Cloaking: The New Google Slap
Those of you unfortunate enough to remember the ‘Google Slap’ of a few years ago, might still feel the sting when you hear another one could be on the way.
Those of you fortunate enough not to remember the ‘Google slap’ might need a bit of background…
The ‘Google Slap’ was a period when it felt like Google had a vendetta against info publishers. They didn’t understand our model. They didn’t understand why we gave away free content in return for personal details. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that long copy might work. They were baffled by delayed payment options and free trials.
So they shut us down. We saw accounts all across the world — suspension after suspension — with clouded reasoning, and very little support to get us back up. Publishers relying on PPC as a main source of names or sales suddenly had to find them somewhere else.
Unfortunately, a latest experience with one of our London businesses has taught us that ultimately, we are still at the mercy of the Google Gods. While I can’t give you precise reasons, or actionable advice – Google are scarce at best at communicating – I can tell you what happened, and what you need to be aware of.
I urge anyone running any ads on Google Adwords to read on, or forward to the person responsible for PPC.
First, let’s cover what ‘Cloaking’ is.
What is Cloaking?
Taken directly from Google’s policy:
Engaging in practices that attempt to circumvent or interfere with Google’s advertising systems and processes
- Examples: Cloaking; using dynamic DNS to switch page or ad content; manipulating ad text or site content in order to bypass our automated system checks; restricting access to so many of your landing pages that it makes it difficult to meaningfully review your ad, site, or account
… We take this violation very seriously and consider it to be an egregious violation of our policies. Advertisers, apps, or sites that are found to be gaming the Google Network will be suspended and won’t be allowed to advertise with us again.
If this is an error and you have not actually violated our policy, we want to get your account running again as quickly as possible. Please submit an appeal and explain why you believe we’ve made an error. Because this policy violation is so serious, we only reinstate accounts in compelling circumstances, such as when we’ve made a mistake. So it’s important that you take the time to be thorough, accurate, and honest.
According to our rep, a violation of this type is unlikely to ever be resolved. Google take these violations very seriously. Just a quick search on the term “Adwords Cloaking” brings a host of forum answers on the Google community in which desperate advertisers are trying to find out what they did wrong and how to fix it, to no avail.
What happened to our account?
I want to share with you where we are right now. So here is a blow-by-blow account of our experience…
In late November 2016, a lead gen account which had been live for a year was suspended, completely out of the blue. We hadn’t made any major changes, we weren’t actively optimising the account – it was ticking away on a low budget and bringing a couple of hundred names in per month.
We immediately assumed it was a mistake. It had to be. We called on our rep to find out what was going on and get the account live again.
“I just heard back from policy and unfortunately there is some bad news. Apparently this account was suspended due to Circumventing Systems – Cloaking. … I have dealt with this only once before and this is considered to be the “most egregious” of all policies in AdWords. In fact, policy doesn’t even provide help/explanation of why the suspension occurred because they feel if they did, it would give potential violaters more information on how to better circumvent the system. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with “cloaking” but from my understanding, a basic definition of it would be if someone were to advertise for one thing on AdWords and then when the ad was clicked on, backend software/scripts they had set up in order to trick/bypass the system led the consumer elsewhere.”
We had no choice but to get to work fixing a problem where we didn’t know the root cause.
Our team rebuilt every landing page in the account, cleaning all the code and making sure it had no rogue scripts in place (these pages were originally built and tested using Leadpages, and were later moved into our internal systems). The IT team in London confirmed that there was no dynamic DNS happening. We deleted every ad from the account.
The one thing we couldn’t change due to a problem with our internal system, was a redirect happening on the display URL back to the main company website.
We resubmitted, and waited… And the response was clear. They would not reinstate our account under any circumstances.
So what was the cause?
In short, we don’t know. We can get nothing from our reps, despite their best efforts, they can get nothing from the policy makers. What we do know is that this is rare – our reps had only dealt with this once before. Our biggest hunch is that it had something to do with URLs that redirect. That is…
- Anyone using a testing platform such as Optimizely, Leadpages or any other tools or systems which change content on the page for testing purposes.
- Businesses who redirect Final URLs from their ads to another, different, URL (such as multivariate links).
- Display URLs which resolve to another URL if copied and pasted.
The biggest threat to us as marketers is that simply testing a landing page could be deemed as cloaking. While we haven’t had 100% confirmation that this could have been the cause, our rep was pretty clear that testing platforms like Optimizely certainly do fit the criteria for Cloaking… “using dynamic DNS to switch page or ad content; manipulating ad text or site content in order to bypass our automated system checks”…
What can we do to avoid cloaking?
- Stop using any testing platforms or software for Google Adwords.
- Use Google Experiments until we can get more clarity on the situation.
- Ensure links are not redirecting to a different root domain. Ideally, ensure links are not redirecting at all. That goes for Display URLs and Final URLs.
And finally, please, reach out to AIM if you’re concerned. While we don’t know exactly what the cause was and how we can avoid it, we can certainly advise you on what we do know. Feel free to email me personally, firstname.lastname@example.org, or any other members of the AIM team. We can review any campaigns, landing pages and HTML to be sure that you are as compliant as possible.
Share this crucial information with your colleagues, and hopefully it will prevent another business falling foul of suspension.
Until next time,
P.S. If you have falling foul of Google (or Facebook) compliance, and would like to know how to recover from it, and avoid it in the future, you need to check out our ad slap pack, and view our Google and Facebook slap webinar. You can find out how to access these vital resources, here.