You and Google have been seeing each other for a while now and things are starting to get serious. “This relationship is working out really well. Seriously, you’re everything I want,” Google says as it nuzzles in closer. You try to act normal but have to stifle a sigh, knowing you carry a dark secret. You’ve been cloaking around behind Google’s back.

What is Cloaking in SEO?

Cloaking occurs when a URL displays different content based on who’s looking — a human or a web crawler. The viewer’s IP address gives this away, and the server delivers the content accordingly.

Cloaking is a form of spamdexing — a mix of indexing and SEO spamming. This type of SEO strategy fools a search engine into thinking that a page’s content is more valuable to users than it really is. Consequently, users like you and me find ourselves on low-quality pages that don’t answer the questions we were asking.

Google doesn’t like this one bit; the search engine wants us to have the absolute best and most pertinent search results possible.

Cloaking Examples

When you arrive for a date at Google’s house the next day, it’s clear the secret is out. Google bursts into tears. “How could you do this to me? I trusted you! I bragged about you on my page one SERPs billions of times — literally.”

Let’s take a look at where things went wrong.

There are several different types of cloaking, but this blog focuses on the content side. These are a few of the most prominent methods of content cloaking — all of which you should avoid because they violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. (Psst — that means your site could be penalized.)

Visually Hidden Text

  • Including text that is the same color as the page background
  • Using a minute font size that is too small to see. (Font size zero is actually a thing.)

For example, let’s say an online retailer wants their content to rank for several keywords related to women’s running shorts, but doesn’t want to create unique copy for each shorts product page. Instead, they stick their desired keywords at the bottom of the page in white text, so they blend in with the background.

Users can’t see the text, but search engines can.

This is a deceitful practice because it is falsely telling Google that the page discusses those things when in fact, it does not. It’s just a commerce page for buying shorts; it doesn’t provide value to the user about the shorts, as those keywords would indicate.

Copy Concealed in CSS or HTML

  • Sticking keywords into a page’s CSS and positioning them off-screen
  • Sticking irrelevant keywords into a page’s HTML tags

Let’s say our retailer has a brick-and-mortar location in Pittsburgh. They want to sell apparel online and also attract customers in the Pittsburgh area. The retailer could invest in generating great content, but instead inserts their desired keywords into the page’s HTML image alt tags.

This is also disingenuous because the page does not actually contain content about running in Pittsburgh and thus does not offer value to the users who are searching those terms.

Flash Pages

  • Showing Flash images and pictures when a human user IP clicks, but showing keyword-stuffed HTML copy to spiders

If you found a page littered with nonsensical keyword sequences, you’d probably leave. You immediately recognize that the page is subpar and not what you want. Search engines don’t have feelings (yet, anyway), so they may not immediately know that a page is subpar simply by glancing at it. The retailer is taking advantage of this fact and using it to fool Google.

But really — come on, guys. It’s almost 2018. You’re already over dabbing and no one says “on fleek” anymore. It’s time to stick Flash where it belongs — in a time capsule with choker tattoo necklaces and Guy Fieri hair.

Is All SEO Cloaking Black Hat?

Illustration of black, gray, and white hat developers.

If we’re talking about gaming the system for better rankings, yes, cloaking is totally black hat.

However, some marketers argue the merits of so-called “white hat cloaking.” They adhere to a broad definition of cloaking, which is returning different search results for different users based on their IP.

Under this definition, we can technically include geolocating, which is the perfectly acceptable practice of serving different content to users based on their IP location. To combat any semblance of cloaking in geolocating, Google recommends that websites treat bots the same way they would any other user from that bot’s location.

Shady black hat practices aside, cloaking can occur by accident — especially if you’re a novice webmaster. Even if you do not have malicious intentions, you may get hit with a penalty and fall significantly in rankings.

The bottom line? Keep your content where everyone can see it and educate yourself about what constitutes cloaking.

Fixing Cloaking Damage

It will take some time and effort to regain the trust you lost, but you and Google were meant to be. You can be happy together once more.

Cloaking penalties are no joke, but they can be repaired. Sure, Google may have penalized you by deindexing you or throwing you out of the SERPs. But, lucky for you, Google is forgiving.

Also lucky for you, Knucklepuck has seen this kind of damage before, and we know how to execute an SEO recovery plan that will earn back Google’s trust in your domain and authority. Our talented SEO Team specializes in rebuilding damaged reputations just like yours. Take a step in the right direction and get in touch.