SEO

What is Cloaking & Is All Cloaking Evil?

When talking about such widely used and abused (and forbidden) SEO technique as cloaking, Google’s official definition seems a bit fuzzy / general:

Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines. Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index.

and:

If the file that Googlebot sees is not identical to the file that a typical user sees, then you’re in a high-risk category…

So what’s exactly cloaking? Put simply, the ways it can be defined come down to two large groups of definitions:

  1. Technically put: the return code / HTML shown to search robots and users are not the same.
  2. Depending on motivation behind serving two different versions of the page to search bots and people: if it is intended to manipulate / effect search engine rankings (“with intent to deceive”), it can be called “(evil) cloaking” of course (that should be punished for). If the technique is intended to enhance user’s experience (e.g. “geo-cloaking”), it is legit.

So if you want to hide something from robots or to show them a slightly different page version for legit reasons, you should definitely have a look at the this forum thread at WebProWorld discussing what is cloaking, what is evil cloaking and what is “conditional content”. A few of potentially save (but still questionable) tactics discussed include:

  • Using IFrames (“You can prevent the target of the <iframe> tag from being indexed by using a robots meta tag set to “noindex” or disallow the page in with the robots.txt file.”);
  • Using AJAX (here is a post describing a simple method to block a form from bots and search engines with Ajax);
  • CSS positioning the elements (like in the” Source ordered content” method);
  • Using text on graphics. (Please, note this quote from Google guidelines referred to above: “Some examples of cloaking include: Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users.”)

So what’s legit and what’s not? Of course, the “good motivation” approach answers this question but how easily is it implemented when a machine is to judge about our intentions? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” after all.

 What is Cloaking & Is All Cloaking Evil?
Ann Smarty is the blogger and community manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas. Ann's expertise in blogging and tools serve as a base for her writing, tutorials and her guest blogging project, MyBlogGuest.com.
 What is Cloaking & Is All Cloaking Evil?

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15 thoughts on “What is Cloaking & Is All Cloaking Evil?

  1. In order to combat form botspam, I add an extra field to all my forms, hide it from human view with CSS, and then use PHP to toss out the form results if there’s anything in that field. Has definitely helped the spam problems, but will I get spanked by Google for it? Remains to be seen. Technically I’m showing the human eye something different than the bots.

  2. “Some examples of cloaking include: Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users.”

    Is this quote contradicting ‘good practice’ in offering an accessible website to the disabled users out there?

    If users cannot view Flash, or if they are using screen readers, then it should be standard practice (in most countries this is law) to offer a HTML version of the site that these users can view.

    I always add a HTML version of any Flash object that is a critical component of a website, ie: a menu, by simply adding the code inside the and tags.

  3. BIG o’l sigh….

    I don’t know if I have the energy to explain things. :)

    I’ll just say this for now:

    Cloaking is always spam. Check the dictionary definition of cloaking. Anything else that is not being deceptive like geo-targeting, etc is not cloaking so it’s not spam. The other stuff is called “content delivery” which many, many sites do including Google.

    Let’s get the definition of cloaking right to begin with. :)

    BIG o’l sigh…. :)

    1. While cloaking is alway spam, IP delivery is not. Sites like Amazon analyze the IP address of the computer looking up the page and display their page in the native language of the user (for example, if I searched for Amazon.com from Russia, the same website that is in English in America would show up in Russian, due to Amazon’s IP delivery system). This profiling of users is beneficial for the website as well as the user, and improves amazon’s reputation. IP delivery is a legal and honest way from websites to improve on their search engine optimization.

  4. oops, forgot.

    e-gain; you don’t have it wrong as the definition is wrong.

    ““Some examples of cloaking include: Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users.”

    Is this quote contradicting ‘good practice’ in offering an accessible website to the disabled users out there?

    If users cannot view Flash, or if they are using screen readers, then it should be standard practice (in most countries this is law) to offer a HTML version of the site that these users can view”

    NO. What is described is Not cloaking at all. It’s perfectly fine to detect a user agent that does not have flash installed, and send that agent to a page accordingly. Not cloaking. You are not targeting an IP of a spider. You are targeting users without flash installed. A BIG difference. It’s not cloaking. It’s just a form of content delivery and perfectly fine and dandy.

  5. I may have completely missed the point of your post
    I thought cloaking refere to the practice of presenting one form of your webpage to human vsitors and a different form to the search engine bots for the sole purpose of DECEIVING the bots into giving the page a higher ranking than it deserves

    That is unethical and used mainly by black hat SEOS.

    The use of I frames and CSS is not unethical practice, it is totally different from cloaking

  6. I think that anytime you are showing a different version to search engines and people you are putting your website at risk and it is not worth it.

  7. You are absolutely right Utah SEO.

    For those of us who are trying to build a long term business online it certainly is not worth it.

    But these guys that do this cloaking thing are blackhatters. They are only looking to make a quick buck and get out

  8. Using frames that are small could get you into a whole different type of trouble. If you look at the case that ebay currently has with DP forum you’ll understand why

    Question is why would anyone doing ethical niche marketing want to put frames on their pages that are too small to display?

  9. @Doug, unfortunately, the fact that it was discussed doesn’t mean there is only one definitive answer :)

    “the practice of presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines” can be interpreted in numerous ways.

  10. I don’t know why people like to use these spam way, Why they don’t like their own sites because Google don’t like this way and penalized those sites yet people use this. We should use unique and quality content which show same to users and same to search engine and why people use hidden content and why use different for users and different for search engine. Give the same information to both users and search engine so that Google like your website.