Kashmir Hill writes for Gizmodo about the time when she worked for Forbes and published an article about the influence of Google Plus sharing buttons — remember Google Plus? — on search rankings:
Google promptly flipped out. This was in 2011, around the same time that a congressional antitrust committee was looking into whether the company was abusing its powers.
Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting. Instead, a Google spokesperson told me that I needed to unpublish the story because the meeting had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes. (I had signed no such agreement, hadn’t been told the meeting was confidential, and had identified myself as a journalist.)
It escalated quickly from there. I was told by my higher-ups at Forbes that Google representatives called them saying that the article was problematic and had to come down. The implication was that it might have consequences for Forbes, a troubling possibility given how much traffic came through Google searches and Google News.
Hill includes an email at the end of this post from a Google vice president reiterating their understanding that what was said during that meeting was protected by a non-disclosure agreement, and that there was a miscommunication between Hill and the Forbes staff about that.
Even so, Google’s heavy influence on the continued financial viability of many online publishers allows them to exert a soft but definitive influence. It doesn’t really matter whether that power was communicated by Google or was simply a fear of Forbes’ management — the fear itself of losing traffic from Google properties or having advertising income withheld is enough to cause worry.