To Cloak or Not To Cloak

in Google,Internet Marketing,SEO

That is the question…

Cloaking is not unlike playing a game of Russian roulette. It’s a practice that violates the webmaster guidelines provided by the major search engines, and it is not recommended to those individuals unwilling to sacrifice their website for short-term financial gain. On the other hand if you have dozens of websites, none of which perform particularly well, what do you have to lose? Cloaking could provide you with the means of recapturing the investment you have already made in sites with little hope of ever making money.

A while ago on Twitter, Michael Gray asked his followers for topic ideas for a new blog post. I suggested that he put the gray back in @graywolf by writing a post on cloaking; the what, how, why, etc. He responded by pointing out that the post was not intended for his site, and that it wouldn’t be an appropriate topic for the site he was writing for. I suggested it to him because it’s a topic that I rarely see discussed on any of the popular webmaster forums, blogs and community sites. When such topics are discussed it’s usually in the context of webmaster ethics. Unfortunately, such conversations tend to become very juvenile, very fast. Ethics aside, I believe there is a strong business case to be made in favour of aggressive marketing for under performing websites.

Let’s say you have a small network of 25 websites, and you have invested 25 hours of your time into each of them. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this article, that you value your time at $25 an hour. That leaves you with over $15000 dollars invested in your sites. Again, let’s assume your network is under performing financially, and you are earning say $25 per day across all sites. That works out to $750 per month, and it will take you 20 months at those profit levels to recoup your initial investment. That’s almost two years before your sites become profitable! So let’s pretend that you’ve decided to cloak your content, serving adverts in place of your content, and your network is now producing $100 per day. That works out to $3000 per month, and if you can stay under the radar, you will have recouped your costs in 5 months. Everything after that is pure profit! In the time it would have taken you to break even prior to cloaking your content (20 months), you now have the potential to profit by $45000. To me, it seems like a reasonable gamble to consider. How many of us are ever going to make that kind of money from a small network of very average websites full of very average content?

In a previous life, I worked with a company that was willing to engage in aggressive marketing from time to time. In most cases it was for research purposes, but at times the profit motive trumped other considerations. It was business, after all. We had one site that ranked all over the place for a swath of brand-name-products in a particular sporting industry niche, and it earned around $30 a day from organic search traffic. The decision was made to start cloaking to see if we could increase revenue. Literally overnight, the site started earning hundreds of dollars a day. The only thing we changed was the positioning of our advertisements; content was pushed below the fold and ads were given prominence on the page if referrer=search engine x. In the months that followed, the site made more money than we ever would have thought. Eventually, it got smacked down, the cloaking was removed, a re-inclusion request was filed, the content got reworked, and a few new links were acquired. Everything went back to normal within a few months. It continues to earn passive income to this day, but it made a whole lot of money for a number of months. As they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you do decide to dabble in the dark arts in an attempt to squeeze more profit out of your websites, there are a number of things to consider. For starters, you will have to try to insulate your sites from penalty as best as you can. This means that you’ll have to be very thorough in your implementation. If you are are going to cloak, you cannot rely on simple user agent cloaking. Cloaking by user agent is really simple to sniff out. You can test this yourself by using the user-agent switcher for firefox. With this extension, you will be able to see a webpage the way it is displayed to specific user agents. If a page is displayed to you one way while your user agent is mozilla, and displayed to you another way when your user agent is googlebot, the website in question is most likely cloaking. If you want to be effective in your cloaking efforts, you might consider cloaking by user-agent, IP address, referrer, browser and perhaps even language or OS. I think it’s safe to assume that visitors from Mountain View are not there to read your very average content…

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