The Curse of Cloaking

There are many excuses for cloaking, however most of them are bull. The most popular one has to do with security. People spend significant resources optimizing their site and they don't want a competitor to be able to see their page source and basically steal their ranking. This excuse is bogus for a number of reasons. First of all it is not difficult for someone to write or download a program that spoofs HTTP headers, thus allowing them to view your site exactly as the search engine sees it. In fact HTTP header spoofing is how search engines often try to detect spam. Second, some search engines keep a cache of your page, which saves your competitor from having to download a program at all. Third, since link popularity is so important nowadays the actually arrangement of the words on the page isn't something that needs protecting. Fourth, if all you're doing is hiding your meta tags you might as well stop, most search engines don't use them anymore. So as you can see, security is not a real reason to cloak.

Another excuse is "Why send images to the search engines when all they really look at is the text?" Well I hate to break it to you but search engine spiders do not download images. When a client requests a page from a server it is only requesting the page, it then must make additional HTTP requests for the images or any other media on your page. Look at your server logs for verification if you must. So obviously this excuse never even got off the ground. Now of course search engines that offer image searches will make the requests for your images and cache a copy of them, however in this case the engine is interested in your images and you should let them read them because an image search can be another source of traffic for your site.

Yet another excuse is "Why increase the visitors download time by including Meta tags they don't normally see?" Even if you have rather large meta tags, at maybe 1000 characters. Those will only take up a small fraction of a second of download time at 56k.

Another excuse is that you have a flash or other rich-media type page and that a spider cannot effectively index your content due to technical limitations. Well in addition to search engines, a lot of normal people can't effectively view your page if this is true. People with disabilities or those using alternative or older browsers, in some cases simply people without flash installed or with javascript or activex disabled. What about them? Instead of using this fact as an excuse to cloak your page, why not do what most sites do and make a text only version of your page? Or include relevant information in noscript tags. Or how about this scenario: Create a standard text version of your site then using javascript, then detect flash and if it is installed popup a window to run your flash site. This way users with flash enabled will have both sites as an option, and those without it, or without javascript, will never even know the flash site existed. Sure beats risking being banned doesn't it?

People also sometimes use the excuse that other people do it and don't get caught, so they can do it. Maybe they know someone who cloaks rampantly and has for years. Well usually parents defuse this argument from a child's repertoire in early childhood, however in case they haven't suffice it to say that thousands of people cheat on their taxes but that doesn't make it right, and if you're caught you will regret it.

There are a final two reasons not to cloak. The first is that you don't need to cloak. I'm speaking as someone who has gotten #1 listings on nearly every major search engine, not top 10 (though in one case I have the entire top 10 with different pages from the same site) but #1. I have never cloaked, you simply don't need to do it. There are valid ways to get ahead in search engines.

The last reason why you shouldn't cloak is that it's bad for the industry. Taking advantage of search engines is as bad for the IT industry as hacking, scumware, viruses, abusive javascript or other client side scripts, and anything else that undermines the goals of business on the Internet. If you're a real Internet professional you shouldn't hurt the hand that feeds you. You can also help fight back against cloaking by discouraging it when someone suggests it, and reporting it when someone does it. Google for one makes it very easy to report a cloaked page, you can do so here: