Cloaking is a black-hat SEO technique that helps your website be displayed differently to users than to a search engine (crawlers or bots).
Cloaking can be done purposefully, or even mistakenly by a website manager.
The intent of practising cloaking is to make your website, webpage, or some elements on your website different from Google crawl bots than to actual users visiting the website.
This can manipulate Google crawl bots and help your website achieve better SEO and SERP rank.
However, cloaking is considered a black-hat SEO technique because, under no circumstances, is it allowed by Google in their Guidelines.
You should not practice cloaking. If you do, sure you may get a better SERP ranking every now in then, but your website will be penalized by Google inevitably!
Table of Contents
- Why Do People Use Cloaking?
- Types Of Cloaking
- How To Avoid Cloaking?
- Google’s Penalties For Cloaking
- Cloaking Techniques That Google Allows You To Do
Why Do People Use Cloaking?
There are many reasons why someone might decide to practice cloaking for their website;
Essentially, the common ground to do it is to hide other practices that Google doesn’t like and can affect their website’s SEO health.
These practices could be heavy reliance on Flash or using adult NSFW content or keywords.
Cloaking helps these practices stay hidden from Google, while available to visitors, which helps the website show its desired view to visitors while not being penalized by Google.
Types Of Cloaking
There are 6 different ways of cloaking, by which you can make two versions of your website, one for Google, and the other for users.
Let’s look at some different ways of cloaking.
We’re not digging into this to help you find an easy method to do this yourself. As mentioned before, cloaking is NOT ALLOWED by Google.
You should still know about the techniques of cloaking to recognize if you’re actually doing it yourself by mistake!
1. IP Based Cloaking
IP-based cloaking offers cloaks web pages for users in accordance with their IP address.
Every user has an IP address which is based on their ISP and location.
IP-based cloaking takes a webpage that has a good SERP ranking and a high traffic volume, and according to the user’s IP, redirects them to a different page of your own choosing.
You can do this by reversing the DNS records from your cPanel to identify IP addresses and then setting up .htaccess to redirect the pages.
2. User Agent Cloaking
User-agent cloaking is practised using a software program that helps the website identify when it’s being visited by a user or a Google crawl bot.
When the user agent is identified to be a user, the desired page is shown. On the other hand, when it’s identified as a crawler, a cloaked page is shown to manipulate Google.
3. Hidden Text Cloaking
The easiest way of cloaking content is by using hidden text.
By simply changing the text colour to the background colour of a webpage, the website is cloaked to a user visiting a website who can’t see all the text on the website.
However, a Google bot can identify the HTML and rank the page accordingly.
This is a popular technique to use keyword stuffing to aid a better SERP rank without letting users see it.
5. HTTP Accept-Language
Every user has an HTTP Accept-Leanguage Header and based on their header a different version of a website is shown to them.
However, when the HTTP Accept-Language Header is identified to be of a search engine (crawler), the cloaked version of the website is shown.
Just like with HTTP Accept-Language, the website checks the visitor’s HTTP-REFERER header and distinguishes them as a user or a search engine.
Users get a different version of a website than the cloaked version served only for crawl bots.
How To Avoid Cloaking?
Since cloaking isn’t allowed by Google’s guidelines, you should do your best to avoid cloaking practices.
However, there could be instances where your website is practicing cloaking without you purposely doing it!
And this could get your website in danger with Google’s policies!
This is why you should use the following methods to ensure your website isn’t relying on cloaking, knowingly or unknowingly.
Comparing Descriptions To Webpages Manually
The simplest way to do it on a webpage that you suspect to be shady is by seeing if it has different versions, to begin with.
When you search for a page that is ranked on Google, you should see the keywords you used in the search shown in the result’s meta description, bolded.
And since they’re in the meta description, you should see them on the actual page as well.
If you don’t, the page could be cloaking!
Using A Cloaking Checker
Alternatively, you can audit your website for cloaking using a cloaking-checking tool.
Here are some free tools to check your website for cloaking:
These tools can not only help you identify cloaking, but also problematic coding or hidden scripts.
In any case, you should take cloaking audits seriously and do them on a regular basis.
Google’s Penalties For Cloaking
Google doesn’t have a set rule as a penalty for cloaking, however, getting caught by Google is considered inevitable followed by consequences such as:
SERP Rankings Take A Hit
Many websites that were caught practising cloaking got penalized by Google by taking a serious hit on their SEO, destroying the website’s SEO rankings, with years of hard work gone to waste.
These hits are extremely hard to recover from.
It isn’t a myth anymore, Google actually does ban websites as a penalty for cloaking or practising techniques disregarded in their guidelines.
This removes the existence of your website from everywhere, with everything that was indexed before, removed.
In some cases, Google has unbanned websites that fixed themselves after the ban and made a forgiving appeal, but there are no guarantees!
Cloaking Techniques That Google Allows You To Do
Contrary to the 6 cloaking techniques mentioned above, there are some techniques that do serve a similar purpose as cloaking but are allowed by Google’s policies.
The following techniques are permitted and can help you change your website’s view for different users.
Geo-Location is a permitted technique that can help you serve a different view of your webpage to people according to their locations. A good example is Google’s website itself, which is appeared differently to a user in the US than to one in the UK.
2. URL Rewriting
URL rewriting does not affect your webpage but can help your webpage get better SEO if the URL includes keywords that could be matched with queries and help your SERP rankings.
3. Flexible Sampling
Sampling helps you serve a limited page (sample) to a user that is not subscribed than to someone that is subscribed.
You can commonly see this on Quora, where Quora+ subscribers can view the entirety of a webpage while guest users are limited using barriers.
In summary, cloaking is a bad SEO technique that can get your website banned or penalized by Google.
Even if it does bring improvements to your SERP rankings, you’re bound to suffer significant negative consequences sooner or later.
If you want to use different versions of your website for different users, you can rely on the above-mentioned permitted techniques by Google. Interested in more? Check out my Complete SEO Checklist which can do wonders for your website’s SEO health.