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Cloaking and the FTC -- Future Foes?
Might the FTC consider cloaking to be "deceptive advertising"?
JustTrying




msg:676850
 3:16 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

Recently the FTC has earnestly begun cracking down on some of the major search engines for their pay for placement, and pay for inclusion models. To be exact, on June 28, 2002 the FTC Told several Search Engines to Adopt “Clear and Conspicuous Disclosure” of Ads in Search Engine Results.

This decision by the FTC seems to have been welcomed quite openly by those of us in the Webmaster World, but what if the FTC was to try and make all of the SERPS WYSISYG?

If cloaking is being commercially used to "deceive the search engines (and therefore the SE user as well)," wouldn't the search engine's users being misled be in some substantial way analogous to the cases considered by the FTC? What would the FTC say that legal implications are of cloaking as a method of ranking in SERPS?

To say it another way, if a SE is looking at (and positioning) a page that is materially different from that of what the SE user sees, then that clearly seems to be deceptive. This practice obviously can easily be distinguished from "Classic SEO" in that "Classic SEO" is completely open and legal in that there is no difference between the page that is being delivered to the SE and the SE user; therefore no bait-and-switch.

<Tangent> IMO the term "Search Engine Optimization" has always been a bit of a mis-nomer; especially seeing that we have no power to optimize search engines, only to optimize web pages based around what is determinable from the SE results.</Tangent>

 

Mike_Mackin




msg:676851
 3:28 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

>that is materially different from that of what the SE user sees, then that clearly seems to be deceptive.

The FTC is there to protect the user [consumer] not the SE

volatilegx




msg:676852
 3:58 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

I can see the FCC going after cloakers who use cloaking to deceive people... like optimizing a page for something your website has nothing to do with... but going after ALL cloakers would be stupid and difficult. It might also be unconstitutional.

JustTrying




msg:676853
 4:08 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

While it is obviously a fact that the FTC is there to protect the user [consumer], and not the SE, the reality should be acknowledged that the SE is only a good consumer tool if the SE provides "honest" results.

In the case of the SEs, their naming of "Sponsord Results" as "Products and Services" has been determined by the FTC to be "dishonest results," primarily because (in the words of the FTC):"A Consumers Union national survey found that 60% of U.S. lntemet users had not heard or read that certain search engines were paid fees to list some sites more prominently than others in their search results."

My thesis is that using the same FTC logic, where the FTC is there to protect the consumer from clicking on results that were not "naturally determined" by the SE, cloakers appear to be potentially as guilty of decieving SE users [consumers] as SE's are in presenting paid results as "naturally determined" results.

The fact that the SE is an unwilling accomplice in the cloakers page presentation deception should not be used to argue the merits and consumer implications of cloaking itself.

When a SE user queries a SE, the consumer is trusting that the SERPS were arrived at based on the SE weighing the visable page elements honestly and objectively. When a webmaster uses cloaking technology to present to a SE a different page then what the consumer is physically able to click on, then that seems to be a clear subversion of the trust relationship that the consumer is able to place in the SERPS (through no fault of the SE).

digitalghost




msg:676854
 4:18 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

That's quite a number of assumptions to base a discussion on but I'm game. :)

1.>> but what if the FTC was to try and make all of the SERPS WYSISYG?

They'd be in for one heck of a job. The FTC seems only to be concerned with paid ads being presented in the same manner as the non-paid listings. They didn't address relevance at all. From that standpoint, they don't seem to care if ads for blue fuzzy widgets appear in the SERPS for a search on red smooth wodgets, they just want the ads to clearly identifiable as a paid ad. Right now they are only "recommending" that the SEs clearly identify paid listings.

2.>> If cloaking is being commercially used to "deceive the search engines

In my experience, cloaking is being used to overcome design issues and the technological failings of search engines. I never have a client ask me to cloak a page for widgets if they are selling wodgets. The ROI simply isn't there. People with business sense realize they want targeted traffic, not just more traffic. If cloaking is done correctly, and by correctly I mean that it is difficult or nearly impossible to detect by the end user or the engines then false representation is quite difficult. A surfer that clicks on a link in a serp that offers a page on widgets will quickly realize if the page is about wodgets. If cloaking won't stand up to human review it is not cloaking, it is merely poor scripting.

