What Is Cloaking in SEO and Why You Need to Avoid It

10 mins read

Trying to reach top SERP rankings is a must when you want to achieve the success of your website, but not all SEO techniques are positive or secure. Some methods can get you penalized or even banned by Google. One of them is cloaking. In this article let’s talk about what is cloaking, how to identify it, and why you need to avoid it. 

What Is Cloaking?

If you are improving the SEO of your company or experimenting with different SEO strategies, you’re doomed to hear about black hat SEO. Black hat SEO is what it seems to you — a set of SEO methods created to cheat search engines and get a site a higher ranking than it deserves.

Cloaking is a black hat SEO technique. With this technique, a website presents one version of a URL, page, or just a piece of content to the search engines for higher ranking while showing another to its actual visitors.

Cloaking can also sometimes happen unintentionally, so it’s important to identify what it can cause, as well as why you should avoid it and what to do if you notice it.

What Are the Different Ways of Cloaking and How to Do It?

There are different types of cloaking, and each involves presenting different content to search engines and their visitors. These cover:

1. User-Agent Cloaking

This type of cloaking contains showing different versions of a website to different web browsers based on their user-agent string. This is usually used to give a better user experience for different browser types.

2. IP-based cloaking

In this type of cloaking, different versions of a website are served based on the IP address of the user. This is often used to show different content to visitors from different locations.

3. JavaScript cloaking

This type of cloaking involves using JavaScript to show content to visitors that is hidden from search engines. This is usually used to improve the user experience by showing dynamic content.

4. HTTP_REFERER cloaking

This type of cloaking contains presenting different content based on the referrer of the visitor. SEO experts do this to show different landing pages to visitors from different sources.

5. HTTP Accept-language header cloaking

This type of cloaking means presenting different content based on the language choice of the visitor.

Link wheel

Why Should You Avoid Cloaking in SEO?

Black hat SEO techniques like cloaking conflict with Google’s webmaster guidelines, which is not what you need on your way to achieve and maintain a high SERP rank. 

Here are further reasons why it should be avoided:

You could be punished by Google

No matter if you used some black hat techniques occasionally or with a purpose, any type of black hat SEO, cloaking included, can lead your website to penalization by Google. 

And once a site gets Google penalties, it’s extremely hard to recover and gain previous positions again. Keep in mind that there are no guarantees, as some sites never really recover.

Your website could be banned

In some cases where a site was noticed to use cloaking, Google decides to apply more than a simple penalty to it. It could be banned entirely and indefinitely. This is what’s called a manual penalty, and it’s even harder to return from than an algorithmic penalty.

A website that’s been manually removed from Google’s indexing system might as well not exist, as no one will be able to find it using keywords and key phrases anymore. 

Of course, you can appeal to Google for forgiveness after fixing your website, but there are no guarantees.

You’ll almost certainly be noticed

Google and the rest of the search engines are getting more experienced and efficient at identifying cloaking in SEO, as well as other black hat methods. In short, it’s really only a matter of time before you are identified. 

Since cloaking is literally about providing a different user experience than a searcher is expecting, it contradicts Google’s rules or expectations of its users.

It can damage your reputation

Remember that the activities that don’t properly serve search engine users really don’t help your company. 

People don’t like to be fooled. And if your audience discovers that you can trick them, they’ll likely leave and never come back. Your users will lose their trust, and that’s very hard to recover.

How Can You Find Out If a Website Is Cloaking?

There are several reasons why you should check whether a website is cloaking. 

Firstly, you’ll want to know whether a website you’ve visited is potentially untrustworthy. Cloaking is definitely a sign that you might not be safe on that site and should fix it.

It’s also possible that your own site could be under a hacking attack. Cloaking is one of the techniques hackers use to cover up the attack and make sure it goes undetected for as long as possible.

Here are some methods for identifying cloaking in SEO before it has a chance to hurt you or damage your SERP rankings:

Compare the SERP result to the actual page

When Google serves you a particular link on one of its SERPs, the attached description will show text pulled from another (linked) page with words related to your search term bolded. 

If the description differs, that’s a sign that something’s not right and the site could be cloaking.

Use an online cloak checker

Perhaps the easiest way to find out whether a site is cloaking is to insert the URL into an online cloak checker like SiteChecker or DupliChecker. 

These tools are free to use, readily available, and effective. They can show you whether a site is cloaking, and also some can scan pages for hidden scripts and other problematic code.

If you find anything suspicious, take action immediately to preserve your search rankings, as well as the general trustworthiness of your site.

How to Avoid Cloaking?

Cloaking has such a negative impact on a website’s performance and authority, that it’s best to spend some time and ensure you’re not breaking any rules. Routinely do the next activities:

  • Review the elements of your website and make sure that all pages have a contrast of 4.5 to 1.
  • Check out your site for text hidden in JavaScript. This activity must be done manually. If you will find the hidden text, remove it and replace it with HTML.
  • Examine if your site has text hidden by CSS. There are special tools and services out there to help, like Screaming Frog. Use them.

What are the Allowed Ways to Perform Cloaking in SEO?

There are some options listed on the web about white hat cloaking, but our opinion is that there is no legal way to implement cloaking. And it isn’t worth the risk. 

Final Words

The better you can identify different black hat SEO techniques, avoid them, and use the white hat SEO methods, the more you learn about digital marketing and search engine optimization. 

Using the online checking tools for cloaking would be the most convenient method for identifying cloaking. The best part is that these free tools will test the page for URLs with hidden scripts, uncover search engine cloaking, and not grab a lot of your time.

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