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

Woman wearing dark cloak

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If you are charged with building or managing a website, part of your responsibility is to ensure that the site can be found by the people who are looking for it, including in search engines. This means that you need to have a site that is not only attractive to Google (and other search engines) but just as importantly — one that does not get you penalized by those engines due to some action that you take on the site. One example of an action that will get you and your site in trouble is "cloaking."

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 robots reading the site would find. 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. This is never a good idea. Tricking Google will never pay off in the end — they will always figure it out!

Most search engines will immediately remove and sometimes blocklist 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 and deliver relevant content/pages based on the criteria in the visitor's search query. This is why search engines ban sites that use cloaking - this practice breaks the very principle of what search engines are made for.

Is Personalization a Form of 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. Some 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. The reality is that, in this scenario, the robot receives the same type of content as the customer. It is just personalized to that robot's locale or profile on the system.

If the content you are delivering is not dependent 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 a link provided by those search engines.

Cloaking is frowned upon by most search engines. Google and other highly ranked search engines will remove your site from their listings completely and sometimes blocklist 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. This is a short term strategy, not a long term solution!

Finally, cloaking doesn't really work. Many search engines like Google use other methods than just what is on a page to determine the ranking of the page. This means that the prime reason you would use cloaking, to begin with, would fail anyway.

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. Here's some of the reasons they may give you to try cloaking on your site:

  • "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 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.

Bottom line — search engines tell you not to use cloaking. That alone is reason enough not to do it, especially if your goal is to appeal to search engines. Any time Google tells you what not to do, a best practice is to heed their advice if you want to continue appearing in that search engine.