Google Warns Against Cloaking HTTP Status Codes

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During Google’s April 2023 SEO Office Hours, a website owner asked Gary Illyes, Analyst at Google, whether giving Googlebot a different HTTP status code from the one served to human visitors would be acceptable.

Specifically, they wanted to serve an HTTP status code of 410 (Gone) to Googlebot while giving users a 200 (OK) status code.

An HTTP status code of 410 informs search engines that a page has been deleted for good and needs to be removed from their index.

In contrast, an HTTP status code of 200 means the request worked and the desired resource was successfully given.

Giving different HTTP status codes to search engines and users is known as “cloaking.”

This is often employed as a black hat SEO technique for manipulating search engine rankings by showing one version of a page to crawlers and another version to human visitors.

Google’s Position On Cloaking

In response to the website owner’s question, Illyes strongly advised against cloaking status codes, stating it’s risky.

He explained that multiple serving conditions could lead to potential issues, such as the site getting de-indexed from Google.

Instead, Illyes recommends using a “noindex” robots meta tag to remove specific pages from Google Search.

This approach is more straightforward and safer than setting up potentially problematic serving conditions.

The Repercussions Of Cloaking

Cloaking is considered a direct violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines.

When done intentionally, it’s seen as an attempt to deceive search engine crawlers. Websites that engage in cloaking may see their rankings drop or their content removed from search results.

Avoid giving search engines and users different status codes. To that end, stay away from all cloaking.

Cloaking can include showing search engines and people different content, meta tags, or design elements.

It’s all against Google’s rules and can make your website look bad.

Being open and honest is the best way to keep search engines and visitors happy, leading to better rankings and user experiences.

For more insights from the Google Search Relations team, listen to the full episode (this discussion starts at the seven-minute mark).

Featured Image: bsd studio/Shutterstock

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