Google Website Optimizer Now Available, But Is It Cloaking?

Google Website Optimizer, a tool that allows you to easily test different page layouts, is now available to anyone with an AdWords account. Previously, it had been out in limited beta since last October. It remains unclear whether using the tool would be considered cloaking, which is against Google’s webmaster guidelines. The Good Cloaking, Evil Cloaking & Detection article from Stephan Spencer here on Search Engine Land looked at this issue last month. Threadwatch has a recent discussion also going. I’ll explain more about the situation below, and I’m checking with Google for the official word.

Fair to say, Google’s probably going to say that using the tool is NOT cloaking. Otherwise, you’ve got one part of Google putting out a tool that will cause anyone using it to potentially be banned by another part of Google. This also means questions that have hung over other page testing tools such as Offermatica should go away.

It won’t make the cloaking debate necessarily easier, however. Consider the If Your Page Ranks Well, You’d Better Be Messing With It article from Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz last month. In it, Rand picks up on a challenge that Jamie Roche (CEO of Offermatica) makes to the traditional wisdom that if a page is ranking well, you don’t want to alter it much.

Rand argues the major factors controlling rank are mostly off-the-page (importance of your domain, links to your pages) and thus not impacted by change to the page itself. I’m largely with him. If a page is doing well, altering it really shouldn’t have that much of an impact, unless you’re doing something really drastic such as replacing all the text for images. And yet — I’d still be cautious, despite knowing that’s not likely something to fear.

This leads back to Roche’s article. Roche is clearly reacting to clients that are concerned that his product, Offermatica, might suggest changes that could cause them to lose rankings. So, there’s an element of self-interest in his writing. But I still find many of his points valid:

Unfortunately, even if you don’t mess with your page, your rank could change. That’s because the rules that the search engines use to rank sites change as they discover newer, and presumably better, ways to rank results. A page that ranked well one day might drop to the third or fourth page the next, or get removed altogether.

The result is that we live in a state of fear about changing well-ranked pages, while knowing that even if we don’t change them we could lose rank anyway.

So when we realize that we want to change our natural search landing pages because they don’t provide the best user experience, we wonder whether it might make sense to experiment with changes despite our fears.

He then also gets into three tactics, warning that potentially, they could get you delisted or cause a rank drop:

  • Test various pages, and keep showing spiders the original one during testing. Anyone not seeing what the spider sees is technically getting a cloaked page. Yes, as he notes, that’s what Google Website Optimizer does – so Google itself seems to be giving tacit approval to cloaking.
     
  • Change just some of the page. He seems to think this is a bigger risk. I think it’s minor. The main risk is that if you change some of the page using JavaScript, potentially that could be seen as cloaking. But that’s part of the page testing opt-out already covered above.
     
  • Target pages to second-time visitors. Search engines don’t read cookies. So if you cookie a first time visitor, you can then show them a different page when they return, even if they go to the same original URL. Search engines will continue to see the same page every time, since they won’t have a cookie.

Now here’s an even more complicated issue. Many who do good old-fashioned cloaking have long argued that it doesn’t matter how they get ranking, as long as they are relevant. So what if they use gibberish text or put out some highly-optimized textual content? As long as they show the visitor a relevant page, what’s the harm? Indeed, if you buy into the argument that what you do on the page largely doesn’t matter — that it’s really down to domain authority and links — then it becomes even harder to understand why cloaking is such an issue.

Moreover, what prevents someone from eternally testing a page? If you gain a ranking with some butt-ugly page, you might then keep feeding that to spiders but constantly test it with a page testing tool. Potentially, that keeps you out of the cloaking hot seat yet it does the same exact thing that cloaking does.

Overall, Google in particular has dodged its outdated guidelines on cloaking time-and-time again over the past few years. My YADAC: Yet Another Debate About Cloaking Happens Again article from last month provides the background here. They can’t keep dodging it in the case of page testing tools now, not when they themselves are offering one. So I’m pinging them for the official word.

As for the tool, here’s more from the formal announcement:

As part of our continued commitment to help advertisers make smart business decisions, we are happy to announce that the Google Website Optimizer™ application is now available to AdWords advertisers worldwide. Google Website Optimizer is designed to help website owners increase conversions such as sales, sign-ups or downloads. This multivariate landing page optimization tool enables marketers to test different ideas for web page content such as different headlines, promotional copy, or images. The application provides easy-to-read reports that enable advertisers to see which variation resonated best with their site visitor. It is a self-service application that enables website owners to set-up and run multivariate landing page experiments.

Google Website Optimizer is a beta application that is integrated with the Google AdWords™ program and free to AdWords advertisers. Advertisers can sign up immediately at www.google.com/websiteoptimizer. Over the coming weeks, the Google Website Optimizer application will become available automatically in all advertisers’ accounts. Website owners can now determine what content was most effective as indicated by the highest conversion rate.

By giving website owners the tools they need to improve their website content, Google is helping improve the user experience on the internet as a whole. Since the beta launch of the application in October 2006, many advertisers who used Google Website Optimizer have achieved major results.

"Using Website Optimizer enables us to approach our website like a living lab, where we can test and play and constantly figure out how to improve the site," says Deborah Krier, Marketing Manager, Dale and Thomas Popcorn, "Website Optimizer is a powerful tool that allows us to understand our users better, leading to increased conversions and increased business success."

