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Content Delivery and Search Spider Control :

On occasion, it can be valuable to show search engines one version of content and show humans a different version. This is technically called cloaking, and the search engines’ guidelines have near-universal policies restricting this. In practice, many websites, large and small, appear to use content delivery effectively and without being penalized by the search engines. However, use great care if you implement these techniques, and know the risks that you are taking.

Cloaking and Segmenting Content Delivery :

Google’s Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, has made strong public statements indicating that all forms of cloaking (with the only exception being First Click Free) are subject to penalty. This was also largely backed by statements by Google’s John Mueller in a May 2009 interview, which you can read at http://www.stonetemple.com/articles/interview-john-mueller.shtml.  In August of 2011 Matt Cutts later confirmed this again in this video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QHtnfOgp65Q. In this video Matt Cutts makes the strong statement “There is no such thing as white hat cloaking”.

Google also makes its policy pretty clear in its Guidelines on Cloaking (https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66355):

Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index.

There are two critical pieces in the preceding quote: may and user agent. It is true that if you cloak in the wrong ways, with the wrong intent, Google and the other search engines may remove you from their index, and if you do it egregiously, they certainly will.

A big factor is intent: if the engines feel you are attempting to manipulate their rankings or results through cloaking, they may take adverse action against your site. If, however, the intent of your content delivery doesn’t interfere with their goals, you’re less likely to be subject to a penalty, but there is never “zero” risk of a penalty. Google has taken a strong stand against all forms of cloaking regardless of intent.

What follows are some examples of websites that perform some level of cloaking:

Google:

Search for google toolbar or google translate or adwords or any number of Google properties and note how the URL you see in the search results and the one you land on almost never match. What’s more, on many of these pages, whether you’re logged in or not, you might see some content that is different from what’s in the cache.

NYTimes.com (http://www.nytimes.com/):

The interstitial ads, the request to log in/create an account after five clicks, and the archive inclusion are all showing different content to engines versus humans.

Wine.com (http://www.wine.com/) :

In addition to some redirection based on your path, there’s the state overlay forcing you to select a shipping location prior to seeing any prices (or any pages). That’s a form the engines don’t have to fill out.

Yelp.com (http://yelp.com/):

Geotargeting through cookies based on location is a very popular form of local targeting that hundreds, if not thousands, of sites use.

Trulia.com (http://www.trulia.com/):

Trulia was found to be doing some interesting redirects on partner pages and its own site (http://www.bramblog.com/trulia-caught-cloaking-red-handed/).

The message should be clear. Cloaking won’t always get you banned, and you can do some pretty smart things with it. The key to all of this is your intent. If you are doing it for reasons that are not deceptive and that provide a positive experience for users and search engines, you might not run into problems. However, there is no guarantee of this, so use these types of techniques with great care, and know that you may still get penalized for it.

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