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Old 06-15-2006   #1
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Marshall Simmonds, the NYTimes & Acceptable Cloaking

Having been a Marshall 'follower' since the early days, a colleague during my time at About.com, and a friend, I was really interested in today's SearchDay article, Getting The New York Times More Search Engine Friendly.

The article talks about Marshall's challenges in getting 20 million documents indexed when much of it was behind a user login. So what was the solution? A very public case of 'acceptable' cloaking.
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Old 06-15-2006   #2
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Thanks Elisabeth, that is a great article. Never realised that Marshall was at the NYT! I guess you could say I aspire to be his Australia counterpart, but I don't have a job title anyway as lofty as his! I still remember reading about how he trains all the about.com guides
Quote:
Writing for Search Engines

The Times, like most newspapers, has a long-standing tradition of writing compelling headlines that grab human-readers, but that may not literally describe the news story. For example, when the Pope died, Times reporters headlined stories with titles like "Papacy Change" or "Pilgrims converge on the Vatican."
This is a MAJOR challenge for my publisher. Even worse, for a very long time all our RSS feeds only used a title tag from the XML feed, with no description tag. So we'd get RSS headlines like "Keep taking the Tablets" when the article was about Microsoft's Origami platform. RSS users would then have to take a potshot guess on what the article was about while our search engine users would almost never be able to find a relevant article (who searches for "keep taking tablets" when looking for an Origami review?)

To write for both search engines and for on-site users, BBC came up with an innovative and simple solution - displaying both types of headlines.
Quote:
Nic Newman, head of product development and technology at BBC News Interactive, pointed to a few examples from last Wednesday. The first headline a human reader sees: "Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma's rape trial hit South Africa's war on AIDS?" One click down: "Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear." Another headline meant to lure the human reader: "Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960's singer." One click down: "Obituary: Gene Pitney."
(From the NYT "This Boring Headline is Written for Google" article that Danny cited)

A lot of news sites run into the registration problem, but like Marshall says, the search engines love our content. Are we serving different versions of a document for a user and a search engine? Technically yes, but a search engine can't fill in a form to register, nor can it accept a cookie to follow the NYT "5 link" rule.
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Old 06-15-2006   #3
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Originally Posted by Danny Sullivan
Isn't this cloaking—serving different pages to a search engine and an individual web browser? Yes, it is.
Danny, arent you painting with broad strokes here?

There isnt a bait-and-switch going on here to deceive anyone. Googlebot is given a free membership to crawl around and we have to sign-up for ours.
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Old 06-15-2006   #4
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I agree. It isn't cloaking. If people see the same pages that the engines see, as they do, then it isn't cloaking. It doesn't matter whether or not people have to register.

But I'm surprised that the engines want the pages that people can't see without registering. They would be sending people to pages that can't be read. There's the cache, of course.
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Old 06-16-2006   #5
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I took some time to dig deeper into Google on this at http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/003962.html

Now, if we are going by what Matt Cutts said, then this form of IP delivery / Useragent delivery is in fact not acceptable cloaking by the NYTimes.com in my opinion.

The latest word from Matt Cutts on what is acceptable and non-acceptable cloaking is;

Quote:
So IP delivery is fine, but don't do anything special for Googlebot. Just treat it like a typical user visiting the site.
This is special treatment, no matter how you look at it.

Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com - no problems with them - since they don't take such a tough stance on cloaking. But Google, I think this is a problem.

But of course, I think Google should make an exception with these specific types of cases...
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Old 06-16-2006   #6
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Originally Posted by rustybrick

The latest word from Matt Cutts on what is acceptable and non-acceptable cloaking is;

This is special treatment, no matter how you look at it.

Yahoo, MSN, Ask.com - no problems with them - since they don't take such a tough stance on cloaking. But Google, I think this is a problem.

But of course, I think Google should make an exception with these specific types of cases...
Barry I dont know if Matt would agree with you about "special treatment" since Google is delivered the same content a registered user sees. Again, the only difference here is that Googlebot is already "registered" and the rest of us need to register one time.
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Old 06-16-2006   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff Martin
Barry I dont know if Matt would agree with you about "special treatment" since Google is delivered the same content a registered user sees. Again, the only difference here is that Googlebot is already "registered" and the rest of us need to register one time.
Nope, this is a common thing and I heard this brought up to Matt in the halls at SES, I believe. This specific case, registered access versus non registered access, I believe he said was not acceptable. You know how he shrugs his shoulders.
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Old 06-16-2006   #8
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Cloaking is common in Google

If you do choose to define this as cloaking, from my perspective it seems quite common in Google.

