What is SEO Cloaking?

SEO Cloaking Demystified: What You Need to Know

The ultimate goal of every online business focused on SEO is to get to the top positions in organic search engine results. To get there, a website must be optimized using the best SEO practices. However, the journey to successful search engine optimization is gradual and not immediate. A robust SEO strategy is the bedrock of a website that garners immense popularity. Yet, remember, not all SEO strategies are born equal. While some practices adhere to ethical standards (white hat SEO), others like SEO cloaking, resort to unethical black hat techniques. Cloaking might temporarily elevate a website’s position, but it also goes against search engine guidelines, leading to severe penalties. Our article aims to demystify the concept of cloaking in SEO and provide more insight about what it is and why it’s bad for your site (with some exceptions!).

What is SEO Cloaking?

In SEO, cloaking is a technique that displays different content or information to users and search engine crawlers, such as search bots or spiders. This method’s primary objective is to boost a website’s search engine rankings for specific high-competition and popular keywords.

It’s important to note that SEO cloaking is deemed a severe violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines if done intentionally. Google metes out penalties for cloaking, which can significantly impact rankings in organic search results. This will lead to your site’s diminished visibility, engagement, and conversion rates. As unintentional cloaking is also possible, understanding its nuances, why it’s best avoided and the measures to tackle it if detected, are essential.

In this old Youtube video, Matt Cutts, who used to work at Google, explains what cloaking is and why it’s a risky enterprise. The principles explained here still stand true a decade later.

Sitewide SEO Cloaking

Whether cloaking is intentional or not, here are its most common types that may happen sitewide:

  • IP Cloaking

This is perhaps the most common form of cloaking in SEO. It involves redirecting a user to the target website via another website that ranks high on Google or Bing. This technique is achieved by setting up .htaccess through reverse DNS records.

  • User Agent Cloaking

In this case, specific software, known as a user agent, replaces the traditional user and evaluates site visitors. The it decides which version of the cloaked website should be shown to the visitor. To achieve this, a piece of code is sent directly to the server. When a visitor is identified as a crawer or a search bot, it is presented with specially prepared pages (usually different from what humans will see when they visit the site).

  • HTTP Accept-Language Cloaking

Ever clicked on a tempting search result and landed on a page that was completely different from what you expected? If tweaking your language settings isn’t helping, you might be witnessing HTTP Accept-Language cloaking in action.

In other words, when a website magically changes its content based on your browser’s language settings, it’s called ‘HTTP Accept-Language header cloaking’. We bet it will be frustrating for users who depend on language-specific information to navigate such a website.

  • Javascript Cloaking

Javascript rich sites offer a lot of interaction for your visitors. While JavaScript can be SEO-friendly, sometimes it plays a game of hide-and-seek with search engines. Here’s the plot twist: JavaScript cloaking. It’s when your visitors see that dynamic, jazzy JavaScript content, but search engines are left in the dark. When done with intention, this type of cloaking exploits how Googlebot and other browsers process Javascript to hide or alter certain content on a page.

  • HTTP REFERER Cloaking

The top line here is that HTTP Referer Cloaking displays different pages or content based on the HTTP referer sent by the web browser.

Depending on where a visitor came from, they may see a different rendition of a website. In other words, cloaking websites will check your HTTP_REFERER header to redirect you to a specific page based on your referrer information. Whether those will be the cloaked or “uncloaked” version depends on the referrer. For example, if the user clicks a site’s listing in organic search, the site may send that user to a specific page. Users coming from social media may be redirected to a different page on the site.

Onpage SEO Cloaking

A web page is indexed by a search engine based on several factors that also include onpage content like meta tags, page titles, and other SEO elements. There are various ways to implement onpage cloaking in SEO, all of which are considered violations of webmaster guidelines. Here are some commonly used cloaking methods:

  • Hidden Text

This technique involves overwriting existing content with additional keywords to hide them from real users. These extra words or content pieces are added to the page in the same color as the background, making them invisible to humans but visible to search engine bots. Some even use JavaScript or CSS to hide text.

