• http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Great points all Chris and thanks for all the research and time that went into this post.

    On the flip side I wanted I wanted to mention to SMBs that using an 800 number OR a tracking number on your web site and your local number on your Place page can also cause a disconnect with Google and hurt your rankings. Truly local companies generally don’t need an 800 # but some marketing companies will put an 800 or tracking number on the web site, so they can prove to clients where their traffic is coming from. Just remember, when it comes to Google Places, data integrity and consistency is key.

    Back when I was 1st reverse-engineering the new local algo that started Oct 27th, I was trying to determine why some sites were missing from the top of page 1 in the new merged listings, that were high ranking and SHOULD have been there. One of the most common reasons organically high ranking sites are skipped over and don’t rank in the new merged algo, is due to the site having an 800 or tracking number that differs from the phone number on their Place page.

    Hope that wasn’t too off topic, but it was slightly related and I’ve run into lots of business owners that didn’t realize having a different number on their web site could potentially hurt their local rankings.

  • http://corp.lawgical.com Trent Carlyle

    This is a great comprehensive article on call tracking for local. Our conclusions have been that any location that is already indexed or listed on IYP type sites, etc should be off-limits when it comes to applying a tracking number. However, if its a brand new listing – NAP info does not currently exist – then you should be fine.

    Ultimately, you may lose the ability to give accurate performance reporting as the NAP data gets picked up by other sources. Unless, as an SEM you are just trying to propagate your clients listing data to as many places as possible and get credit for that.

    If you are doing call-recording with these numbers, there is certainly an application for customer service and quality control, etc.. but thats another topic. :)

    Great, comprehensive post. Thanks!

  • http://www.seoverflow.com Mike Belasco

    Chris,
    Do you know of any sites getting banned by Google for cloaking call tracking numbers only? We published this solution a while back and it has worked well for those who have implemented it. http://www.seoverflow.com/call-tracking/roll-your-own-phone-call-tracking-program-it-is-easy/ We have not heard of anyone getting banned. While I agree if you take the Webmaster Guidelines literally this does qualify as cloaking, however there are many other instances on the web of ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ cloaking which seem equally as benign.

    We certainly would never recommend call tracking numbers in local profiles at the moment

    Cheers!
    Mike Belasco

  • http://www.GreatLegalMarketing.co.uk Boyd Butler

    Chris, I just wanted to thank you from the UK because this article is excellently written and very informative.

    It is such a shame that Google and call metric companies can’t work together on this. It seems Google would benefit as would call metric companies through understanding the online (clicks) and offline (calls) driven by Places listings.

    Perhaps the click to call product that Google will introduce (I’m assuming) will be the trump card on this one. You could add it to your Google boost package?!

  • http://www.buildasign.com/ jeffpnovak

    Chris, I’m unsure about what you mean by:

    “Avoid call tracking numbers for your website and for any online directories or online yellow pages which are being actively indexed by Google and other local search engines. ”

    Don’t dynamic call tracking phone numbers on your website, even your homepage, utilize javascript to be displayed? Wouldn’t that javascript be excluded from indexing?

    You could also use a static local phone number using the proper microformatting in your footer or somewhere lower on the page to help with SEO rankings?

    That way you’d have your highly visible javascript based dynamic number for call tracking back to your campaign sources, and your static local phone number for SEO rank?

    Thanks for the post!

  • http://www.mongoosemetrics.com Bradley Reynolds

    Chris,

    Thanks for the article. I agree that call tracking for local SEO is a major concern. I think the solution turns on whether the search engines feel that it is important enough to dedicate development time.

    We would love to work with the search engines to implement some method to allow them to distinguish a tracking number from the canonical business number. To accomplish this, we need to have a two-way dialog between call tracking vendors and the engines. I am open to any solution that works for all parties and we are quite flexible.

    Perhaps you could serve as a mediating point to start this conversation moving by coordinating relevant parties from the engines and some call tracking vendors? We have tried to reach out on the topic but have not had success. Let me know if we can be of any assistance in moving towards a solution, we are here to help.

    Bradley Reynolds
    CEO
    Mongoose Metrics

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Linda – good point about toll-free 800 numbers. I think for those companies who have them, it would be ideal for them to list both the local number and the tollfree number, where possible.

