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Awwwk-ward: Google Chrome pay-for-post promo misfires

An effort to get bloggers to plug Google's browser yields second-rate content and apparently at least one violation of Google's search-engine guidelines.

Google Chrome logo

A Google effort to promote its Chrome browser misfired with the appearance of some blog posts that fly in the face of Google's own attempts to discourage low-quality Web content.

The campaign, spotted yesterday by Aaron Wall at SEOBook, is apparent in several blog posts from late December bearing the label, "This post is sponsored by Google Chrome." But there appears to be some backtracking now that the campaign is under scrutiny, and Google itself is disclaiming responsibility while trying to prevent anything similar from happening again.

The theme of the posts is evident in their titles: "Google Chrome Helps Small Businesses Find Success Online," "Google Chrome Helping Small Business," "The Power of Google Chrome for Small Businesses." The posts appear to be a vehicle to promote a Google video about King Arthur Flour; the posts introduce the video with the words, "Google Chrome helped this small business in Vermont go global. What can Google Chrome do for your future?"

Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, a longtime Google watcher, pointed out that Mariah Humphries' paid post sported a hyperlink to Google's Chrome download page. Such links to a particular Web site can help it rise higher in Google search results through Google's PageRank algorithm, but paying people money to include such links violates Google guidelines. Those guidelines 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." The links are fine if they're labeled "nofollow," which means search-engine indexing robots won't pay attention to them.

But now on Humphries' blog post, the "Google Chrome" words no longer link anywhere, indicating that perhaps somebody realized the SEO (search engine optimization) bungle. In addition, the video--which Sullivan said had been hosted by Unruly Media--is now missing from that and other posts.

Google disclaimed any responsibility for the posts. "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," the company said in a statement.

In an e-mail to CNET, Unruly confirmed its involvement in the campaign, and shared this comment from Chief Executive Scott Button: "Unruly never requires bloggers to link to back to an advertiser's site. That's because we're in the business of video advertising not search engine marketing, so we couldn't care less about link juice. We don't ask for it, we don't pay for it, and we don't track it."

Unruly spokesman Michael Tive added, "As far as we are aware [only] one post contained a link that was not marked as 'nofollow'...this was an innocent mistake that has since been addressed and fixed."

In a similar situation in the past, Google punished itself. Google Japan hired a company called CyberBuzz that paid bloggers to post about Google features. After that came to light, Google penalized Google Japan itself in search-engine rankings.

Low-grade content
Even without the hyperlink to the Chrome download page, it's hard to see how the posts help Chrome's fortunes much. The browser is steadily increasing in popularity. But if you were thinking about changing browsers, would these Chrome-sponsored words convince you?

The Internet now offers a myriad ways by which we could save money. Just google the words "saving money" and you'll see so many resources that will help you save and even help you in your small business and earn money. Internet businesses are currently growing because the Internet allows them to cater to customers around the world. And all these for a minimal cost because they don't need to think to much about operating expenses because of all the free resources available for them on the Internet.

Or how about this?

Words can't begin to capture how much time and money the web has helped me save. As a busy marketing professional, I spend an inordinate amount of time online. The Web has helped enabled me to connect with people while offering and performing services that would never have been possible. Small businesses seeking to go to the next level know how important it is to be online...

Small businesses can further cultivate offline relationships online by demonstrating their expertise by creating and sharing content that is relevant to your audience. In addition, you have the ability to host giveaways, Twitter parties, etc. Regardless of your business size, the Web opens up a whole world of endless opportunities.

Sure, the Web is important. But what does this have to do with Chrome?

Of the sponsored posts I found, Tree Root and Twig was one of the few that came close to saying anything about the browser itself: "With apps and extensions for a number of business needs, and the powerful Google search engine to lead potential customers to your commercial site, Google Chrome can help today's small businesses enter the world of new and social media." Moomette's Magnificento plugged Chrome as "much more reliable."

Overall, the blog posts seem to me (and Sullivan) to be the sort of low-grade content that Google tried to cull from search results with its Panda algorithm change earlier this year.

Google described Panda as "designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites--sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other Web sites, or sites that are just not very useful."

Unruly has this perspective on the content: "We also believe that it's really important that bloggers, if they write any content in response to a campaign, write it by themselves, in their own tone of voice, and preferably that they write about the video content, not the brand or the product being promoted, so the nature and style of posts will vary considerably from blogger to blogger."

Part of the difficulty seems to be that the King Arthur Flour video is mostly about Google search, not Chrome. The bloggers didn't have much to work with, so it's no surprise that headlines overreached and prose was strained.

I'm all for mommy blogging and other self-publishing ventures. But concerning Google's goals, I'd be surprised if this pay-for-post campaign convinced anybody to use its browser.

Updated at 1:13 p.m. PT with comment from Google.

Update at 3:45 p.m. PT : SearchEngineLand is reporting that searches for "browser" have been pushed way down in its PageRank. In a statement sent to SearchEngineLand, Google reportedly said: "We've investigated and are taking manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome and lower the site's PageRank for a period of at least 60 days. We strive to enforce Google's webmaster guidelines consistently in order to provide better search results for users." Google did not immediately respond to CNET's request for confirmation of the statement.