3. >>Classic SEO" is completely open and legal

According to the engines, optimization should be avoided, attempts to influence the position of a page is considered spam. I have yet to see anything written about the "legalities" of SEO or Cloaking. There is a huge difference between "legal" optimization and optimization that is considered spam and to my knowledge no tactics have been decalred "illegal" yet. If they start carting cloakers off to court and charging them with crimes I'm sure that the use of stealth technologies will be carefully reconsidered.

A wysiwyg approach to SERPS would be problematic. How many times have you clicked on a link expecting to find downloads only to find links to downloads? Do people really expects to be able to find information on their brand new website at Amazon? No, but Amazon seems quite comfortable asking you to search their database.

The Tangent. :) I've seen and been party to many discussions on subjects similar to this. One of them ran along these lines:

Call them Garbagemen.

"That suggests that they consist of garbage rather than collect garbage."
"Well then, call them garbage collectors."
"Well, in fairness, they spend as much time collecting garbage as they do ridding themselves of it and garbage collectors sounds as if they have an odd hobby rather than a job."
"How about sanitation technicians?"
"They don't sanitize the garbage, they deliver it to dumps"
"Well, garbage delivery men is right out, no one wants any garbage delivered."
"Can we limit the name to somehting thay actually spend time doing?"
"What do they spend most of their time doing?"
"Collecting garbage and moving it to dumps."
"Garbage Removal?"
"We covered that when we discussed "collecting" garbage."
"What do they spend most of their time doing?"
"Collecting the garbage, it only takes a few minutes to dump it."
"Actually, they spend more time sleeping than they do collecting garbage."
"Well, if you want to go that route, they spend more time breathing than sleeping, so do we call them respirateurs?"
"We want to dissassociate the connection with waste anyway don't we, in light of the recycling and renewal efforts?"
"Yes, exactly, so why not call them recycling and reclamation technicians?"
"What about the garbage that isn't recycled, that seems to make up the bulk of the stuff they actually deal with doesn't it?"
"Yes, but who wants to be associated with garbage?"

This was much funnier actually seeing suits and ties discussing something so simple as a name...

DG

JustTrying




msg:676855
 4:47 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

>>The FTC seems only to be concerned with paid ads being presented in the same manner as the non-paid listings. They didn't address relevance at all.

In this specific case the FTC took issue only with paid ads being presented in the same manner as the non-paid listings. However, on page 3 of the FTC report, "Because search engines historically displayed search results based on relevancy to the search query, as determined by algorithms or other objective criteria, the staff believes that consumers may reasonably expect that the search results displayed by individual search engines are ranked in accordance with this standard industry practice -- that is, based on a set of impartial factors."

This statement would seem to clearly state that SE relevancy was a considerable part of the FTC's motivation behind both this particular FTC action, and potential future FTC actions agains cloakers (which even if done for design or technology limitation reasons, are presenting a page that is entirely different to consumers than that which was presented to the SE).

>>I never have a client ask me to cloak a page for widgets if they are selling wodgets. The ROI simply isn't there. People with business sense realize they want targeted traffic, not just more traffic.

Two points. 1. Just because your clients (and mine) have never asked us to cloak in order to present a totally different product does not mean that MANY other clients and webmasters haven't. 2. Simply because the product (widgets) is presented in both the SE delivered page, and the browser deliverd page (in verying levels of different presentations)does not mean that this is not a type of "bait and switch" tactic.

>>A wysiwyg approach to SERPS would be problematic.