  • Flash Websites

This is a form of “Agent Name Delivery“. These pages appear to crawlers as content-rich, but users perceive them as Flash pages. They create pages with content that only search engine crawlers can see, not site visitors.

  • Text to HTML Ratio

Search engines recommend a high “TEXT to HTML ratio” for website optimization. Simply put, the written content on the page should exceed the number of HTML tags on the website. Websites that publish short articles or have less content on their pages have a low text-to-HTML ratio. In such cases, webmasters resort to cloaking techniques to compensate for thin text instead of redesigning the website to meet SEO guidelines.

  • Image Galleries

These websites, often known as image galleries, feature more images than actual content on their pages. Search engine crawlers and bots do not examine these images, even if they are relevant. As a result, webmasters stuff their websites with content and keywords to improve rankings.

Is White Hat Cloaking Real?

Is there such thing as ethical or “White Hat” SEO cloaking? Unfortunately, white hat SEO cloaking does not exist. Google makes no exception for cloaking practices.

Google Penalty for Cloaking

Google uses various techniques to detect cloaking. If it discovers your website using any of the above strategies, it will penalize your site by lowering its rank in search results. In some cases, Google may also decide to remove your website from the organic search results entirely.

Can You Still Use Cloaking as a Part of Your SEO Strategy?

The described cloaking approaches are all considered as black hat SEO techniques in SEO, which go against Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. We would advise against using cloaking to deceive crawlers and gain a high ranking in organic search results. Cloaking like any other black hat SEO approaches usually give short-term ranking boosts. But, the sophisticated algorithms that search engines use these days can easily detect cloaking or any other similar practices on your website pretty fast. How come? Search engines crawl your site multiple times each day using various IP addresses and user agents. The collected data is compared, parsed and analyzed. So, in a nutshell, search engines will figure out any malignant practices and penalize the site within days or weeks.

What’s Allowed?

Despite some past confusion, the following methods of delivering content are allowed and will not result in a penalty. These below practices should not be confused as “cloaking”.

Geo-location: This is the process by which Google presents different web pages to users based on their physical location. If your site has international content – say, US focused content in English is different from that for UK users, Google will not consider that as cloaking even though Google’s crawler originates from the US only. Google is fine with this practice.

Free Content Sampling: This practice used on a lot of news sites is fine by Google. Sampling allows users to view the first page of content without signing up on the site when they click through from Google to that first page on the site. A signup wall is put in place after you browse to another page on such a site.

Dynamic URL rewriting: This involves changing the appearance of a URL to include keywords and make it more SEO-friendly without altering the page’s structure and content.

Final Thoughts

SEO cloaking as an SEO strategy is not worth the potential repercussions for your website. No amount of quick gains in organic search listings or easy fixes can compensate for the struggle and pain of recovering from a penalty or ban imposed by Google. Instead you can focus on a wide variety of legit SEO practices and strategies.

The most straightforward way to check for cloaking is to use popular SEO cloak checkers. The best part is that these free tools can test the page for URLs with hidden scripts and detect search engine cloaking. Regular monitoring allows webmasters and site owners to catch any attempts to cloak their website and prevent further damage. Therefore, testing the URLs and continuously monitoring the page’s performance are important. SEO is an ongoing effort, so being alert and acting accordingly is key.

Summing up

Is SEO cloaking bad?

Creating cloaked content so as to get higher search engine rankings quickly is regarded as black hat SEO, which is against search engines’ guidelines. These techniques may results in bans and complete loss of your site’s visibility in organic search results.

How does Google penalize cloaking websites?

Google may reduce your ranking on search results pages. Some websites that resort to cloaking have even been permanently blocked from showingn in Google searches.

How to check if a website is cloaking?

There are several online tools available to check a website for cloaking, such as SiteChecker and DupliChecker.

Need help with your site’s SEO? Take a look at our SEO process and start with a free SEO audit of your site.

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