What Is Cloaking?

Cloaking is one of those terms in internet marketing that has multiple meanings.It’s most ‘generic’ or broad meaning would be the act of hiding or changing an element of a webpage from a third party.

Typically speaking there are three different segments of cloaking that are commonly practiced. They vary from something that is fairly innocent to completely blackhat.

When cloaking is typically brought up on ‘Less Blackhat’ forums, people are often talking about hiding an affiliate link from either Google or their visitors. However, that is by far the most innocent form of cloaking and as far as I’m concerned should be renamed to something else other than cloaking – such as ‘disguising.’

A more aggressive form of cloaking is also known as ‘Content Swapping.’ Content swapping is done for SEO reasons typically. It involves taking a portion of content and changing it depending on the visitor. I’ll explain more later.

Now there is an even more blackhat version of cloaking. It involves showing bots and spiders a great content rich webpage (or entire site) that they will rank and swapping it out for a high converting landing page when a human visitor is detected.

The Benefits Of Cloaking

Let’s take a moment and look at why people cloak and what benefits they can expect from doing so.

Cloaking Links

As a webmaster you don’t always want to scream ‘I’m an affiliate’ with big ugly links. Let’s face it, the internet public is becoming slightly more educated with the concept of internet marketing every day.

Most browsers will display the link url in the lower left hand corner of the browser if the user hovers over it, and if they see a big ugly “site.com/ref=23423?23423jkh23h7g423jkhgjh2g34j23g” then they are much less likely to trust that link.

However when the link is neat and tidy and named something rather innocent, the user may be more likely to trust it. An example would be something like “site.com/visit/more-information” and just because it looks innocent doesn’t mean that it still couldn’t be an affiliate link.

But GOY, isn’t that dishonest?

Well, to be fair the entire concept of cloaking is being dishonest to some degree. You’re essentially lying to your visitors. Either you’re hiding the intention of your links or you are cheating your webpage up through the SERPS but one way or another you’re lying.

If that really bothers you, then cloaking is something you should probably stay away from overall.

Cloaking Content

There’s normally only one reason to cloak content. Search engines love text content. They just eat it up.

Unfortunately, big text content rich pages aren’t always the best converting pages out there and because of that – they can be replaced by much more profitable pages.

Now, it’s not always necessary to replace an entire webpage – sometimes the blackhat in question will just swap out sections of content and replace it with call to action banners.

The benefit of doing this is pretty obvious. You get to feed the search engine spiders exactly what they want (and will rank) while showing your paying customers exactly what will motivate them to buy your product, service or offer.

In other words, you use the search engines to rank your landing pages much higher than they would normally.

Examples Of Cloaking

Hiding A Link’s True Destination

We are all pretty familiar with the preview that pops up in the lower left hand corner of most browsers that tell the user exactly where that link will take them. In case you aren’t, here’s an example.

An example of a link that is not cloaked.

An example of a link that is not cloaked.

Now in most cases this is perfectly fine and there is nothing wrong with showing where a certain link will take the visitor. In fact in some cases, it may even be beneficial to do so.

But for instance, there are some cases – particularly with affiliate offers – that showing a link’s actual destination may cause a ‘disconnect’ for the users and should probably be avoided.

In these cases, using a cloaked link is probably the best choice. For example:

linkcloaking_after

An example of a link that’s been ‘cloaked.’

There’s multiple different ways to cloak links. You can use PHP to do it as I have, or you can use HTML. There isn’t really a downside to either really.

Important Point About Cloaked Links

There is a way to cloak links based on the visitor, but it’s not something that’s commonly done.

Just using you’re normal link, Googlebot can still just follow it where ever it goes and associate the two. Just disallowing the folder the file is in or something like that won’t stop a crawler from following a link if you use the link in a piece of content that Google can later crawl.

The only way a disallowed folder would work is if you never published the link a place where the crawler could reach normally.

But moving on…

How To Cloak Links

As I just mentioned above, you can use PHP or HTML to do it.

PHP

To create a cloaked PHP link you just create a plain text file and put this code in it:

<?php
header(‘Location: http://www.exampleaffiliatelink.com’);
die();
?>

Replace the ‘exampleaffiliatelink.com/’ with your affiliate link. Then save the text file as a ‘plain file’ and use .php as the extension.

HTML

You just need to create a plain text file and put this code in it:

<meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”0; url=http://exampleaffiliatelink.com/”>

Replace the ‘exampleaffiliatelink.com/’ with your affiliate link. Then save the text file as a ‘plain file’ and use .html as the extension.

With that covered, let’s move on to the good stuff – content cloaking.

Examples Content Replacement Cloaking

When it comes to content replacement, you should never be able to find an actual example of it.

See, as a user you will load a page and not know that search engine spiders are being shown something different from what you see. You shouldn’t even be able to suspect it’s happening or the blackhat doing it isn’t doing his job right!

But there are a lot of ways that it can be ‘screwed up’ overall. Their methodology can be ‘misconfigured’ and not serve the right ‘content’ to the right user. Or the limitations for the cloaking may be too tight and real human visitors may end up seeing what was initially meant for the bot to see.

Because of the near impossibility of finding an actual cloaking example to demonstrate, I’ve mocked up this quick example for what it might be look like in action.

Let’s look at ‘portion swapping.’

Cloaked Portion Swapping

contentcloaking

On the left hand side, we have a text filled page that a bot would probably love. On the left, we have nearly the same page, but with a big profit driving call to action underneath the initial introduction.

Of course, this is just one example of content cloaking.

Entire Page Swapping

The other typical form of cloaking will be to show a bot one page while showing humans a completely different page that would be much more likely to drive conversions.

Let’s use the same example page as in the example above.

pagecloaking

In this example a fully page of keyword rich text that the spiders will love was swapped out for a simple landing page that will build an email list and drive conversions.

The advantages of this are pretty apparent. The search engines will rank the page full of text while the humans will interact with the landing page, ultimately leading to income for the blackhat doing the cloaking.

Important Note About Page Swapping

Typically speaking, when someone ‘page swaps,’ they will typically be ‘site swapping.’ That means that they would cloak the entire site.

Typically this is riskier, and should be done by someone with plenty of experience and who knows exactly what they are doing.

Google actively battles large scale cloaking and sites do get deindexed. That’s just a reality.

But if it’s a blackhat, they will typically generate the whole site. With more sophisticated means of content generation being released, it’s actually much easier to produce the kind of content spiders love.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has given you a full overview of all the various types of cloaking and why they are done.

Each different type of cloaking has it’s own set of advantages, but when dealing with content cloaking only an experienced blackhat should attempt to utilize it.