends to be hard on itself, just like it penalized Chrome last year over a technical violation of its paid links policy. Chrome didn’t rank well for searches on “Chrome” for two months.

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.

It Can Be Hard To Stay Safe (Oh Dear, Search Engine Land Has Paid Links!)

Each time these things happen, a common refrain can be heard. If Google itself can’t figure all this stuff out, how can publishers? And fair enough. It is confusing.

It’s been on my mind especially this week, as we had a new Digital Marketing Optimization Solution Center area go up on our Marketing Land sister-site. The area collects together our own Marketing Land articles, so it’s not advertorial. IBM’s not sponsoring us to write about any topic or IBM in general. In fact, most of the articles where written before the deal even started.

We’re pretty sure we don’t have anything passing link credit outbound to IBM, but there are IBM white papers you can download. If someone uses a form on our own site, letting them fill out a form to download IBM content, is that page considered sponsored? Do we have to block links within our own site? Probably not, since the rules about paid links apply to outbound links. But we still felt uncertain.

You can bet, a site that covers SEO best practices like ourselves — and is heavily read by people at Google — has nil desire to be selling links or violating Google’s guidelines. When we set-up our e-Solution Spotlight content area some years ago, I did a careful review of what the ad department was proposing, to ensure we weren’t passing along any link credit. To my horror, looking over at the area today, I can see one of the five pages in that area has some links are passing credit, not tagged as nofollow as they should be (and are on the other pages).

Sigh. I guess we may potentially get penalized along with Google, not because there was any intent to do this but simply because someone screwed-up somewhere. Going forward, maybe we’ll just drop all our sponsored content pages from being in Google at all. That’s already what we were leaning toward this week, as we were doing the IBM review.

To Save The Links, We Had To Destroy Them?

I’ve felt Google has been losing its battle against paid links for ages. My post from 2007, Time For Google To Give Up The Fight Against Paid Links?, remains relevant. From the conclusion:

Google’s supposed to be smart. Let it figure out if a link deserves credit or not, regardless of whether it is being sold, bartered, traded or editorially earned.

However, high-profile cases in 2011 involving JC Penney, online florists, Overstock & Forbes did make me reconsider if somehow, Google was managing to turn the tide.

But no, I don’t think so. Maybe the attacks of the Penguin Update last year and the insanity of people having to disavow links is stopping some of the blatant and more crappy link buying. But some of it might be pushed further underground. Worse, the people who just don’t know any better or have no intent to do anything wrong — including those at Google itself — keep becoming collateral damage.

I’m at the point where I kind of feel like the only way to be safe with Google is to nofollow all your links, which damages the most important ranking signal that Google depends on.

Alternatively, it would be nice if Google came up with something other than the creaky, broken, leaky link system that it’s still depending on. How about spending more time interpreting some of those social signals as votes?

Postscript (Feb. 24, 4pm ET): Google sent me this statement:

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.

Postscript (March 28, 2013): I checked back with Google to see if it had taken any actions. The head of its web spam team, Matt Cutts, told me:

I doubt we’ll have anything new to say about this. We’ve already said that we’d investigate and take the same action we would for any other company.

Two of the stories at The Globe & Mail also now carry a statement saying, “This is a non-paid placement,” so apparently they aren’t paid but somehow appeared for some other reason as “a special information feature brought to you by Google.” At Edutopia, the links saying content was sponsored by Chromebooks have been removed.

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