Help File / Tutorial: Cloaking
Cloaking is sometimes referred to as 'stealth' or 'stealthing'. In this help file, the word 'cloaking' is used.
Cloaking a web page means enabling the HTTP server to serve different pages according to the user-agent or IP address from which the request comes. For example, while most visitors to a page might receive a page with many graphics, a visitor identified as a search engine might receive text instead of those graphics.
Cloaking and spam
Cloaking is often associated with spam, e.g., delivering a normal page to most visitors while feeding search engines a page stuffed with keywords and links. However, cloaking may not be considered spam if it is used for the right reasons. If the technique is used to serve optimized pages to search engine spiders while sending a more human oriented version of the same content (perhaps Flash or other graphics intensive) to browsers, but no attempt to vary the real content nature (just form) is made then the technique may be a good one. Geographic content delivery is a reason to cloak that the search engines themselves use; a visitor from an IP address associated with a particular language or geographic area may receive different content.
First, it should be emphasized that cloaking will not guarantee a prime position in the Search Engines. Cloaking has no mystical power to make an ordinary page rise to the top of a keyword search. On page and off-page SEO techniques are the same for a cloaked and uncloaked page. So why do it at all? Code protection used to be a major reason to employ cloaking. When on-page optimization was king, nobody wanted others to see their exact formula for keyword density, meta tags, headings, and so on.
"User friendly copy" is another reason that sites cloak, although perhaps less today than in the past. When on-page factors ruled, every engine rated pages differently and, therefore, pages had to be created with the correct amount of keywords in the 'title', the 'description' and the 'keywords' meta tags and in various parts of the body area for each engine. To a limited degree, even today tweaking keyword density and positions is important. When you start adjusting the visible text for weight and percentage, you must at the same time ensure that your page reads well for the viewer. Achieving the right weighting while keeping the page reading perfectly is not a particularly easy thing to do. This is where cloaking enables you to change the positions of words, sentences and even paragraphs to arrive as close as you can to the weights and percentages required of the search engines, because it really doesn't matter what the page looks like that much. The viewer never sees it.
Graphic translation is yet another reason to cloak. Pages where much of the message is in the form of images, Flash, etc. can deliver a text version to search engines or browsers not capable of displaying the graphic content.
How it works
The cloaking technique shows different pages to the search engines' spiders than are shown to the viewers. When a spider arrives at the site looking for a particular doorway page, it is identified by its IP number or its user-agent name and given the exact page you have optimised for it. The search engine indexes it and a short time later it can be found in the search results. But when viewers click on the entry in the search results, they are given a completely different page. In fact, they are given the page that they actually want to see and not the doorway page. Because of this, it is not possible for outsiders to see your successful doorway pages and, therefore, they cannot be stolen.
There are two methods of cloaking. (1) IP based and (2) User-agent based. The User-agent based method is insecure because User-agents can be impersonated and the method is quite useless for protecting html code, so we will skip over it except to say beware of it. It is often cheaper but it can't protect your code. On the other hand, IP addresses cannot be easily impersonated which makes IP based cloaking the only effective way of protecting your html code.
One can purchase cloaking software or simply build the cloaking code into scripted pages. For IP-based cloaking, the code is less of a demand than keeping up with the ever-changing array of IP addresses used by search engine firms. Cloaking users may exchange this information, or one can subscribe to a commercial service.
There is an element of risk whenever one presents different content to search engines than to the regular visitor. Search engines may detect content differences by checking with disguised user agent names and from different IP addresses than normally used. Theoretically, benign cloaking that in no way misrepresents the content shouldn't be a problem. The more the content in the versions varies, the greater the risk. Clearly, feeding keyword-stuffed gibberish to search engines while presenting humans with a page of affiliate links (for example) would have to be considered very risky and a certain penalty if discovered by a search engine. Cloaking should be used only in those cases where there is a good technical or business reason - it's possible (if unlikely) that a cloaking witch hunt by a search engine might snag even benign cloakers.
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