The Growing Scourge of Cloaked/Phantom Pages

Like most professionals in the technology field, I jump toGoogle and other search engines fairly frequently, in pursuitof hints and documentation to help with various technologydilemmas. A quick search on the web and the archives of newsgroupsusually saves a tremendous amount of documentation diving andexperimentation.

In return for the huge benefit thatother people’s documented successes, failures, andexperiences bring, it has long motivated me to “pay itforward” by posting technology information online myself,hoping to help some future information seekers (on a similarvein, whenever I get a worthwhile answer on the newsgroups, Iusually make it a habit of hanging around and answering severalquestions myself, returning the favour to the community). If thesearch logs are to be believed, over the years quite a few peoplehave found pertinent information here regarding their softwaredevelopment problems or questions.

By the River

Lately I’ve been noticing a decreasing utility-versus-searchtime ratio, however, with quality declining largely as aresult of a growing number of high-pagerank sites feeding cloaked/phantom pagesto the Google search engine. Google sees a question/response thatcorrelates closely with what the informationseeker is asking, yet a visit by a real user (rather than asearch engine spider) quickly finds only the question, with theanswer suppressed until the user a) goes through an irritating,arduous process to sign up as a member on yet another infrequentlyvisited edge site that’ll likely sell their email address andbombard them with endless ads, b) signs up for some sort of paymembership. Given that many of these sites are simply siphoningtheir content from the Usenet or other forums, I’m never going tobother with either option, instead hitting back and following thenext link, often to find the same sort of nonsense.

Somehow a small number of these phantom page sites, most of themseemingly linked to by no one legitimate, have taken over the toprankings on Google for a huge range of technical searches. Somehowthey haven’t been banned by Google yet, despite the fact thatcloaked pages are expressly forbidden (if the search engine seesthe answer, then any random visitor should immediately see theanswer by following the search link, as the search engine hintimplies that the immediate page contains the result).

If they feel justified in forcing registration to read oftencoopted content, or the right to charge a membership, I haveabsolutelyno problem with that — in fact I think the net would be abetter place if there were more commercial opportunitiesencouraging even more intellectual investments. However theyshouldn’t fraudulently mislead search engines, and searchusers, and instead should rely upon normal advertising andword-of-excellence for their great utility. Otherwise they shouldfold, joining the heap of useless websites that could only foolusers into visiting.

Don’t waste our bloody time! Google shouldn’tbe acting by implicit complicity in these irritating schemes.

Speaking of the problem of apparent phantom pages, today Ihappened to be looking for CodeSmith, a free (albeit cripplewarefor as long as I can remember, and not freeware as the authorcontinually claims) code generation tool that I had fond memoriesof several years back. Naturally I begin the search withcodesmith freeware.

codesmith search

Great, so the page in question apparently talks about the freewareversion of CodeSmith. Only it doesn’t, and the text in questiondoesn’t appear anywhere on the linked page. Go ahead — look atthat page and search the source for freeware.

In reality the obsolete and deprecated freeware/cripplewareversion exists on atotally different page (one which doesn’t seem to be referencedanywhere else on the CodeSmith page). So why is my time beingwasted with the first, desperate-to-turn-a-sale page Why is Googleentirely misleading me about the contents of said page This sortof bait-and-switch has to stop.

Completely offtopic, but forcing people to register andanxiously wait for a download key to download a crippled,time-limited version is enormously irritating. It reallypushes my patience when I just want to validate a product,almost certain of it turning to a multi-license sale, and findingthat I’m forced to go through some B.S. that will inevitably yieldannoying sales emails and followups.

Just let me download the demo, and if it’s good I’ll buy. If itisn’t, you don’t deserve the right to harrass me with promotionsand petitions.