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Cloaking vs Preferred Business Practices: How Does Google Differentiate?
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
We have recently been asked a lot about what constitutes cloaking and how will the search engines react if they perceive that "cloaking" is happening?  More importantly how does Google determine if the act is in fact cloaking or a "preferred business practice"?

One of the items that came up was with a site that saw Googlebot just hammer it by hyper-crawling the site.  The result was heavy server loads and high CPU. The folks managing the site have tried controlling the crawl rates via a variety of options including through Google Webmaster Tools.

This is definitely not a unique problem as is evident by this great post on Googlebot, Sitemaps and heavy crawling.  However this was only part of the issue.  This site is a large e-commerce site where, on their product pages, they indicate the product availability with an icon that results in a call to the database.  Green means the product is available, red means the product is not currently available.  Since a significant amount of calls are from crawlers, an idea that was proposed to reduce the number of calls was to just display a "Availability Not Available" icon (or something similar) when the user-agent is a search engine crawler (e.g., Google-bot) thereby presenting different content based on the user-agent.  This is where the thought of cloaking enters the picture.  This "Availability Not Available" option would not be presented to the actual visitor per se.

Even though, the end result that the webmasters were in search of was to reduce the number of user agent generated calls (and not to serve up different content to the crawlers than the user) technically this could be considered cloaking by definition.  Google in fact defines cloaking as:
Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines. Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index. 
So they question becomes, does the scenario described above fall into the idea of cloaking?  Technically the user agent would be served up with a line of code saying that the product availability is "Not Available" yet the user may in fact not see this as the product would include an either green (available) or red (not available) icon.  Again the goal here is to reduce the amount of calls generated by the user agent.  Being that this change is so small, would it even raise a red flag with the search engines?

The second question is then, that if this in fact consider cloaking by the search engines, how does the site reduce the amount of calls from the user agent?  What are other large e-commerce sites doing to address this issue?  What are sites like Amazon doing to deal with such an issue?  Is there a work around?

At the end of the day, how does Google determine whether it is a preferred business practice or "questionable technique" such as cloaking.  In the example mentioned above, the goal is not to deceive the search engine crawlers, the goal is to prevent them from hammering the sites with "calls".  The fact is, why is it up to Google?  Is it even up to Google?  Something like this, while technically could be considered cloaking, is not meant to manipulate the search engines, it is meant to prevent excessive search engine crawling and not proper indexing.

We would love to hear everyone's thoughts on this?  Feel free to comment and share your opinion.

Additional Resources on Cloaking



posted by Jody @ Tuesday, February 02, 2010  
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Home: Kelowna, BC, Canada
About Me: SEO guy by day, family man 24/7.
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