Thursday, January 05, 2012

Unruly Google and VPEC-T

Google has been hoist by its own petard: it seems obliged to ban its own browser from its own search engine for infringing its strict rules. Apparently the infringement resulted from some misbehaviour somewhere down the subcontract chain, unknown to Google itself or its prime subcontractor (which with fitting irony is called Unruly Media). A number of blogposts were created to promote Google Chrome, containing direct hotlinks to the Chrome download page. Google has recently penalized a number of other companies for such behaviour, including J C Penney, Forbes and Overstock. See also my 2006 post on BMW Search Requests.

A number of offending posts were discovered because they contained the magic words "This post was sponsored by Google", and the Google search engine dutifully delivered a list of webpages containing these words. (This kind of transparency was foreseen by Isaac Asimov in a story called "All the troubles of the world", in which the computer Multivac was unable to conceal its own self-destructive behaviour.)

As a number of search engine analysts have pointed out, there are two problems with the sponsored pages. Besides containing the offending links, they are also pretty thin in terms of content. (Google has recently developed a search filter code-named Panda, which is intended to demote such low-value content, but this filter is extremely costly in computing power and is apparently only run sporadically.) Many of these pages credit Google Chrome for having helped a company in Vermont over the past five years, despite the fact that Google Chrome hasn't been available for that long. None of them explain why Google Chrome might be better than other browsers.

So here we have an interesting interaction between the elements of VPEC-T.

Value How is commercial sponsorship reconciled with high-value content? Does this incident expose a conflict of interest inside Google?
Policy How does Google apply its strict rules to itself?
Events How was this situation detected (with the aid of Google itself)? Will any future incidents be as easy to detect?
Content What is the net effect on the content, on which Google's market position depends?
Trust What kinds of trust have been eroded in this situation? How can trust be restored, and how long will it take?


Aaron Wall, Google caught buying paid links yet again (SEO Book 2 Jan 2012)

Danny Sullivan, Google’s Jaw-Dropping Sponsored Post Campaign For Chrome (SearchEngineLand 2 Jan 2012)

Charles Arthur, Will Google be forced to ban its own browser from its index? (Guardian 3 Jan 2012) Google shoves Chrome down search rankings after sponsored blog mixup (Guardian 4 Jan 2012)

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