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:

http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/education/devices/?utm_source=edutopia&utm_medium=online&utm_campaign=northam-edu-2013-chromeos-pm-online-blog-edutopia

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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Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: SEO | Google: Web Search | Link Building: Paid Links | Top News

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Durant Imboden

    “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”

    If advertorial is a big part of your business, why not simply default to “nofollow” and remove the “nofollow” for legitimate editorial links?

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It’s not a big part of our business. it’s also complicated to try and untag all the links much less tag them all. It’s easier for us to just drop those pages from Google.

  • Durant Imboden

    Makes sense. Who wants to find ads in a search index?

  • Wendy Piersall

    I have been penalized in the past for links that were not purchased – but that *looked* like they were purchased, because I linked to a brand. I had to file a reconsideration request and get the penalty removed. I removed the link to save my site, but I felt like I had just sold my soul to the Google devil – I really wanted to give kudos to a brand doing something cool, and kept my mouth shut to save my own hide.

    “High Quality Content” is supposed to draw links “naturally”. Yet when that happens in a commercial or B2B situation, it becomes a liability for the publisher. So their guidelines – and this ridiculous scenario you’ve just described – live in a perfect, idealistic world that simply doesn’t exist in real life. And I have to say that it increasingly seems as though the people and brands who are working hard to try to stay above board are the ones losing… and the spammers who have all day to game the system are winning.

  • Marc Winter

    Oh right! Since when is Google following their own rules, such as concerning above-the-fold ads? Ever since Google Images turned into a giant scraper site amassing copyright violations, this company has lost all credibility to me. Google’s rules are first and foremost, just that: their rules. Not law. Follow or ignore at will.

  • Marc Winter

    Apparently, Google users? Or why are the Google SERPs more and more dominated by them, and still Google is gaining market share? Oh right, I forgot: these are GOOGLE’s ads, those are good ;-)

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    The links in your article don’t provide any evidence that the “paid links” are passing value in Google’s index. However, this link MIGHT be a better example:

    http://www.google.com/#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=site:accounts.google.com+inanchor%3Aadwords

  • http://www.facebook.com/dora.odri Dora Attila Odri

    Of course they won’t penalize themselves, because google has to show a profit every quarter so its ok for them to sell advertisements, but for others no!

  • Akash

    Why crying over Google’s relying on links for ranking web-pages? Since long ago Google has moved away (not completely) from link matrix and using more than 200 signals like Social media, Page Rank, Time-spent, and even Co-occurrence etc. to rank content in search results.

    Google is ever evolving, and will be enough powerful one day to know the exact intents of webmasters to make its punishment system better.

  • TmWe

    Google’s view on links depend on what way the wind is blowing.

    It would have made just as much sense for Google to say these companies are buying the editorial features in (online) newspapers/magazines as they have done for decades, and the outbound link is just a minor part of that, as the value is in the editorial placement and the site visitors.

    This would be rather along the same lines of some directory listings not being regarded as paid links as the purchase is not for the link. but the listing and all which that involves.

  • victortuszing

    No doubt, Google is the king of hypocrisy – its employees set rules just for us, the “suckers”, not for royalties…

  • victortuszing

    Of course, Goggle can do anything since it has 70% search share in US and 90% globally…I’m still waiting somebody from government understand the huge threat represented by this malefic company that, if not stopped, will switch to Big Brother some day.

  • http://twitter.com/danclarkie Dan Clarke

    This article makes great points, but it is an absolute train wreck of English grammar and spelling.
    Why has nobody proof read or edited this?

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It’s a long article. I did read through it twice, but I went through it again now and maybe about five further changes.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Google hasn’t moved away from links. Those remain among the most important ranking signals out there.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    They have penalized themselves many times before, as the article covers. I’m virtually certain they’ll do so in some way again.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    It does show evidence that they are not blocking value from being passed. That’s what Google’s rules require — that if you have a paid link, you block it in some way from passing value. Google, of course, might prevent links on its end from passing value. But that’s besides the point. That doesn’t get a site off the hook for selling. It can’t file a reconsideration request and say, “Oh, but I thought you were going to block for me.”

  • Vic

    Looks like Google hit a little too close to Danny Sullivan’s home, sponsored content and guest posts. Well, this may have awakened Danny up.

    Google hasn’t cared about fairness or best for the users since Larry Page became CEO. This is the latest thing to scare businesses and to force them to advertise. The only good link is one from Adwords.Panda, Penguin and every update has that goal in mind: driving people to ads and businesses to adwords.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    We don’t have guest posts. We have columns from regular contributors, and rarely, a one-off contributed post. That’s pretty normal for a publisher. As for our sponsored content area, I’d guess it’s like 0.2% of our pageviews. It’s not designed to attract search traffic. It’s designed to be promoted within our own pages.

    And if you go back to the post that I mentioned writing in 2007, you’ll see that I’ve further written about problems with Google war on links before that. So no, there’s no sudden wake-up here.

    What there is, instead, is that further crackdown that Google is doing is causing ordinary publishers who had absolutely no intention of trying to sell links to technically get caught in violating Google’s rules.

    Google has very good reasons to dislike the practice of selling links, and Google users have very good reasons to want Google to fight to prevent someone who plunks down a little cash to suddenly rank tops even if they are irrelevant.

    But the rules that are based on technicalities aren’t cutting it, just like the rules about cloaking that are based on technicalities didn’t. Google needs to have rules based on intent.

