Black Hat SEO Cloaked Links to Forum Post GoogleCache

Black Hat SEO Cloaked Links to Forum Post GoogleCache

I signed up to the Discourse forum and made a post titled “Cloaked Link to Within Your Forum Software: Potential SEO Issue”. I explained the blackhat SEO link cloaking issue etc… and one of the co-founders (Jeff Atwood) responded trying to justify the blackhat SEO links, to which I gave a follow up: few hours later the forum topic was deleted and my Discourse forum account was deleted :-)

Fortunately I always keep a copy of everything I post to forums etc… (not my first rodeo :-)) and have posted the deleted forum content below and took a screenshot of the forum posts GoogleCache (above image).

Subject: Cloaked Link to Within Your Forum Software: Potential SEO Issue

I’m not a Discourse forum user so not familiar with your forum script.

I’ve worked in the SEO industry for over 15 years and when visiting a site I almost always take a look at the source code. While logged into this forum: I noticed the semi-hidden link to your main site in a noscript tag.

I posted about it on the forum at to warn them having links like that could result in a Google penalty IF the linked to site is penalized and they suggested letting you know.

Linking via a noscript tag without an equivalent link within standard body text (outside a noscript tag) is seen as gaming Google: Google is being served content most users are not seeing (only a small percentage will browse with jasvascript disabled).

I made the mistake of not doing detailed SEO research before posting (should have checked the Google cache to see what Google sees), so will describe the issue as Google isn’t spidering a semi-hidden link within a noscript tag, it’s spidering a standard text link within standard body text, but the forum users ARE not served the same link (that’s cloaking).

Google’s Take on Cloaking

You can see from this Google search”Powered+by+Discourse%2C+best+viewed+with+JavaScript+enabled” there’s 1.7 million pages with this code, that’s 1.7 million hidden backlinks to the your main site!

If/when Google notices these links are NOT served to the forum visitors there’s a very good chance your site will be penalized. Also the sites linking to you this way could also be caught in the crossfire, they could be penalized for linking to a ‘bad’ domain.

Your intention might not be to game Google, but the current setup is close to a perfect blackhat SEO setup.

You have a cloaked text link to your home page only served to Googlebot: you gain significant SEO benefit from 1.7 million backlinks.

You have the same link served within a noscript tag to other visitors: the link exists, but the webmaster of the forum is highly unlikely to see it and decide to remove it.

You do NOT have the link served as standard body text to visitors: as above, forum webmasters don’t know the link is there and so won’t remove it.

You are taking a significant risk with this setup, as mentioned on the forum I used to create WordPress themes with visible powered by links (nothing hidden) and Google penalized the domain for the millions of backlinks it generated.

In my experience as both an SEO consultant (12 years) and a webmaster (~20 years) I find adding links this way as unethical, nothing should be hidden from the webmaster or Google and there should be an easy to use option to disable the link (the webmaster shouldn’t need to modify code).

Assuming you haven’t been hit with a penalty already I suggest either removing the link completely or add a rel=”nofollow” tag to it so Google ignores the link.

Practically speaking there isn’t a good reason to keep the powered by link, Googlebot doesn’t care if the website is powered by your software (it’s a bot, it doesn’t need to read the text “Powered by Discourse, best viewed with JavaScript enabled.”). Visitors to a forum might like to know it’s powered by your software, but only a tiny minority of users browse with javascript disabled, so most don’t see the link and text. Even the forum visitors who aren’t using javascript don’t need to know it’s powered by your software, all they need to know is it’s “Best viewed with JavaScript enabled”.

You should change the code to something like “Best viewed with JavaScript enabled” when javascript is disabled (noscript tag) and if you want a powered by link show the same code to both Googlebot and forum visitors and allow the owners of the sites to enable/disable the link.

David Law

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