What happens when a company accidentally ends up breaking its own ethics rules? Google is having to deal with that embarrassing situation right now, with the revelation that promotion for its Chrome web browser may have strayed outside of the company’s guidelines on paid links.
The situation seems to have arisen via miscommunication between Google and two agencies responsible for the promotion, Unruly Media and Essence Digital. As part of a promotional campaign for Google Chrome, some bloggers wrote “sponsored” (i.e., paid) blog posts about the browser and inserted links so that readers could download it for themselves — a clear no-no in Google’s own rulebook, and the sort of thing that has previously led to JC Penney, Forbes and Overstock.com being penalized with severely reduced search rankings.
According to a Google+ post by Essence, who acted as intermediary between Google and Unruly, this is all the result of miscommunication and in no way Google’s fault: “We want to be perfectly clear here,” the post explained. “Google never approved a sponsored-post campaign. They only agreed to buy online video ads. Google have consistently avoided paid postings to promote their products, because in their view these kind of promotions are not transparent or in the best interests of users… We apologize to Google who clearly didn’t authorize this.”
Unruly chief executive Scott Burton puts the blame on the bloggers themselves, saying that “A blogger, who we didn’t ask to link to a Google Chrome page, linked to a Google Chrome page, and did so without using the nofollow attribute [necessary to avoid Google penalization]. Obviously they shouldn’t do this in the context of a blog post that embeds one of our sponsored videos.”
Nonetheless, the rules were broken on Google’s dime and the company has announced that it will “lower [google.com/chrome]’s PageRank for a period of at least 60 days”. By yesterday evening, Google’s Chrome site had dropped from 5th to 58th result on Google for “internet browser,” and from 4th to 54th for “web browser,” with results seemingly falling farther as time goes on.
The site doesn’t even appear on the first page in a Google search for “Google Chrome” — support pages, Google+ pages and other pages show up instead. According to an official statement about the decision sent to Search Engine Land, the company has actually been more strict with itself than it would be for outside agencies: “While Google did not authorize this campaign, and we can find no remaining violations of our webmaster guidelines, we believe Google should be held to a higher standard, so we have taken stricter action than we would against a typical site.”
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.