Does Amazon use search engine cloaking?

In the early days of SEO, cloaking was a common technique to position a web for a specific search. Cloaking consists of showing different content to search engine bots and users, so the code that search engines read it optimized to improve the website’s position, while the one destined for users is more attractive but more difficult to position.

Nowadays, after penalizing this behaviour several times and improving Google’s algorithm, it seems like this technique is eradicated and SEO professionals don’t include it in their strategies, at least those who work for large brands, international businesses or any renowned website. Or do they?

What is Amazon doing?

What Amazon.es is doing now is 301 redirects to the canonical URL when it detects that the user agent visiting the site it a search engine bot, for example, this URL:

http://www.amazon.es/moviles-chinos-Electr%C3%B3nica/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=i%3Aelectronics%2Ck%3Amoviles%20chinos

If we access as Googlebot, it redirects us to:

http://www.amazon.es/moviles-chinos-Electr%C3%B3nica/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A599370031%2Ck%3Amoviles%20chinos

Although, apparently, the sites are very similar, the page that redirects the Google bot has fewer outbound links and filters to narrow down the search:
Filtro de amazon para las búsquedas interntas

As well as losing the option to sort the results if the search engine is visiting the site:

Ordenar búsquedas de amazon

The sponsored links section catches our eye, because it is only visible where search engines can’t see:

Version for users:
Amazon Footer  Version for search engines:

Footer de Amazon

We find another example on the Market place vendor’s page, like with this URL:

http://www.amazon.es/gp/aag/main?ie=UTF8&asin=&isAmazonFulfilled=&isCBA=&marketplaceID=A1RKKUPIHCS9HS&orderID=&seller=A1Z1R8TIVUI104

Here, the content seen by Googlebot is very different to the one the user sees:

Busqueda de amazon Busqueda de amazon

Is this cloaking?

In my opinion, yes it is, because they are not trying to eliminate duplicates, but take a bot to a website “thought” for search engines to track and position better than the version for users.

The difference between having a canonical tag and redirecting is very large, because in the first case, search engines read all the content on the requested URL and indicates that the URL is a version of the main or canonical URL, which is the one search engines index. On the other hand, the technique used by Amazon doesn’t allow the search engine to see the content the user sees, and forces it to track their version for search engines.

Actually, one of the examples included in Googles guidelines is showing the bot a site with HTML text, while users see another website in flash. In many cases, the goal of these redirects is to position content that cannot be tracked or indexed by Google, a goal shared by this redirect, because what is trying to be avoided are problems in tracking generated by filters and sorting in e-commerce, as well as deleting the sponsored links shown to users just before the pagination, among other things.

Ultimately, we can say that this is a very sophisticated and discrete way of cloaking, but this doesn’t mean it should be penalized.

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Carlos Estévez

Ingeniero informático de formación, antes era programador web. Dirijo los departamentos de Search Marketing y analítica web de Internet República. Dejándome seducir por R y el Big Data.