Google and AllTheWeb do a fairly terrific job of presenting wysiwyg serps. And, if cloaking was not allowable then they would be able to provide even more accurate wysiwyg serps. Cloaking means to a SE user that what you see in a serp may in fact not be what you get. Google has acknowledged this, and that is most likely the motivation behind the cache functionality.

digitalghost




msg:676856
 5:34 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

>>SE relevancy was a considerable part of the FTC's motivation behind both this particular FTC action

If the cloaked pages is relevant, there is NO issue.

>>presenting a page that is entirely different to consumers than that which was presented to the SE

If the pages contain the same information they aren't "entirely" different. This is tantamount to saying that if I run ads in Spanish and English they are "entirely" different.

>>2. Simply because the product (widgets) is presented in both the SE delivered page, and the browser deliverd page (in verying levels of different presentations)does not mean that this is not a type of "bait and switch" tactic.

It doesn't mean that it is a bait and switch tactic either. Your definition of bait and switch is being loosely applied. I don't think the consumers or the FTC will care if I strip tables, scripting and graphics from a page being delivered to a bot. If the end user gets relevant results, (the goal of the FTC) then where is the foul?

>>And, if cloaking was not allowable then they would be able to provide even more accurate wysiwyg serps. Cloaking means to a SE user that what you see in a serp may in fact not be what you get

Hogwash. If I want to dupe Google I don't cloak for them, I get 100 sites to link to my site with my chosen text in anchors. This mythical irrelevance you are pinning on cloaking simply isn't happening. The irrelevant results I see on Google are the result of inbound links being given too much weight. The other types of irrelevant results I see are sites that promise one thing in the SERP and deliver another through perfectly normal means. Exempli gratia, they offer "hundreds of free software downloads" and provide a site that has 200 links to freebie sites, two of which are links to software sites and one of which is 404.

Assuming that the FTC decides they want to enforce relevance, then assuming again that it is cloakers that are responsible for irrelevance, and assuming once again that the FTC decides to use your rather loose interpretation of Bait and Switch how do you think the FTC will implement the enforcement?

If I cloak a page that is deemed to be more relevant than the two sites above me in the SERPS will they force Google to move my listing up? If we base everything on relevance, will the engines be forced to construct a new standard to determine that relevance? Surely if I can fool Google with some inbound links that issue will have to be looked at in the same light as cloaking a page to serve up irrelevant results.

DG

JustTrying




msg:676857
 6:42 pm on Jul 3, 2002 (gmt 0)

>>If the cloaked pages is relevant, there is NO issue.

Relevant according to what standard? Who decides? If designers and coders are able to make non-cloaked "relevant" pages (that are able to rank well in a SE through a design process where these pages are constructed out of open and visible code, content, graphics, and link relationships), then why make cloaked pages? In anticipation of the response that "cloaking is being used to overcome design issues and the technological failings of search engines," I would ask anyone why cloaking must be resorted to as an answer to these problems instead of facing these considerations and limitations directly in the initial design process (like millions of designers and coders do every day). Might the FTC assert that there may in fact be another (not quite so pure) motive behind cloaking?

>>I don't think the consumers or the FTC will care if I strip tables, scripting and graphics from a page being delivered to a bot. If the end user gets relevant results, (the goal of the FTC) then where is the foul?

The potential foul from the FTC's point of view could be that consumers have placed their trust in that the serps that they see are exactly the same as the what SE sees, and that the SE made the determination of what results to display with the customer's view in mind; especially seeing that in the FTC's own words: "Because search engines historically displayed search results based on relevancy to the search query, as determined by algorithms or other objective criteria, the staff believes that consumers may reasonably expect that the search results displayed by individual search engines are ranked in accordance with this standard industry practice -- that is, based on a set of impartial factors."

Cloaking removes the objective and impartial ranking of web pages from the SE's vision, and replaces a level playing field with a distorted playing field where a SE has determined a result (ser) based not on what a customer will see when they click on that ser, but what a cloaker has decided that ONLY a SE should see.

>>If I want to dupe Google I don't cloak for them, I get 100 sites to link to my site with my chosen text in anchors.

