Web Site Cloaking and Search Engines | WebReference

Web Site Cloaking and Search Engines

Web Site Cloaking and Search Engines

By Lee Underwood

Cloak: Something which hides, covers or keeps something else secret. (Cambridge Dictionary)
Cloaking: Also known as stealth, a technique used by some Web sites to deliver one page to a search engine for indexing while serving an entirely different page to everyone else. The search engine thinks it is selecting a prime match to its request based on the meta tags that the site administrator has input. However, the search result is misleading because the meta tags do not correspond to what actually exists on the page. Some search engines ... even ban cloaked Web sites. (Webopedia)

A good amount of web space has been dedicated to the merits of cloaking, but no one seems able to agree on the actual definition of the technique. One definition given is: "A technique used to deliver different web pages under different circumstances." This definition is too broad as page redirects for different browsers, for example, would be included under this definition but these pages are not hidden from search engine robots.

The one main characteristic of cloaking, according to Webopedia and Google, employs a different page delivered to search engines than the one displayed to visitors to the Web site; its only purpose being to hide content from search engines.

Many of those who employ cloaking techniques argue that they are presenting something different to a search engine rather than hiding something from it. The end result remains the same: the page presented to the search engine is different than the one anticipated by the visitor.

Note: The cloaking argument gets more involved with the addition of XML feeds. For a further discussion on the topic, see Danny Sullivan's article, "Ending The Debate Over Cloaking."

Why Cloak?

The reasons for cloaking are generally twofold: to protect pages from other search engine optimization (SEO) firms and to increase search engine ranking.

SEO firms spend a lot of time and money creating Web pages they hope will rank high in search engine inquiries; they want to protect their methods from other SEO companies. This makes it a ratings game, with higher search engine rankings taking priority over content. In theory, this will increase the number of visitors to the site, but increasing traffic doesn't necessarily result in an increase in Web site income. If a visitor finds something different on the Web page than that returned by the search engines, the chances are pretty good that the visitor will leave and not return.

In order to create pages that rank high with search engines, it's usually easier to concentrate on how it will "look" to the robot doing the indexing than to a human visitor. For this to work, a different page is presented to the human visitor.

Notice that in both of these scenarios the actual Web page — the one visible to a human visitor — has been hidden from the search engine robot.

A Question of Integrity

Links make up the basic structure of the World Wide Web. While some links provide false leads, the majority of them lead to the expected results. If the integrity of the Web's link structure becomes questionable, then the entire system has been compromised. It's similar to not knowing if the road you take will actually lead you to the destination that appears on the map. While you might tolerate that occasionally, you wouldn't want to second guess every road you take.

Wide scale cloaking (as defined above) would soon render the search engine's algorithm useless. Users would not know if the search results are accurate. If the links supplied by search engines resulted in false leads and dead-ends, the search engines would serve no purpose. Without search engines, how would you find your way around the World Wide Web?


Should you cloak? That's a question each Web designer/owner has to answer for themselves. If you have good content and concentrate on what your visitors want, you should do just fine. It's similar to opening a business in the physical world. There's no guarantee that you will succeed but if you have something valuable to offer, that's a step in the right direction.

One other thing to keep in mind if you're considering cloaking: many of the search engines will block your listing if they find out about it. Is it worth taking the chance?

Note: Google provides a listing from the Open Directory Project for Web sites that provide information on cloaking techniques.

Associated Links

Created: September 9, 2004
Revised: September 16, 2004

URL: http://webreference.com/authoring/search_engines/cloaking/