What’s going on?
The Polish blog Magiczne SEO i SEM noticed yesterday that the snippet for the Google Adwords help page in the search results seemed a little unusual. (You can read the English version via Google Translate.) Looking closer, the cache didn’t seem to match the page the visitor sees. We at Search Engine Land then took a look and found that accessing the page with the Googlebot user agent brought up substantially different content, particularly sections with headings marked as “hidden”.
We asked Google about this, and a spokesperson told us:
“I can confirm that some Google support pages were inadvertently showing different content to the Google crawler than to users. This error has since been fixed. We will investigate how this happened and make sure that we take appropriate action.”
And it seems they have.
Google is the first to point out that those working on Google products don’t have any special knowledge of search just because they work at a company whose primary product is a search engine. The recent SEO report card they issued on Google products illustrates this well. And Google products have been found to be violating the webmaster guidelines before (and have had action taken against them).
In fact, the Google support pages were banned back in 2005 for cloaking. (In this case, it was due to a misconfiguration of the Google Search Appliance, which could very well be the problem again.) In early 2009, Google Japan was found to be buying links for PageRank, and action was taken in this case as well.
In this case, Google’s action was quick. They responded as soon as they were alerted to it. What can we learn from this? Don’t show search engines different content than you show users, even if you have good technical reasons for it. Check that your internal infrastructure (such as the Google Search Appliance) isn’t misconfigured to serve different content to search engines. And don’t necessarily look to Google products as the shining examples of what to do for SEO. Just because those teams work at Google, doesn’t mean they’re search experts.
Postscript by Barry Schwartz: It seems like this goes well beyond just the AdWords Help area, it seems like this is how Google’s help sections work site wide.
Postscript 2: See our follow-up piece, Why Google Should Ban Its Own Help Pages — But Also Shouldn’t.