The term “cloaking” might evoke imagery of a recent sci-fi movie. But in the world of search engine marketing, it’s considered a “black hat” tactic.

“Black hat” tactics provide search engines with false information. They do this to trick online users to visit their website. “Black hat” is the opposite of “White hat”, which follow search engine guidelines. So what is cloaking exactly?

A Look at Cloaking

woman covering her face with blanket

Cloaking is a deceptive method used to cheat search engines. People do this to rank well for desired keywords. Cloaking can also trick the system, where the search engines get one version of a web page, while visitors get another.

Think of it as book publishing. In this scenario, the author gives one version of their book to the editor for approval. But they then send a completely different version to the printers for the audience to read. The characters in both versions may be similar. But the plot and storyline are completely different.

How Does Cloaking Work?

With cloaking, the webmaster embeds very specific coding within the web page. This coding will determine if the visitor is a person or a search engine (such as a web crawler).

If the visitor is a web crawler, they get a page containing text designed to increase page ranking. But if the visitor is a person, they get a page containing advertising.

Cloaking Is Not Just About Page Ranking

But there is a more underhanded use of cloaking. Cloaking is also used to trick people into downloading malware. These malware attempt to download immediately upon the page opening. The user believes they are clicking on a link related to their search but instead, they find themselves the victim of an attack. This is especially successful when the malware looks like something safe. Windows AntiVirus 2010 is a famous example of this. 

Types of cloaking methods include:

  • IP Address Cloaking: The incoming IP Address determines the web page version.
  • User-Agent Cloaking: The incoming web browser version determines the web page version.
  • HTTP_REFERER Header Cloaking: Where the visitor is coming from determines the web page version. For example, are they directly entering the site or coming in from a search engine or other website link.
  • HTTP Accept-Language Header Cloaking: The incoming user’s browser language settings determine the web page version.
  • JavaScript Cloaking: Most user browsers are JavaScript enabled but search engine crawlers are not.

BMW Caught Using Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects

We normally associate “black hat” tactics with a relatively small sub-class of society. For example, renegades, anarchists, social misfits and hackers. But there are also many examples of large organizations using such “black hat” tricks.

In February 2006, BMW’s German website was virtually blacklisted on Google’s search engine. As a result, their page ranking fell to zero. This happened because BMW used “black hat” as part of their search engine marketing. BMW denied it was trying to deceive its visitors but Matt Cutts was able to provide both versions of one of their pages. BMW’s search engine version featured keyword text that was unreadable by any human. Meanwhile, their visitor version contained mostly images.

Don’t Use Cloaking or Sneaky Redirects

Cloaking and sneaky redirects don’t occur by accident. They are completely intentional. Search engines remove websites found employing such unethical tricks. It can also lead to an embarrassing PR situation for their company brand. So it’s a bad way to go about your search engine marketing. Creating high-quality content is a much better use of your time. So what is cloaking? A big no-no in the world of SEO.