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.
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:
- Technically put: the return code / HTML shown to search robots and users are not the same.
- 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.