Cloaking in SEO is a black hat technique where a website presents a different URL or content to users and another one to search crawlers. This is an attempt to deceive search engines to rank the website higher in SERPs.
Cloaking is a direct violation of Webmaster Guidelines and leads to penalization in the form of a Google Penalty. A Google Penalty will result in a significant drop in rankings, which leads to less exposure, less engagement, and fewer conversions.
What are some Cloaking Practices?
There are a range of cloaking practices used to try and fool the bots. Some of them can be accidental though, so watch out.
1. Hidden Text
You can achieve hidden text in a few different ways. Matching foreground colour and background color is a method used to hide text within a web page and is considered keyword stuffing.
Although this may happen by accident, Google punishes it in the same way.
2. Having an Unbalanced Text to HTML Ratio
Webmasters usually use this tactic when a web page is thin on content.
Web pages should have a high text to HTML ratio; however, some web pages increase the HTML ratio instead of developing and expanding upon their content.
3. Showing HTML to Search Engines, but Flash to Users
This is a form of ‘Agent Name Delivery’ and involves writing a website in HTML. These pages appear content-rich to crawlers but present as Flash to users.
How to Avoid Cloaking
Considering cloaking has such a negative impact on a website’s performance and authority, it's best to keep an eye on it, and ensure you’re not breaking any rules.
Review the elements of your website and ensure that all pages have a contrast of 4.5 to 1.
Investigate if your site has text hidden by CSS. There are tools out there to help, like Screaming Frog.
What are Some Permitted Practices Like Cloaking?
While there has been some confusion over their status in the past, the following content delivery methods are permitted, and will not lead to a Google penalty.
Geo-location is the method by which Google presents different web pages to users based on their location. For example, Google will appear differently to a user in the US, than to someone in the UK.
2. URL Rewriting
This is the process of changing the appearance of a URL, to insert keywords and improve readability for SEO without altering the structure of a web page.
3. Flexible Sampling
This is where users clicking from Google to a listed page, are able to view the first page of content without subscribing to the host site. After the first page, there is barrier implemented.
How Can We Help?
Concerned you’ve been led astray by a dodgy team? Why not contact us, and we’ll match you with a fresh set of eyes, approved by us, to reset your practices.
While you wait, you can check out our training courses to get started, and a legitimate, white hat SEO strategy.