Google doesn’t like paid links, sponsored posts and low-quality content. 

So it was quite surprising, and embarrassing, to learn this week that Google was associated with all three in an apparent effort to promote its web browser, Chrome.

That left Google with little ability but to respond and explain itself. And yesterday it did just that.

“Google never agreed to anything more than online ads, it explained in a statement to The Verve.

Despite the fact that, as I and others suspected, Google fell victim to a rogue marketing firm – it found itself in an awkward position.

After all, it has penalised companies for black hat tactics, even when it became clear that those black hat tactics were employed without permission by a third party.

Would Google penalise itself? That seemed unlikely, at least to me. But Google, perhaps realising that government eyes are increasingly watching it, decided to do the unthinkable.

In a post on Google+, Google’s Matt Cutts announced that Google’s Chrome page will be “demoted”:

Even though the intent of the campaign was to get people to watch videos–not link to Google–and even though we only found a single sponsored post that actually linked to Google’s Chrome page and passed PageRank, that’s still a violation of our quality guidelines, which you can find at http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=35769#3 .

In response, the webspam team has taken manual action to demote www.google.com/chrome for at least 60 days. After that, someone on the Chrome side can submit a reconsideration request documenting their clean-up just like any other company would. During the 60 days, the PageRank of www.google.com/chrome will also be lowered to reflect the fact that we also won’t trust outgoing links from that page.

Needless to say, this seems like a pleasant surprise. But just how satisfying is it really?

On one hand, nobody can complain about Google treating itself as it treats others. That’s fair. On the other hand, however, this doesn’t really address the broader concern many companies have (or should have) about marketing partners (or evil competitors) causing them great harm.

Yes, companies need to know what their SEOs are doing, but if Google can fall victim to something like this, any company can.

At the end of the day, for Google to succeed in addressing the issue of paid links, sponsored posts and low-quality content, it will have to improve its algorithm and detect the ‘bad stuff‘ before it has an undeserved positive impact in the SERPs. Until then, penalties will provide little more than immediate, short-lived and sometimes ironic gratification.

For more on what we can learn from this, see this excellent post by Rishi Lakhani