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
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