Google downgrades Chrome ranking after paid-link monkey business

Slaps own browser with 60-day penalty, buries download page in search results

Google penalized its own browser's search rankings Tuesday over a marketing campaign that went bad, the company confirmed.

"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," a Google spokesman said yesterday in an email.

The decision to demote Chrome's PageRank -- the rating Google assigns to sites based on how many other sites link to them -- came after bloggers Aaron Wall of SEO Book and Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand revealed a marketing campaign that paid other bloggers to create generic posts which linked to a video touting Chrome to small businesses.

The problem, said Wall and Sullivan, was that Google's own rules prohibit paying for links.

In at least one case, said Sullivan Monday, a link in a paid-for blog led directly to Chrome's download site. That particular blog post has since been taken down.

Google has been hard on others who have violated its no-paid-link rule. Last February, for instance, it buried results for JC Penny after it decided the retailer had scammed the system.

On Monday, Sullivan noted Google's efforts to quash the practice of raising sites' PageRank through paid links, and wondered whether Google would do for the goose what it had done to the gander.

Apparently, yes.

"We strive to enforce Google's webmaster guidelines consistently in order to provide better search results for users," said the Google spokesman Tuesday. "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."

Computerworld has confirmed that a search for "browser" no longer shows Chrome as the second item on the first page of results -- as it was prior to the demotion, said Sullivan -- but instead has dropped the Chrome download page to the sixth item on the fifth page.

Mozilla's Firefox now leads the results of a search for "browser."

Searches for other combinations, including "google chrome" and "chrome" still show the browser as the top-most result, but the link is to a help page that describes how to install Chrome, not to the download site.

Matt Cutts, who heads the Google team responsible for monitoring possible shenanigans, weighed in Tuesday on Google+, saying that the Chrome download site's PageRank would "also be lowered to reflect the fact that we also won't trust outgoing links from that page."

On Wednesday, Chrome's download site PageRank was 0 -- the lowest possible score in the range 0-10 -- according to several tools.

Cutts said that after the penalty period, Chrome's download page could be returned to its search good graces. "Someone on the Chrome side can submit a reconsideration request documenting their cleanup just like any other company would," Cutts said.

It's unknown how the two-month penalty will affect Chrome's download, installation and usage numbers.

Chrome is on track to crack the 20% share mark this month or next, and will probably pass Firefox in March to become the second-most-used browser.

During 2011, Chrome grew its share by 8.8 points to 19.1%, representing an annual increase of 71%.

Google search results
Google demoted the Chrome download page search ranking, burying it on the fifth or even later results page.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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