Ending the Cloaking Debate, Part 2

Cloaking Does not Equal Spam

In part one, I explained two different search engine marketing (SEM) tactics: doorway pages and cloaking. They’re not the same, though they often go hand in hand. Doorway pages are an effort to “crack” or “please” a search engine algorithm. Cloaking does nothing to please an algorithm. It’s a way to deliver targeted content.

It’s an important distinction. Some believe cloaking equals spamming search engines. Not necessarily so.

Certainly, spam is often cloaked. Google considers cloaking to be spam. Both Inktomi and Teoma have guidelines against it. I’d argue they permit cloaking via paid inclusion programs. FAST and AltaVista have no written guidelines against cloaking I know of.

Finally, and most important, by automatically equating cloaking with spam, search engine marketers such as Alan Perkins leave themselves open to the pro-cloaking arguments they most want to abolish, and abolish with good reason.

Everyone Cloaks!

Perkins wants to define cloaking technically: If you need to know a search engine’s IP address or some details from its HTTP request (e.g., its user agent name) in order to deliver content, you are probably cloaking. If you don’t need that information, then you are certainly not cloaking.

Not everyone agrees. Cloaking defenders point out that in some countries, if Google detects you’re outside the U.S., you’re redirected to a “local” site rather than Google.com.

I don’t define that as cloaking, as I’ve never seen a case in which Google showed something different on its home page depending on location — and I’ve visited Google from a variety of countries. If something does happen, it’s usually that you try to reach Google.com and are instead redirected to a different, non-Google.com site.

A better example for those accusing Google of cloaking relates to searches. If I search at Google.com from where I live in the U.K., I see ads targeted to the U.K. It’s a completely different experience than a U.S. user’s, yet we view the same URL.

A better “everyone cloaks” argument is cloaking is built into some Web server software. Take a site with three different page versions: text only, Internet Explorer (IE) compatible, and Netscape compatible.

Your Web server targets people using IE or Netscape and shows custom versions. Everyone else gets text only. A search engine spider visiting the site sees text only content, different from what the vast majority of users see. Even if you didn’t configure the server to do this, it happens — and can be considered cloaking.

Coincidentally, the same time Perkins posted his anticloaking article, WebmasterWorld.com’s Brett Tabke posted his thoughts on mainstream cloaking. That forum thread begins with more examples of cloaking defended as commonplace.

“Everyone cloaks” arguments infuriate anticloakers. They find them an attempt to confuse the issue about “real” cloaking.

There’s truth to what anticloakers say. Some search engine marketers employ the “everyone cloaks” defense as a means to get clients to agree to potentially risky campaigns. That’s the most worrying issue. Others have real differences of opinion as to what cloaking is. A definition that accommodates them, as well as anticloakers, is the only way forward on this issue.

Cloaking Doesn’t Kill Search Engines; Spam Kills Search Engines

My solution, I hope, is simple. I suggest we define cloaking not in technical terms but by the end result:

Cloaking is getting a search engine to record content for a URL that is different from what a searcher will ultimately see, often intentionally.

Unlike Perkins, I don’t care how cloaking is technically done. Whether its by user agent or IP detection; “poor man’s cloaking” or placing content within a no-frames area; hiding content under layers of cascading style sheets or whatever. If a typical searcher sees something different than the page content recorded in the search engine’s index, that’s cloaking. This also fits with guidelines we have from three of the crawler-based search engines that offer them:

  • Google: “The term ‘cloaking’ is used to describe a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site. In other words, the webserver is programmed to return different content to Google than it returns to regular users, usually in an attempt to distort search engine rankings.

  • Inktomi: Pages that give the search engine a different page than the public sees (cloaking).
  • Teoma: Web pages that show different content than the spidered pages.

Only Google suggests a technical definition with its statement about a Web server programmed to deliver custom content. I’m being broader than this, but I think that fits well with other Google guidelines warning against hiding information from users.

Indeed, “cloaking is hiding,” summarizes search engine marketer Jill Whalen, who published Perkins’s article in her popular High Rankings Advisor newsletter. She diligently followed the ensuing debate on the ihelpyou forums and WebmasterWorld.com. Both threads provide excellent views on this subject.

Yes, it’s that. Cloaking is hiding. Even hiding text that’s the same color as the page background (“invisible text”) is a form of cloaking. Low tech, but cloaking all the same.

Another crucial difference between my definition and Perkins’ is I do not automatically equate cloaking with spam. It’s an important distinction if the goal is to help educate people about cloaking’s potential problems.

It’s also important, because AltaVista and FAST don’t actually say “don’t cloak” in their Webmaster guidelines. Both, together with Inktomi and Teoma, arguably allow cloaking via XML feeds.

Even Google, despite its ban, might be considered to allow cloaking when some “everyone cloaks” examples are employed. Anyone who thinks these arguments will protect them if caught cloaking will likely lose the battle. We’ll come back to this.

To Win for Free, Focus on Content

Cloaking often goes hand in hand with low-quality doorway pages, which search engines often regard as spam. If you consider cloaking, it’s probably because you’re creating content you hope will please a search engine algorithm rather than content that should exist to please human visitors. Such efforts are often time-consuming, don’t yield desired results, and may only work for a short time.

All search engines reward good content. This is partially so because good content attracts crucial links everyone wants. Focus on content. When it comes to getting listed “for free” in the major crawlers’ editorial results, you’re playing the smart, long-term game.

Stay tuned for part 3.

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