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June 19, 2006

Cloaking by any other name

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One of the most frustrating things about newspaper sites is you can’t always read the content. The search engines will tell you its there, they’ll give you a snippet right there on the SERP, but if you click to read the article you can’t. Why? Because it’s subscription-based content and you don’t have a subscription to the New York Times. Foiled! Now you’re bummed and it’s back to the SERP you go.

The whole process is annoying and it’s frustrating, but is it cloaking? And if it is cloaking, should the New York Times and other such sites be banned for it? That was the subject of Thursday’s SearchDay article and it’s stirred up quite a bit of buzz in the forums, however, no one has been able to come up with a definitive answer.

Most search engines define cloaking as showing the spiders different content than what the user sees. And if that’s the definition you’re working from, you have to admit it fits.

Danny Sullivan says he believes the New York Times is guilty of cloaking, but not guilty of spamming. Sort of like how all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. To Danny, it’s special treatment – users are directed to a landing page that tells them they need to pay to see what Google spidered. According to him, it’s classic bait and switch.

While I understand Danny’s viewpoint, I don’t necessarily agree.

I don’t think it’s cloaking. I think it’s more IP delivery (though perhaps a new name is needed). Similar to when you go to Google.com, and because you’re logged in (i.e. registered) you’re taken to your personalized homepage, not Google.com. If you have a subscription to the Times, and you click on that link, you’ll see the article. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s not bait and switch; it’s a log-in. And like all V.I.P.s, the search engines just so happen to hold a free lifetime membership card. Don’t hate, it’s just one of the perks of being a search engine spider.

I think part of the definition of cloaking is that users never see the page the search engine sees. That doesn’t fit what’s taking place here. Users have the option of seeing exactly what the engines do. If they want it, it’s there. They just have to get out a credit card.

Secondly, before you can cry cloaking I think intent needs to be taken into consideration. I don’t think anyone believes the Times is trying to distort rankings or mislead users. They’re not trying to hide content; they’re trying to display it. They want users to know it’s there. They want them to be interested. Unfortunately for us, they also want us to subscribe to read it.

Like most users, I don’t want to subscribe to read content. I want to read it archived issues of the Times for free, and if I can’t, I’d like to know that before I click the link and leave the SERP. And I think that’s where the real problem lies for users.

They don’t like feeling tricked. They don’t like thinking they’re about to see something and then feel like it’s been taken away from them. Why can’t the engines label subscription-based content as being subscription-based? Google and Yahoo! both do it in their news engines, why can’t they do it in the main index? I think it’s an act of good faith that would go a long way with most users.

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