Redirecting using IP detection – is it cloaking?

One of my clients, a conference calling company called Powwownow, has been doing really well in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for the last year. They have now expanded and started doing business also in the US. The UK site had two domains powwownow.co.uk and powwownow.com, now that they have a US website we have transferred the .com domain to their US website.

BUT it’s never easy is it? The US site is still ranking very high in the UK SERPs and the UK website is nowhere to be seen. As this whole site is about conference calling, all the ‘dial-in’ numbers etc are for US users (of course) but the problem is that UK users keep on signing up on the US site (freakin plums!!). In fact 30% of the UK traffic was being misdirected to the US site. So my client wanted to do geo targeting using IP detection and re-direct people with UK IP addresses to the UK website.

My first thought was; “feck no, that’s cloaking”. But my client was adamant that this was the only way we could bypass the problem whilst the .co.uk is getting some link juice and climbing the SERPs. So I sent out a few emails to some of my very helpful SEO friends (thanks Todd & Scott), and here is what I have learnt about the world of cloaking…..”it’s a BIG GREY area”….It’s all about intent. Which is hard enough for people to figure out, what the heck does a robot know about your intent?? It’s a bit like saying you don’t want to invite that girl in accounts to your party, as she said something in “that way” and looked at you funny…..

Ok let’s start with what we do know:

Definition of Cloaking: “cloaking is where you display different content to the search engines than you do to the user”

What Google says about cloaking: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66355

Why it could be considered cloaking?
Because the googlebot would have spidered and indexed the Powwownow US site, whilst the user (if based in the UK) gets re-directed to the UK site from the SERPs. Although, nothing is as it easy as it seems, the example is technically cloaking, but if we look at the “intent” is it still cloaking? I’m sure we can all agree that the search engines primary goal is to give the best user experience as possible, and display the most relevant result to the user. Right? Now, Powwownow is not trying to deceive the user or search engine, they are simply trying to direct the user to the right place. If a person in the UK are looking for a “conference calling service” and the US site pops up in the SERPs, surely that’s not the most relevant result? And it is not “misinforming” the user as the service is the same, it just have different phone numbers to call. So is it or isn’t it cloaking? I say no, what’s your opinion?

What would make sense (and for all I know could be what actually happens) is that the sites that gets flagged as cloaking, will be manually reviewed on an intent basis. But then again this could be a ridiculous amount a day (as the evilgreendonkey is now freelance…). Matt Cutts, any comments?

Other posts about cloaking, that is worth a read:

Matt Cutts on Cloaking, with example of Webmaster World login/cloaking issue

The lovely Patrick Sexton from Feedthebot on Cloaking and re-directs

The very cool Todd Malicoat on Cloaking Euphemisms

Danny Sullivan’s great post on Evil and Good Cloaking

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14 Responses to “Redirecting using IP detection – is it cloaking?”

  1. Julie Joyce says:

    Excellent post Viking Lisa. The issue of geo-targeting through ip redirection is really fascinating to me…it’s something that SHOULD be ok to do, but your point about how the search engines can’t tell your intent is quite good. Having a site banned for this can certainly turn out ok if you can prove your intent, but the whole prospect of having days/weeks/months of being blacklisted are in no way appealing. I wish this type of cloaking were considered legitimate and that the bots could easily tell what you’re doing and leave you alone.

  2. SEOish says:

    I am lovely, aren’t I?

    Thanks for the mention Lisa, nice article.

  3. lol, is that the question you had when I was ignoring you? If you need help cloaking, let me know ;) Oh, and I don’t think that they’re cloaking by IP – if they are they’re using a really crap IP2Country database.

  4. Oh, and stop trying to Googlebomb me for “evilgreendonkey”! Even Google knows you’re wrong:
    http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=evilgreendonkey

    Did you mean: Lisa is Swedish?

  5. ha ha whatever donkey…I will change Googles mind about you….

  6. Julie Joyce says:

    I thought we were googlebombing you for zebra-striped man thong actually…crap.

  7. Julie Joyce says:

    …and for “Rob Kerry hates vegetarians” too actually–one you’ll be quite proud of I’m sure, you big meat hog.

  8. scottpolk says:

    Great article Lisa … yep – its all about “Intent and Extent” and of course how Google (or other search engines) perceive it.

  9. WebGeek says:

    Hey Lisa,
    This question comes up a lot, and it’s a good one. In my humble opinion the definition you’re using for cloaking might be slightly inaccurate (although commonly used) – I think that particular definition fits better for dynamic content personalization. It’s a known fact that Yahoo (and other engines to varying degrees) alter their content depending on what IP address users are coming from. That’s simply geotargeting and personalization. I would suggest that a more accurate definition for cloaking would be your definition of “cloaking is where you display different content to the search engines than you do to the user…” but with an added phrase “…with the intent to deceive” (like you mentioned elsewhere in your post). I don’t consider personalization to be cloaking, and Search Engines, if their honest themselves, won’t either. If this was considered cloaking, search engines would disable some amazing features of the web development world and set technology back quite a bit. Some really major sites geotarget in the ways you are mentioning and they aren’t penalized. You have to be careful how you do it though…Geotargeting and SEO brings up some unique problems, and the strategies to overcome them have to be well-thought-out. I’ve developed and SEO’d sites that are geotargeted and have different content for several different countries. None of them have received penalties.

  10. Thanks for your input WebGeek =) Great points. I hope that is the case!

  11. WebGeek says:

    Thanks Lisa. :) SEO Chicks is a great blog. I look forward to reading more of your insight as well.

  12. Judith Lewis says:

    OK I’m dyslexic and read WAY TOO MUCH on the old SEO web these days. Somewhere in the fog of my poor elderly brain I could swear MC said something, somewhere about something like this. Or chocolate. It’s a fair bet he said something about his cats though ;)

    I’m pushing a big age number so my brain is no longer as plastic as it once was…

    As I remember it, Matt said it’s A-OK. Then again, as I remember it, chocolate tasted better and came in larger bars. However potato chips came in smaller bags so you win some, you lose some…

    If my poor aged memory is recalling without a twist, Google is cool about geo-targeting. It goes down to goolebot and what you serve him (I’m first in line for chocolate). If you’re being all white-hat (and Lisa, we all know you are!!) and delivering to googlebot that which you serve up to everyone else it’s A-OK. It’s only ‘bad cloaking’ when you serve up to googlebot something different than what it is you serve end users. This is also applicable in delivering text content which mirrors flash content.

    So I hope that was coherent because I’m exhausted and my nose is stuffed up and it’s Friday and I need some chocolate
    *pouts*

  13. [...] the web. Everyone’s favorite Viking (and if she isn’t, she darn well should be) had a great post about ip redirection, and the intent issue was a big one with that. She asked if the engines would see geo-targeting as [...]

  14. Boris says:

    It always amazes how the comments stray from the topic. I am further amazed how little that I know… So I keep reading.

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