Hidden text is the term used to describe a tactic that some website owners use as a part of their website’s SEO strategy. The text is called ‘hidden’ because it is generally not visible to human visitors, although it can be seen by viewing a web page’s HTML source code. While using hidden text is generally regarded as a black hat SEO strategy, website owners all around the world, nonetheless, use it on a regular basis.
Here is what you need to know about hidden text – what it is, how it’s used, and the positive and negative aspects of using this on-page search engine optimization tactic.
In order to understand the concept of hidden text, you must understand why a website owner would utilize this tactic.
Search engines use a large number of metrics, also called ‘signals’, to determine where a web page ranks within their listings for certain search queries. One of those metrics is keyword usage on a web page. By adding more keywords to a web page, website owners believe that they will be given an advantage in terms of their website’s search engine rankings.
So, the reason that website owners use hidden text is to bring favor to their web pages in search engines when specific keywords are searched for.
Search engine robots do not read web pages the same as human visitors. While human visitors will see a web page’s design, images, and text, search engines only read the HTML source code. To obtain the intended benefits, then, website owners only need to show search engine robots the keyword-focused text, even if human visitors cannot see it.
Website owners achieve this goal in a number of ways. Text can be added as ‘alt’ or ‘title’ attributes within HTML tags, or it can be added to the page by using CSS to hide the text within a HTML div tag. Also, sometimes hidden text is added by way of obfuscation whereby the website owner changes the font color of keyword-focused text to match a web page’s background.
Even though some within the webmaster community see the use of hidden text for SEO purposes as unethical, that does not mean that it is without potential benefits. For instance, using hidden text allows website owners to include keywords within their web pages that otherwise would not fit with their template. This is especially important when there is minimal human-readable text on a web page due to the heavy use of images, flash, or other non-text components within a template. Additionally, the use of hidden text can allow a website owner to incorporate keywords that might not naturally fit into their copy, but may still be relevant to the website.
These benefits for website owners can also lead to positives in terms of their website’s search engine rankings. Because search engines rely on words used within a web page’s text to help determine that web page’s keyword relevancy, adding more keywords to a web page may result in better rankings for pages using hidden text.
Even though using hidden text may offer benefits for some websites, there are reasons why you should avoid using this as a SEO tactic. One of those reasons is that the white hat SEO and webmaster community regard this tactic as unethical. However, the most notable reason comes directly from Google’s webmaster guidelines:
“If your site is perceived to contain hidden text and links that are deceptive in intent, your site may be removed from the Google index, and will not appear in search results pages.”1)
Paradoxically, website owners use hidden text to obtain better search engine rankings, but that action may very well be the reason why they will never be able to obtain them.
At this point, it is important to understand that not all hidden text is deceptive in nature. Thus, this non-deceptive hidden text would not be, arguably, in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. Non-deceptive hidden text can include HTML code comments left by web designers or programmers, alternate text for images, as well as title tags for navigation links.
In this context, deceptive hidden text implies the use of another ill-perceived practice called keyword stuffing. Generally, it is the overuse of important keywords that are hidden from users, but not search engines, that can potentially cause problems for website owners.
The use of hidden text for SEO purposes is prevalent. Though there are non-deceptive reasons for using hidden text, and moderate use of hidden attributes for SEO purposes is tentatively endorsed, caution should be exercised when using hidden text in any significant capacity. Unfortunately, because search engines such as Google attempt to understand a website owner’s intent for using non-visible text, there is no definitive line between acceptable use and unacceptable use of this tactic.
The best way to avoid the potential consequences is to avoid the tactic completely. You can use your website’s hidden attributes to increase usability, and it’s generally recommended that you incorporate important keywords into those attributes when possible. However, when you go out of your way to boost the number of keywords in your web pages, that is where the grey area starts, and that is where you can get into trouble. In the end, the potential gains are too small and the potential costs are too great – while SEO is rightly considered a game, bending the rules and playing too aggressively may ultimately get you kicked out of the game for good.