  • http://twitter.com/alancperkins Alan Perkins

    > 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

    And if everybody feels the same way, as well they might, then that brings us full circle to pre-nofollow days. If all links are nofollowed, then nofollow becomes as useless as it was before it was invented! To paraphrase Dash from The Incredibles, “If every link is special, then no link is”.

    This shows the futility of using nofollow for paid links. Nofollow should have been left for what it was designed for – labelling links of uncertain trust.

  • http://www.nick-andrews.com/ Nick Andrews

    Way to go Google, another massive demonstration of hypocricy! Google will have no choice other than to penalise themselves as they have done before in a vague attempt to save face.

  • http://www.cbil360.com/ Web Design Company

    It’s a general point to be noted that – If you like to rank in SERP then you must have to follow all rules and regulations set by search engine otherwise there are more chances to get penalized if you break them.

  • sheila219

    Sadie. I just agree… Ricky`s article is terrific… on monday I got a great Mazda since I been making $5202 this last month an would you believe 10 grand last-munth. without a question it is the most comfortable job I have ever had. I began this 5 months ago and pretty much straight away brought home at least $80.. per-hour. I follow the details here,, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • http://www.michaelmerritt.org/ Michael Merritt

    The fact that you’re sweating over one link that was inadvertently not tagged with nofollow shows how broken the system is.

    For most folks, who may have more important things to think about on a daily basis, like finding ways to support their hosting costs, the situation is likely worse.

  • Lisa Repensky

    Great article. I find it ironic that an educational site can get away with that and the typo in “I am curious about learning what you experiences are…”

  • http://twitter.com/GnosisArts Gnosis Media Group

    I’m confused

  • http://twitter.com/mikegracen Mike Gracen

    The hypocrisy here on Google’s part is staggering, but is anyone here really surprised?

    While there are certainly philanthropic, talented and exceptionally brilliant people working at Google, the company as a whole continues to live in a fantasy land where they believe they are actually helping make the World a better place. In actuality, they are simply another monopolistic corporation forced to uphold shareholder value – consequences be d*mned.

    And the idea that they will penalize themselves (like they have done ‘many times before’) I find laughable at best. The right wrist is going to slap the left, the hypocrisy will continue, and poor Matt Cutts will be forced to sell another little part of his soul as he reactively warns webmasters to do as Google says, not as it does.

  • http://www.seo-theory.com/ Michael Martinez

    You may have proposed the next generation of SEO reconsideration requests…. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/therealbenguest Ben Guest

    It’s as easy as “nofollow”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wendy.piersall Wendy Bauer Piersall

    Have to wonder – are they also going to punish the sites that posted the advertorials for Google? If they do, it will be a huge breech of business ethics. If they don’t, it will be the height of their hypocrisy in action. They can’t win either way – kind of like it is for the rest of us.

  • http://blog.michaelmichelini.com Michael Michelini

    Google wishes it had more social data. this is why they’re forcing us all to use Google+ …. they dont want to be paying for or dependant on Facebook and Twitter social data.

  • newyorker_1

    Chrome didn’t rank well for searches on “Chrome” for two months….Is this a penalty? Two months? Anyone hit by Panda or Penguin or for selling links knows that you cannot recover in two months. If you recover in a year or ever, you are lucky…This is an illusion of penalty, a joke…

  • Unbound Marketing

    You mean like monitoring everything you see and do and driving your car for you?

  • Unbound Marketing

    Getting a temporary penalty from Google is a great bit of natural link bait.

  • Deboti Chowdhury

    This is a very unfortunate situation. If I am happy with a particular brand’s performance, I should have the right to share my experience without being penalized by Google.

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    Nice job on this @dannysullivan:disqus . Way to keep up the pressure and it’s great to have an advocate in the marketers’ corner that Google actually pays attention to and responds to. We honestly don’t do outreach anymore and have eliminated any risk of backlinking from our clients’ strategies – focusing more on paid relevant advertising and building far more remarkable content like infographics and interactive tools for our clients. My personal belief is that Google is really just wanting to bury the search industry so people have no option but to pay for Adwords when they can’t get ranked.

  • http://twitter.com/TheModernSEO TheModernSEO

    Although Google do tend to be more flexible with its rules for its own purposes, I’m not sure that these two sites show wide-spread ignorance to their own rules. Also there is no way to prove that Google themselves have bought or even asked for these links. Could it be that Ben Johnson (Edutoipia) has just decided that Google Hangout was such fun he wanted to put a link into his post so everyone could go and have the same experience he did. Afterall when someone asks “Where did you buy your new laptop?” its commonplace to tell them the store – a verbal link if you will. We weren’t paid by the store, we just want to give our friends the opportunity to have the same experience we did.

  • http://www.phplinkdirectory.com David DuVal

    And Google is totally missing hacked pagerank as well. Sites like Creative Commons and Columbia University had hidden links on their site. I would love to see this story get some traction. http://www.v7n.com/forums/web-directory-issues/332381-directory-network-gaming-page-rank.html

  • spongeblog

    It’s like when you would search for hail and locust on google and an ad would come up about buying hail and locust on ebay

  • FlyingSq

    How about *you* stop scamming your viewers instead of blaming google. Google penalizing this behavior is the right thing to do. Good for Google.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Trav-Lee/883885219 Trav Lee

    The article would be much better written if included a definition of what advertorials are in the first paragraph. The assumption that people know what advertorials is a poor one.

  • newyorker_1

    I am not blaming Google. I think they should do it. I just say that being penalized for 2 months is a joke, not a penalty.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=520503461 Josh Kruk

    Is what Outbrain does considered an “advertorial”?

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