SearchEthos : rethinking search on the internet & SEO practices

best practices for search usability and SEO

Fantomaster's Perspective on Cloaking, Deception, Search Engines, & SEO

3 February 2003
Ralph Tegtmeier

SearchEthos received this intelligent and controversial response to the recent article "SEO Ethics: Hype & Hypocrisy?" and felt it deserving of its own space:

"Cloaking or IP delivery need not per se be deceptive *from the searcher's standpoint*, regardless of what the search engines may say. (Incidentally, where is it hewn in stone that search engines really do always have their users' best interests at heart? More often than not that's just another pervading marketing myth when you hold it against actual, verifiable search engine behavior.)

If you offer an all-Flash site for online gaming (be it gambling or not), and use cloaking to point out to technology challenged search engine spiders that that's what you're doing, there's nothing misleading about it all -again, not from the searcher's point of view at least. You're simply adjusting to the fact that search engines aren't capable (or willing, or both) of reliably determining what your site is all about. If you stuff your cloaked pages with keywords and relevant fillertext content to achieve better rankings than if you simply were to put a "this page offers online gaming" tag in your title tag, that IS manipulative, of course - but only in relation to the search engines' ranking algos. It will still not necessarily qualify for being "misleading" to the surfer. (By contrast, if you were to set up a Shadow Domain™ optimized for, say, "animal rights", achieving good rankings in the process, but actually redirecting visitors to that gaming site of yours, that WOULD be misleading because it's irrelevant to what the searchers are actually looking for and what they're attempting to access.)

Webmasters and designers should not be humiliated to the status of becoming the search engines' slaves or vassals. Search engines are parasites in the sense that they live off other people's efforts, labor, expense (as in building and maintaining a web site in the first place, paying for traffic, bandwidth, etc.) and - usually copyrighted - content. (Vide the time worn Google cache debate ...) As such, they may run their business as they like (within the constraints society may choose to put on them, vide the teeming debate on the Google monopoly and the societal responsibility possibly involved when a technical outfit has evolved to the status of a/the major information gatekeeper). But this grants them no moral or legal right to blatantly pilfer other people's copyright protected content, making money in the process without even deigning to ask for prior permission let alone stooping to share proceeds with the very people they're exploiting.

I think it's pointless to pursue these debates on a moral or "ethical" stance: what it all boils down to in the end is that what works will be used, what doesn't will be chucked. Like it or not, to go for cloaking means taking some risks, period. Even though these same risks may be wildly inflated in public discussions (they're actually quite remote, as far as we have been able to tell), they are nevertheless quite real, and anyone incurring them should know what they are doing. Deceptive cloaking (again: solely viewed from the surfer's perspective) is self-defeating - that's where your own "bad marketing" contention as I read it comes into play, and I really couldn't agree more.

Obviously, your question "if it's not misleading, why can't it stand up to the light of being seen or viewed by your users?" is rhetorical, and frankly I was a bit surprised seeing you word it at all: for one, user transparency has nothing to with it. It's the search engine spiders that get displayed the different content, not the human visitors: in an ideal world, webmasters would be only too happy to stick to one single set of pages or sites and focus on these alone. It's the search engines' less-than-state-of-the-art technology which makes cloaking a dire necessity for many sites in the first place. Plus, since the majority of search engines have adopted such a blunt one-size-fits-all attitude towards cloaking (and quite a clueless one to boot, let me add), it would be tantamount to commercial suicide for any webmaster being all too open about it.

(This, by the way, is one key reason why we never even utter so much as a hint to our clients that we would like some testimonials and referrals from them - this would defeat the whole point of cloaking as it has to be practiced currently.)

Users really couldn't care less: as long as the search results are what they've been looking for, they are happy, and never mind the technology involved in getting there.

Finally, cloaking - and all SEO for that matter - is strictly between webmasters and search engines, not users. Users are like drivers getting in a car: as long as it's safe to steer, most of them will be quite content with going from A to B. It's for car makers and mechanics to make sure this happens with as few glitches as possible."

services | columns | contact | about | home

© 2007 searchethos, all rights reserved