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...
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.
Anders Jacobsen |