Google advises against using cloaking to manipulate HTTP status codes


During a recent SEO Office Hours event hosted by Google in April 2023, a website owner posed a question to Gary Illyes, an Analyst at Google, about whether giving Googlebot a different HTTP status code than the one given to human visitors would be acceptable. The website owner specifically asked about serving a 410 (Gone) HTTP status code to Googlebot while serving a 200 (OK) status code to users.

HTTP status codes are used to communicate the status of a requested resource to the client. A 410 status code informs search engines that a page has been deleted permanently and should be removed from their index, whereas a 200 status code indicates that the request was successful and the desired resource was returned.

However, giving different HTTP status codes to search engines and users is considered a black hat SEO technique known as “cloaking.” This technique is used to manipulate search engine rankings by showing different versions of a page to crawlers and human visitors.

Illyes strongly advised against cloaking HTTP status codes, stating that it is a risky practice. He explained that using multiple serving conditions could result in potential issues, such as de-indexing from Google. Instead, Illyes recommended 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.

Cloaking is a direct violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can lead to negative consequences for a website. When done intentionally, it is seen as an attempt to deceive search engine crawlers, and websites that engage in cloaking may see their rankings drop or their content removed from search results.

It’s essential to avoid giving search engines and users different status codes, and as a result, website owners should steer clear of all cloaking practices. Cloaking can include showing search engines and users different content, meta tags, or design elements, all of which violate Google’s rules and can harm a website’s reputation.

To maintain positive rankings and user experiences, it’s best to be transparent and honest with search engines and visitors alike. Avoiding cloaking and other manipulative SEO techniques is the best way to achieve this goal. By following Google’s guidelines and providing quality content, website owners can help ensure that their sites remain accessible and relevant to users.