    Even better if Google Places allowed one to choose whether to display the 800 number for people outside of the area, and the local number for those browsing locally.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Trent, your approach isn’t a bad theory, although I’d caution that one risks losing some longevity of the listing if you later choose to discontinue the tracking number and the only number indexed by Google is the tracking number. I also don’t see how one could use separate numbers for multiple organic channels and avoid getting multiple numbers indexed by Google.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Mike, I’m not at all sure that “we haven’t been penalized yet” is a good thing to depend upon. Unless I skimmed too fast, your code appears to alter Google Analytics, which I think could go against their terms and conditions which disallow modifications of their code.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    jeff, you need to go back and read in the article the link where Matt Cutts commented on how NOT to hide text. Google can and does read Javascript. They most especially are interested in anything which is intended to display different content for search engines than for users.

    Bradley, I’d certainly be willing to assist as a mediator in resolving the issue, and helping drive towards either clarity or a solution.

  • http://www.ngenius.com/blog NMI

    regarding, “Matt Cutts commented on how NOT to hide text”
    It’s hard to believe that showing a call tracking # to users via javascript really equates to the same kind of deceptive cloaking Matt was describing, but I understand that Google can’t magically determine intent. Would displaying the # as an image accomplish the same purpose without raising red flags for Google?

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    NMI, actually this is the very sort of thing they wouldn’t be big on, I think. They’re specifically looking for text that’s intended to be different for search engines than for endusers, and text that’s intended to manipulate search engines in some way. If a consumer searches by phone number, and they matched up the page based on hidden text, if the consumer can’t then find the text on the page, it’s a confusing result to them.

    So, this might not be interpreted as being purely benign.

    Regarding embedding the number in an image, it’s not a perfect solution either. As noted in the article, Google can and does interpret text in images sometimes, and they’re only likely to expand that functionality. For an enduser, if they try to copy and past the number from that image, it won’t be text they can copy. For mobile users, that image number won’t be interpretable for click-to-call functionality on the phones, making for a poor user experience.

  • http://centuryinteractive.com reidwakefield

    If a site was rigged to suppress a div tag for non-human visitors or generate dummy contact information for a crawling bot, then you could make an argument that SEO rankings might be affected. I can’t imagine any reputable call tracking provider using that approach, though. Most implementations retain the primary business phone number in the loaded source code. If certain criteria is met (a UTM tagged session, a recognized visitor, a particular referring source), then the primary business phone number gets swapped out for another line. A search engine crawler would see the primary business phone number, just like any other visitor who didn’t happen to trigger the dynamic tracking piece.

    According to the definition you’ve used to condemn call tracking, just about every site in the world is guilty of cloaking. When I visit SuperPages.com (a relevant example for you), the home page makes several references to Dallas, my detected location. That content is different from what the Google spiders would see, but no reasonable person would try to spin this as cloaking. It’s white hat IP Delivery that has no negative impact on the visitor experience. How is this different from a proper implementation of dynamic call tracking on a company’s website?

  • http://centuryinteractive.com reidwakefield

    Sorry, I thought my profile would be attached. Disclosure: I’m a programmer for Century Interactive, a call tracking company that has been doing dynamic number swapping since 2006.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    reidwakefield, I haven’t worked for Superpages for a number of years, so I will not speak for functionality that may have been implemented since I was there.

    However, what you’re describing is targeting content based on user IP addresses, I believe, which is an accepted practice by Google. See Maile Ohye’s explanation of how sites can deliver content conditionally, so long as it is not attempting to treat search bots differently:

    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/06/how-google-defines-ip-delivery.html

    So, Google very clearly has defined content geotargeting for users’ location as acceptable, while it’s not acceptable to try to show them something different from what endusers are likely to see on the webpage. Until or unless Google makes tracking phone numbers an exception case, I don’t know how much more clearly it can be defined.

  • http://centuryinteractive.com reidwakefield

    So the only time it’s acceptable for a website to show different content to different users is when the site is geotargeting based on the user’s location? If searchengineland.com recognizes me as a logged in user and adds “HI REIDWAKEFIELD” to the top of the page, then that fails your definition of cloaking. What I see as an enduser is different than what the search bot would see, so this could only be justified if a Google blogger specifically published an exception case for saying hello to existing users. I hope we all agree that this is an absurd supposition.

    If you talked to a call tracking company whose output treats spiders differently than regular visitors, then there might be a case for a cloaking accusation for that particular approach. But you’ve grossly misunderstood what the knowledgeable companies are doing. We’re not “serving a different file” (to quote Ohye from your link); we’re simply filling a consistent container with different dynamic information for different types of users who fit different profiles.

