updated 2/13/2004 2:03:48 PM ET 2004-02-13T19:03:48

Online search engine leader Google has banned the ads of an environmental group protesting a major cruise line’s sewage treatment methods, casting a spotlight on the policies — and power — of the popular Web site’s lucrative marketing program.

Oceana, a 2½-year-old nonprofit group, said Google dropped the text-based ads displayed in shaded boxes along the right side of its Web page because they were critical of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Washington D.C.-based Oceana believes Royal Caribbean pollutes the oceans by improperly treating the sewage on its ships. It hoped to publicize its complaints by paying to have its ads appear when terms like “cruise vacation” and “cruise ship” were entered into Google’s search engine.

The ad, which said “Help us protect the world’s oceans,” appeared for two days last week before Google pulled it from its page.

When Oceana challenged the ban, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google responded with an e-mail advising the group that it doesn’t accept ads with “language that advocates against Royal Caribbean.”

Oceana’s ad didn’t mention Royal Caribbean directly, but the link directed Google visitors to a Web page critical of the Miami-based cruise line.

Decision raises questions
The decision stunned Oceana because it reeked of censorship and favoritism, said Andrew Sharpless, the group’s chief executive.

“We were surprised because the answer they gave certainly raises the question whether they got a phone call from Royal Caribbean,” Sharpless said Thursday. “We can’t prove that, but it certainly smells that way.”

Both Google and Royal Caribbean denied there was any pressure applied to remove the Oceana ad.

Google’s policy prohibits ads criticizing other groups or companies, said spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey. “We do reserve the right to exercise editorial discretion when it comes to the advertising we accept on our site,” she said.

Google’s ad policies don’t affect the noncommercial results that the search engine delivers using a closely guarded formula.

Oceana’s ad probably would be accepted by Yahoo!, which operates a similar online marketing program through its Overture subsidiary. Overture accepts critical ads, as long as they aren’t obscene or libelous, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens. “We see it as a freedom of speech issue,” she said.

Ads raise money, problems
The ads have become a big moneymaker for Google, providing the company with hundreds of millions of dollars to expand its operations and technology.

As a privately held company, Google doesn’t disclose its financial results, but its revenue last year is believed to have ranged between $700 million and $1 billion. The company is expected to go public later this year.

Google’s ad rates have been steadily rising as advertisers have discovered the value of having their Web links prominently displayed under search terms related to their businesses.

The marketing program, which Google calls “AdWords,” also has caused headaches for the company.

American Blind and Wallpaper Factory recently filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Google because the search engine allows rival merchants to display their ads alongside the terms “American wallpaper” and “American blind.”

Google also has come under fire for displaying ads from unlicensed pharmacies that sell painkillers. Google hopes to have a system in place to block the unlicensed pharmacy ads in the near future, McCaffrey said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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