Cloaking by Major Aussie Travel Site Exposed at SMX Sydney

SEO ClinicIf you haven’t already heard the news, the final and highly amusing session at SMX Sydney revealed a not-so funny situation for large travel site Flight Centre Australia.

Late Friday afternoon, Rand Fishkin and Danny Sullivan were teamed up for the SEO Clinic session, where audience members offer their sites up for SEO advice to the three teams of two SEO experts each, fetchingly outfitted in doctor’s lab coats. During Rand and Danny’s review of the Discover Tasmania site, a standard code snippet grab to check for duplicate content in Google came back with some strange referrer link to this page. Straight dupe content right? Well not quite. A view source check didn’t show the phrase up anywhere in the HTML for that page. “Smells like cloaking!” said Danny excitedly as he shared his find with Rand live on stage.

Then followed the hilarious scenario where Danny tried to install the Firefox plug-in that allows code lookups using different user-agents. Lost windows, a non co-operating mouse and constant old married couple bickering between Danny and Rand kept the audience in stitches until they finally got the plug-in to install. Finally disguised as Googlebot, a quick look at the page code confirmed what Danny suspected: Flight Centre was indeed cloaking and using content from Discover Tasmania in the process.

With Google’s spam fighter Adam Lasnik sitting right there on the panel, it was only a matter of time before the consequences kicked in for Flight Centre. A search today for the same snippet used by Rand: “Tasmania’s capital lies in the south-east of the state” no longer brings up a Flight Centre page. Plus their subdomain catalogues.flightcentre.com.au shows no cache and a PageRank of zero. Looks like the whole sub-domain has been delisted – ouch! The moral of the story? Cloaking is easily detectable by both your competitors and anyone with a few programming smarts. The risks rarely outweigh the short term benefits.

Interestingly, Flight Centre didn’t attend SMX this year, but they were at a similar conference in Sydney last year and I recall having a conversation with the Marketing Manager about them seeking to hire some SEO young guns. Looks like whoever they hired shot themselves in the foot! Shame.

More information on cloaking and the session is available from Neerav’s blog. Photo courtesy of the SMX Sydney mozzers.

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