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by André le Roux
Dec. 2001

NOTE: For an updated discussion on cloaking, please refer to the current version of the Search Engine Yearbook.

Cloaking Explained

There is a lot of hype around cloaking. Let's start by getting the facts straight

In technical terms, cloaking allows you to deliver different pages (for the same URL) based on the IP address of the visitor.

In plain English, cloaking let's you take a peek at who is visiting your site - just before you show them anything. If the visitor is just an average Joe, you give him your regular page. If it's a search engine spider dropping by to add your page to its database, you dish out the spiderfood - a text page saturated with your keywords - no images. The engine ranks that page high - much higher than your regular page deserves.

And there are people that say there's nothing wrong with cloaking…

The problem(s) with cloaking

The obvious problem is that it is unethical. That's also why this book does not go into the "how" of cloaking. Webmasters who use it anyway risk getting their sites banned from search engines. For life. To our knowledge, there is not a single engine that condones cloaking. In fact, almost all of them explicitly warn webmasters not to cloak.

The search engines' aggressive stance is understandable. Their ability to return relevant results is their livelihood.

Cloaking directly messes with that ability.

So expect them to come at you with everything they have.

About hiding cloaked pages

It's an arms race. You have to know the search engine spiders' IP addresses. The problem is that they can have multiple IPs. You have to stay up to the minute on changes to these addresses to keep dishing out spiderfood to the right visitors.

Even if you recognize the spider - every time - and get your spiderfood indexed, simple things like cached pages (used at Google) will expose you in a flash. Should you risk a life ban on your domain? The same domain you've spent months or years promoting. The domain you've got on all your letterheads and business cards. Calculate the dollar value of the potential damage before you consider cloaking.

An argument in favor of cloaking (for the record)

Say you've got an online gambling site. You need an image intensive, visually attractive site that recreates the razzle dazzle and sense of excitement found in real life casinos - but there's no way that that kind of site can score well on search engines. So you create "honest" spiderfood. A cloaked page intended to guide the search engine towards understanding your site. You essentially help the engine form a more accurate idea of what the site is about.

Further reading on cloaking

A Promotion Guide
A good, comprehensive explanation of how cloaking works.

2 Fairly detailed, technical explanations of cloaking:

Search Engine Cloaking: The Controversy Continues
(SearchDay Newsletter, July 18, 2001)
A discussion of the ethics.

Google's definition of cloaking

Search Engine Position
Another explanation with some comments (and warnings) about cloaking from the search engines.

CloakCheck (members only)
This utility allows you to open any specified webpage posing as any one of the popular search engine spiders, robots, indexer or crawler. It can uncover sophisticated search engines position techniques that employ a custom bridge page for each specific search engine.

Search Engine Book: Search Engine Year BookThis page is based on information contained in the Search Engine Yearbook 2003. For more detailed search engine information & help, please refer to the current version of the book.

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