    “I don’t know how much more clearly it can be defined” – to help me better understand your position, can you give me the specific definition of cloaking that a proper implementation of call tracking fails?

    - Reid

  • http://www.davidmihm.com David Mihm

    Chris,

    Obviously I am very late to the game on this column, but great job (as usual). #1 I never advise clients to use call-tracking #’s on their websites under any circumstances. But I understand the desire of marketers to use them.

    Although I am less concerned than you are that Google would ban or penalize sites who are obfuscating #’s using images, wouldn’t a way around that be to display the actual number in HTML text (a user would still be able to get through on that line) so if someone came to the site with javascript disabled, or on their mobile phone, or whatever? From a user-/customer-experience standpoint it seems like as long as the # rings directly to the business, what is the harm? Matt is always talking about the intent of cloaking & this seems fairly harmless on that score.

    Also, do you feel that Google’s stance on this is any conflict of interest related to their OWN call tracking products (which will likely be an opt-in for Place Page owners in the near future, given the success they’ve had with click-to-call on mobile devices)??

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Reid – Serving custom content to registered/logged-in users is not considered cloaking, and is not what we’re talking about here. Google’s definitions of what they don’t want is delivery that’s conditional based on rules intended to target different content to the search bots than to human users. The bot should receive the exact same thing as a non-logged-in human user landing on the page. If you’ve got a problem with that, you’ll want to take it up with Google — I’m merely trying to point out that some of the call tracking code in use appears to be running counter to the rules they’ve published.

    I suggest you’ll want to familiarize yourself fully with Google’s Webmaster guidelines to understand the definitions fully.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Hi David -
    I understand some of the call tracking solutions do have the main phone in HTML, but may have it tagged so it becomes changed or replaced with the Javascript. So, I think they’re doing what you’re describing in some case. The issue is if they’re not obfuscating it based on the useragent string, and it’s still not ideal for SEO even if it’s not penalized because Google can process the Javascript and use the tracking number instead of the main phone. So, either it’s potentially going to be flagged as hiding text and penalized, or it’s still not going to be effective at canonicalizing perfectly for citational value.

    As for the intent, I think you have a point that the result to the enduser isn’t totally bad. However, there are reasons why it’s not ideal from Google’s perspective, such as the number may be temporary and if stored by the user could go defunct a short time later, and if users search by phone number, they wouldn’t then find a listing on the page that matched their search.

    Quite a few of the Googler’s statements about the intent of the cloaking centers around whether it has been implemented with the intent of giving different content to the search engine than to users. This is where I think this practice is highly risky, because it’s doing exactly that. If Google makes an exception case for phone numbers, it’d be great if they’d officially let us know. However, they’ve communicated a few different times and in a few different ways that they don’t want the tracking numbers, or they feel that tracking numbers are not the best local number for endusers. So… there are consistent and significant reasons to consider cloaking of tracking numbers to be a very, very bad idea.

    I think you have a point about their own product plans possibly impacting how they will approach this.

  • http://centuryinteractive.com reidwakefield

    I’m very familiar with the webmaster guidelines and expect that you are as well. That’s why I’m so surprised by your wild mis-classification of dynamic call tracking. Even in this most recent response to David Mihm, you’re still describing a cloaking operation.

    At least you’re finally backpedaling by saying that “some of the call tracking code in use appears to be running counter to the rules” – that language is certainly a lot softer than what you used in the article. I understand the purpose of writing inflammatory pieces (this is comment #20!), but it seems irresponsible to falsely accuse a valued (and harmless) service of being “poisonous” and “like a doctor who says he’s okay with electrocuting his patient.” You’ve provided tremendous knowledge to the SEO community over a long period of time, and your opinions carry well-deserved weight. I hope you’ll gain a broader understanding of true dynamic call tracking before making any further sweeping statements. Posts like this one create unnecessary confusion for the tens of thousands of clients and SEO professionals who have enjoyed great value from dynamic call tracking for years.

    - Reid

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Reid, I had suggested you familiarize yourself with the webmaster guidelines because you’d tried to compare the disallowed hiding of text from bots with Javascript with the accepted practice of geotargeting by IP address location — something that those familiar with the guidelines generally wouldn’t do.

    I’m not back-pedaling whatsoever, and I don’t believe I misclassified anything.

