Is Cloaking Deceptive Advertising?

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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.

Dan ThiesDan Thies
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