October 08, 2002
What is "cloaking"?

Search Engine Optimization was one of the professions on the web growing in importance as people scoffed away from portals like Yahoo towards search engines like Google as their primary starting point for finding information on the web. Recently, we have seen how personally some people can take it when search engines fiddle with their algorithms, and it's just proving the point that getting relevant content high up in search engine result pages (SERPs) can be important for businesses relying on getting "discovered" through search engines.

Of course, as we all know, creating accessible pages will imply pages that are as easily read by search engine spiders as by blind people and other disabled visitors. Unfortunately this doesn't go down well with many in the hype-cool-funky-design-webmaster world... The alternative they've come up with is "cloaking"; a server-side hack that allows the webserver to serve different content to search engine spiders and visitors; for example while the visitor sees a whiz-bang flash animation, a search engine may see a plain vanilla HTML chucked full of crosslinks, keywords, meta- and header-tags -- just the way they (the search engines) like it. Dedicated software even exists to make the webmaster's job easier.

Until recently, I thought this was something mostly used by shortlived porn websites and the likes, but a friend of mine made me aware that it has also been used by more serious businesses, including private investment banks, to gain better search engine rankings. I'd say right away - I would never have risked it. Maybe it sounds like a good idea when some marketeer hears about first page listings, increased Google PageRank and more, but cloaking is definitely jeopardizing the future online business of any company trying it:

A good year and a half ago, the status and responses of cloaking with different search engines was listed here. More recent considerations are found here. In general - you'd better make damn sure you know what you're doing before you even consider it. I suspect there are loads of cowboy SEOs out there not properly informing their customers about the risks involved: Basically, if the search engine administrators feel that your cloaking is in any way jeopardizing the search results or rankings (e.g. by giving result pages that are irrelevant to the users' searches), they could remove the entire site from the database or at least punish it the "Google way" by lowering or resetting their hard-earned "PageRank"... Such a penalty could have immediate, next-day results for some online businesses...

Post Scriptum:
Variants of cloaking that would definitely not be a hit with users includes redirecting visitors that have searched for you via Google to affiliate pages at Amazon/etc... Bad bad webmaster. Do it the dienchanted way instead...

Funny Post Scriptum: Cloaking can be used against search engine optimizers too, as highligted in this Wired article from a year ago.

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Comments

Very interesting. I had not known what cloaking meant. I don't think I would ever use it, though. Sounds to me like well written code overcomes cloaking.

On a side note, davidj.org has been enjoying an inordinate number of hits from two searches on google. One is 'song quotes' and the other is 'internet foreplay'. Song Quotes just kind of ran up the ranking over the last 4 years. Pretty exciting stuff.

Posted by: davidj on October 8, 2002 02:16 PM

Davidj; I agree with you - accessible sites with all plain content, "normal" HTML A-links (no funky JavaScript or Flash-stuff) etc definitely is the best; both for search engine optimization and for making the site accessible for all users (not only the disabled ones! I like plain content too :-)

Regarding your side note; you might also want to look at http://searchrequests.weblogs.com for more funny/weird/disturbing search requests that have let people to the wrong sites...

Posted by: andersja on October 8, 2002 03:22 PM

Smartmagnet is really unique smart cloaking+multidoorway script by Xgenius LLc & PHP Strike Team.
Why smart? You 'll understand it if try... There are not any another similar script written in PHP
that allow you such powerful positioning in search engine systems. Smartmagnet is not just cloaking
script, but so called multidoorway too. The script was succesfully tested at more than one hundred
commercial web-sites and their owners got really fat 'traffic channels' and real profit using our
technology.
See: [URL removed by andersja -- spam somewhere else]

Posted by: Xgenius LLC on April 23, 2003 07:32 AM

Is there a way to prevent cloaking?

Posted by: J Ratliff on April 25, 2003 05:32 PM

I've been trying to get a decent PR in Google and I thought I did everything I could with MetaTags, Titles, Descriptions etc. But the going has been extremely slow.

I also want to protect people entering my sight by having a page where they need to click Agree to a statement before proceeding. I also have links to NetNanny etc. on this page.

So what am I to do?
Presenting an alternate to Google would seem the solution. But, from everything I've read, I don't want to chance being banned.

Basically the information would be the same as the one "humans" would see except that the layout would be different and the large logo and image removed.

Oh well, just my miserable input here.

Holly,
The more I know... The less I know...

Posted by: Holly on October 16, 2004 08:42 PM
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High Context: Cloaking Defined (October 8, 2002 01:30 PM)
"andersja's blog provides a definition of cloaking: a server-side hack that allows the webserver to serve different content to search"

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