    I quite carefully qualified in the article by saying that “a few different well-known call tracking companies” appeared to be using practices specifically against Google’s webmaster guidelines.

    I’ve used strong language in characterizing both the pushing of an analytic solution that could impair local search rankings as well as potentially getting webpages penalized because I think a number of people in the call tracking industry appear to be unaware or in denial of the implications. The technology some of these companies are using appears quite naive to me, vis-a-vis Google’s guidelines.

    There’s a high risk Google will interpret this as undesirable hidden text because people are specifically trying to show something different to Googlebot than to humans, and are doing so for ranking purposes. Google might or might not deem this to be benign — but, their written guidelines and statements appear to be in alignment against using differentiated numbers as well as against hiding text on pages.

    If they don’t consider it bad behavior, it still appears rather pointless to do it, because their algos are sophisticated enough to understand the javascript used, and they’d index the generated text that results instead of something located on hidden div tags. They’ve also said that image replacement can be fine when used for style, but the text in the image needs to replicate the HTML text that’s being replaced.

    While this piece may be inflammatory, and I can appreciate that it’s undesirable attention for call-tracking companies, my goal is centered upon pushing for greater clarification and/or a solution to the dilemma. It has appeared to me that without properly outlining and highlighting the issues, people are working at opposite ends with insufficient motivation to resolve the issue. And, obviously, there are a number of people who absolutely were unaware that doing this could be very, very risky.

  • http://www.seo.com claye

    I’d love to see Google & Bing’s Webmaster teams cover this topic and give guidelines for how “the little guy” can use phone call tracking numbers safely.

    Wanted to weigh in with my experience and thoughts on the matter – not long ago, I was working in a full service ad agency setting with a lot of local SMB clients. We discussed the pros and cons of using local phone call tracking numbers on the web, and the decision was made that until we saw negative effects from search engines, the information we gathered from the tracking numbers was too valuable to pass up on. Information that would give us clear metrics to aid in decision making about their marketing budget and the effectiveness of their various on- and off-line campaigns. Metrics like correlating a clear Cost Per Call and ROI to organic & paid keywords, referrers, and other web sources. Pretty valuable information!

    We used a combination of standard tracking numbers and “dynamic” numbers for our local clients, depending costs and budget – so far, those websites are performing very well in SERPs, Maps, etc., and haven’t seen any penalization or loss of rankings. The dynamic number btw work exactly like Reid’s description, having a ‘base’ number that is changed by JavaScript to unique users. Maybe that’s a credit to Google’s ability to adapt and understand tracking numbers, but I suspect it’s more like a heavy dose of good fortune.

    “So far” being key – use at your own risk and evaluate the pros and cons for yourself. Does the increased visibility of the effectiveness of your ad spend outweigh the risk of hurting your rankings in local search?

    Now that I’m back in the SEO agency setting, I would NOT feel comfortable recommending any form of phone call tracking my local clients – yet. Not until the major search engines come up with a “canonical-like” tag for phone numbers or implement one of your suggestions above… all of which I love by the way, let’s just pick one already and let local businesses start accurately tracking the effectiveness of their (limited!) advertising spend.

    Now if you’re a global, lead-gen, or e-commerce website, I HIGHLY recommend using phone call tracking.

    Also, I remember seeing Mike’s seoverflow article when they published it, on creating your own phone tracking system – I haven’t put it in practice but it’s really incredible, and incredibly cheap.

  • http://centuryinteractive.com reidwakefield

    Claye: I agree on the need for a robots.txt type of index function that could map a universe of owned phone numbers for a site. As Bradley mentioned earlier, the providers are waiting on something to emerge. Chris Silver Smith deserves great credit for leading this charge.

    CSS: I’m sure everyone (including you and me) is tired of our back-and-forth, but I’m frustrated that you’re still trying to group all dynamic call tracking products into the “hiding of text from bots” camp. I agree that this approach would be risky.

    You acknowledge that your familiarity is limited to a small handful of call tracking providers who might be using questionable methods, yet you choose to stand by your statement that ALL websites should reject ALL forms of call tracking? I assume advertisers will harbor a certain level of suspicion about SEO professionals who are so passionately opposed to the truest form of performance metrics available. I hope future readers of this article will as well.

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    Reid – Kudos for bringing the conversation back to main talking points.

    For organic sites, I don’t believe tracking numbers are good for local SEO as things currently stand. I think it’s fine to use for landing pages if one has taken care to keep them separate from main website pages and use something like robots.txt disallows for them.

