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Summary:

Controversy over a Google marketing program for Chrome that involves spammy web content and the removal of an “offensive” Google+ avatar photo reinforce how hard it is for the search giant to run multiple businesses without tripping over itself and its own guidelines.

Updated: According to a number of reports, Google has been promoting its Chrome browser through a sponsored-post marketing campaign that appears to break — or at least bend — many of the search company’s own rules about “good” web content. The web giant has also come under fire recently for removing a Google+ avatar belonging to TechCrunch writer-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler, which was apparently judged to be offensive, even though similar content routinely appears in search results. As Google tries to move farther away from being just a search company, it continues to trip over its own feet.

The Chrome promotion, which was first highlighted by SEO Book, involves sponsored blog posts that link to the company’s browser download page and also include a video about Chrome’s supposed benefits for small businesses. As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land notes, the campaign is a great example of the kind of spammy, low-quality content that Google has repeatedly declared war on via tweaks to its algorithms — including the recent Panda update, which penalized sites such as the New York Times-owned About.com and “content farm” Demand Media for their mediocre content. As Sullivan puts it:

That’s perhaps the bigger problem with this campaign, much more disturbing to me. Google’s paying to produce a lot of garbage, the same type of garbage that its Panda Update was designed to penalize.

The company that Google contracted to run the campaign said the Chrome promotion is a fairly standard program, and that one sponsored post which included a link without the “no follow” tag — a key requirement made by Google so that sites don’t try to game its algorithm in order to achieve a higher Page Rank — was simply a mistake. But even so, the fact that the entire campaign seems intended to deliver spammy results from sites to boost Chrome’s profile makes it look like a perfect example of the kind of content that Google keeps penalizing everyone else for producing. So will Chrome be penalized in search results the way others have been?

Update: Google has told Search Engine Land that it will lower the PageRank of the Google Chrome page for at least 60 days as a result of the marketing campaign.

Does Google delete offensive content or not? That depends

In the MG Siegler incident, the TechCrunch blogger included a humorous profile picture on his Google+ account with his middle finger extended, and then wrote about how this avatar was removed by Google for breaching its rules. MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson argued that this was perfectly understandable, and that social networks need to make these kinds of judgements so that they don’t “turn into a cesspool… sorta like MySpace was,” but others — including author Jeff Jarvis — said Google was playing a dangerous game by excluding some forms of content, since this slippery slope could lead to concerns about its search results as well.

Those search results in turn could be part of the reason why Google is so concerned about Google+ content, as Danny Sullivan notes. Since pages — and avatars — from the social network are now showing up prominently in search, as Google integrates its new offering into all of its properties, the company is undoubtedly a lot more interested in controlling what kind of content appears. And yet, as Siegler pointed out, photos almost identical to the one he posted appear in Google’s search results all the time.

These two incidents may seem silly or inconsequential, and in many ways they are. After all, who cares whether MG Siegler has a photo of himself giving people the finger on his Google+ profile? And the Chrome campaign could just be a sloppy marketing program that was outsourced to the wrong company. But they both highlight for me how Google is trying to have its cake and eat it too: it wants to force other content producers to adhere to the purest standards, but apparently makes an exception when it comes to marketing its own products, and it seems to have one principle for content on its own social network and another for content in its search results.

The reality is that attempting to manage multiple lines of business that in some cases conflict with each other — like the world’s dominant search engine and a growing social network — is going to be an ongoing problem for the company, regardless of what happens in these two specific cases. If Google isn’t careful, they could even become part of a much bigger problem: namely, the antitrust investigation into the company’s behavior around search results and favoritism towards its own properties.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Woodley Wonder Works

  1. Once again our eyes are open to fact that many of the internet companies that we so adore and use everyday only have one thing in mind when it comes to fairness….Themselves…..
    At kleemi.com we are going to changes this….We will always put the “Community” first

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    1. Google Trust
      If Google will not take an action they will lose the trust of which the Google Panda designed to !

      Nonar

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  2. F’ing Hypocrites!

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  3. Nope. Not even close.

    First, it generally isn’t a great idea to start a serious conversation about censorship with an utterly trifling personal complaint.

    Second, if you park in a no parking zone, your car is going to get towed. Arguing that other people get away with it isn’t particularly compelling. Neither is complaining that you weren’t given a ticket or warning before getting towed, when you had clearly parked on a particularly busy street.

    Censorship is a serious issue for a lot of people. If given the choice between whether or not this “issue” highlights something about Google or about the media, I’d pick the latter.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Jack — but sometimes what seem like trifling personal complaints say more about what is going on than official statements, and I think Google is trying to walk a fine line in both of these cases that says something about where the company is going. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Let’s adjust your analogy. “I get towed when I park in the handicapped spot and it’s done in the name of fairness. But then I see the store manager parking in that same spot.” It’s not that they’re missing some examples, it’s that they’re seemingly trying to have it both ways – the community has to live by one ruleset, they live by another.

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      1. Mathew Ingram Tuesday, January 3, 2012

        Thanks, Rick — my point exactly.

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      2. Who is claiming that the store manager is parking in the same spot? I don’t see any mention of Google+ employees getting away with questionably offensive content despite evidence that complaints have been registered with Google.

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    3. I think the problem is that the circumstances are kind of trivial – what if what is considered a perfectly inoffensive gesture in America is really a very demeaning gesture in say Yugoslavia? What if another hypothetical culture considers the dirty finger is considered a sign of friendship? I know for a fact that in some cultures, the thumbs up is actually very offensive. Do they censor then?

      Anyways, if it’s prohibited to have something as innocuous as a dirty finger for a profile picture, it becomes less likely that the mainstream will adopt the service.

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    4. Jack – we’re not talking about the MG thing. At least I’m not. I’m talking about the use of spammy content to drive traffic to the Chrome page, a practice that google will penalize outsiders for. The good thing is that they penalized the Chrome page…

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      1. Ah, gotcha. We crossed wires on that one. My metaphor was aimed at the MG thing.

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  4. It’s truly amazing, or maybe not really, that both you and MG Siegler don’t seem to understand the difference between content that is hosted by Google and content that is displayed by Google. Google+ profiles are not analogous to search results. Search also has the SafeSearch filter capability, while G+ profile pictures do not. I don’t see any problems at all with Google’s actions in that situation.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Anthony — it’s not that I don’t understand the difference between the two, it’s that Google itself is blurring the line between the two, and that is going to cause all kinds of problems, of which this is just a small example.

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  5. Mathew, I think you are a little ahead of the pack. It takes time for others to catch up, but they will, the trajectory is headed there.

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  6. Isn’t having a double standard what “the creepy line” is all about. Are we playing tennis or football because touching the boundary in one sport results in a whistle being blown while in the other sport your still in-bounds? How can you hold Google to such a high standard when they’ve done such a great job at crushing Demand Media’s stock price? They are a business and if they can get away with a double-standard the only result is a doubling of their stock price. Your confusing “don’t be evil” with “love thy neighbor.” Google will re-draw the creepy line wherever they want and we’ll keep using their products because of so-called convenience.

    http://tradewithdave.com/?p=8976

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