To Cloak or Not to Cloak

  |  July 21, 2000   |  Comments

In the field of search engine optimization, cloaking has come under fire regarding whether or not it is a legitimate, ethical, online marketing strategy. What is cloaking? It's a search engine optimization strategy in which a web page is created for each of the major search engines for top positioning, but only the search engine spiders see the optimized pages while end users view a different page. Detlev and Shari give you the pros and cons.

In the field of search engine optimization, cloaking has come under fire regarding whether or not it is a legitimate, ethical, online marketing strategy.

Cloaking is a search engine optimization strategy in which a web page is created for each of the major search engines for top positioning, and only the search engine spiders see the optimized pages. The optimized web pages are never seen by end users. The end users view a different page, hence the term "cloaking."

How Cloaking Works

Cloaking is a program (installed on your web server) that detects visitors to your web site. The cloaking system works by detecting search engine spiders via spider name or IP address. By comparing the IP address of the site visitor to a database of IP addresses of search engine spiders, the cloaking program determines whether or not a visitor is a search engine spider. The server will send a display page to all other machines requesting that URL bearing a generic IP.

Thus, if the program detects the AltaVista spider, the spider is sent a web page optimized for AltaVista. If the program detects the Inktomi spider, the program sends a web page that is optimized for Inktomi. If the program does not detect a search engine spider, then a web site's viewable page is displayed.

The IP numbering system is an addressing protocol vital for connection and delivery of data across the Internet and cannot be legally falsified. Lists of spider IP numbers are widely available, and new spider IP numbers can be spotted reasonably easily and quickly.

Cloaked web pages can be well suited for the top search engine positions because these pages do not have to be visually appealing. They would be simple in design and contain nothing but keyword-filled content because a real person (an end user) will never see this page.

Pros

One of the advantages of cloaking is that you can tailor web pages for each individual search engine spider and score top positions in multiple search engines. It is very difficult for a single page to do well in all of the search engines because each search engine uses a different algorithm to rank web pages.

Another advantage of cloaking is that a site will not be limited to a search-engine-friendly design and layout. There are many web sites that have good content and design that the search engines have a difficult time indexing. The cloaked pages will allow for optimal search engine indexing. The visually appealing web pages are purely for end users.

The main reason people use cloaking is to hide HTML code from prying eyes. When you achieve top search engine positions, your top-ranked web pages will probably be analyzed by your competitors. Cloaking these web pages will keep important optimization strategies (keyword frequency, keyword placement, word count, etc.) from your competitors.

Cons

Though cloaking can keep your competitors from some of your search engine optimization strategies, it can also be used to hide other things. People can steal your site's content (HTML tags and text) and hide it behind a stealth script. Other spam techniques, such as redirected pages, can also be hidden from end users.

Writing effective meta-tags and having optimal keyword placement are both good search engine strategies, but meta-tags and keyword placement are not the only elements of search engine algorithms. For example, all of the major search engines measure popularity (link popularity and/or click-through popularity) in some manner. If cloaked pages are never visited by end users, then the cloaked pages cannot attain good popularity.

The major downside to cloaking may have you thinking twice about using it. The search services do not approve of cloaking. In a recent post to I-Search Discussion List, Marshall Simmonds, Manager of Search Engine Relations at About.com, posted the recent conversations he had with representatives from AltaVista, Inktomi, and Northern Light. The sentiments expressed were simple and to the point: Web sites that cloak will be permanently banned from their search engine databases. Sounds like deterrent language to us.

Also, many people have reported to I-Search that they do better with positioning if they simply optimize normally and use techniques that are not possible with cloaked pages.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Detlev Johnson and Shari Thurow

Detlev Johnson is the supervisor of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) at Outrider, which optimizes client visibility on the major search engines and directories. He is also the Moderator of I-Search Digest, a free twice-weekly email discussion list on which over 8,000 subscribers discuss search engine optimization and directory enhancement techniques.

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