Does cloaking still work or is it obsolete?

In the SEO world, various strategies are used to optimize visibility for search engines such as Google. One of these tactics is “cloaking. This technique is both controversial and risky. In this article, I discuss exactly what cloaking is, how it works and why it is generally considered an unethical SEO method.

What is cloaking?

Around the mid-2000s, the situation began to change. Google found it increasingly important to provide high-quality and relevant search results to its users. Therefore, it began to refine its algorithms and control. In 2005, Google introduced a major update to its algorithm, known as the Jagger update. This update confronted various “black hat” SEO tactics including cloaking.

The Jagger update marked a turning point in Google’s fight against cloaking. It improved the algorithm’s ability to spot cloaking and other deceptive practices. Websites caught cloaking could expect severe penalties. Sometimes that meant lower rankings or even complete removal from Google’s search index. This update was a clear signal that Google was determined to improve the quality and relevance of its search results.

Since then, Google has released several updates to further refine its algorithms. This continued the fight against unethical SEO practices such as cloaking. This has contributed to much more reliable and relevant search results for users. In addition, it has become a lot harder for websites to achieve higher rankings through manipulative tactics.

Read more about white hat SEO

How does cloaking work?

Cloaking can be applied in several ways. A common method is to use IP addresses to identify bots. When the server receives a request from a known bot IP address, it displays an optimized, keyword-rich page designed specifically for SEO. For normal visitors, however, the site shows a completely different page. Often with less relevant or even misleading content.

What forms of cloaking exist?

SEO Cloaking can be done in many different ways. But they all have the same purpose: to show different content or information to search engines and to ordinary users. Here are some common forms of cloaking:

  1. User-agent cloaking: this form of cloaking recognizes the visitor’s “user-agent. For bots, such as the Googlebot, an optimized page appears to improve SEO ranking. Normal visitors see a less optimized page.
  2. IP-based cloaking: this form of cloaking uses the visitor’s IP address to determine whether content should be modified. The server recognizes known IP addresses of bots and displays a different version of the website when these addresses are recognized.
  3. HTTP referrer cloaking: this form of cloaking checks the HTTP referrer header to find out the origin of the visitor. Depending on whether the visitor comes from a search engine or another source, different content may be displayed.
  4. JavaScript cloaking: in this form of cloaking, the page is designed in such a way that search engines and users see different content without JavaScript enabled. Users with JavaScript enabled tend to see more visual and interactive elements.
  5. Flash-based cloaking: this form of cloaking uses Flash to display different content to search engines and users. Since search engines have trouble indexing Flash content, they often display an HTML version to bots and a Flash version to normal visitors.
  6. Geographic cloaking: this form of cloaking shows different content to users based on their geographic location. While this can be used for local language versions, it can also be abused, by showing search engine optimized content in certain regions.

It is important to note here that all forms of cloaking violate the guidelines of most search engines. Using cloaking can cause lower rankings or even more drastic penalties. SEO specialists should focus on ethical, “white hat” methods that provide valuable and relevant content for both search engines and users.

Here is a table showing the estimated frequency and severity of penalties for different forms of cloaking in SEO. The scale runs from 1 to 100, with a higher score indicating a higher penalty.

Type of cloakingChance of
a penalty (1-100)
How heavy is
the penalty? (1-100)
User-agent cloaking8590
IP-based cloaking8085
HTTP referrer cloaking7580
JavaScript cloaking6575
Flash-based cloaking6070
Geographic cloaking7075
Forms of cloaking + the risks assessed.

Note! These are only estimates and vary depending on the specific situation and the search engine imposing the penalty. In general, “User-Agent Cloaking” is considered the most risky. Flash-based cloaking is generally considered less serious and has less severe consequences.

Why is cloaking used?

Cloaking is used primarily to get better search engine rankings. Websites often apply cloaking to increase their visibility for certain keywords. Even if the actual content is not relevant or useful for those keywords. This may temporarily increase traffic to the site.

The risks of cloaking

While cloaking can potentially provide short-term benefits, it is known as a “black hat” SEO tactic. It almost always violates the guidelines of search engines, including Google. Using cloaking can lead to serious penalties. This can have a devastating effect on a company’s online visibility and credibility. Below, I show the risks and have indicated how heavily they weigh.

Here is a table showing the various consequences of cloaking in SEO, along with the estimated severity on a scale of 1 to 100:

Consequences of cloakingSeverity of impact (1-100)
Being removed from Google’s index95
Significant drop in search terms (acute)90
Permanent damage to website SEO95
Loss of organic traffic85
Damage to brand awareness80
Exclusion from future indexing in Google90
Loss of authority (SEO)75
Warning or a manual penalty80
Loss of visitor confidence70
Risks of cloaking.

These values are indicative and vary depending on specific circumstances and search engine response. Being removed from Google’s index and permanent damage to the website’s SEO are considered the most serious consequences.

Summary

Cloaking remains a risky and generally unethical tactic within SEO. While it may offer short-term benefits, the long-term risks, such as possible penalties from search engines,usually outweigh the benefits. Companies and SEO specialists are encouraged to use only white hat SEO. This sometimes takes a little longer but produces lasting results without compromising the integrity of a Web site or reputation.

Senior SEO-specialist

Ralf van Veen

Senior SEO-specialist
Five stars
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I have been working for 10 years as an independent SEO specialist for companies (in the Netherlands and abroad) that want to rank higher in Google in a sustainable manner. During this period I have consulted A-brands, set up large-scale international SEO campaigns and coached global development teams in the field of search engine optimization.

With this broad experience within SEO, I have developed the SEO course and helped hundreds of companies with improved findability in Google in a sustainable and transparent way. For this you can consult my portfolio, references and collaborations.

This article was originally published on 27 March 2024. The last update of this article was on 27 March 2024. The content of this page was written and approved by Ralf van Veen. Learn more about the creation of my articles in my editorial guidelines.