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Why Google Should Ban Its Own Help Pages — But Also Shouldn't

Google takes pride in showing how it will enforce its anti-spam rules even against itself, but apparently there’s a limit to how far it will go. Google is declining to ban many of its own help pages that were published in violation of its webmaster guidelines. That’s wrong for the reasons has Google’s stated. But it’s right if it means a more common sense approach to its rules may come out of this.

Google’s Help Area & Cloaking

In particular, Google has a long-standing rule against “cloaking,” where a web site shows a search engine content that’s different from what a human would see.

Last week, our AdWords Cloaks Its Help Pages, Gets Banned By Google story covered how Google’s AdWords help pages were found to be cloaking. Google promptly removed those pages from its index. For how long? Google told us:

The web quality team is currently reviewing the reconsideration request and don’t have any more details to share.

Soon after our story came out, it was also noted that help pages for Gmail and Google Webmaster Central were also cloaking. Ironically, the some of the help pages in Google Webmaster Central contain Google’s guidelines against cloaking. In addition, it seemed likely that help pages for many other Google services were also cloaking. However, these have all stayed in the index.

What’s up with that? The answer, says Google, is that by the time it investigated the cloaking, it had stopped — so those pages aren’t being punished. The company told us:

Yes other support pages were were inadvertently showing different content to the Google crawler than to users….

The webspam team submitted a removal after confirming that cloaking was taking place on the AdWords support pages. By the time they finished investigating the non-AdWords support pages, the issue had already been fixed and therefore we did not remove those pages from the index.

To step back a bit, as the postscript to our “AdWords Cloaks” story explains, the issue that hit the AdWords pages and caused them to cloak seemed to be a technical problem shared by the system that served ALL of Google’s help pages. All of Google’s help pages appeared to be cloaking, though we only spot verified a few cases.

By the time we asked Google about this, the problem that was causing all of its help pages to cloak had been fixed. Therefore, despite knowing that its own pages had violated its own “law” against cloaking, Google’s looking the other way.

Since You’re No Longer Speeding…

In the real world, it would be as if a traffic cop saw a car speed past it well in excess of the speed limit. By the time the police officer catches up with the car, it is now doing the speed limit, so the officer decides it can no longer issue a ticket.

If Google’s serious about proving how even it has to follow its own rules, then all of Google’s help pages should be banned. Banning just the AdWords pages, when Google knows the “crime” was committed by other pages beyond those, just feels like an excuse to get around a really bad situation.

After all, too many people search on Google for answers to things about Google. The company simply cannot ban all of its help pages. It’s a bad user experience, not to mention an embarrassment if people have to go to Yahoo or Bing to search on how to use Google.

Big Enough? You Get A Handslap

Google’s sidestepping a bad situation, and it’s far from the first time it has done this. There’s long been a feeling in some SEO quarters that companies that are big enough, or important enough, can violate Google’s guidelines and get only a handslap.

BMW is one of the classic examples. Back in 2006, the company was found to be cloaking on its German site. Google announced that BMW’s pages were banned. See, even big companies like BMW have to follow the rules! Except a few days later, BMW was back. The cloaking had stopped, and BMW had a speedy reinclusion that ensured people trying to find the car company could do so.

Google couldn’t afford not to include BMW. Someone looking for BMW isn’t going to blame BMW for not showing up because it violated Google’s rules. The typical Google user doesn’t care about those rules. They just want relevant results. In a search for BMW, dammit, that means finding BMW!

But a small site, some mom-and-pop service or some other company that isn’t a big brand, that few people are likely to miss? Those sites are far more likely, in my view, to face being banned for a lengthy period of time and struggle with redeeming their reputation with Google’s ranking algorithms even after being restored.

The gut reaction to all this might be that Google should be fair. Ban all of its help pages, and ban them for a lengthy period of time! Punish big companies as Google would small companies. Be fair!

Look At Intent, Not Tactics

I’d argue that the “Be Fair” mantra means looking at intent, rather than tactics. Being fair means you don’t ban either a big company or a small company because they violated a technical guideline. You punish them because they intentionally worked to harm the user experience, in your opinion.

Google almost certainly didn’t intentionally mean to harm the user experience nor violate its webmaster guidelines by cloaking its help pages. It was a goof, and banning the AdWords pages is helping no one. I doubt Google’s technical team behind the help pages feels they’re being taught a better “lesson” than if they were just told to fix the problem without a penalty being applied.

As for sites other than Google, same thing. Banning them for cloaking, if there’s no clear intention to be violating Google’s guidelines, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It just engenders bad will. Send a warning, sure (and in some cases, Google does this). But an immediate penality? Hold on there.

Perhaps the worse thing that the technical guidelines do is cause a lot of wasteful finger-pointing across the SEO space. There’s no end to the parade of sites that are spotted cloaking or violating some other design guideline. A blog post is done. “What’s Google going to do?” is asked. And life moves on to the next target.

This rinse-and-repeat cycle is so very tiresome. For more about it, plus some history on the long debate over cloaking in general from me, see these past posts:

Know The Rules; Publicize When You Don’t Punish

To be clear, I’m not encouraging people to break Google’s rules. Anyone involved with creating or marketing a web site should understand Google’s webmaster guidelines. If you want to succeed with Google, you play by its rules. Or, if you break the rules knowingly, don’t complain if you’re caught.

But I’m also encouraging that perhaps Google should be more vocal about when it cuts people some slack, including itself. Rather than confirming that some big (or small) site has been punished, perhaps talking about why it chooses not to punish in some cases would be helpful.

Postscript: Matt Cutts, who heads Google’s web spam team, has sent us this additional information:

The webspam team’s policy is that when we’re ready to submit an incident, if the behavior in question has already been corrected (e.g. hidden text has been removed), then we typically don’t submit the incident. In this case, the cloaking stopped after the webspam team had submitted the initial removal, but before the investigation was completed for the other support pages.

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