Ralph Tegtmeir AKA Fantomaster Interview

Hello All

Managed to snag the great man that is Ralph Tegtmeir, also known as Fantomaster to answer a few questions about search, cloaking and facial hair. So without further delay….

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What advice do you have to the cloaker who wants to conceal his tracks from the snooping competitor, in terms of nocache for example as that has to be a bit of a giveaway or other footprints like URl structures?

True, as a cloaker you want to hide your tracks and avoid footprints as best you can. While there was some initial apprehension that usage of the NOCACHE tag might jeopardize rankings when it was introduced some years back, empirical evidence gathered since then absolutely doesn’t bear that out. So as it stands, chances are you’d be quite safe making use of it in terms of your competitors checking out cloaked content.

Beyond that, you can and actually should implement a cache buster script triggering an immediate redirect if someone scrutinzes your cached pages.. This will typically be in JavaScript, so it’s obviously not 100% secure. But overall it does help to ward off at least the less tech savvy snoops. Here’s a free JS one we’ve contributed to the SEO community: http://fantomaster.com/cachebuster.html

Finally, there’s other ways to obfuscate a cloaked page’s code to further safeguard against competitors’ determining their cloaked status with 100% certainty, but I’d rather not want to discuss them in public for obvious reasons, if you don’g mind.

Let’s not forget that in order to determine whether a page is cloaked or not you’ll have to be aware of it in the first place. Merely noticing that a well ranked cached page isn’t identical with the Serp link’s target page won’t tell you anything, however: There’s simply too many perfectly legitimate reasons why this should be the case so it’s hardly more than an extremely vague and highly unreliable indicator at best, more often than not entirely misleading.

There has been a big upsurge in widespread “blackhat operations”, mainly coming about from peoples white hat losses. What do you make of it all, have Google screwed themselves over by opening the can of worms and where do you see it ending, this is a war isn’t it?

Yes, it is decidedly a war and what’s more, it is escalating all the time. That’s not just our own, arguably biased view at fantomaster.com, it’s what that whole “surge of black hat operations” you’re rightly referring to proves beyond doubt by its very ocurrence. Because it’s quite true, and our sales figures are reflecting it beyond any reasonable doubt as well: Ever more web marketers are beginning to realize that they don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell SEM wise without resorting to cloaking in the current environment if they’re targeting even an only moderately competitive market.

While I’m not exactly famous for schmoozing with the likes of Google, in this case I’d be reluctant to place the blame squarely at their doorstep, however. Of course the engines are involved in this all, but in my view the fundamental issue is really one of dramatically exploding global competition. There’s simply too many people vying for a piece of what’s essentially the same finite, limited cake which makes for a veritable no holds barred cut-throat environment quite unprecedented in human history. And of course it’s also a result of the widely increased penetration of Internet technology – think broadband and mobile phones here, for example – this has resulted in a whole lot more technological awareness hitting the market now as well: Gone are the days when people could successfully brag at parties about “not needing all that weird new fangled Internet stuff” …

Add the fact that generating automated content on the fly has become both viable and affordable for just about everyone setting out to run a business on the Web, and you’ll easily see that the whole balloon is expanding almost at the speed of light.

The search engines are merely trying to come to terms with all this immense amount data which is actually growing exponentially all the time.

Personally I don’t see any problem with cloaking, for example if a person getting to a Product X page when they looked for Product X. So with exception to Disney=Porn what do you think is the great issue that search engines have with it?

Control – they’re control freaks, that’s all. Not that it’s very logical for them to be: After all, it’s definitely not their own content they’re making a living off, still they want each and every webmaster to play by their rules and their rules alone, period. Quite a conceit.

Now I guess it won’t come as a particular surprise neither to you nor your readers that we at fantomaster.com nurture an entirely different view. If it’s my web site, if it’s my content, then it’s my own bloody business what I choose to do with it. If they don’t like what I do, they’ll chuck me out of their index, provided they find out about it. I’m ok with that, too, but when all is said and done it’s an epic contest of minds – actually, all of SEO is, not just cloaking or “black hat” techniques.

I’ve been long enough in this business to remember the days when the search engines (or, rather, their reps) were wont to treat each and every SEO as mere scum, as dirty spoilsports who’d best vanish from the face of the earth, the sooner the better. Of course, that was a pretty self-serving and hypocritical agenda and I’ll concede that they have backed down a bit on this score which, interestingly enough, came about roughly with the advent of PPC, when what would later become Overture was still making it up as they went alon in their incarnation as GoTo.com.