    I believe I agree with part of what you’re saying — I’m aware that some call tracking products use dynamic number replacement for reasons other than intending to hide from bots. For instance, if you had a PPC ad campaign and clickthroughs carried a tracking ID in the URL or referrer, or if you cookied everyone coming to a subdirectory and redirected them — and you did this so that all the numbers on a website would reflect a tracking phone number specific to your campaign or referrer source.

    If such a campaign is implemented to keep Google from crawling/indexing those pages for organic/local search, there’s no issue.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe care is being taken to insure that tracking numbers and dynamic replacement code are properly segregated from organic search spidering. I have yet to hear of a dynamic number replacement method that wouldn’t risk being assessed by Google to be an attempt to show different content to them vs humans. For local search, Google has clearly signaled that alternate phone numbers are contraindicated. Dynamic replacement can either be assessed by them as undesirable hiding of text, or they interpret the code and use the tracking numbers instead of the primary phone — either way is bad for search optimization.

    I can’t see an upside for organic, until or if Google chooses to provide further clarification.

    My agency uses tracking numbers for paid search. I would like to have more analytics capability available for local websites. As I described, my logic boils down to: performance trumps analytics, if you’re confronted with an either-or situation.

  • http://www.centuryinteractive.com stevecravens

    While I’m just a sales guy with only a cursory understanding of SEO and am biased on the side of call tracking, I can’t ignore one particular assertion by Chris, which discredits his premise in my opinion.

    His stance is based on a belief that advertisers who dynamically generate phone numbers “are doing so for ranking purposes.” This is a generalization and indicates a stubborn case of myopia.

    Businesses who use dynamic numbers on their website do so to understand what referring sources and keywords are generating phone calls, not to falsify a local presence. I’m weighing in on intent, and I know that these businesses are *not* creating a ghost presence in a local area, as Chris asserts.

    I’m sorry Chris, but the picture you paint of having a moral authority is dubious, and I don’t accept your premise.

  • http://www.seoverflow.com Mike Belasco

    Hey Chris,
    For the record out code absolutely does not modify Google Analytics. It reads from the GA cookie.

    Cheers!
    Mike

  • http://silvery.com Chris Silver Smith

    stevecravens, I do understand that people may be using dynamic number replacement for reasons other than to fool search engines — for instance, when trying to track website referral conversions from various sources.

    I wasn’t trying to beat up those website owners. However, I had heard a number major call tracking companies telling their clients that “SEO is no longer a concern with our solution”, and that this satisfied the concerns about loss of citation values. So, if there’s any moral outrage on my part, it was on behalf of small businesses who may’ve gotten some bad information.

    However, I don’t believe phone call analytics companies were purposefully deceiving anyone — I think their intention was to clarify/canonicalize info for Googlebot, and they assume that since their intention is basically good that this wouldn’t be considered a bad practice.

    Unfortunately, it’s algorithms that are going to make the assessment, and the methods used are likely to be either ineffectual or considered to be hiding text. So, I wasn’t trying to represent myself as a “moral authority”, although I express some of my disappointment at the companies which instituted such solutions without taking care to understand Google’s guidelines, SEO, or first obtaining confirmation from Google that doing this should be considered an exception case.

    An algorithm can’t really detect motivation. From a Google-oriented perspective, as things currently stand, I think you need to take measures to insure landing pages with dynamic call tracking numbers aren’t going to be spidered, or else use server-side scripting to replace the numbers completely. Handling the number clearly like that will remove any chance that it could be deemed to be a cloaking attempt while still allowing the tracking. Unfortunately that also kills the effectiveness for Local SEO purposes.

  • Eraz

    With VOIP service providers being the goto for many small businesses…will these VOIP phone numbers (some local and some 800) be considered call tracking numbers?

    Does a small business owner have to use the “Phone Company” instead of the VOIP companies out there?

    Is Google reading the location of where the VOIP number is originating or the area code?

    I have two locations, one in Socal and one in Norcal and I use a local number for each and have one main 800 that accepts all calls.

    This is a new business so their isn’t any existing NAP data for the numbers to conflict with.

  • http://www.seoverflow.com Mike Belasco

    Just asked Vanessa Fox about this, see her reply on our blog… http://www.seoverflow.com/call-tracking/call-tracking-is-not-cloaking-vanessa-fox-confirms/. In a nutshell she said number replacement for call tracking based on a cookie is not cloaking.