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Source Code Cloaking…beauty or beast?

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One of the more controversial strategies in search engine positioning is cloaking. But, is it a “beauty” or a “beast” in the world of search engines?

What exactly is cloaking?

Let’s say that you’re presented with a Website and told to get it in the top ten rankings. But, that page is using dynamic content or other technology that makes it impossible to get indexed. Or, maybe the keyword phrase is extremely competitive. In any event, you know it would be next to impossible for you to get top rankings.

One way to solve the problem is to use cloaking. Also known as IP Delivery and the Food Script, cloaking is when different pages are served to the search engines than what your visitors see. In other words, you’ll create separate and simple pages for each major engine, taking great care to follow each engine’s guidelines. The pages will be simple text without any tactics that can present ranking problems, such as dynamic content, frames, XML, or Java.

When a search engine visits your site, the script detects which engine is visiting by viewing that engine’s IP address, and the page created just for that engine is shown. But, when a surfer visits your site, a beautifully designed page is presented that is sure to impress your visitors.

By using this strategy, you are showing the engines simple content-rich pages that they like. And, you’re also showing your visitors impressive and professionally-presented pages. The engine sees one page and the visitor see another — each designed to appease their specific “tastes”.

So, the “beauty” of cloaking is that you can have the best of both worlds: the simple pages for the engine, and the impressive pages for your visitors. And, you can create separate pages for each engine, which allows you to use effective techniques for one engine that another engine may not like.

Another reason for using cloaking is to hide your valuable code. Once you’ve worked hard to get your pages optimized and into the top rankings, the last thing you want is for someone to “steal” your code and boot you out of those rankings.

How widespread is it?

Not all professional search engine optimizers use cloaking. Ginette Degner of Search Engine Services (http://www.searchengineservices.com/) only recommends it to clients who are in highly competitive areas or if they’re using technology that would prohibit a good ranking. Ginette says…

“If the site is using technology like XML, JHTM, or catalog delivered pages and there’s no way that the engine is going to get past the ? in the URL, that’s when I go to the script. I use it when it’s the only way it’s going to get done.”

The big question: How do the engines feel about cloaking?

Google has gone on record as stating that they don’t like cloaking. In fact, at the Boston Search Engine Watch conference, the Google rep said, “Don’t cloak. Really.” He also said that within the next 30 to 60 days, Google will begin cracking down on what it perceives to be spamming.

So, my recommendation as far as Google is concerned is not to cloak at this point in time.

But, what about the other engines? John Heard of Beyond Engineering (http://www.bey.com/) and research specialist for Planet Ocean answers,

“They do not like any promotion techniques that misrepresent the content of the site. That’s the number one rule and they will enforce it whenever possible. If you abuse that rule, you do run the risk of getting banned on any search engine, regardless of whether you’re using cloaking technology or not.”

Heard has used the software at every major search engine in the United States with very good success since 1996.

“None of our clients have ever gotten a site/page/domain banned because of the use of the software. But again, we haven’t used misleading pages or content either. If you’re not misleading or causing problems for anyone, it appears the engines take a ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ policy with it. There are no automated systems to detect a cloaked page built correctly.”

What about spamming?

Since surfers never see the cloaked pages, can you get away with spamming? Answer: No! Because cloaking is an aggressive search engine positioning strategy, it becomes “suspect” to the engines. So, it’s imperative that you follow all rules and do nothing that could get you in trouble with the engines.

Therefore, don’t use anything that would be considered spamming techniques — no keyword stuffing, hidden text, or lightning fast META refresh tags.

Spamming techniques may get you in the rankings briefly, but you won’t remain. Ginette explains, “Think about the longevity in this business. You want pages that will remain in the index.”

Is cloaking an open invitation to steal someone else’s page and get their rankings? After all, no one will know, right?

“Copying someone else’s page and ‘cloaking it’ is a big mistake. The company you copied the page from will very likely find that you’ve copied the page because your pages show up for a “unique” word that was in the page content. If and when they find it, they will likely complain to the search engine and they will very likely ban your site because of it. There are also copyright and trademark issues, etc. So if you use cloaking, don’t expect it to work with stolen pages or content. Sooner or later, you will get caught,”

…stresses Heard.

How can you tell if a page has been cloaked?

Compare the title, description, and size of the page to what appears in the search results. That’s your first indication. However, that’s not foolproof, since many of the engines are now using descriptions taken from the ODP or LookSmart. Heard also indicates that cloaking is often used to play ‘headgames’ with the competition.

“The way it works is a company utilizing cloaking hides their html code for their top 10 pages but allows the competition to see a page that wouldn’t rank — that uses say, too many keywords. The theory is the competition will analyze this page and use those keyword densities and placement for their pages. More experienced promoters will often go to the trouble of exactly matching file size, titles, and descriptions for their cloaked pages making them very difficult, if not impossible, to detect.”

Also, there are programs you can use to see if a page has been cloaked. However, these tools will only work with simple “user-agent” cloaking systems. IP-based cloaking systems, since as Heard’s software, IP Delivery (http://www.ip-delivery.com), cannot be viewed with these or any other tool.

Here’s an excellent word of advice

Ginette Degner says,

“Instead of spending your valuable time trying to figure out if a page has been cloaked, simply build a better page.”

Can you find a cheap or free script somewhere on the Net?

Before you rush off to try to find a free script, keep in mind that it’s not the “script” itself that’s so valuable-it’s the updates to the script. Heard explains,

“Search engines often times change their spiders’ IP addresses due to expansion or changes in their systems. If the person is using an industrial strength cloaking software, they depend on these IP addresses to help identify and process the pages correctly for each search engine. If the IP addresses aren’t updated often, the user runs the risk of sending the wrong pages to the engines.”

An excellent, and inexpensive, cloaking software is fantomas shadowSniper which even offers support for international engines.

The future of cloaking?

What trends do we see in the future for cloaking? Is it on the way up or on the way down? Heard answers,

“I believe we’re going to see world-wide support for international search engines of importance. Also, we’re getting more requests to include features such as delivering different web pages for users in different countries. Another common request is the ability to sense the speed of the user’s connection so that cloaking software can deliver the user to a high bandwidth, regular bandwidth, or very low bandwidth (PDA). I expect the cloaking software to morph into something similar to a personalization system that includes search engine robots, shopping bots, etc.”

Harness the “beauty” and keep out the “beast”!

When considering whether cloaking is right for you and your Website, remember that cloaking alone won’t get you top rankings. You have to do that yourself through a lot of hard work. However, if your Website is utilizing techniques that prevent a top ranking, cloaking may solve your problems.

Cloaking software recommendations

IP-Delivery
fantomas shadowSniper
Traffic Titan

Robin Nobles conducts live SEO workshops
(http://www.searchengineworkshops.com) in locations across North
America. She also teaches online SEO training
(http://www.onlinewebtraining.com). Localized SEO training is now
being offered through the Search Engine Academy.
(http://www.searchengineacademy.com) Sign up for SEO tips of the
day at mailto:seo-tip@aweber.com.

Source Code Cloaking…beauty or beast?
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