Google Ban of German Sites Highlights SEO Quandary

There’s a right and wrong way to use highly graphical, rich-media-enhanced Web pages that entrance and engage users without much copy. Sometimes Web marketers are so focused on the graphic or rich media aspects of their sites they neglect SEO (define) best practices and mistakenly believe any and all means are appropriate to restore their SEO.

Recent events highlight there are times when major marketers should reevaluate their Web presences from both the organic SEO and paid search perspectives. Optimal pages for paid media traffic, including paid search, may not always be search-engine-friendly.

There has been significant mainstream press coverage of the fact that Google banned the BMW Germany site for using cloaked (define) doorway pages (define). Google also banned Ricoh’s German siteand eliminated it from its index for similar doorway pages. Google’s policy on Web content is it doesn’t want the user visiting a page to experience significantly different copy (or see different content) from what Google’s spider sees. Specifically, Google states: “Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as ’cloaking.’”

Of course, some level of personalization must be acceptable because many e-commerce and publishing platforms recognize returning visitors or visitors from a specific source and serve them special offers. Personalizing a page segment is currently and will likely remain acceptable. Forcing marketers to serve all visitors identical content results in a less-than-optimal user experience.

Evidence shows the engines allow a bit of flexibility with customized content, but no one knows exactly what the limits are. A landing page serving one or more banners or rich media page takeovers (or even AdSense) is an example of minor custom personalization. Clearly, that’s allowed as many publishers have their sites well indexed by Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Teoma. Evidently if page content is substantially the same, Google and other search engines that send out spiders to compile their algorithmic indices must allow some leeway.

Where do individual search engines draw the line? No one knows exactly, including many search engine employees. My opinion is if it looks like search spam, smells like search spam, and tastes like search spam, it probably is search spam. Now may be a good time to look at your site to make sure you haven’t engaged in any prohibited activity.

Marketers may be tempted to get better SEO rankings by engaging in doorway-page creation and cloaking. Often, they’re tempted because they believe the compromise that must be made to make pages search-engine-friendly degrades the marketing message. Some engage in this behavior because the conversion rates and ability to communicate messages to both paid and organic search visitors improve when highly graphical pages are displayed. The same is true for Flash-enhanced pages.

Well, the risks of using doorway pages and cloaking just got higher. Google can be unforgiving when it finds what it believes are spammy activities. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Often, the best page designs to maximize conversions and help meet your marketing objective can’t be made as search-engine-friendly as an optimal, SEO-perfect page. In that case, having inbound pages or microsites designed and built specifically for paid search are acceptable.

Increasingly, marketers are devoting resources to developing paid-search-only user experiences that take advantage of not having to worry about how search-engine-friendly the pages or microsites are. To avoid confusing the search engines should those pages be found, try one of the following:

  • List the microsite or paid-only doorway pages in the robots.txt file as excluded. The downside to this is outgoing links from the excluded page may be important, and the robots exclusion stops the crawler.
  • Use the meta tag. This allows the crawl, but keeps the page and its content from being indexed.

If you need to control the user experience and your current Web site can’t simultaneously maximize conversion and algorithmic (natural/organic) search ranking, don’t resort to tactics that could have dire consequences. Understand the rules and play by them.

Meet Kevin at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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