When Is It Okay To Cloak?

How do you get the search engines to recognize the content of a site when it is all Flash? That was the topic of a late night discussion some of us search marketers were having in the Hilton bar last night . I won’t disclose the exact details of the site we were discussing. I have written before on the problems that Flash sites impose as far as a site’s search visibility. Because flash is composed of highly compressed graphics and/or video, the text that is often contained within the Flash elements are invisible. Furthermore if a site is completely Flash, meaning everything is contained with the Flash object – the graphics, the navigation, the content, even the interface, then engines have a difficult time understanding the topic of the site and is some case experience difficulty in crawling pages (if they exist in the first place).

So what to do? Well, ideally the site should have an html version of what users see in Flash. You then use a browser sniffer to detect if the Flash plug-in is present and send the user to either the Flash version or to the html version. In fact the best way to do this is to make the Flash version standard but if the Flash plug-in required to view Flash in a browser is not present, send the user to the html version on the site. This will not only serve search engine spiders who do not have Flash plug-ins, but also serve users who don’t have the plug-in or who may even be using text-only browsing.

Now for the debate we were having – what if the company who owns the site does not want to put forth the effort of developing a duplicate html version of the site? Can they deliver a text only based version of the site and then use IP delivery to detect search engine spiders from real users? Some white hat purists would say this violates search engine guidelines and technically it may. It is cloaking but is the cloaking being done with evil intent or in other words, is this method of cloaking being used to deceive search engines, users or both? I don’t think so as long as the text only version of the site is similar to what the Flash version displays.

Technically it violates guidelines of “don’t cloak” but realistically it is not deceptive and serves both users and search engines. It is not the best solution. Ideally the best method is to use Flash components along with html or if site is completely Flash, offer an html version of the site. However if the text only, IP delivery option is the only option that is available, I see nothing wrong with it and so long as it does not detract form the searcher’s experience, I don’t think the search engines themselves care much either.

David Wallace

David Wallace, co-founder and CEO of SearchRank, is a recognized expert in the industry of search and social media marketing. Since 1997, David has been involved in developing successful search engine and social media marketing campaigns for large and small businesses. Follow +David Wallace on Google + as well as Twitter.

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