Sports, business & technology

Don’t let Nike try it (SEO, that is)

This past week I attended the Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference & Expo, which is held in a number of cities worldwide every year. The event is full of enthusiastic geeks diving into the minutia that is search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing. In layman’s terms, if you’re working hard on your Web site, you want to make sure that (a) you’re designing and wording it in a way that Google will want index it on its first page in various keyword search results, leading to (b) an increase in the number of eyeballs on your site, hopefully leading to (c) more readers and more business.

Some Web sites do an excellent job of achieving good SEO, but the way to really learn about the subject is to see who out there is not exhibiting a best practice. One particular company that SES panelists like to take potshots at is Nike. (In fact, one of them suggested Wednesday that there be an entire panel devoted to what is wrong with Nike’s Web sites, an idea at which other speakers and attendees laughed in agreement.)

At last year’s AND this year’s SES, various speakers said that while the athletic apparel company’s online properties fare well in branded searches – the “Nike” in the URL certainly helps – they do very poorly for keyword results such as “running shoes.” (In Google, shoe retailer comes out on top for that, and according to WebProNews, a search for the keyword “shoes” gives Zappos 21 percent of the traffic for that word versus just 1 percent for Nike.) There are a number of reasons for this, the first and foremost being that search engines still can’t track Flash applications very well. Nike’s sites abuse Flash to the nth degree, so when Google and Yahoo! capture information to index, they see sites just as you would be looking at them in Lynx. (Oh, the horror. Does anyone else remember the MS DOS-like text on blue screen with [LINK] and [IMAGE] tags? To think I was once forced to surf the Web in this manner.)

So, using a handy online bot spoofer, here is a screenshot of how looks to the Yahoo! Slurp crawler:


No, I did not create this in Photoshop and paste it here; rather, the “404” appears to show that bots can’t read images or Flash applications, so the entire Nike front page is a big blank to Yahoo! as well as Google. Now, Nike can probably get away with this since their brand is so well-known, but with more than 6 billion people on this planet, surely at least one person isn’t familiar with the company, so this is no way to draw in new customers. The easy thing to do would be to scrap the fancy Flash and go for a site that is easier on the eye, easier on your connection and easier on Google, right?

Well, Nike didn’t want to do that. When SES speaker Liana “Li” Evans, the director of Internet marketing at KeyRelevance, was going to go into the “Nike Story” at a panel, I was expecting the same song and dance that I just mentioned above. Instead, she retold a sordid tale that WebProNews broke earlier in the year. Nike, in an attempt to trick the search engines, kept constructing Web sites in Flash but fed HTML code to the engines so that keywords could be picked up. In other words, the Nike site that Google’s bots crawled did not resemble the coding in the actual online site, a practice called “cloaking.” Is Nike cheating? The panelists seemed to think so. What do you think?


March 22, 2008 - Posted by | advertising, fashion, Web sites | , , ,


  1. When I change my User-Agent to “Google Bot” and go to I am presented with content that differs from when I don’t have a User-Agent of “Google Bot”. Is this cloaking?

    There are many sites that employ a technique where they work with companies to produce a static version of the site. This content often differs from the dynamic site. Is this cloaking?

    I looked at the Nike site briefly and I noticed that they do not use the term “shoes” anywhere in their site, yet you do not list this as one of the reasons why they only have 1% of the shoes search traffic.

    I also noticed that the site that they present to Google and the other engines is using the exact same content as the Flash site. I don’t see how this is any different than the solutions provided by companies like SearchDex.

    Comment by Steve | March 23, 2008 | Reply

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for your comments. I am not an IT expert but I’ll take a shot at some of your questions.

    In regards to “cloaking,” I think it depends on the whether the tool(s) that you used can detect it or not. The free tool that I linked to in my entry states (if you scroll down further in the page) that it CANNOT detect professional cloaking “because there is no IP spoofing involved.” They have a separate article on the matter here:

    If you are aware of a tool that can monitor cloaking, feel free to share the URL (if available) or company name. I am not sure about the coding differences for Amazon’s site, but I do notice that their content is far more customized to the user (recent searches, logged in vs. not, rotating product placement on the page, etc.) and changes every time you reload pages.

    The WebProNews article didn’t explicitly state that Nike’s 1% to’s 21% was a direct result of not using the word “shoes” on their site. Sure, we could probably put 2 and 2 together 🙂 but I thought it was better not to draw a conclusion.

    Comment by sportsbiztech | March 23, 2008 | Reply

  3. I guess my point is that “cloaking” is not a black and white thing. Sure, if you present completely different content to the search engines with the intent on manipulating your rankings, that should be penalized.

    To the best of my knowledge that is not what Nike is doing. Nike is simply working around the fact that Google and the other engines have difficulty indexing RIA technologies.

    Comment by Steve | March 23, 2008 | Reply

  4. The information you have given in your article is very informative every website owner wants his website to be indexed in first page of google. In my opinion Search engine marketing services will help you in doing so…

    Comment by Search Engine Marketing Services | March 24, 2008 | Reply

  5. You should be careful about throwing around the word “cloaking”, according to the definition you provide from Wikipedia cloaking is:

    “Cloaking is a black hat search engine optimization (SEO) technique in which the content presented to the search engine spider is different from that presented to the users’ browser.”

    On closer inspection, the content Nike is providing to the search engines appears to be exactly the same as the content on the flash site.

    Comment by Roland | March 24, 2008 | Reply

  6. Steve: I agree. To hear the SES panelists tell it, though, it seemed like they felt every instance of cloaking is bad no matter what the intent (or maybe they just wanted to keep picking on Nike 🙂 ).

    Roland: Yes, that is correct, and that was why I linked to the Wikipedia definition because both the WebProNews article and the panelists at SES described it as such. I’m curious about the tool that you used to compare, because my understanding is that it’s not as simple as using an online tool to compare what users see versus what bots see (refer to comment No. 2).

    Comment by sportsbiztech | March 24, 2008 | Reply

  7. Hi there! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My site looks weird when viewing from my iphone4. I’m trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this issue. If you have any recommendations, please share. Thanks!

    Comment by Sharon Witt | May 27, 2011 | Reply

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