On the other hand, it’s not as if the engine were really clamping down that hard in earnest on cloaking as they have always pretended to do. To some extent they’ll even tolerate it if it’s not too blatantly misleading, as in your example, or too spammy. It’s common wisdom amongst the more experienced and sophisticated SEOs that probably 80-90% of all Fortune 1000 companies are making use of cloaking one way or another these days. Ok, so if they do get caught out due to some stupid glitch, as was the case with BMW not very long ago, it’ll create a bit of a stink. But overall –
where would it leave the search engines if they actually banned all those big boys from their indices? Fat chance of that ever happening.

So while the risks of cloaking are quite real, in the same stride they’re actually pretty remote provided you play your cards right – and do it well, of course.

What advice would you give to a wannabe cloaker as after all it is considered a magic bullet in some circles?

First and foremost: Dear wannabe cloaker – please realize that cloaking is categorically NOT a magic bullet! While it’s arguably the most powerful SEO tool extant, it’s only that – a tool, no more, no less.

To illustrate, consider a somewhat more tangible example such as a chainsaw. Can you build a log cabin with a chainsaw? The answer is simple: You can – if you can! In other words, unless you actually know a) how to build log cabins in the first place, and b) how to make use of a chainsaw in the the first place, your combined expertise-plus-chainsaw will probably do the trick very nicely. But if you don’t, take care: Chances are, you might hurt yourself quite badly: no log cabin for all your troubles, and quite possibly no legs anymore, either …

By the same token I’ve always taken great care to point out that IP delivery cannot work miracles – except in a miracle maker’s hands. All that mystique surrounding it to this very day is actually quite unhelpful. Sure, it may lend us some clout by way of marketing, attracting leads in quantities, but there’s a pretty high price to pay for that as well, namely having to size down people’s frequently overblown expectations or suffer the consequences.

You see, like most marketers, we want happy clients – it serves them best if they’re actually achieving what they’re devoting their resources to, and it serves us in that it reflects well on our reputation and promotional efforts. Mystifying and spreading all kinds of mumbo jumbo about the cloaking process and what it can achieve is quite counterproductive within that strategic framework.

This said, my next advice to your hypothetical wannabe would be to learn the craft of search engine optimization and marketing as thoroughly as possible. Study the literature, subscribe to some hands on newsletters, sign up with at least some of the relevant forums, and what’s most important: test, test, test! It’s a trade like any other, an art and a science combined, so why should it take you any less time and effort to master than, for example, carpentry, model painting or digital photography?

It’s really only after you’ve gained some practical experience with SEO that you’ll be able to truly appreciate the power of IP delivery or cloaking – merely hunting for that mythic golden bullet is no viable compensation.

There ain’t no shortcuts, I’m afraid, and the sooner you realize it, the faster you’ll actually turn successful.

How many cloaked pages do you have in the wild and do you ever not cloak?

Haven’t ever counted them, really, but if we include our clients’ SEM campaigns, there’s several millions about.

And yes, we don’t always cloak. E.g. no part of our main web site http://fantomaster.com/ is cloaked, and there are several others. For one, we have to assume realistically that we’re under constant close scrutiny, but more importantly we don’t as a rule mix cloaked and non-cloaked pages on any single site anymore. Rather, we prefer to go for entire cloaked domains, what we label Shadow Domains™, a trademarked term, by the way, you’ll even find mentioned in Google’s webmaster guidelines as one of the big no-nos, ever since they filched it from us, of course without giving us any credit.

Cloaking and Adsense, how do you suggest getting around problems like Googlebot and MediaBot seeing different content and then having chat later and comparing data?

Generally, you wouldn’t want to put any AdSense code on your cloaked pages anyway: no point in it as humans don’t get to see them anyway. So it’s really a non-issue.

Your IP list is pretty legendary, just how do you do it, keeping it up to date, and disseminating that list? How long from identifying a new potential spider do you know about it and get it out there.? You must have a large array of sites looking for spidering activity and reporting centrally?

Yes, it’s a pretty sophisticated process and all the critical stages are actually run manually because there’s no way yet to automate it to our demanding degree of reliability and precision. We’ve been at it since 1999 and have honed our performance continuously, of course.

