What Is Cloaking in SEO and Why It Can Be a Major Setback for Your Website
Search engine optimization is crucial for developing your brand’s online presence. It bleeds into every marketing channel and can drastically boost your returns as you increase your visibility to audiences.
The problem is that SEO is challenging work and the results are not guaranteed. With so many brands vying for the same attention using the same best practices, it’s tempting to take shortcuts to get ahead.
As a result, the internet has seen countless “black-hat” SEO tactics including common cloaking techniques.
In this article, we’re going to help you understand how cloaking is utilized in SEO, and why it’s harmful to your long-term SEO efforts.
What is Cloaking in SEO?
Cloaking is a deceptive SEO practice that uses one set of content for crawling and ranking purposes while displaying different content to actual visitors. By its nature, cloaking in SEO is a malicious tactic that aims to take advantage of search engines and their users to further their own goals.
This leads to two problems.
First, the visiting user is going to see content that is, at best, irrelevant to their search query. Because cloaking is unnecessary and harmful, it’s also likely that a cloaked site may be trying to phish users for information or expose them to negative content that would otherwise be flagged immediately by a Google search crawler.
Second, cloaking is particularly problematic for search engine algorithms. If not detected, that domain begins to skew legitimate search results. This pushes other deserving sites down the ranks and can confuse crawlers about the relevancy of the content being shown.
Rankings are never static as the algorithm is constantly learning. When cloaked sites are allowed to exist, they can negatively impact organic results for everyone else using the internet.
How to Use Cloaking in SEO?
First and foremost, cloaking is a strictly prohibited black-hat SEO practice that is highly punishable according to Google guidelines. There is never a legitimate reason to cloak as there are countless other legitimate strategies to manage content distribution to different audiences. To attempt to cloak for any other reason is to do so maliciously.
However, it’s useful to know what cloaking in SEO looks like to identify it and avoid it. Here are some common SEO cloaking examples still used today:
SEO Cloaking Examples
A. IP Cloaking, or Search Engine Cloaking
IP cloaking is the act of presenting a page that’s well optimized for high ranking while yielding a different page when the user is not a crawler.
The idea is to skip the hurdles of building up your SEO. The webmaster takes a page they own that already gets organic results, but funnels new visitors into the page they want to rank. This is a violation of guidelines as it purposely misrepresents the content, coercing users to click on something irrelevant or potentially threatening.
More malicious individuals such as hackers may utilize IP cloaking techniques to distribute malware, keyloggers, or other harmful software. The creator may not be concerned with the repercussions, but simply be looking to the net for as much personal information as they can from potential victims.
B. Intentionally Disguised Text
This method of cloaking is less technical and can be done with any modern CMS. The goal is to store more text on the page than what is shown to the visitor. That hidden content may be optimized to help boost efforts on the page or to trick engines into ranking the URL for something entirely unrelated.
Because users cannot interact with design elements, web designers can easily hide text on the page by simplifying and matching it to the background color. On a white background, the hidden text would be present in white, while the text they want readers to see is in black. However, you can also achieve similar results by formatting sections using your custom style sheets.
It’s relatively simple to identify hidden text and is unlikely to get past many crawling attempts. If you need to improve your ranking efforts for that page, invest the resources into creating high-quality content that’s relevant to the ranking keyword.
C. Images vs Text
Webmasters may want to include a page with images exclusively for some sites. This can be relevant for industries that wish to show a gallery of their work or their portfolio to earn new clients.
However, ranking a page without any text is highly difficult. Google’s crawler responds well to text-rich pages with relevant content and supporting images. As a result, some black-hat SEOs may try to hide text on the page, while showing purely images to visitors.
Again, it is against guidelines to actively attempt to fool search engine crawlers. The content being indexed must match what is being shown to users to be properly ranked.
Instead of hiding text, create a healthy amount of text-based content to support your image gallery. You might include important details such as the type of work performed, the location, the client, or facts about the experience. Doing so may further the result you want by helping leads get a better understanding of what you do along with your level of expertise.
D. Hiding Flash-Based Pages
Adobe Flash is an outdated software that was once commonly used to present media content on a page. Today, Google prefers and recommends tools like HTML5 which loads content faster and optimizes it for various device speeds and screen sizes.
If you continue to use Flash on your site, you’re going to see an impact on your SEO scores. For this reason, some SEOs may try to fool the system by detecting whether or not the visitor is a crawler or a real person. The crawler will see a lightweight page with some text or compressed images, while the real person sees the original Flash page.
Why You Should Avoid Cloaking in SEO?
Though some may try to justify its use, the guidelines are clear. You may not utilize cloaking in SEO if you want your website to rank organically. Even for mistakes, Google will act swiftly and dish out penalties to any domain that violates one of its policies.
Here is why you need to stop and reconsider if you’re looking to use cloaking to skip ahead of the pack.
1. You’re Going to Receive a Google Penalty
Receiving a Google penalty is akin to having a black mark on your domain’s record. If your site has a history of penalties, improving your search engine rankings will prove difficult if not impossible, even if your current and future SEO actions are by the book.
If you rack up multiple penalties, Google will view you as a habitual offender. If you find yourself in this scenario, you’ll likely need to abandon your domain as any future work will do little to undo the damage caused by cloaking penalties.
Remember – you will receive a penalty. Even if you are fortunate enough to dodge crawlers for some time, Google is acutely aware of the deceptive practices some SEOs use to skip the hard work. It’s just a matter of time and not worth sacrificing your investment.
2. People Will Avoid Your Site
Even if you continue to receive visitors while cloaking, the damage comes from more than Google.
