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Monday, February 26, 2024

Google Website Optimizer Now Available, But Is It Cloaking?

Google Website
, 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

, 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

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

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
    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

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:

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