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To Cloak or Not to Cloak?

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If you're a regular reader of Search Day, then you probably already know that the most controversial topic in the world of search engine marketing is cloaking. Cloaking (also commonly referred to as IP delivery) is a process used by some webmasters to deliver custom tailored content to search engine spiders.

Over the last year, cloaking has been the focus of numerous articles, as well as the topic of debate in some of the Web's most prominent marketing related discussion forums and newsletters.

The often extreme rhetoric that has come from people on both sides of the issue, combined with a recent flurry of contradictory statements from several search engine representatives on the topic, has created an environment that has left the average Webmaster a bit confused when it comes to cloaking.

One of the best resources I've found to get a handle on the various issues relating to the use of IP delivery as a marketing tool is the "Cloaking & Doorways Advanced Track Roundtables" that take place at any of Internet.com' s Search Engine Strategies conferences.

The expertise in attendance combined with the higher level of civility discussions conducted in the 3-D world tend to produce, always seem to create an environment that is both extremely informative as well as entertaining. And last month's conference in San Francisco was certainly no exception.

The first, and newest speaker on the cloaking panel was Alan Perkins, CTO of e-Brand Management a U.K based company that produces search engine optimization and submission software (http://www.ebrandmanagement.com/).

Alan had the daunting task of presenting the anti-cloaking viewpoint in a room that was admittedly pro-cloaking. His opening remarks expanded upon the general views contained in a white paper published on e Brand Management's website, (http://www.ebrandmanagement.com/whitepapers/spam1.htm) which includes a rather unique definition of what types of customized content delivery constitutes spam.

According to Alan, "all IP cloaking delivers spam." Part of his reasoning for his position was that in order for IP delivery to be acceptable, both parties must be willing participants. Using IP delivery for SEO purposes isn't appropriate because the particular search engine hasn't agreed to accept content based upon IP identification. However, he went on to state that using IP detection to deliver content based on geographic location (a form of IP delivery used by most search engines) was an acceptable practice. (Even though the end user clearly never consents to being redirected to a specific site based upon their IP address).

He also stated that "alternative technologies such as agent based delivery or any other technology that doesn't involve detecting search engine IP addresses is acceptable."

His somewhat contradictory statements that seemed to focus solely on the act of tracking and identifying search engine IP addresses, seemed to leave the audience a bit confused as to Alan's actual position on the broader question on whether or not it's acceptable to present a search engine with content that may be different than what is seen by the majority of human visitors.

The second panelist was John Heard, President of Beyond Engineering (http://www.ip-delivery.com). As the developer of one of the first commercially available pieces of cloaking software, John was able to provide attendees with insight into the history and development of cloaking as a defensive tool used to prevent competitors from stealing optimized html code (a process commonly referred to as pagejacking). According to John, despite the fact that many engines now incorporate off-the-page criteria in their ranking algorithms, pagejacking is still quite common and does result in a substantial amount of traffic being stolen.

The third, and certainly most animated panelist was Mikkel Demib Svendsen. As both a veteran SEO consultant and former product manager for the largest Scandinavian search engine, Mikkel has had the opportunity to experience the issues involved with cloaking from "both sides of the fence."

Mikkel presented the opinion that search engines should focus their efforts on detecting and eliminating spam, regardless of the methods used to deliver it. He went on to explain that although it's certainly possible for search engines to implement programs designed to detect and eliminate content delivered via IP delivery, doing so amounts to stepping out on a very slippery slope, due to the increasing level of personalization that exists on the web. Developing programs that attempt to conduct any kind of comparative page analysis of a site in order to determine whether or not a page has been cloaked, would more than likely catch and ban many legitimate sites.

After the three panelists finished their opening statements, the session moved into the Q & A phase. The initial questions from audience members were from people wanting more examples from the panelists as to their individual interpretations of what would and would not constitute inappropriate cloaking. That lead to a few heated exchanges between Mikkel and Alan over their differing viewpoints on the definition of spam. Other than a brief comment that Alan's viewpoint amounted to "splitting hairs" John chose to remain fairly quiet.

When the verbal sparring died down, one audience member stood up and asked the main questions on everyone's mind.

What do search engines REALLY think about cloaking, and which engines, if any are actually attempting to catch and ban sites that use it?

According to John, most engines will state publicly that they don't approve of the practice, but at the present time, he was unaware of any engines that are actually targeting and banning sites simply for using IP delivery techniques. Instead, they seem to have chosen to adopt policies that are more in line with the opinions expressed by Mikkel.

Will any search engines be changing their policies towards cloaking in the near future?

It's quite possible. At the Boston Search Engine Strategies conference last March, Google Software Engineer Matt Cutts announced that Google would be launching a new automated cloaking detection system over the next 60 days. However, the consensus among the numerous attendees who admitted to using cloaking is that this hasn't yet happened.

Although the discussions probably didn't change the minds of those who came in with a definite opinion, it did provide those who seemed to be interested in exploring cloaking with some sound advice.

1. Evaluate your reasons for wanting to cloak.

If you already get a substantial amount of traffic from search engines, and your goal is to simply make additional gains, you might want to think twice. Crossing the line could end up being quite costly. On the other hand, if your site is dynamically challenged, or makes use of other design elements that search engines have problems with, IP delivery might be a solution.

2. Proceed Very Slowly

Setting up and managing an effective IP delivery system is a lot of work. You might want to begin by cloaking exact copies of your current pages. That will enable you to evaluate the required level of commitment without running the risk of making a mistake that could get you into trouble.

3. Don't Mislead

Make sure that any keyword phrase you target accurately describes your products or services. Always remember that you have an obligation to the end user. If you don't have content to support a particular phrase, don't use it.

4. Don't Deliver All Users to Your Home Page

If you run an ecommerce site and you build an optimized page that targets a specific product, make sure your visitors end up on a page about that product. Having dozens of pages indexed that all point to the same page irritates both users and search engines.

5. Fly Under the Radar

Don't try and cloak your way to the top of search results for highly popular and competitive phrases. The use of directory listings combined with other off-page criteria makes it a tough hill to climb. The popularity of the terms almost guarantees that both the search engines and your competitors will scrutinize your site. Instead, focus on using cloaking to deliver otherwise invisible, deep level content.

Following these rules certainly won't guarantee that you won't get penalized, but they are the guidelines that most of the successful, long-term cloakers claim to be using.

Additional Cloaking Information:

Cloaking Forum at WebmasterWorld
http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum24/

AltaVista Cloaking Policy
http://help.altavista.com/search/faq_web#13

Google Cloaking Policy
http://www.google.com/help/faq.html#cloaking

Inktomi Cloaking Policy
http://www.inktomi.com/products/search/content_policy.html

Greg Boser is the founder of WebGuerrilla (http://www.webguerrilla.com), a consultancy that develops customized visibility programs for clients, to ensure they are well positioned in search engines, directories, and online forums.


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