I'm an academic librarian (in life sciences) so my searches tend to be within particular areas and journal articles form a large part of my results even in Google.

When they have been retrieved directly by Google (and not from an abstracting database such as PubMed) most journal article results are in this form.

Try the keywords

cryptolepine synthesis

Three of the last four results on the first page are journal articles (two published by Wiley, one by Oxford University Press). In each case, the text given is not from the abstract but from the fulltext of the article.

However, when you click on the link you are sent to a page and then invited to log in. You can only log in to the full text if you have a subscription - in my case we have a sub to the Wiley journals but not the OUP journal.

In the case of the Wiley journals where the articles are described as PDFs but the page you are taken to is a .html page.

This seems to me pretty closely analogous to the situation for the NYT.

The proportion of cloaked results is not untypical of my searches at about 30%. Again, I realise that my searches are specialised but it does show that cloaking is not that uncommon in Google.

Of course, if I use Google Scholar that percentage increases greatly, because such a large proportion of its coverage is journal articles. Cloaking must be much more common in Google Scholar.

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Old 06-16-2006   #9
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Originally Posted by rustbrick
This specific case, registered access versus non registered access, I believe he said was not acceptable.
Then I guess I gave Google too much credit. There is nothing wrong with what is happening here. Google gets to use the content freely while profiting from it's use to populate their SERPs and the NYT gets to ask folks if they would like to register to see the content they have paid to have created (unless you already registered in which case you are already reading the content).

Its funny that that was Matt's reply considering they knowingly populate some of Google News with content that readers need to register to read.

Such a hard approach is difficult if not impossible to fully enforce and aids in creating a perception, whether it be incorrect or not, that Google will turn a blind eye when it suits them. Wow....sounds like the U.S. Govt....do no evil indeed.
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Old 06-16-2006   #10
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Jeff Martin?

This wouldn't be the Jeff Martin who was the former VP of engineering at WBS in Moorisville NC, would it?
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Old 06-16-2006   #11
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Quote:
This is special treatment, no matter how you look at it.
I disagree. The treatment isn't any different to what a registered user would get. It isn't serving one page to a person and a different page to googlebot, so it isn't cloaking.

Btw, Barry, a shoulder shrug doesn't mean that it is unacceptable. It usually means, that the person doesn't know.
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Old 06-16-2006   #12
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All I am saying is what I perceived the conversation to go like. You can trust my perception on this or not. Either way, these are just my personal thoughts on how Matt Cutts would see this action of the NYTimes.com.
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Old 06-16-2006   #13
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>There is nothing wrong with what is happening here. Google gets to use the content freely while profiting from it's use to populate their SERPs and the NYT gets to ask folks if they would like to register to see the content they have paid to have created

I'd draw the line if the content is used to bait users into paid subscriptions, i.e., "for the rest of the story, subcribe now" types. While I only use free registration on extremely rare occassions those who are willing to can follow the link further if they choose.
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Old 06-16-2006   #14
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In my opinion, there is a difference between cloaking and IP delivery, and that we need a new definition for yet another different concept.

IP delivery is where different content is delivered to a person or bot based on it's IP. Period. There is no stigma or moral/ethical/etc attachment to it. It's just technology.

Cloaking is a subset of IP delivery, where the content fed to the search engine is substantially different than the content fed to a human. This is more of a judgement call, and can be more of a social distinction than a technical one (ie what is the intent?).

What we need is a term for a different subset of IP delivery, where the content delivered is essentially the same, but customized to the user, usually for purposes of usability, or the content is different, but not for the purposes of search engine manipulation.

Googles own system of automatically redirecting you to it's localized version is an example of this, as would be blocking or redirecting known hackers or content thieves, or allowing employees or clients connecting via a known terminal or VPN to have different options available. None of this is cloaking, acceptable or not.

It's a completely different concept, and not a subsection of cloaking, which implies "hiding" by it's very term. In this case, the intention is usually to reveal, not hide, content to a search engine or user.

I doubt I'm creative enough to come up with a good name, but some that might start the ball rolling include: IP access, presentation, revealing, IP login, and so forth.

But it's not cloaking.

My opinion,

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Old 06-16-2006   #15
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One piece of feedback for the engines, though.

IF IT'S SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION, I NEED TO KNOW IT BEFORE I CLICK!!!

God, I hate that. it should be in a different color or something, like advertising (which it kind of is - except the users have to pay instead of the advertiser).

Both NYT and Webmasterworld really annoy me about that. When I'm in a hurry and trying to find information quickly, these subscription logins are incredibly annoying. It's really, really bad usability, IMO.

