Whether you are dipping your toe into SEO (search engine optimisation) for the first time or consider yourself to be well-versed in best practice, you will most likely have heard conflicting answers to the question ‘does hidden content affect SEO?’. In this guide, we break down exactly what hidden content is and ask does hidden content affect SEO?
What is hidden content?
Put simply, hidden content is text or links on a website that are hidden from a user. There are many ways to hide content on a website, including:
- Using black text on a black background
- Covering text with an image
- Positioning text off-screen
- Choosing an illegible font size, such as 0
- Hiding a link by attaching it to one character, such as a comma
- Optimising image alt text
Why include hidden content?
Using hidden content to improve SEO became a popular practice in the 1990s and was referred to as ‘display:none SEO’. That's because 'display:none' is the code used to hide elements of a webpage without deleting it.
Web developers were still learning how to influence search engines and found that filling hidden web pages with keywords was an effective way to get their website on the first page of Google. At this time, search crawlers were not yet able to identify hidden content accurately from visible content.
How does hidden content affect SEO?
Including hidden keywords and content for SEO purposes on your website is now considered to be a black hat SEO tactic and can have a detrimental effect on your SEO success.
In its official guidance, Google states:
“Hiding text or links in your content to manipulate Google’s search rankings can be seen as deceptive and is a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.”
Search crawlers have been developed over the years to identify black hat SEO techniques, such as display none SEO to hide content, and will penalise websites for appearing to hide content. In extreme scenarios, hidden content may even cause your website to be deleted by Google as it is perceived by the search crawlers to be spam.
Hidden text is an attempt at a short-term SEO solution and won’t improve your site’s ranking in the long term. It will also frustrate users, who will be unable to find the content they are looking for, resulting in a potential loss of customers.
Does display none affect SEO?
Given that it's regarded as a black hat tactic, you might be forgiven for thinking all display:none text is bad. But the answer is not straightforward. Not all hidden content is harmful, providing it is not trying to be deceptive.
As a general rule, using display:none will not harm your SEO and will not automatically trigger a penalty, providing you are not trying to hide a long list of keywords. For example, if you are using this technique to hide a seasonal webpage that you do not want to display year-round, your SEO will not be affected.
Are hidden web pages a good strategy for SEO?
There was once a time when SEO marketers might create hundreds of pages which weren't visible on the website's main menu. Unfortunately, using hidden web pages can have a negative impact on your SEO efforts and may even result in penalties from search engines.
Search engines aim to provide the best possible user experience by presenting relevant and useful content to users. Hidden web pages, which are pages that are not visible to users but are included on a website for the purpose of manipulating search engine rankings, go against this goal.
Search engines can detect hidden web pages, and if they do, they may penalize your website by lowering your rankings or even removing your site from their index altogether.
Instead of using hidden web pages, aim to only create the pages you need and furnish them with high-quality, valuable content that is optimised for the keywords and phrases your target audience is searching for. By providing content that meets the needs of your audience, you will be more likely to rank well in search engine results and attract traffic to your website.
Is there any SEO-friendly hidden text?
There are some ways you can still use hidden text to your advantage.
Adding alt text to images is considered hidden text but as its purpose is to improve the accessibility of a site and offer value to users, it does not harm SEO. For example, users with poor internet connections, screen readers or mobile browsers may not be able to easily load images and videos and alt text will benefit them and enrich their experience online. You can bolster your alt text descriptions with one or two keywords relating to your page.
If you are in any doubt about whether the content you are hiding will negatively impact your SEO, look at the content and ask yourself: ‘does this offer value to the reader?’ If the answer is no, remove or replace the content.
If information is placed on your website solely for SEO purposes, rather than to engage and inform your audience, you may be penalised by search crawlers for it.
How to see hidden content on websites
If your website is not performing as you would expect in terms of SEO and you suspect a misinformed web designer may have included hidden content on your website, there are a couple of ways you can decipher if there is hidden content present:
- Look for blank areas: If there are blank areas on your website click and highlight them to potentially reveal hidden text.
- Open your source code: Open the code of your website and look for content that is hiding in deactivated stretches of page code. Even if you are unfamiliar with code, you should be able to scan the information for unfamiliar content that you do not believe is visible on your website.
What other techniques can harm your SEO?
It's not just hidden content that can affect your position in the SERPs, or even if you're listed at all. These other techniques can all results in a penalty:
1. Keyword stuffing
Similarly to hidden content, keyword stuffing can have a negative effect on SEO as it involves including a high volume of content on your website that offers little value to the reader.
For example, a mechanic in London may be penalised if they include content on their website such as:
“If you need a mechanic in London we are the London mechanic you can trust, we have many years of experience working as a mechanic in London.”
This content is clearly stuffed with keywords without offering any valuable insight or information to the user.
Cloaking is another black hat SEO technique that can lower your search engine ranking. Cloaking involves presenting different versions of content to a search crawler and the user of the site. This can be achieved by presenting different content based on the IP address or the User-Agent HTTP header of the individual or bot accessing the page. However, Google bots have been developed to identify this technique and penalise websites that attempt it.
Creating pages that appear to answer a specific search query only to funnel a user to an unrelated page is considered a violation of Google’s guidelines and will negatively affect your SEO.
For example, if you run a hair salon in Manchester and create a webpage targeting customers in London and funnel users back to your webpage for your Manchester salon, it is considered funnelling.
To learn more, check out these useful SEO tips for copywriters so you can avoid using black hat SEO techniques.
How to improve your SEO ranking
We have established that hidden content and other black hat techniques can harm your SEO if you use them in a deceptive or misleading way. This begs the question, what techniques can positively impact your SEO?
Andrey Lipattsev, a Search Quality Senior Strategist at Google, revealed in a Q&A in 2016 that in addition to RankBrain, an AI machine learning algorithm Google uses to organise search queries, the top two other factors that affect SEO are content and links.
When pressed for the significance of each factor, Lipattsev answered: “I can tell you what they are. It is content and links pointing to your site…there is no order.”
It, therefore, makes sense to keep quality content and links at the forefront of all SEO content marketing plans and strategies.
If an agency tries to sell you search success based on 'clever' tactics of hiding content, you should look for a more reputable partner. Instead, successful online businesses choose to outsource their SEO and content needs to SEO copywriters who can add value-driven content which helps to improve visibility without having to resort to hiding content.
✏️Make your content more search friendly the legitimate way by asking us about our SEO copywriting services
Header image: Agence Olloweb
Embedded images: Alizée Baudez, Solen Feyissa, Austin Distel