If John Doe is looking up “financial advice,” but lands on your completely unrelated page, they’re likely to be annoyed. No one enjoys having their time wasted, much less being purposely deceived. In the internet world where users demand instant results and gratification, don’t be surprised to find your user count plummet as they continue to have a bad experience.
In addition to this, the act of tricking a user implies cause for further distrust. If a brand lies about one thing, it’s only natural for consumers to question its legitimacy. Internet-savvy users may even fear picking up malware from your site and advocate against using it for themselves and their peers.
Reputation matters, and it will follow you forever online. Be good to the people you want to do business with or else you’ll cost yourself more than a temporary boost in visitors.
3. Permanent Bans Are Irrecoverable
If you continuously engage in shady behaviors, or if you’re a habitual offender, a Google employee can decide to ban your domain outright.
That means that there is no opportunity to plead your case. There is no opportunity to fix it and submit a reconsideration request. Your pages will no longer be indexed, meaning they have zero chance to show up in an organic search.
That leaves you only with the ability to say goodbye to your hard work and start completely from scratch. If you talk to any brand starting online today, you’ll realize how foolish it is to sabotage months or years of SEO work to beat the system. The repercussions aren’t worth the risk.
How to Determine If a Site is Cloaking?
Being able to identify cloaking in action is valuable knowledge for everyone’s security online. It can prevent you from picking up malware or having sensitive data stolen from your work or home devices.
From a marketing perspective, you’ll want to keep tabs on which sites are using black-hat tactics so that you don’t risk linking to them or having them backlink to your domain. You may not get to the root of the cloaking techniques used, but there are enough tell-tale signs that should tell you when to skip the click or get out as soon as possible.
1. Compare the Preview Text to the Page
Have you ever read an excerpt in a search result only to find that content missing from the page once you clicked the link?
This is a major red flag that some type of cloaking is in effect. The indexed page is showing a portion of content from one page, while the page you are visiting is different. This likely means that any number of the above cloaking examples are in effect which might include hidden text or using a bot to detect the user type.
If you find yourself in this situation, leave the domain without taking any action. Do not click on any additional links and run a scan using your anti-malware or anti-virus software if you want to take additional precautions. This type of cloaking does not necessarily mean the webmaster is hacking, but one shady action may be a warning sign for others.
2. Submit the URL to a Cloaking Checker
There are several free checkers available online that can examine any given URL for cloaking techniques. You can try out sites like DupliChecker or SiteChecker as examples.
These will automatically check the domain with the internet’s most popular search engines and display any other URLs involved that might indicate stealthy redirects or other cloaking practices.
Cloaking Alternatives That Are Allowed
There are scenarios in which webmasters are legitimately making an effort to show different pages of prepared content to distinct audiences. This is understandable as effective marketing means speaking to different groups effectively to drive clicks and sales. For this reason, we understand why less informed individuals may see cloaking as necessary.
Thankfully, there are plenty of valid SEO alternatives that negate the need for cloaking.
1. Geolocation and IP Address Detection
Google provides webmasters with the ability to prepare different content to display to users based on their IP addresses around the globe. This means that while one page has high SEO value, Google can detect the user IP and show the content you curated for that region.
With this, you don’t need to set up any shady redirect techniques that Google will likely interpret as malicious cloaking. Effectively, you’re clueing Google in on your strategy, and they are doing what they can to accommodate your content delivery efforts.
This technique can apply to international marketing or more local efforts restricted to different areas of a particular state. It’s up to you to create the content pages and designate the target geolocation area.
You can enhance your results by optimizing the content to reflect that area. For example, if you want a specific page to show to Miami customers, be sure to make notes about your Miami location when discussing the product or service with your readers.
2. Set Up the Appropriate Redirect
In some cases, webmasters may be using cloaking to preserve the SEO value of a page when having to make site changes. Instead of cloaking, users would be wise to implement the correct redirect protocol based on whether the move is permanent or temporary.
A 301 redirect is for permanent changes, while 302 should be used for temporary changes such as a site redesign. This helps Google understand the type of change as well as which page to recognize as the canonical one. In addition, the SEO value of the original page is passed on to the new page.
Similar to using the above technique, this SEO tactic clues Google in on what your goal is with the content. As long as crawlers identify that your intentions are fair and deliberate, they will work with you to preserve your SEO throughout your site.
3. Fix the Core Problem, Even If It Takes Time
Most of the time, well-meaning site owners that use cloaking are trying to find a cheap, easier way around a more complicated SEO issue. Like most shortcuts in life, they only get you so far and the consequences can be detrimental.
There are countless free tools available for site owners to use to diagnose health errors with their sites. It costs nothing to utilize Google Analytics and Google Search Console, both of which provide step-by-step solutions to overcome detected site errors.
Even if you need to turn to an expert, the cost is worth it when compared to throwing away your brand’s visibility and branding online. Invest in your website and it will continue to give back to you in the long term.
Avoid Cloaking in SEO
Any perceived benefit you could achieve by cloaking in SEO is quickly undermined by the lasting damage it will do to your site and reputation.
If you want your site to earn a high rank in Google SERPs, you need to play by their rules and guidelines. If there were any quick hacks to skip the line, your average SEO would be the first to know. Instead, it takes a great strategy, regular testing, and persistence to steadily climb the ladder.
Your company does not have to handle tricky SEO problems alone. DashClicks helps to boost your brand’s visibility by providing optimized content, regular performance audits, and technical SEO expertise. If you need help with your SEO, be sure to check out our services today to get started.