Google Website Optimizer lets you test various headlines, product shots and other page elements against each other. And it’s free. Wouldn’t you always want to use it?
No – ironically, Google’s Website Optimizer engages in a practice that some call ‘cloaking’. That practice may lead to search ranking penalties from – you guessed it – Google. Google’s own Matt Cutts has a great summary of the tactic here.
Optimizer causes your web browser to replace parts of the page you’re viewing, like so:
So, by using Google Website Optimizer, you can actually end up being penalized by Google, as well as Yahoo and MSN.
However, all is not lost. Here’s how you can use the optimizer without getting into trouble:
- Use it only on separate landing pages. If you create special pages that visitors can only reach from paid search results, e-mail campaigns or banner ads, then search engines can’t ‘crawl’ their way to those pages. It’s safe to use the Website Optimizer there, because search engines won’t find those pages.
- Add a meta tag. You can tell search engines not to crawl specific pages on your site with the META ROBOTS tag: <meta name=â€œrobotsâ€ content=â€œnoindexâ€>. If this is gobbledygook to you, get your web developer or webmaster to set it up. By using this tag on any pages where you’re using Google’s optimizer tool, you’ll keep yourself out of trouble.
- You should use this meta tag even on separate landers, because someone might link to those landing pages from their sites, thereby pointing them out to the search engines.
Everything I’ve seen so far tells me Google’s Website Optimizer is a fantastic tool. But like all tools, it makes sense to use it judiciously. Be mindful of the potential issues, protect yourself against potential cloaking penalties, and you’ll be fine.