Is Cloaking Deceptive Advertising?

Alan Perkins of Silverdisk, a notorious “white hat” search engine marketer, has recently published a series of articles on ethics in SEO, culminating with Search Marketing Techniques, Deceptive Advertising Laws & Other Laws, in which he argues that some SEO techniques (mainly cloaking) might actually be illegal.

Although I am not completely in agreement with Alan on this, his thesis is well-argued and does make for interesting reading. The basic idea is that organic search results do not normally contain advertising, and that deception of a search engine to place a listing within those search results is equivalent to inserting an ad.

An interesting discussion, started by Alan, has taken place at the Search Engine Watch forums. SEM expert Danny Sullivan has commented on Alan’s article in the SEW blog.

Although I can’t go as far as Alan does in painting cloaking as deceptive advertising in all cases, I can see some cases where such laws might apply. If you can make the leap to consider search engine listings as advertisements, then use of deceptive titles (show one title to the search engine and another to human visitors) could be deceptive. For example, if I used cloaking to show the Yahoo spider a page title like “Get Free Viagra Here,” and didn’t actually offer free Viagra to visitors, clearly this would be deceptive. This would apply even without cloaking, though.

One thing that Alan and I both agree on is that search engines should clearly disclose that some of their organic listings may be there as the result of deception or manipulation by search engine marketers.

Comments from SitePoint readers are welcome, and I’ll watch this space for further discussion.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss something I learned last night while watching a lecture on “adaptive user interfaces.” It’s amazing how many areas of computer research can be applied to the web in general and search engine marketing in particular.

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  • Jason Fried

    Comments from SitePoint readers are welcome, and I’ll watch this space for further discussion.

    It’s a blog, of course someone is going to comment!

  • NotThatBright

    Ironic timing considering the recent debacle with wordpress. I blogged a response at NotThatBright.net. I think it is a deceptive practice by advertisers, although do not see how the impact is much worse than a deeply buried but accessible set of pages with a forewarning: Advertiser Spam Lurks Here.

    It really doesn’t save for Google’s TOS.

  • georgina

    “Search engines should clearly disclose that some of their organic listings may be there as the result of deception or manipulation by search engine marketers.”

    Who *doesn’t* expect to see spam results when they use a search engine? I would anticipate that most people tend to see the Web (a largely user-driven medium) as less “reliable” or “responsible” than, for e.g., TV or other “passive” media, which are often perceived to be heavily editorially controlled.

    I think that people in “Web-search mode” are more cautious and wary than those in “TV-watching mode”, where we tend to believe what we see simply because it’s presented by a percevied “authority” (the TV), and we believe that there’s censorship and content review by real, live humans (!).

    I doubt if a search engine will ever enjoy that level of credibility. I wonder if the threat of false advertising litigation would discourage search engine spammers. I wonder what difference a spam warning on a SERP would make to my search experience.

  • http://www.seoresearchlabs.com DanThies

    [QUOTE=georgina]Who *doesn’t* expect to see spam results when they use a search engine? I would anticipate that most people tend to see the Web (a largely user-driven medium) as less “reliable” or “responsible” than, for e.g., TV or other “passive” media, which are often perceived to be heavily editorially controlled.[/QUOTE]
    Actually, most search engine users have no clue about what they’re seeing, as was found in the CommercialAlert case.

  • Scott

    Google is creating some of its own problems via its AdSense program.

    Marketers are encouraged to embed AdSense ads in their websites.

    Marketers have determined that some of the best conversion for AdSense clicks is by making the links look like part of the “content” of the page.

    …Then use SEO tactics to get those AdSense content pages listed high on search results.

    Thus…

    Users search for “Siberian Husky pet supplies” and 8 of the top 10 results are nothing more than “manufactured” AdSense content pages.

    Just my $.02.

  • http://www.seoresearchlabs.com DanThies

    [QUOTE=Scott]Google is creating some of its own problems via its AdSense program.[/QUOTE]
    I agree. Although it doesn’t really drive cloaking, all these applications that are designed to create machine-generated “keyword driftnets” would not exist if it weren’t for Adsense. Google has made it a lot easier to profit from producing junk like that.

  • Mike B