While the term sounds a bit like something out of a science fiction movie, it is actually a real term used to describe a controversial technique by webmasters and website hosts to boost their rankings in search engine results which in theory will draw more traffic to their site.
The main feature of website cloaking is that it is used to present a completely different web page to the web crawlers of search engines then is presented to real human visitors to the site. You see, when search engines go through the vast internet to find relevant sites for your search they are presented with meta tags of sites along with their own information harvested from the actual content of the web sites. Based on this information it returns sites in rank order based on their relevance to what you searched for combined with site popularity, the number of times it was clicked in previous searches, and other criteria.
This can mean that otherwise valuable sites for your search are lost in the mix if the web crawling software fails to properly detect and send back these sites as relevant results to your search. By cloaking a site, the webmaster is in essence presenting an invisible site to the search engines that has all the relevant information to rank the site higher in a certain category. Then when the user clicks on the site link shown in the results they are taken to a completely different web page.
The controversy arises in that some webmasters are creating invisible sites that mimic site content of other types of site that have zero relevance to their actual sites. Say you are searching for sites that sell car accessories which is a popular topic, yet there is a site selling computer parts and for some reason the webmaster has decided to cloak the site and make it seem like a car parts site to the search engines.
If done right it will show up high in the results and you’ll click on the site only to be taken to the actual site that has nothing to do with what you wanted. No matter what this click generated traffic to the said site and hopefully some visitors brought there this way will end up clicking on advertisements or even purchase something from the site.
Of course most people who are deceived will not return, which is why site cloaking of this level is mostly reserved for those sites that rely mainly on ad and click revenue to make money. Once you click they have already made their money so it doesn’t really matter if you hang around or even return.
Then there are the websites that slightly alter their original site to give the search engines something that shows up as more relevant then it really is for the search results but is still in the same topic or category. Taking the example of a user searching for car accessories, a car dealer website may engage in cloaking so you come to their site as a result of your search. Since you aren’t completely deceived you might actually shop around the site.
As you can see website cloaking can be used in two main ways, both which are essentially deception. For webmasters it is an ethical decision as to whether or not they’d take website cloaking as a way to generate traffic which may or may not generate revenue. While it isn’t technically illegal or even detectable easily; it may make some users not want to return to an otherwise useful website and can completely through off the search engine’s system of crawling for and returning the best or most popular results. Plus there is also the question as to whether website cloaking undermines the legal and booming business