Spider catching times vary, depending on where the new entities happen to crop up and at which rate: Generally, it will only take about 30 to 60 minutes but sometimes it’s more complicated. After all, each and every spider has to be verified beyond reasonable doubt which requires some time. And when push comes to shove, we’ll rather err on the side of speed than compromise our reliability standards. Simply blanket targeting entire IP C classes after catching a few spiders from that range, as some other companies will do, simply isn’t good enough for us.

Currently, we’re monitoring in excess of 35K domains’ traffic round the clock for fresh spiders, the vast majority of them belonging to third parties. So it’s not as if we’re restricting ourselves incestuously to only those web properties we control ourselves. This gives us a sufficiently broad spectrum to catch new spiders as they crop up. And as we’re catering to an international clientele, you’ll find lots of search engine spiders in our list as well that are doing duty in other countries and languages all over the world.

Note that contrary to popular perception the fantomas spiderSpy™ list’s benefits aren’t limited to cloaking or IP delivery alone. Quite the contrary, really: Judging by the number of installed bases, it’s primarily used in the field of traffic stats analysis. You’ll be hard put to find an even remotely comparable set of up-to-date spider IPs anywhere, which lends traffic analysis an unprecedented degree of exactitude and reliability, if I say so myself.

Have you ever cloaked at a DNS level and what do you make of that as a method?

We’ve looked into it a bit but didn’t pursue it any further for a variety of reasons. Currently, it’s hard to conceive of a real world scenario where it would reliably produce results comparable to classic IP delivery.

I know you mentioned that you did not really want to pitch them, but can you tell us all a little more about the two new “Fanto” products which you don’t even have name for yet as they are both of interest to me personally?

Well, seeing that you’re practically insisting on it …

Alright, here’s a virtual sneak preview – an exclusive first for you and your readers.

For one, we’re on the verge of launching the fantomas superkeywordGenerator™. This program tackles the issue that more often than not you won’t be able to find a decent RSS feed for any given combination of keywords with any of the major aggregators. This will create a blank feed on your pages which certainly isn’t what you want if you’re making use of feeds to automatically update your page content. I don’t really want to reveal much more at this point, but once it’s launched webmasters will have an easy to use tool to overcome this issue fairly neatly and actually leveraging on the principles of Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) in a proactive manner.

Expected launch date is sometime either end of September or early October, and it will be tagged as a low cost item as well. It’s not related to cloaking proper, of course, though we will integrate this functionality in our flagship product, the fantomas shadowMaker™ at some later date to ensure that even your cloaked pages will be fresh and updated regularly, no matter how outlandish your particular set of keywords and search phrases may be.

The second project is a service offering high quality header graphics focused on a variety of topics for webmasters to implement on their regular, their mini and even their MFA sites.

Ok, it may not sound like the sexiest of products, but it’s a fact that with all those private label rights (PLR) products being churned out left, right and center currently, decent unique header graphics are still pretty much a rare commodity.

By contrast, our proprietary graphics will offer best quality, they’re topically highly focused, and – this is important! – they will be offered only in very limited editions at an extremely affordable price. So chances are that you won’t see them being featured again and again on tons of competing sites across the Web.

Amittedly these projects may be viewed as a mere sideline compared to what we’re most famous (if it is that) for, but in my view that’s a bit of a misconception: While our brand name is usually associated with Cloaking and SEO products for various reasons, we’ve always been a software house developing a wide range of other, unrelated webmaster tools as well.

On a lighter note, you have what can only be described as “an industrial strength beard”, how long have you had that and any plans to shave it off or is that your own personal cloaking mechanism? 🙂

Well, after Peter Davanzo’s “best beard in search” label this take is something new, heh. I’ve been sporting it since 1979 and never shaved it off since and frankly I don’t really see any valid reason to do it now. Of course, I’ll trim it a bit every once in a while but not extremely.

And sorry, no, though it might arguably second as a cloaking device it’s really got nothing to do with it. Rather, I’ve suffered from what might be termed a shaving allergy all my adolescent and adult life. Alright, maybe that’s not the proper medical term but fact is that I respond very badly to shaving of any kind, be it electric or wet, developing a chockfull of rashes and sores everytime I ever had a bash at it. It was living hell during my time in the army when I had to attend the daily roll call freshly shaved, so it’s quite a relief not having that particular headache anymore, at least.

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Ralph, it has been my pleasure to ask you these questions and I will buy you a beer in Copenhagen for the SEO roadshow, your time is very much appreciated.

If you want to read more of what Ralph has to say, he can be seen around various forums and of course on Fantomaster

ukgimp out

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