Blackhat attacks, cloaking…all of this makes SEO sound like a shady underworld fraught with peril. If you find algorithms and PageRank exciting, then yes, SEO can have a darker side. Blackhat SEO depends on misusing search engine optimization tactics to attain a better page rank. Keyword stuffing, hidden text, putting duplicate content on multiple sites, and other techniques are frowned upon by legitimate SEOs but are often used to help malicious sites achieve a top ranking. Cloaking, another of these blackhat tricks, is emerging as a major focus for Google in 2011. What is Google saying about cloaking, and what might they do to prevent it?
Cloaking is when the content shown to search engines is different from that which is shown to users. This is done so the pages show up on search results pages when they otherwise would not. Last week, Google’s Matt Cutts tweeted, “Google will [focus] more at cloaking in Q1 2011. Not just page content matters; avoid different headers/redirects to Googlebot instead of users.” Since many in the SEO community thought that Google already does a good job defending against cloaking, Matt Cutts’s tweet has led to a great deal of speculation and concern.
The worry is that legitimate sites that offer rich media files will be penalized by Google’s renewed vigor in pursuing cloaking. Sites that also offer content that is optimized for mobile browsers are also concerned that they will be punished because this content differs from that which is published for standard browsers.
Google tweaks its search algorithms continually, but only rarely do these changes make the news. Most do not affect the average user or the average website. According to Tom Krazit of CNET, “it’s rare for Cutts and Google to announce this type of algorithmic shift so publicly, which implies they’re giving Webmasters a warning shot in order to reexamine their sites before the ranking changes go into effect and that rankings may be a little fluid as this rolls out.” In other words, as Google works the kinks out of its cloaking policy, PageRank may be affected for the short term.