In addition, we are announcing the formation of a new partner program, Google Website Optimizer Authorized Consultants. As of today, Optimost, EpikOne, Future Now, ROI Revolution, and SiteTuners.com have signed on as charter members.

“We’re delighted that Google is now offering Website Optimizer. In the past, not everyone had the tools to test regularly,” said Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder, Future Now, Inc. and author of the New York Times bestseller Call to Action, “Google Analytics had a major effect on the accessibility of data and on how website owners valued analytics; Website Optimizer will take the benefits of testing to a much broader audience and help them increase online conversion rates.”

For more information or to sign up to use Website Optimizer, please visit: www.google.com/websiteoptimizer

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Google: Website Optimizer | SEM Tools | SEO: Cloaking & Doorway Pages | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.grokdotcom.com/2007/04/03/grokcast-googles-tom-leung-on-the-google-website-optimizer/ Jeffrey Eisenberg

    It is not cloaking. You can hear from Tom Leung, the Google product manager himself in his interview with Bryan Eisenberg at http://www.grokdotcom.com/2007/04/03/grokcast-googles-tom-leung-on-the-google-website-optimizer/

  • http://www.traffick.com AndrewGoodman

    Call it cloaking or not, the system has enough flexibility in it that it makes certain deceptive tricks possible, to be sure. I’m not sure most of those tricks will rank you higher in search engines, however. Whatever got the “original page” to rank high *should* allow it to continue to rank high while you test new versions.

  • http://www.grokdotcom.com/googlewebsiteoptimizer/ Jeffrey Eisenberg

    Andrew, Tom Leung explains how it works in the interview. I’d be curious on how it might be gamed in the future. BTW, we’ve also published 7 Freebies to go along with Google Website Optimizer. You can get them here http://www.grokdotcom.com/googlewebsiteoptimizer/

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    So I listened to the first part where cloaking, if it was to come up, should have. Jeffrey, please tell me if it was beyond the first five minutes. That’s as far as I listened fully. I then skipped through the rest and feel fairly confident I didn’t miss a discussion of rankings elsewhere.

    In the part where rankings were covered, nothing was said about cloaking. Nothing. Tom responded instead generally to questions about ranking:

    “Using the website optimizer in and of itself will not effect your Google search engine ranking. The original content will still be there and still be indexed as if you weren’t testing. However, if you use the test and find ways to make for a better customer experience and then you implement those changes, then you should have every reason to believe that will be reflected in a positive way for your rankings. but using the tool in and of itself won’t change your rankings one way or another.”

    OK — and with respect to Tom — he absolutely cannot guarantee your rankings will not be impacted up or down. In fact, the “every reason to believe” statement that making the page more usable according to the tool should improve rankings is probably an overstatement. Sure, search engines tried to model ranking algorithms to favor pages that people like. But that’s not guaranteed, and that type of statement makes it sound like the tool also has some magic Google rank improvement tips to offer.

    In addition, Tom works for Google but not for the search quality team. Even if he did say it is not cloaking, unless he specifically says the search quality teams has said it isn’t cloaking, the jury remains out. It’s that team that decides.

    I like what the new tool offers. Heck, I like Tom. I also like Offermatica. And I’m not trying to scare people away from these tools. But they’ve been sitting on the gray area about whether they are cloaking. With Google now offering its own tool to everyone, the company needs to clarify the cloaking situation right now. Otherwise, you’re going to see many people take these tools as tactic approval that many types of content swapping can be allowed.

  • http://www.grokdotcom.com/googlewebsiteoptimizer/ Jeffrey Eisenberg

    Danny, I listened to it again and I’m sorry. You are correct. The interview is a few days old and I thought it had more detail.

  • http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/ Matt Cutts

    Danny, I met with the WSO team in advance to make sure that using WSO wouldn’t cause issues; it’s clearly helpful for people to be able to do UI tests with things like WSO or Offermatica.

    I’ve had a “best practices for doing UI testing” post rolling around in my brain for a while, and I’ll try to work with a few people here to get that out. But in the mean time, I wouldn’t consider using these tools a problem at all.

  • http://SiteTuners.com Tim Ash – SiteTuners

    There is a fundamental issue underlying the cloaking discussion: what spiders need to get your page ranked well is not what visitors want to experience when they get to the page. There will always be this inherent tension.

    Google prefers content-rich static-text pages of a particular word count range. Anyone who does not write pages to this editorial style will suffer.

    Unfortunately testing has shown repeatedly that people don’t “read” when they look at web pages. So the banner of “what’s best for the visitor” that Google trots out frequently to justify its policies just does not fly. For many landing pages that we have tested, a stripped-down stark version of the page works best. All of the clutter and detailed information is often removed so that the user can focus on their task with minimal distractions.

    Google’s Tom Leung is correct when he says that testing should not affect your page rank. This is because most testing technology uses client-side JavaScript (or something similar) that the spider never sees. But that is not the point. The fear among website designers is that if a competitor tattles on you, any content that is seen by during landing page optimization tests by users but is not read by the spider will be considered cloaking.

    As a Google Website Optimizer Authorized Consultant http://SiteTuners.com has had discussions with Google about this. The line in the sand is still shifting. Until we hear something definitive, our policy is to leave the majority of the text on the page intact so that the “theme” of it is preserved.

    We have developed a number of specific techniques to change the overall appearance and improve the openness of the design. These techniques still leave the text on the page while changing its visual emphasis for the end user. This gives our clients a defense against cloaking allegations since the spider and visitor both see essentially the same text content.

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