Danny & Rand Discover Flightcentre Possible Blackhat Cloaking : SMX Sydney Day 2

In an unexpected twist to the end of Day 2 at SMX Sydney Rand Fishkin and Danny Sullivan exposed a possible case of blackhat cloaking by Flightcentre.com.au

smx sydney flight centre website screenshot
Searchengineland.com’s Danny Sullivan & Rand Fishkin from Seomoz discovering possible blackhat cloaking on Flightcentre.com.au

flight centre with different user agents
Page on Flightcentre.com.au viewed with different user agents

While doing an SEO review for another tourism website, Rand and Danny discovered that this page at the Flight Centre website was possibly breaking Google’s anti-cloaking rules by displaying different content depending on whether the user-agent is a web browser like “Firefox” or a search engine like “Googlebot 2.1″

“Cloaking is the practice of presenting a version of a web page to search engines that is different from the version presented to users, with the intention of deceiving the search engines and affecting the page’s ranking in the search index” – source: Google Adwords Help Center

“Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index” – source: Google Webmaster Help Center

“More generally, if someone is trying to manipulate Google by deceptive cloaking, it means that a webserver is returning different content to Googlebot than to users” – source: Google Webmaster Help Center

For more information about black hats and cloaking visit these excellent articles at Searchengineland.com:

My question to you is this merely a case of “graceful depredation” so that search engines can “see” text that human visitors can read from the image on the page or is Flightcentre.com.au blackhat cloaking in blatant breach of Google rules?

EDIT: Flight Centre has written a right of reply at Comment #8

PS I will post a SMX Sydney Day 2 recap within 24 hours to followup on Day One Recap – SMX Sydney SEO SEM Conference 2008


12 comments on “Danny & Rand Discover Flightcentre Possible Blackhat Cloaking : SMX Sydney Day 2

  1. Judd Garratt on said:

    Nice one Neerav – you were fast to get this up.

    I had a poke around when I got back from the conference and it appears that Flight Centre are definitely cloaking on that page – though only for some bot signatures.

    A quick look around some of their other catalogues turns up more of the same, so this doesn’t appear to be an isolated occurrence either.

    EDITOR: thanks Judd. Is that 1 vote for blackhat or are you hedging bets ?

  2. Pete W on said:

    It’s cloaking. Just not very good cloaking. Old-style user agent instead of IP redirecting.

  3. Neerav on said:

    thanks Danny for linking here from SearchCap: The Day In Search, April 11, 2008 and Rand for linking from The Dangers of Cloaking Revealed at SMX Sydney

  4. Daniel B on said:

    Nice work Neerav this post is ranking for “Flight centre cloaking” which is awesome. It was good to meet you at SMX and yes I will comment again in my ongoing quest for a “do follow” link from this (fast becoming) authority domain!

  5. Ireckonwm on said:

    Hmmm,

    Interestingly a search query for “Tasmania’s capital lies in the south-east of the state” now no longer returns a listing for the Flight Centre page… just the original Discover Tasmania Page … and in fact a query on site:catalogues.flightcentre.com.au returns no listings at all.. (which was not the case earlier today).

    So… fast work by Adam/Google appears to have delisted the whole subdomain… Now the fun begins for Flight Center I suppose… lets see how long it takes them to sort out the issue and get reincluded….

    EDITOR: thanks for the update Andy

  6. Nathan C on said:

    Alas I was too busy packing down our expo stand when this occurred and didn’t even find out about it til the usual blog trawl earlier this morning.

    Good to see Google move on the case so quickly but I will say I do feel sorry for Flight Centre, I’m more than willing to believe this was done in complete ignorance by someone in IT with only a little SEO knowledge or was being done by a shady agency who thought they could get away with it.

    One expects that someone is on the recieving end of some pretty serious internal emails today. ;)

  7. Judd Exley on said:

    Hey man, I concur with the nice effort in getting this up so quick. Cannot beLIEVE that s**t went down, especially at a show that I was unable to make.

    Next year, I’m all about it. And to those Flight Centre guys, in the immortal words of Nelson: HA-Ha!

  8. Colin Bowman, GM Marketing Flight Centre Limited on said:

    Flight Centre has developed an online brochure system that converts brochure pages into javascript which allows people to quickly and easily view travel information. The online catalogue pages are images, so the content in those pages, while discernible to the human eye, cannot be indexed by search engine spiders and hence this large volume of travel information may never be accessed by the public. Our intent is purely to improve the visual experience and not to deceive the search engines.

    In the development of this solution for our customers, our technology partners conducted research to understand how content from our brochures could be searched by people researching travel. We sought a second opinion from Google about how to index the content from the brochures to allow our customers access to this information. We showed our solution to a Google CSE. He reviewed our site maps and robots.txt and replied in writing that “everything looks ok”.

    It is clear that our intent is not to show content to spiders that differs from the content in the pages and therefore should not be regarded as blackhat cloaking. Further, Flight Centre did not receive any extra benefit in natural rankings from providing content in this format. The content that was visible to Google’s spiders is an identical replica to what is shown in the customer friendly brochure viewer so no unfair advantage was gained nor sought.

    We support Google’s stance on blackhat cloaking. However, we need to further understand how their universal mandate to outlaw the solution to indexing images can be modified to account for situations such as ours where our intention is purely to provide the best possible user experience. We are working on an alternative solution and would also welcome the opportunity to work with Google to document a solution on how to index images rather Google adopting the stance “we can only educate on SEO, we cannot tell you what to do ”.

    EDITOR: Thanks for your reply Colin, as I said in my article I am quite happy for you to have right of reply to explain why your system works the way it does

  9. Barry Smyth on said:

    Hi All, I am glad to see this resolving itself. Nice posts about the show Neerav. Cheers Barry

  10. Ash Nallawalla on said:

    Neerav,

    Thanks for reporting this and the SMX event in general. A shame I could not make it.

    Flight Centre’s response is also very helpful for clarifying this grey area.

    Ash

    EDITOR: No problems Ash

    Do you work at Sensis? because that’s what your IP address says.

  11. Ash Nallawalla on said:

    Guilty as charged. Mentioned in my blog, which is more interesting than my IP address. ;)

  12. Sydney SEO on said:

    Hilarious! Shame this sort of idea isn’t legitimate. I’m sure we have a few clients that would love us to try anyway! Lol.

    Not a good idea with Danny and Rand patrolling the skies!

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