The video response by Matt Cutts to a question about cloaking for Google got me thinking that it’s a long time since I wrote anything on the subject. I guess I kinda fell into the trap of thinking that everyone had dismissed the idea of cloaking because everyone I personally discussed it with agreed that it was a bad thing. However, if people are genuinely asking Matt Cutts of Google’s spam team how they should go about cloaking then clearly there is still a school of thought that doesn’t acknowledge the dangers
First of all, let me start by saying cloaking is bad and you shouldn’t do it. I’m not just saying that because I’m trying to cover my bum for when it all goes to the wall for you if you follow the techniques I list – I genuinely recommend that you don’t follow these techniques. At all. Ever.
Now I have told you I don’t recommend cloaking, I will lay out the argument for cloaking.
Cloaking is a catch-all term for the act of presenting different content to users than is presented to all or some search engines.
The reasons you might want to ‘cloak’ include some or all of the following:
- Your text content is presented in images or plug-ins and maybe can’t be read by search engines.
- Your text is not very keyword-rich, because that isn’t snappy enough for your users
- Your site has so many plug-ins or extraneous bits and pieces that the web pages are quite slow to load.
The problem each of these situations present is that ideally (from a search engine optimisation perspective) your content should be keyword-laden, properly formatted, HTML text, with no plug-ins or extraneous bumpf in the way.
Of course, he real world isn’t ideal – so here’s what you could do. It is possible to detect the “user-agent” of the software being used to view your site before you send any HTML to it. So why not have some lovely HTML pages that you present to software that identifies itself as a search engine, and your original web page to show to everyone else.
In fact, you could even (if you so chose) optimise different versions of the content for different search engines.
That summarises what you could do and why you should do it. However, I said right at the beginning of this article that you should not.
The main reason to avoid cloaking is that is all the major search engines consider it to be cheating – in fact it is expressly forbidden in Google’s webmaster guidelines.
You can’t be sure that a user-agent actually truly identifies the right browser or spider it claims to – user-agents are easily faked, and so it is not difficult to be found out.
The penalties for cloaking can be severe – your website could be dropped from search engine indices altogether. It does happen, and it has happened to some big name brands as well – BMW is the most commonly quoted example.
So really, in my opinion, while cloaking is easy to do, and seems in some ways to be a straightforward way to undertake SEO, it is frought with risk, and that risk should be too much for any sensible SEO strategist to bear.