The Mississippi is, by and large, a muddy river. While I applaud Jill's intentions, I don't think we can make the Mississippi less muddy by redefining the meaning of silt. She wants to be able to give her non-technical readers a non-technical answer, and I think that's really cool. I just don't think it's possible. I believe it was Einstein who said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." When a sixth grade student asks WHY nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, there is no non-technical answer available except "Einstein says so." It's clear from Jill's posts, and of course she has readily admitted, that she doesn’t really comprehend the technical side of cloaking. So she wants to be able to say, "Alan says so."
Alan, on the other hand, does understand the technology involved. I get the impression his goal is to resolve the all-too-obvious conflict between what he knows the technology can do with what the search engines have publicly said about cloaking. The tourism bureau has told him how beautiful the Mississippi is, so he insists it must not have any silt clouding its waters. That doesn't seem to be going over too well, probably because most of us realize we still can't see the bottom of the river.
Danny, I think, is much closer to reality, and even tries to give Jill the simple answer she seeks. However, in adding the adjectives "approved" and "unapproved" to the SE's own definition of cloaking, he again muddies the waters by putting words into their collective mouths. And, he doesn't really address Alan's problem with the conflict between what the technology is and what the search engines publicly say about it.
But, then, when did we start believing what the search engines say?
The little road that runs through my local village has a posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour. If the sheriff catches me going faster than that, I'm in danger of getting a ticket. If I ask why I'm getting a ticket the first answer will probably be "because it's the law," but if I dig more deeply, someone will eventually explain that speeds in excess of the posted limit invariably result in far more traffic collisions. From my point of view, it would be much more fair if the law gave tickets only for collisions (hey, I can handle my car just fine at 40 mph!), but I'm realistic enough to realize that isn't likely to happen. The posted speed limit certainly doesn't prevent all car accidents, but they've learned through experience that it prevents more than if they didn't have the speeding laws.
The search engines, especially Google, are passing speeding laws in hopes of preventing car accidents. They know, because it's pretty obvious, that cloaking can be used to fool their algorithms. I'm sure they also know that cloaking can be used for legitimate reasons, too. But, by and large, their algorithms can't really tell the difference between the two and, frankly, they have little real reason to care. It is much easier for them to simply say "No cloaking," just as it is easier (and, yea, probably safer) for my local constable to say "No speeding." The search engines know, just as the police do, that enforcement is going to be selective. It has to be, because neither the search engines nor the police have the resources to do anything else. Both, it seems, hope that their laws will at least curb "most" of the problems.
The title of Alan's article is "Why Cloaking Is Always A Bad Idea." Change the morally-shadowed "Bad" to "Potentially Dangerous" and I see no reason why Cloaking needs to be redefined. As Danny said, unless you have specific permission to cloak, you run the very real danger of getting a speeding ticket. Even if you have a good reason for cloaking, be it Flash or GeoTargetting, you are STILL breaking the SE law against cloaking and running a risk. Does that make it a bad law? Probably. But do the search engines really care? They want to eliminate the spammy cloaking and I suspect they're perfectly willing to try frightening off ALL of the cloaking in the process. Getting rid of the spam helps them. Getting rid of the non-spam doesn't hurt them. What would you do?
If you get a speeding ticket unjustly, as all too often happens, you can fight it in court with a fairly good chance of success. It's not necessarily fun, but at least you have a set court date to argue your case. If you are penalized for cloaking unjustly, as Brett described in his opening post, you can also appeal. But there is no court date and getting someone to listen to you is, at best, questionable. Does that mean you should never run the risk of cloaking? Like speeding, I suspect it depends on just how badly you feel the need to go fast. And on how much the speeding ticket will end up costing you. We each run a cost-benefit analysis every time we get behind the wheel.
Alan, I think you can redefine all the words you want and will still fail at erasing the inconsistencies between what the search engines say and what they actually do. The only ones who can erase those inconsistencies are the search engines and I doubt any of us will hold our breath while we wait for that happen.
Jill, I think you need to tell your readers what cloaking generally means (both Danny's and GG's definitions are good) and then explain that the only SIMPLE answer is to avoid it entirely. Tell them there are much more complex answers but, like the sixth grader who wants to know WHY nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, they'll need to brush up on some high school algebra before they can understand them. Then, point them towards this thread. :)