Cloaking: Survey Says?

In the below video Matt Cutts states that "there is no such thing as white hat cloaking" ...

... yet Google is testing a new ad unit where users have to fill out a survey before they can view the content.

How long until the surveys include something like:

  • did you vote in 2008
  • what presidential candidate did you vote for
  • how do you feel about issue x
  • how strongly do you feel about your opinion on x

Then after the survey: "Thanks for your feedback. Candidate y supports your views on issue x."

Advertisers then get a report like: "in Ohio, 84% of the 289,319 swing voters with an average household income between $32,400 and $67,250 think issue x is vitally important and have a 6:1 bias toward option A. They respond to it more strongly if you phrase it as "a c b" and are twice as likely to share your view if you phrase it that way. The bias is even stronger amongst women & voters under 50, where they prefer option A by a factor of 9:1."

Couple that ability to flagrantly violate their own editorial guidelines with...

... & Google is in an amazing position politically.

It is thus not surprising to see how politicians have a hard time being anything but pro-Google, as they are the new Western Union.

This isn't the first time Google experimented with cloaking either. Threadwatch had a post on Google cloaking their help files years ago & YouTube offers users a screw you screen if they are in a country where the content isn't licensed - yet they still show those cloaked pages ranking in the search results.

“The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

It is common knowledge that you shouldn't mix business and politics, however if one looks at history, many of those who gave us those sage words did precisely the opposite - and often illegally so - selling us down the river.

What is so obnoxious about Google's survey trial is that a big site that was hit by Panda was hit because they used scroll cloaking & didn't let the users get to the content right away. Googlers suggested users didn't like it & voted against it, and then roll out the same sort of "wait 1 moment please" stuff themselves as a custom beta ad unit.

And today Google just announced that they might create an algorithm which looks at ad placements on a website as a spam signal outside of Panda:

“If you have ads obscuring your content, you might want to think about it,” asking publishers to consider, “Do they see content or something else that’s distracting or annoying?”

On the one hand they tell you to optimize your ad placements & on the other they tell you that those were not optimal & are so aggressive that they are spam.

For a while there was a period of time where you could use something like "would Google do this" as a rule of thumb for gray area behavior.

In the current market that won't work.

“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” ― Ansel Adams

As ad units get more interactive & Google keeps eating more verticals the line between spam vs not will keep blurring.

Perception is everything.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ― Oscar Wilde

Published: November 9, 2011 by Aaron Wall in internet


November 10, 2011 - 12:13pm

Great piece.
I think all of this comes down to the fact that there is no such thing as free. Whether it's a free web site, free analytics, free search, free email, free word processing, there is always a cost and with Google its seems the cost is our privacy/freedom. Too many people are being blinded by the word free, especially in these times of austerity, so no doubt local businesses will jump at the chance of a free website, not knowing that it will cost them dearly in the not too distant future.

I don't know when the tipping point will come when people will say enough, I no longer want politicians and businesses profiling me. It may even be the case that there isn't a tipping point and that we are frogs who don't realise that we're being slowly cooked in a cauldron of deception. Google is not only cloaking the SERPS but also society. "If we are not paying for the product we are the product", needs to be the mantra of the free thinkers.

Nothing in life is free, the sooner we realise this the better.

The IM Koala
November 10, 2011 - 4:32pm

...but where I come from, what they're doing with the surveys is called "content locking," not just cloaking. That is, you have to do something that earns money for the site owner before you get to see the content. As a searcher, I despise content locking in its current form (Paywall et al), though this does seem to be a less onerous version. As a publisher who might want to earn money and collect market information from my readers? It's very tempting.

That said, privacy as I knew it growing up is so far gone, I really wonder why G bothers having a privacy policy at all.

November 11, 2011 - 8:15am

this does seem to be a less onerous version.

A lot of times when Google goes into doing something sketchy they turn it on barely or tie it in with a good cause & then over time they dial it up.

  • blocking passing referrers? start off by claiming it is a single digit percentage...2 weeks later dial it up.
  • promoting product search in the organic results? start by sending traffic to third party sites & then a while later switch it up to promote Google's product search pages hosted on Google
  • using paid inclusion? implement it on a 3rd party site like, then quietly fold that site into Google Product Search.
  • getting into job search? start by powering a US government tool for war veterans.

That said, privacy as I knew it growing up is so far gone, I really wonder why G bothers having a privacy policy at all.

They and Facebook at least need to pretend they care, so that they can get away with doing more. If it is obvious they don't care and will abuse you then they open themselves up to a lot more fines.

November 22, 2011 - 8:20am

You're pretty cool Aaron. Thanks for the read, laughs and education.

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