Cloaking, and How Much of it Does Google Allow?

Cloaking is an SEO practice in which two versions of content exist. One is for the web crawlers and the other for the site visitors. As can be guessed, cloaking is a strategy to improve a site’s ranking.

However, Google has had a clear stand on it. The Search Engine sees it as a pure violation of its webmasters guidelines. The practice misleads the users by serving information different than what lures them to it.

Despite this clarity in its guidelines, there have often been questions in the SEO community questioning the extent of cloaking that is allowed and can go unpenalized.

Get Answers from the Expert

The recent JavaScript SEO Office Hours was centered on the same.  Here are some answers that Google’s Martin Splitt provided on what constitutes cloaking and to the extent it is acceptable.

Gray Areas

At the outset, Martin made it amply clear that cloaking misleads the user. And for this reason, it is unacceptable. However, there is a gray area due to which showing content that is ‘slightly different’ is okay!

Splitt explained this with examples.

The first example he cited was where a publisher shows kittens and butterflies to the Googlebot and gets indexed for it. 

Next time, when a human user comes looking for kittens, the site shows up in the SERP and the user is misled to the site. Once there, he realizes that the URL is about anything but kittens.

Now, that’s cloaking. And, it is this kind of cloaking that can’t be passed on under any guise.

Slightly Different Content is Okay

In another example, Splitt cited an instance where a publisher may have two versions of a website, say, the mobile version and the desktop version.

The two versions differ slightly.  While the desktop version has a wide array of products the mobile version shows only selected products, and for more products, users can click through the pages.

An arrangement of this sort is not cloaking. It is simply serving slightly different content and that’s completely acceptable!

Wrapping Up

To wrap it up, cloaking is bad and unacceptable. It can attract penalties when the publisher intends to mislead visitors to improve ranking.

But, a bit of a difference between information served to a bot and that to a user, within reasonable limits, is acceptable.


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