What Is Hidden Text?

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Hidden text is text that is hidden from human view on a web page but visible to Google crawlers that are indexing and ranking the page. For this reason, SEOs have used various techniques to hide text. Asking what is hidden text is a very important question, because some techniques for hiding text are not acceptable to Google, while others are perfectly fine.

Google has published its guidelines for the use of hidden text on a web page. Google advises us to avoid practices such as using the same color text and background, hiding text behind an image, positioning text off-screen and using zero-size fonts. Black hat SEOs have used such practices to insert keywords (often irrelevant keywords) into a web page.

Google goes on to explain that hidden text is not necessarily deceptive and can actually assist Google and human readers — for example, using descriptive text for images, video, JavaScript, Flash elements and other technologies that Google crawlers can’t easily read, and sometimes cannot be loaded in the browser. Google provides instructions for how best to handle hidden text for these situations.

What Is Hidden Text Not to Be Used For in SEO?

Hiding text has been a staple of black hat SEO since the 1990s. The main purpose for hidden text in the early days was keyword stuffing. Human readers would become rightfully suspicious of viewing scores of repetitive keywords for a single topic, scores of keywords completely unrelated to the topic of the web page, and/or scores of keywords that include the names of competitors.

Hiding such keywords enabled SEOs to have their cake and eat it, too. Google crawlers would read the keywords and move the web page up in the rankings, and human readers would be none the wiser. In time, Google’s search technologies improved to the point it now ignores or even punishes this type of keyword stuffing.

Hidden text was also used to hide certain links from human view. Why would someone want to hide a link? Perhaps because it is not relevant to the content, or perhaps because the link(s) come from a questionable source. This tactic is no longer effective and can even be harmful for SEO because, again, Google has improved its ability to see hidden links for what they are — attempts at manipulating the search engine.

For What Is Hidden Text Properly Used?

Hidden text can be valuable to human readers and Google when deployed in the right way and for the right reasons. Here are some important examples:

  • Hiding text in top-level navigation improves usability. Confronting visitors with a menu packed with hundreds of links overwhelms them. To keep the user experience positive, web designers often employ drop-down menus and other design options to keep the top of the web page visually clean and comprehensible. 
  • For websites that use a paid subscription model (e.g., an online newspaper), it is acceptable to display a page’s content on the first visit but then hide it from human view on subsequent visits.
  • Websites using responsive design (i.e., design that adjusts the layout of a web page for optimal viewing on desktops, tablets and mobile phones) may omit certain content elements from mobile view in order to maximize formatting and prevent overwhelming the mobile user with a level of content that would be acceptable in a desktop view. Google definitely wants web designers to make the mobile viewing experience as strong as possible — as long as hidden text is used for that reason, you should not experience SEO-related problems. 
  • Transcripts of video can be truncated, rather than displayed in their entirety beneath the video itself. Transcripts can be handy for human readers and serve a legitimate purpose for user experience in addition to helping Google crawlers identify, index and rank the video content. If the video is the main purpose of the page, it may be somewhat more advantageous for SEO to display the entire transcript — otherwise, truncation is probably the better approach to keep the web page short and simple.
  • Other types of content that can be truncated without worry are user reviews, technical details on product/service web pages and content on unindexed web pages. For product/service pages in particular, however, consider that Google will give somewhat more importance to text that is not hidden, and that all other things being equal, the web page on a given product/service with the most visible content will earn the best organic ranking.
  • As mentioned earlier, hiding text to describe visual elements such as video, images, JavaScript and Flash are desirable.

In short, Google encourages hidden text in any situation where it improves the user experience. When exploring the issue of what is hidden text best used for, user experience provides the answer. As with all things SEO, if the technique is good for the reader, Google encourages it. 

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