The difference here is that you assume that Google does not want you to get 100 sites to link to you becasue that would in your words then "dupe" them; when, in reality Google knows that getting 100 sites to link to you will take a lot of hard work, and usually requires the individual coordination of many individual webmaster that are all considering their own PR and linking situation higher than yours. Not to mention the fact that linking is done in the open where the consumer can see. Cloaking is a unilateral attemept by a webmaster to make their page rank higher through delivering a page to a SE that they view as "unviewable" to the end SE user. The distinction seems to be clear.

>>This mythical irrelevance you are pinning on cloaking simply isn't happening. The irrelevant results I see on Google are the result of inbound links being given too much weight. The other types of irrelevant results I see are sites that promise one thing in the SERP and deliver another through perfectly normal means.

Google (and the others) are responsible to their own consumers to provide the best, and most honest results to those consumers (the FTC seems to agree with this supposition). Google is better than anyone else at this, but not perfect; though they are trying everyday with their cadre of PhDs to improve their algorithim. The point here is that Google (and the others) are all openly trying to improve their results. The fact that Google places too much weight (in your opinion and mine) on inbound links is I'm sure an ongoing topic of discussion at the Googleplex. The same is certainly true for sites that by (as you put it) "perfectly normal means" have different content on their pages than their ser would have led a SE user to believe. These pages are, however, very easy to spot and report. Cloaked pages are not, and therein lies the rub. In the same way that sponsored results presented as normal results are deceptive because the SE user has no idea that they are being misled, the same amount of misleading may be applied to cloaked pages.

>>Assuming that the FTC decides they want to enforce relevance...

Never did I say that the FTC would ever want to enforce relevance. What the FTC has proven that they want to enforce is that when any commercial entity (SE or webmaster) provides something to a consumer, what the commercial entity is offering is the same as the consumer is getting. Cloaking is an open practice of doing exactly the contrary (if this were not so, then why the neccessity to "cloak"?)

>>...how do you think the FTC will implement the enforcement?

As with the rest of us here I have NO idea what the FTC could or would do. Personally, I never imagined that the FTC would say something about the Sponsord Links situation. Yet, seeing that they did set a bit of a precedent with that, I just wanted to pose the question about whether or not cloaking may be next.

volatilegx




msg:676858
 8:56 pm on Jul 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

>> >>If the cloaked pages is relevant, there is NO issue.

>>Relevant according to what standard? Who decides?

Exactly. Which is why enforcement would be impossible. No body has the resources to examine the billions of pages catalogued, let alone make informed analysis of relevency or detection of cloaking.

>>If designers and coders are able to make non-cloaked "relevant" pages (that are able to rank well in a SE through a design process where these pages are constructed out of open and visible code, content, graphics, and link relationships), then why make cloaked pages? In anticipation of the response that "cloaking is being used to overcome design issues and the technological failings of search engines," I would ask anyone why cloaking must be resorted to as an answer to these problems instead of facing these considerations and limitations directly in the initial design process (like millions of designers and coders do every day). Might the FTC assert that there may in fact be another (not quite so pure) motive behind cloaking?

There is another motive behind cloaking--copyright protection. SEO specialists use cloaking as a method to protect their optimized code from illegal "hijacking" by unscrupulous webmasters. I believe this is actually the primary reason for cloaking. The fact that cloaking allows you to present different HTML to human viewers and search engines is a side effect; a side effect put to good use by most SEOs. The motive of protecting intellectual property is completely legitimate and necessary to the success of any business.

john316




msg:676859
 9:44 pm on Jul 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

"Might the FTC consider cloaking to be "deceptive advertising"?"

If you do it right, how will they know?

NFFC




msg:676860
 10:03 pm on Jul 8, 2002 (gmt 0)

>deceptive

Even as a non-cloaker I have a problem with that, at no time are the search engine ever deceived. In a www of few absolutes one thing is for certain, as far as the SE's go then cloaking = wysiwyg.

I look at it this way; cloaking is like hiring the best lawyer you can get. On the other hand search engines "placing" paid for results without full disclosure is tantamount to bribing the judge. imho

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