I’ve always had a problem with the hard fast rule of “don’t use hidden text.” Even though it is technically against search engines guidelines, there are valid reasons to hide text. Sites that are developed completely in Flash, pages that are graphic heavy and web designers who want complete control over font styles are just a few examples. Whether for one of these reasons or possibly something not quite so ethical, webmasters have always been warned by both search engines and white hat search marketers that is is risqué. “Go ahead and do it but do so at your own risk.”
Well now that has all changed. It is all about intent which is what I have always argued. Barry Schwartz points to a Google Groups discussion at SE Roundtable where Susan Moskwa of Google wrote the following:
“If your intent in hiding text is to deceive the search engines, we frown on that; if your intent is purely to improve the visual user experience (e.g. by replacing some text with a fancier image of that same text), you don’t need to worry. Of course, as with many techniques, there are shades of gray between ‘this is clearly deceptive and wrong’ and ‘this is perfectly acceptable’. Matt did say that hiding text moves you a step further towards the gray area. But if you’re running a perfectly legitimate site, you don’t need to worry about it. If, on the other hand, your site already exhibits a bunch of other semi-shady techniques, hidden text starts to look like one more item on that list. It’s like how one grain of sand isn’t noticeable, but many grains together start to look like a beach.”
There you have it straight from the horse’s mouth. When there is no intent to deceive, then there is no need to lose sleep at night fearing a penalty or worse, banning. Now that does not mean hiding text is necessarily going to be as effective as having standard html text, at least from an SEO perspective. Some of the old fashioned ways of hiding text would be to insert text into a “noscript” or “noembed” tag. This has been a common practice for Flash sites but I have always held the belief that although the engines would read the text, they did not give as much weight to it as good old fashioned html text.
Now we have CSS (cascading style sheets). One example of using CSS to hide text is to place the text in an exact position on a web page, such as behind an image. This may be done when a page consists of all or mostly graphics or when a webmaster wants to exercise more control over what style of font appears. There is also cloaking where you show the end user one thing but the search engines something else. Cloaking has been considered a shady technique for quite some time but more recently large companies have been caught utilizing this technique for one reason or another.
The bottom line is, “what is your intent?” If to provide a better user experience while at the same time making sure search engines are able to interpret your content, I have always thought that there is nothing wrong with that. Now Google confirms it. You may still come under scrutiny but can now have more confidence that it will not get you into trouble with the engines… at least not with Google.