Even the best website with the most incredible content in the world won’t get very far if the people who would love it can’t actually find it in the first place.
Behind every wildly popular website is a terrific search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. But it’s important to understand that one SEO technique isn’t necessarily just as good as another.
Unethical black hat SEO techniques like cloaking may get a site ahead initially, but they also go against search engine guidelines.
If caught, a website can be heavily penalized by Google, if not banned entirely.
Here’s a closer look at what you need to know about cloaking in SEO to stay safe and compliant online.
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What is Cloaking in SEO?
Spend much time learning about SEO or experimenting with different strategies, and you’re bound to hear about black hat SEO sooner or later.
Black hat SEO is exactly what it sounds like — a set of SEO techniques designed to manipulate search engines and fool them into granting a site a higher ranking than it rightly deserves.
Cloaking is a black hat SEO technique where a website shows one version of a URL, page, or piece of content to the search engines for ranking purposes while showing another to its actual visitors.
When done purposefully, cloaking in SEO is a direct attempt to fool crawl bots and a serious violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines.
Cloaking can also sometimes happen accidentally, so it’s important to understand what it entails, as well as why you should avoid it and what to do if you spot it.
What are Some Cloaking Practices?
Cloaking in SEO can take a variety of different forms, and all of them are considered to be against webmaster guidelines. Here’s a closer look at some of the most common.
Implementing Hidden Text
Some website owners get the clever idea to install invisible text on various pages in an attempt to manipulate search engines.
User Agent Cloaking
In user agent cloaking, a dedicated program — called a user agent — is used in place of a traditional user to evaluate web visitors and determine which version of a cloaked site should be presented.
This is accomplished via a piece of code sent directly to the server. When a visitor is identified as a crawl bot, it is shown specially prepared cloaked content.
This is perhaps the most common form of cloaking in SEO.
It’s when a user is redirected to the desired site through a second site that already has a high Google ranking. This is done by setting up .htaccess via reverse DNS records in order to smoothly redirect various web users.
HTTP Accept-Language Cloaking
In this cloaking technique, a check is performed on a user’s HTTP Accept-Language header in order to determine whether it’s a standard visitor or a web crawler.
In the event it’s a crawler, the cloaked version of the site content will be served instead of the real version.
There are lots of reasons why a site might decide to cloak. Sometimes a site is heavy in visual elements but light on text — a big no-no in Google’s book. Other times it relies heavily on Flash, another thing Google doesn’t particularly like or recommend.
Cloaking in SEO is an easy way to get around doing the work to make a site legitimately Google-compliant. But again, it comes with serious consequences.
Why Should You Avoid Cloaking in SEO?
Black hat SEO techniques like cloaking don’t technically break any actual laws, so it can’t exactly land you in prison.
However, they do fly in the face of Google’s webmaster guidelines, which is not what you want to do if you’re serious about achieving and maintaining a high SERP rank.
Here’s a further breakdown of why it should be avoided.
You could be penalized
Whether or not you’ve engaged in it knowingly, any type of black hat SEO, cloaking included, can get your website heavily penalized by Google.
Once that happens, your search engine rankings take a serious dive, meaning all the hard work you’ve put into your site could be gone in an instant.
And once a site incurs Google penalties, it’s extremely hard to recover.
You’ll have to put in many months of hard work to clean up your site and regain your previous footing before you’re back in business. But there are no guarantees, as some sites never really recover.
Your site could be banned
In some cases where a site is caught cloaking, Google decides to do more than simply slap a penalty on it. It could be banned entirely and indefinitely.
This is what’s known as a manual penalty, and it’s even harder to come back from than an algorithmic penalty.
A site that’s been entirely scrubbed from Google’s indexing system might as well not exist, as no one will be able to find it using keywords and key phrases anymore.
In some cases, you may eventually be able to appeal to Google for forgiveness after fixing your site, but again, there are no guarantees.
You’ll almost certainly get caught
Google and the rest of the search engines are getting smarter and increasingly efficient at spotting cloaking in SEO, as well as other black hat techniques.
Tricks a skilled SEO pro might have been able to get away with years ago are easily spotted this year, and this will only become more the case over time.
In other words, it’s really only a matter of time before you get caught.
Since cloaking is literally about serving up an entirely different user experience than a searcher is expecting, it doesn’t serve Google or its users.
It can damage your brand
Keep in mind that a practice that doesn’t properly serve search engine users really doesn’t serve your company, either.
People don’t like to be tricked. And if your audience figures out that’s something they can expect from you, they’ll likely leave and never come back.
If you’ll cut corners by implementing black hat techniques like cloaking in SEO, then what else might you do to save money or effort?
Your customers will lose their sense of audience trust, and that’s the very opposite of what you want with brand building.
How Do You Know If a Website Is Cloaking?
There are several reasons why you should learn to tell whether a website is cloaking.
Naturally, you’ll want to know whether a website you’ve visited is potentially untrustworthy. Cloaking is definitely a sign that you might not be safe on that site and should steer clear.
However, it’s also possible that your own site could be a hacking target at some point in the future.
If the attempt is successful, cloaking is one method hackers use to disguise the hack and make sure it goes undetected for as long as possible.
Not only does this put your users at risk, but it could get you penalized by Google through no fault of your own.
Here are some methods for spotting cloaking in SEO before it has a chance to hurt you or damage your SERP rankings.
Compare the SERP result to the actual page
When Google serves you a particular link on one of its SERPs, the attached description will feature text pulled from the linked page with words related to your search term bolded.
If you go to that page, you should naturally see that same text there somewhere, right? If you don’t, that’s a sign that something’s not right and the site could be cloaking.
Look for other signs of shady SEO technique
If a particular website is utilizing one less-than-savory SEO technique, it’s probably using others, as well.
So keep an eye out for other red flags like low-quality content that sounds spun, keyword stuffing, out-of-place backlinks that may have been paid for, etc.
Naturally, these aren’t guarantees that the site is also cloaking, but they are signs that the way the site is run isn’t quite kosher.
Use an online cloak checker
These tools are free to use, readily available, and effective. Not only can they tell you whether a site is cloaking, but some can also scan pages for hidden scripts and other problematic code.
In the case of your site, it’s worth making cloak-checking an ongoing part of your regular site audits.
This takes the guesswork out of keeping your site safe and compliant with Google’s webmaster guidelines.
If you find anything, take action immediately to preserve your search rankings, as well as the general integrity of your site.
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Ultimately, shady optimization techniques like cloaking in SEO really aren’t worth the trouble they can cause for a website.
No amount of quick SERP gains and easy fixes are worth having to fight your way back from a Google-implemented penalization or ban, especially when there are plenty of alternatives out there that earn you real success you can grow with.
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