What is Cloaking in SEO? Understanding Black Hat Techniques

There are a lot of SEO strategies out there. Over the years, plenty of them have fallen to the wayside but a few black hat strategies still remain. 

Cloaking in SEO is one of these. 

In this guide, I’m going to explain what cloaking is, why people do it, and what types of repercussions you can expect to endure if you’re caught. 

What is Cloaking in SEO?

Cloaking in SEO is a black hat technique where a website presents different content to search engines and users. 

The content Google sees and crawls to determine search engine rankings is different from the content that users actually receive when they land on the site. This is done to manipulate search rankings and is a direct violation of Google’s guidelines

The goal is to trick search engines into ranking a page higher by showing content that may be irrelevant, spammy, or of low quality to users.

Popular Cloaking Practices

At first glance, this might seem unnecessary or downright stupid because it requires the same amount of work as creating actual valuable pages. 

You’re kind of right for thinking that way. 

Nonetheless, here are some of the ways black hat SEOs cloak their URLs. 

IP Cloaking/Redirects

This is a common form of cloaking in SEO and involves redirecting a user to the desired site using another site that has a high ranking. 

For example, let’s say you rank really well for an informational search query that doesn’t really make you any money but it generates a lot of traffic. You would use the popular page to redirect visitors to the page that makes you money in the hope of a short-term gain. 

This cloaking practice is also a very common way to manipulate ad revenue. You can attract visitors to a page that is ranking but automatically redirects them to a page with high commission upside per view. Now all the traffic you’re funneling through the secondary page is earning you ad revenue by using the main page as a lead magnet. 

Again, this is against Google’s terms and you will get caught eventually. 

User Agent Cloaking

There are dedicated programs out there called “user agents.” These are designed to collect information about the visitors you have on your site to determine which version of the website the user sees. 

For example, the user agent may display content-rich versions of a webpage to Google bots and search engines but then display a completely different page to users. 

You’ll commonly find this in illegal industries such as gambling, drugs, and streaming. If we take a website like streameast.to for example. 

example of a potentially cloaked website

This is an illegal sports streaming website that will display URLs and pages depending on how you find the site. 

To a Google Bot, this website may look completely different. But to us, it’s a sports streaming website that allows you illegally watch premium sporting events like NFL games. 

Hidden Text

Let me take you back to the year 2002. Black hat SEO is basically the only form of SEO and hidden text is one of the most popular ways to manipulate rankings. 

Site owners used to include a giant wall of text at the bottom of their webpages in the same color as the background to stuff keywords onto the page. Google crawlers were unable to identify this so the page was rewarded with higher rankings as a result. 

Now let me throw a modern spin at you. Today, black hat SEOs use Javascript to slow the loading of certain page elements to hide content and manipulate rankings. 

For example, Javascript can delay content rendering until after the initial page load. This will allow site owners to stuff keywords in places where Google crawlers won’t fit it. 

Potential Benefits of Cloaking in SEO

Before I even begin to discuss benefits associated with cloaking, let me be clear. This is a black hat SEO technique and I do not recommend it. It’s discouraged by Google and will likely result in severe penalties including lower rankings and deindexing. 

That said, if you’re interested in the short-term benefits of cloaking in SEO and willing to try and get away with it, here are some benefits you may experience: 

Higher Rankings – The primary and often misguided benefit that some seek through cloaking is the potential to achieve higher rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs). By serving keyword-rich or spammy content to search engine bots, they hope to manipulate rankings.

Unfair Advantage – If you’re in a competitive niche you may be able to gain an edge over your competitors by manipulating the search engines. 

Avoid Algorithm Updates – This may honestly be the only positive I see with cloaking. When done correctly, you can use this strategy to delay the impact of search engine algorithm updates which can lead to temporary gains in ranking and short-term revenue spikes. 

Long-Term Drawbacks of Cloaking in SEO

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s talk about the truth. The risks of cloaking in SEO are high and they outweigh the benefits. Here are some drawbacks you can expect to encounter: 

Penalties

Search engines have guidelines and policies for you to follow. If you don’t follow them, you can face penalties ranging from a drop in rankings to complete removal from the search engine. The loss of visibility will have a long-term impact on your success. 

Blacklisted

Engaging in cloaking can result in a website being blacklisted by search engines. This means that the website is entirely removed from search engine indexes and will not appear in search results for any queries. Being blacklisted is a severe consequence that can be difficult and time-consuming to reverse.

Damaged Brand Reputation

If you’re running a legitimate business you should have legitimate practices. Cloaking is unethical and if you’ve been in business for a long time, the last thing you want to do is hurt your reputation by trying something sneaky. 

Users who visit your website and find misleading or confusing content are not likely to trust you and this can lead to negative reviews and poor brand image. 

Wasted Money

As I said earlier, cloaking almost requires the same amount of money and resources as building a legitimate website so you’re exhausting your resources for a short-term gain instead of playing the long game. 

How to Look Out For Cloaked Websites?

If you want to find out if a competitor is cloaking their website to cheat you in the SERPs – one of the easiest ways is to view the cached version of the site. 

how to find cached version of a site

In the search results, click the three dots, then click the down arrow and click “cached.” This will display the version of the website that Google sees and if it’s different from the webpage you see, chances are it’s being cloaked. 

Examine the webpage’s content for keywords that seem out of place or excessive. Cloaked websites often stuff keywords to manipulate search engines.

Final Thoughts

Cloaking in SEO isn’t as common as it once was but there are always going to be people trying to cheat their way around the system. 

Take my advice – SEO works if you do it the right way. I’ve been doing this a long time utilizing the low and slow methods and Google has always rewarded me. Now that you understand what cloaking is, you can avoid the temptation moving forward. 

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