While the term “cloaking” may evoke imagery of a recent sci-fi movie, in the world of search engines and search engine marketing, it’s consider “black hat” tactics.

Unlike “white hat” search engine marketing tactics which are considered in be in-line with all guidelines, “black hat” search engine marketing tactics (or spamdexing) is the complete opposite; it is the intentional use of false information to trick online users to visit their website by providing search engines with completely false information.

Search Engine Marketing – What Is Cloaking?

Cloaking is a deceptive method used to cheat search engines in order to rank well for desired keywords and to trick users into visiting their website based upon their description in the search engine; one version of a web page is provided to the search engines, while another is provided to visitors.

If one were to think of it in terms of book publishing, the author would be giving one version of their book to the editor for approval but then send a completely different version to the printers for the audience to read. The characters in both versions may be similar, but the plot and storyline are completely different.

Search Engine Marketing – How Does Cloaking Work?

Basically, the web designer, webmaster or search engine marketing person embeds very specific coding within the web page for the purpose of determining if the visitor is a person or a search engine (such as a web crawler). If the visitor is a web crawler, it is directed to a page containing mostly text designed to increase page ranking. If the visitor is a person however, they are redirected to a page typically containing mostly images or some other visual media designed primarily for advertising.

Cloaking – Not Just About Search Engine Marketing Page Ranking

The more underhanded use of cloaking however is to redirect the person to a web page that contain malicious malware, adware, scareware or spyware programs and/or contains viruses that attempt to download immediately upon the page opening. The user believes he or she is clicking on a link related to their search only to find themselves the victim of an attack. This type of attacking the user is especially successful when the malicious program is designed to look like something safe (see Windows AntiVirus 2010). Types of cloaking methods include:

  • IP Address Cloaking – the incoming IP Address determines which version of the web page is seen.
  • User-Agent Cloaking – the version of the incoming web browser determines which version of the web page is seen.
  • HTTP_REFERER Header Cloaking – “where” the visitor is coming from (eg. are they [the visitor or search egine] directly entering the site or comming in from a search engine or other website link).
  • HTTP Accept-Language Header Cloaking – the language setting (of the web browser) of the incoming user determines which version is seen.
  • JavaScript Cloaking – most user browsers are JavaScript enabled whereas search engine crawlers are not. Thus the JavaScript setting is used to determine which page is seen.

BMW Caught Using Search Engine Marketing Cloaks and Sneaky Redirects

Commonly, many associate underhanded tactics or any type, to a relatively small sub-class of society; renegades, anarchists, social misfits and hackers are easy targets. But there are also many examples in recent history of large, supposedly respectable organizations using such black hat tricks.

In February 2006, the BBC reported BMW had their German website virtually blacklisted on Google’s search engine resulting in their page ranking being forced to zero, after it was discovered that they were using cloaking, doorway pages and redirects as part of their search engine marketing. BMW denied is was attempting to deceive its visitors, but Matt Cutts was able to provide both versions of one of their pages. BMW’s search engine version was packed with keyword text that was virtually unreadable by any human, while their visitor version contained mostly images.

Search Engine Marketing Quality Guidelines – Don’t Use Cloaking or Sneaky Redirects

The use of cloaking and sneaky redirects are not something that occurs by accident; they are intentionally added into a website’s design. Websites found employing such tricky search engine marketing could quickly find their site completely removed from search engines as well as their company name publicly embarrassed.

Google’s position regarding such deceptive tactics are quite clear; “we frown on practices that are designed to manipulate search engines and deceive users by directing them to sites other than the ones they selected, and that provide content solely for the benefit of search engines. Google may take action…including removing these sites from the Google index.”

Anyone suspecting that cloaking or redirects are being used on a website can make use of this free online Cloaking Checker tool provided by WebToolHub.