It's not cloaking, but frankly it might be worse from a user perspective. Instead of the search engine being tricked, the user is. They are searching for content, not a login page. People don't like surprises like that. I should have the option of searching only for non-login content if I choose to.

Subscription content should be marked and presented differently than non-subscription content.

Greenlight thinking: if I told the search engine (though my account, assuming I was logged in) that I had subscriptions to WMW, NYC, etc, then I would appreciate results from those resources a lot.

end of rant,

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Last edited by mcanerin : 06-16-2006 at 02:51 PM.
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Old 06-18-2006   #16
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So if cloaking is an evil subset of "IP delivery of the type that companies might do in order to ensure that not only users, but bots from major search engines with names beginning in G, see the 'right' pages and read/love/index/rank them," than what is the latter a subset of?

I'd call it a subset of organized page 'submission' activity intended to boost the number of pages indexed in a search engine and ranked reasonably well, thereby increasing the overall number of unpaid referrals to the company doing the 'submission.'

If Google gives you technical hints or makes greenlight noises/gestures, it sounds a lot like "paid inclusion" without the paid part.

Keeping in mind - the news search is a completely separate product, and that could/should have an organized submission process also, if a major news outlet wanted to make it easy for the index to have everything available, even the stuff that's behind a reg. wall.

It seems to me that (a) the news search product could be better, more complete, and with clearer rules; (b) the search index rules could operate more consistently and less capriciously.

In short, it sounds like Google is somewhat of an editorial organization; that someone was doing someone a favor; and in this case as with others perhaps there is some ad revenue/partnership involved also.

It stands to reason that if you're the New York Times, you can make a few calls and get some answers. But if Google's handing out workarounds, they're running a de facto inclusion advisory service, which indicates a shortcoming in their indexing model and the likelihood of a non-level playing field in this type of advice.

If there is no formal program, then the rest of the world is left scratching its head. Who do I call? How can I do the same thing? Is this fair? Etc.
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Old 06-18-2006   #17
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IF IT'S SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION, I NEED TO KNOW IT BEFORE I CLICK!!!
Amen Brother. Amen! I don't give a stuff about ethical qualms, as a user, I am P-oed that this happens. Whilst the NY Times is probably a fine, upstanding pinko leftist rag that, ironically, is most likely owned by rich industrialist members of the military industrial complex and used to further American empirialist propoganda, I just want to know how Britney Spears is coping with motherhood, and that horrible, untalente huibbie of hers.

Seriously, as a user, this development SUX. I have no qualms showing this content on a SERP, but I have massive qualms not knowing before I click through. As a user, I am their audience, don't disrespect me, man.
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Old 06-19-2006   #18
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Danny, arent you painting with broad strokes here?
The story was written by Chris Sheman and me, and Chris actually gave me more credit than I deserve on it. I passed along some notes from an initial interview with Marshall, but he did the heavy lifting in writing it all and doing further interviews.

Having said that, he's right. It is cloaking.

In some cases, you'll get an article and not need to be registered, because the article is still being shown live to everyone. Not cloaking.

In other cases, you'll get an article but if you try to see it, you'll get a registration prompt. If you register, you can see the article as well. Maybe cloaking. Maybe not. After all, you're still what Googlebot saw, as if it were a registered member. So the "eventually you'll see what Googlebot saw" argument eventually holds up.

FYI, I wish it was easy for anyone to do this, without having to be in a special program -- and yes, I wish it was also clear to the searcher that registration or paid subscriptions were required.

In some cases, you'll get an article but then get a prompt to be a paid member to see it. Googlebot was shown the full article but you are not and can only get to the page if you are a paid member. Redirection takes place.

Example? Look here:
http://www.google.com/search?q=site:...art=140 &sa=N

Now look at this entry

The Soldiers Speak. Will President Bush Listen? - New York Times
That's one more bit of evidence that our grim stay-the-course policy in Iraq has failed. Even the American troops on the ground don't buy into it — and ...
select.nytimes.com/2006/02/28/opinion/28kristof.html

Now to go the page itself and try to find the text. You won't. You get a landing page telling you that you need to be a paid reader to see what Google actually spidered. What it indexed and what you see are substantially different. That's cloaking.

Hey, but eventually you'll see the real article. Please, give me a break. This is exactly what Inceptor and others were doing for paid content articles back in like 2001, and people, when they learned of it, got all upset that it was cloaking. It was showing the spider something different than the user -- most users -- see. And let's be clear. Googlebot doesn't just come along and register for a site, and it certainly doesn't whip out a credit card and get going. This is special treatment, plain and simple. And not bait and switch? Did you have any clue when you read the description of the article above that you were instead going to land on a generic page about the article? Sure, the content matches -- but the experience of what many were expecting is different than what they got.

