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What Is Cloaking in SEO?

What is cloaking in SEO? When it comes to SEO, cloaking is actually derived from its literal meaning of having a disguise, or hiding something. Technically speaking, it refers to an occurrence when different content is served to users than the search engine crawlers.

To elaborate on that a little bit, Search engine crawlers think a page is about something else, but when a user visits the same page, it’s an entirely, or partially, different content, different images, etc.

If that doesn’t make sense, let me expand a bit further with a hypothetical example. Say, that I have a business to sell shoes. Shoes, being an eCommerce business, in general, can be very competitive. It might take years and years before I start ranking in Google for keywords around shoes. However, let’s say that I discovered, that ranking for fruits, is relatively easier.

So, what I might do is that on the back-end (HTML, CSS, script side of things; because that’s what the search engine bots crawl), I might have everything about fruits, but on the front end, when the “User” visits the same URL, they’ll start seeing content about shoes (my primary business).

In theory, I might start ranking for fruit related keywords in Google search, but when the user clicks on my page, they see content about shoes. In this day and age, I don’t think that the majority of the websites embrace cloaking this way, but there might still be a few instances here and there. A lot of the times, one might inadvertently end up cloaking themselves.

Super technically speaking, something doesn’t need to be as drastic as this to qualify for cloaking; but yes, the idea behind it is that different content is served to search engine bots than regular users.

What Are Some Examples of Cloaking?

In my SEO experience, I haven’t really dealt with websites that are practicing cloaking. But some of the easy examples I can think of are:

  1. Throwing in a bunch of keywords in the form of h1, or h2s, but also having the same background color, so it’s hidden from the front-end.
  2. A lot of the cloaking can occur in a dynamic behavior too. Such as those with IP Addresses, Java scripts, etc.
  3. Stuffing your keywords behind images, or even using CSS to hide texts outside of the visible screen. In other words, users won’t be able to see it, but it will be present in the source code for crawlers to crawl.

Additionally, below are a few commonly asked questions about cloaking.

Is There Such a Thing Called White Hat Cloaking?

No. Cloaking is cloaking. There is no white hat or black hat side of it. In general, it’s a frowned upon practice, and falls against Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines.

Is Serving Content Based on Geolocation Cloaking?

No. If you’ve used proper methodologies where your server can serve content in different languages based on the IP address, it’s not. What could be considered cloaking is if you’re creating a specific kind of behavior just for the Googlebot. Normally, you don’t have to worry about this. And if you don’t know what cloaking is, again, you likely don’t have to worry about it.

Is Cloaking Illegal?

No. it is not illegal from what I know. You will not go to prison for it (assuming you’re not breaking any laws). However, it will likely be highly detrimental for your organic performance as Google will not treat you kindly.

What About Separate Mobile Sites?

If you’re serving different content to mobile users, or have a separate mobile site, it’s not considered cloaking, unless you’re telling Google bots something else about it. In my opinion, not having a mobile site is the route to go, and rather have your site be responsive. In the world of mobile-first indexing, my post about it might give you some perspective on what you should be doing for mobile users.

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In Conclusion: What Are the Best Practices to Avoid Cloaking?

The best answer to this question is this: Behave normally. Create landing pages like you usually do without worrying about the technicalities of how Googlebot will treat you. In fact, Google wants you to do exactly that.

If for some reason, you’re coding things differently just for Googlebot, chances are intentionally, or unintentionally, you’re involved in cloaking. Or, say you have good-willed intentions for Google, and you’re doing all these extra works to give the Googlebot special treatment. What might end up happening is that you’ll do yourself more harm than good.

A perfect rule of thumb here is to remember this: Do not treat Googlebot differently. You don’t have to take any special measures to ensure Google understands your website properly. There are obviously crawlability & indexability best practices you should follow, but none of that involves giving preferential treatment to search engine bots, and certainly no big deceptions, like my shoes and fruits example.

And when it comes to easily apparent cloaking tactics such as hidden texts, links, etc., just don’t do it! Rank correctly, rank naturally, and rank ethically!

What Google Has to Say About Cloaking

A video about cloaking, straight from Google.

Note: While this post makes some references to search engine bots, it’s written mainly keeping Googlebot in mind. It is my belief that predominantly speaking, when you’e all squared away with Google, you’re by that virtue, squared away with other search engine bots.