Cloaking: What it is and Why You Shouldn't Do It

According to Google cloaking is "a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site." In other words, a human reading the site would see different content or information than the Googlebot or other search engine robot reading the site. Most of the time, cloaking is implemented in order to improve search engine ranking by misleading the search engine robot into thinking the content on the page is different than it really is.

Current Status

Most search engines will immediately remove and sometimes blacklist a site that is discovered to be cloaking. They do this because cloaking is usually intended to completely fool the search engine's algorithms and programming that determine what makes a site rank high or low in that engine. If the page that the customer sees is different from the page that the search engine bot sees, then the search engine cannot do its job. So they ban sites that use cloaking.

What's at Stake?

Is Personalization Cloaking?

One of the newest features of many advanced Web sites is to display specialized content depending on various factors determined by the customers themselves. For example, on About, if you haven't visited the site in several months, you might get different content displayed in the navigation menus than you would if you regularly visited the site. Other sites use a technique called "Geo-IP" which determines your location based on the IP address you are logged into and displays ads or weather information relevant to your part of the world or country.

Some people have argued that this personalization is a form of cloaking, because the content that is delivered to a customer is different than what is delivered to the search engine robot. But the robot receives the same type of content as the customer, just personalized (if you will) to that robot's locale or profile on the system.

If the content you are delivering is not dependant upon knowing if the visitor is a search engine robot or not, then the content has not been cloaked.

Cloaking Hurts

Cloaking is essentially lying to get a better ranking with search engines. By cloaking your Web site you are deceiving the search engine providers and thus anyone who comes to your site from those search engines.

Cloaking is also frowned upon by most search engines. Google and other highly ranked search engines will remove your site from their listings completely and sometimes blacklist it (so that other engines don't list it either) if you are found to be cloaking.

This means that while you might enjoy higher ranking for a time, ultimately you'll be caught and lose all your rankings completely.

Finally, cloaking doesn't work. Many search engines like Google use other methods that just what is on a page to determine the ranking of the page.

Or Does it?

If you engage an optimization firm that engages in cloaking, they will probably tell you many reasons why it isn't a bad thing.

  • "The content is still relevant"
    While it may still be relevant, it's still lying to your customers and providing them something different than they might have expected.
  • "We need to protect the HTML code"
    With sites like mine all over the Web teaching people how to write HTML in various forms, protecting the HTML code is basically ridiculous. Most professional designers can imitate and improve a Web site just by looking at it.
  • "You won't get caught"
    Yes, it can sometimes be difficult to prove that a site is cloaking content, especially if they are very sneaky, but doesn't make it right. The reality is, if your site gets too popular, it will get caught eventually.
  • "You can't compete without it"
    If your site can't compete on its own merits, then perhaps it shouldn't be competing. Competition through shady business practices is an ethical slippery slope that can only lead to bigger and worse scams against your customers.

Resolution