What is cloaking in SEO?
Cloaking as the name refers to is the act of hiding certain content from search engine bots or crawlers that it shows to the user. Websites that use cloaking might show a highly optimized version of their content to crawler bots while showing a substandard version or a page filled with graphics to the users. Cloaking is done to bypass the search engine ranking factors and to get higher ranks on search results pages faster.
There is a list of SEO techniques that do not follow the search engine guidelines and are not ethical. These practices are made to fool both the search engines and users by providing them with something that is not relevant and claiming it to be worthwhile. These easy shortcuts that are against webmaster guidelines are called black hat SEO techniques. Cloaking is considered a black hat SEO technique and can result in getting penalized if found out. Cloaking is a part of spamdexing techniques that tries to fool the search engine into giving higher ranks to a site.
How does cloaking work?
Search engines like Google use bots called web crawlers or spiders which crawl through the web and find new web pages. These bots find new web pages, understand what they are about, index them, and rank them based on various ranking factors. When a user types in a search query or keyword, search engines serve the users with results that it has already ranked and thinks to be relevant for the particular keyword. On a page in which cloaking is done, when the bots crawl to index it, they find content that is highly optimized for ranking factors. So, bots think the page is highly relevant and index it with higher ranks. When the user searches for a related keyword, the search engine serves this page in high ranks on SERP. But, the user who clicks on it sees a different version of the page. This might have content that is more appealing to the users like graphics and multimedia which cannot be understood by Google bots. It is difficult to create a website that satisfies both users and search engines. So, some SEO experts use cloaking to provide a fast solution and get higher SERP rankings faster.
Different Types of Cloaking
We have discussed that cloaking is done by serving one version of the website to the search engine bots and another version to the user. There are different ways in which cloaking can be done based on how you find out if the request is from a user or bot. Some of them are :
A user agent is software that works for the user and fetches information on an OS. The browser sends a code that can be used to determine whether a user or bot is requesting.
Based on location and internet service each user has a unique ID called an IP address. You can hide IP to avoid tracking and also use this to redirect users to pages with high ranks and traffic.
HTTP_REFERER and HTTP Accept-language headers
These headers of user are used to identify if the requester is a user or search engine.
Why And How Cloaking is done?
Invisible or Hidden Text
This is the easiest way of cloaking and can be detected easily. This involves stuffing keywords into the background with the same color or using font zero so that users do not see it but the search bot does. This is done to get higher search rankings.
This involves flash images and pictures when a human user clicks but shows optimized or keyword-stuffed HTML versions to crawlers. Flash is not encouraged for SEO. Some websites cannot avoid using flash and may prefer to hide it. This is now almost obsolete.
Text to HTML Ratio
Text to HTML ratio on a page is considered important by search engines. It shows the amount of relevant content provided on the page. When there are a large number of web pages and blogs with thin content, some SEO experts may choose to hide it rather than revamp the website.
In some websites like galleries, there will be more pictures than actual text and pictures will not be crawled. In such cases, some might choose to hide the pictures on the pages.
Hidden Content in CSS or HTML
Adding keywords in the page’s CSS offline and using irrelevant keywords inside HTML tags. For example, you can stick an irrelevant keyword in an image’s alt tag instead of using it in actual content.
What is White Hat Cloaking?
There are some methods or practices that are called white hat or grey hat cloaking in SEO. This evolved as people started using different types of devices to access web pages from different locations. In the method called geolocating, different versions of content can be served according to the location of the user detected by IP. To avoid calling it cloaking, they suggest that bots and users should be treated the same based on location. There is also a practice called Obfuscation in which websites with hundreds or thousands of web pages hide some internal links so that bots see and crawl the relevant pages. Although these methods are tolerated and widely used, Google and other search engines might change their opinion towards these methods sooner or later.
So, there is no such thing as white hat cloaking. With algorithms getting updated, bots will get more ability to discover and penalize those who violate the webmaster guidelines eventually.
How To Avoid Cloaking?
Images are usually not seen by search engines. You have to use alt tags through which you could describe what is present on the image to the crawlers. It can also be seen in some cases like when the internet connection is slow, by the user.
Describe the contents of the video in HTML text. Videos should be indexed through scheme.org, on-page markup, and video sitemap markup.
Cloaking is a widely practiced black hat SEO technique that serves different versions of content based on whether a user or bot is asking for it. There are many cloaking techniques. Some are riskier and are easily found out while others take time. Search engine algorithms are being updated every day. Google bots are being optimized to find out black hat SEO tactics. If found out this can result in your website getting de-indexed or being thrown out of SERP rankings. You run the risk of getting a manual penalty or algorithmic penalty. Some cloaking techniques like keyword stuffing and flash are easily detectable and are not very common now. But, using any form of cloaking is a risky game as the costs are very high. It takes a lot of time to build a lost reputation. So, make sure that you choose an SEO agency that follows ethical, white hat SEO techniques and stays updated with google webmaster guidelines and changing SEO trends.