Fixing Google Manual Action: Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects

Damn. Links can be tricky AF. See Google Manual Action: Unnatural Links To Your Site and Google Manual Action: Unnatural Links From Your Site if you don’t believe us.

So you get an email from Google saying that your website is in violation of their webmaster quality guidelines for something called “cloaking.” For what now? Your website is following all of the rules as far as you know, and no, really, what the hell is cloaking anyway? Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with comics or some sort of top-secret espionage.

Surprise! Your site can show up in Google Manual Action reports for cloaking or dishonest redirects through no fault of your own. Google will flag your site with a sitewide match, which means your entire website is affected, or a partial match, which means only certain sections or pages of your site are affected.

So we’re back again, here to save the day and explain in detail what Google Manual Action cloaking is, what sneaky redirects (cloaking’s downright offensive cousin) are, how they can wind up on your site, and how to find and fix them.

Let’s roll.

Google Manual Action: Cloaking and Dishonest Redirects

Search Engine People defines both cloaking and dishonest (or sneaky) redirects as a violation that “shows different content to users than the search engines.”

Quick definitions:

  • Cloaking shows one set of content to the search engines (such as Google) and another set of content to the user once they’re actually at the site.
  • Sneaky redirects take the user from the domain they clicked on and send them to a spam domain.

One example of cloaking is when a domain website shows a page of HTML text to a search engine but a page of images and Flash to the user. Another example is inserting extra or different content when a search engine user asks to see the page, rather than a human user.

An example of an “innocent” redirect is when a user enters an older URL for your website and you redirect them to your new one. Sneaky or dishonest redirects show different content in the search engine than the content that actually appears on the site once it’s been clicked on, or they redirect users into a spam domain once a user has clicked on the legitimate looking website. Oh, y’know, just shady things.

Cloaking and sneaky redirects are violations of Google’s webmaster quality guidelines because they are giving the user different content than they asked for and were told they were getting. If you’ve enabled cloaking or dishonest redirects on purpose, you need to remove all affected content immediately. And stop being tricky. It honestly won’t help you.

Maybe you don’t have any cloaking enabled, but you might have a subscriber paywall. This might trigger a Google Manual Action if you don’t have it set up properly.

Check Your Paywall

Advertising on a mobile phone

If your website has content behind a paywall for subscribers, it might look like cloaking or dishonest redirects to Google. Since your public content looks different from the content that subscribers get once they’ve paid, Google might think you’re offering one thing and giving users another, thereby triggering their algorithms.

You'll need to carefully structure your website data to make it obvious to Google that you are not cloaking. For each paywalled section on your site, you have to use JSON-LD structured data to specify the hidden content. Click To Tweet

You also need to make sure that Google can crawl and index your website’s pages.

Google has specific coding instructions for this process here.

But what if you’re not cloaking on purpose, and you don’t have any subscription paywall content? Unfortunately, your website might have been hacked.

Hackers Gonna Hack

Hacker in dark hoodie at dual monitors of computer

Your violation notice from Google Manual Action reports might come out of nowhere (as far as you’re concerned) if someone has hacked your website without you being aware of it. Hackers can use cloaking to keep the webmaster from noticing that their website has been hacked, and insert as many redirects as they want to steal your visitors and send them to a different spammy website. Ugh.

The good news is, now that Google has notified you, you can find the problem and fix it. You will need to find all the pages or sections of your website that are being cloaked or redirected.

Time to Play Fetch

Playing fetch with cute beagle dog

You can use the “Fetch as Google” tool to help you search your site for pages that are being cloaked or redirecting users. Fetch pages using the tool, and see if Google can access the site, see how it appears, and see whether any images or content are blocked. Compare the content you see using the fetch tool with the content you see when visiting the site as a normal visitor.

If there’s any difference between the Google content and the normal visitor content, remove the content. You’ll need to look through your site’s code to find the affected sections.

You can also check the “fetch status” on any fetch requests you’ve had Google make. If the status is “Complete,” Google was able to successfully fetch the entire page.

A “Partial” status means Google was blocked from seeing some content by robot.txt files. You will need to look through your site’s code for any of those “Partial” statuses in order to fix them.

A “Redirected” status means that Google was redirected away from the requested page. Look for URLs that are redirecting elsewhere, and especially “conditional” ones that only redirect when visitors are coming from a Google search or specific IPs. Remove all of these sections of your site.

Re-Domination

Once you’ve fixed everything, you can request that Google reconsiders your website. You might have to wait a couple of weeks for results, so patience, patience! Once Google has reviewed your content and cleared your site of violations, voila! Your cloaking days are behind you. You have done *the thing.*

If you need help in any point of this process, talk to us. Not only are we experts in web design, content development, and search engine optimization, but we can help get rid of issues like cloaking and dishonest redirects, and get your website back on track for some incredible ranking. Let us help you dominate your competition.

More in Our Google Manual Actions Series

Unnatural Links to Your Site

Unnatural Links from Your Site

Cloaking and Sneaky Redirects

Hacked Site

Pure Spam

Spammy Structured Markup

User-generated Spam

Spammy Freehosts

Hidden Text and/or Keyword Stuffing

And more coming soon!

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