Keep in mind, I'm not saying cloaking is bad, not am I upset with what the NYT is doing. But you do have to mention it. Cloaking remains an issue, otherwise we wouldn't have this thread now.

I've consistently over the years said that spam should be divorced from the issue of mechanics. IE, cloaking doesn't mean you are spamming -- what are you cloaking? That content is what you want to look at.

Do I think the NYT is spamming Google? No. Do I think they are cloaking? Yes. Do I think they should be banned because Google itself warns against cloaking? No. I've long written that Google guidelines on that are outdated. To be honest, it's a pretty boring issue to revisit, very 2004. The NYT is just the latest in a string of big companies showing that cloaking in and of itself isn't necessarily bad.

FYI, here are just a few of the past things I've done on cloaking:

Ending The Debate Over Cloaking

Cloaking By NPR OK At Google

Google & Approved Cloaking

FYI, this used to be the policy:

The term "cloaking" is used to describe a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site. In other words, the webserver is programmed to return different content to Google than it returns to regular users, usually in an attempt to distort search engine rankings. This can mislead users about what they'll find when they click on a search result. To preserve the accuracy and quality of our search results, Google may permanently ban from our index any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking to distort their search rankings.

These are what I recommended it change to:

The term "cloaking" is used to describe a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site without permission. In other words, the webserver is programmed to return different content to Google than it returns to regular users, usually in an attempt to distort search engine rankings. This can mislead users about what they'll find when they click on a search result. To preserve the accuracy and quality of our search results, Google may permanently ban from our index any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking to distort their search rankings. In some limited cases, Google does have arrangements with publishers where we may crawl material different from what a regular user sees. In these cases, the arrangements are done because we feel they benefit the quality of our searches, not harm them.

Or:

The term "cloaking" is used to describe a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site without permission. In other words, the webserver is programmed to return different content to Google than it returns to regular users, usually in an attempt to distort search engine rankings. This can mislead users about what they'll find when they click on a search result. To preserve the accuracy and quality of our search results, Google may permanently ban from our index any sites or site authors that engage in cloaking without our permission, if we feel it is harmful to our search rankings.

At some point in the past year, Google dropped the long-standing policy and now just makes aside references:


http://www.google.com/support/webmas...y?answer=35769

Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking."

and

Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.

http://www.google.com/support/webmas...y?answer=40052

certain actions such as cloaking, writing text in such a way that it can be seen by search engines but not by users, or setting up pages/links with the sole purpose of fooling search engines may result in removal from our index.
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Old 06-19-2006   #19
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I still disgaree with you, Danny. It isn't cloaking.

Cloaking has always been understood as serving a different page to users than to search engines, AND users never receive the page that the search receives, and vice versa. In this case, both users and search engines recieve the same pages, so it isn't cloaking. It doesn't attempt to hide anything from either the users or from the engines, which cloaking does. Cloaking hides the users' page from the engines, and gives them a different one instead.

It's IP delivery (or user-agent delivery), but that's all, and there's nothing wrong with IP or user-agent delivery - the engines do it all the time.

As Ian said, cloaking is something quite specific - all IP delivery isn't cloaking. We have always understood cloaking to be serving one page to users and a different page to search engines, and users never see the engines' pages, and vice versa. What the NY Times is doing doesn't fit that description, and therefore it isn't cloaking.

Both of your suggested guidelines alternatives refer to "altered pages" "without permission", but it isn't necessary to get permission to alter pages for the engines. Just about all forums do it, for instance. Their pages are altered to remove session IDs from URLs. It isn't cloaking - it's assisting the engines to crawl the pages that users see. Cloaking is more specific than that.
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Old 06-19-2006   #20
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Both of your suggested guidelines alternatives refer to "altered pages" "without permission", but it isn't necessary to get permission to alter pages for the engines. Just about all forums do it, for instance. Their pages are altered to remove session IDs from URLs. It isn't cloaking - it's assisting the engines to crawl the pages that users see. Cloaking is more specific than that.
But the difference there is that it isn't done for SEs. In fact, most Session hacks involve no sessions for any anonymous user.

Showing SEs content that requires a commercial contract is far different, and a terrible development that is, yes, cloaking.

Of course, everyone is welcome to try the same trick, aand see how long Johnny no importance quasi news rag lasts
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