Hiding text and links is one of the oldest black hat techniques used to boost page ranking in search results. If you are considering hidden links and text will increase your website traffic, then soon you will discover this strategy is ineffective and might penalize your website.
In the early 2000s, due to loopholes in the search engines algorithms, you could hide text or links in the webpage content in an effort to gain a higher ranking in SERPs. As time passed by search engines had become more accurate and adjusted their ranking signals to deliver relevant search results.
This technique is also referred to as content cloaking – “process of displaying a different set of content or links to search engines and site audience“. Search Engines will crawl hidden links and text in the webpage and for some amount of time this strategy worked to boost page ranking.
But that’s not the case now, search engine ranking algorithms are way more sophisticated and can easily identify illegal strategies which might result in penalization of the website.
What is Hidden Text
Hidden text is those which are completely invisible to users on the web page but can be crawled by search engine spiders. Hiding text is a form of content spamming used to improve the on-page SEO ranking signals of the website.
Back in the day, these strategies increased web page optimization score when webmasters stuffed the webpage content with targeted keywords and hide it from the users. Currently, this method will cause serious trouble if search bots detect the hidden text inside the website.
There are various ways available to manipulate search engine ranking by hiding text on a webpage and here are some hidden text strategies which violate the Google Webmaster Guidelines:
- Changing the text font colour as similar to the page background colour.
- Adding the text behind the images or other multimedia files.
- Locating the text outside the user screen using z-index, absolute position class or margin property.
- Using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to make text visibility hidden.
- Modifying the text font size to zero.
- Hiding text inside server-side scripting language (like PHP, ASP/.net, JSP, Perl, Node.JS, etc).
- Altering the text opacity and making the transparency-level to zero (%).
What are Hidden Links
Every digital marketing professional knows that links hold a strong position in Search Engine Ranking Factors. Black hat versus white hat strategies seems like a never-ending game of SEO.
A technique one person consider as SEO friendly might be seen as illegal by another individual. The uncertainty in the ranking guidelines from search engines usually doesn’t add many perceptions to make the correct discussion.
Although search engines such as Google are crystal clear that hidden links in the webpage content are not allowed and it will affect the ranking of the website in SERP. Many websites in digital space used to get backlinks that are hidden, because often these backlinks will be irrelevant to the page content or the website niche.
Over the years, search engines are focused on improving the quality of search results and implemented various tactics to identify the existence of hidden links on a website. Occasionally search engines make use of human crawlers to manually inspect the website for any illegal optimization and penalize the website accordingly.
Here is the list of different types of hidden links which violate the search engine webmaster guidelines:
- Changing the links font colour similar to web pages text colour.
- Adding a link to the single character in the content – for example, hiding links in the period or hyphen in the middle of a paragraph of text.
- Using CSS property to make the links inactive for users but can be crawled by the search engines.
Note: Hidden text can also be implanted with hyperlinks, so the above mentioned hidden text strategies will also be applicable to hidden links.
How to Find Hidden Text in Website
1. Using the same colour text as page background is one of the oldest strategies used to hide text and it can be easily detected. By using CTRL+A feature you can highlight the content to expose the hidden text on the page or even you can analyze the page source code.
Although disabling CSS files will do the same job but with the help of font colour attributes in the HTML font tag can still hide the content on the webpage.
2. There are various ways to hide text using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), such as implementing class display: none, visibility: hidden, setting font height and width to zero, locating text margin off-screen, etc. Simply by disabling the CSS property will help you to find hidden text on the website.
3. Server-side scripting languages (such as PHP, Node.JS, etc) can differentiate between user-agents and search engine bots. With the help of scripted file, you can serve different versions of pages to users and web crawlers. Even if you inspect the page source code the hidden content cannot be located.
The best way to locate the hidden text inside the script file is to change the web browser to mimic as search engine crawlers. There is numerous text-based browser available through which you can change the web browser agent to the bot and analyze the page as a search engine.
4. The IP address of the website can also be used to manipulate the search engines. Every request to a website comes from a distinct IP address and there exist some well-known search engine crawlers IP addresses which can also be utilized to determine if the request is from a search engine bot or a user.
This method is related to clocking where you serving the page with hidden text when the requested IP address is a search engine and not a human visitor. When the cloaked page having meta noarchive tag then the latter detection method will not work and also it becomes problematic to detect hidden content because it is difficult to find a complete list of search engine IP addresses.
5. There are various valid reasons to cloaked web pages, for example when you’re redirecting newsletter subscriptions, successful form submission, payment gateway, custom 404 pages, etc. Sometimes IP addresses deduction can be tricky, so the result-oriented way to handle cloaked content is to verify requested DNS by running a reverse and forward lookup.
Using the host command from your logs run a reverse DNS lookup on the requested IP address. Verify the web crawlers user agents either it is Googlebot, Bingbot etc. Run forward DNS lookup on retrieved domain name and verify the requested IP address from your logs.
How to Find Hidden Links in a Website
1. Web developer toolbar is one of the best add-ons to find hidden links and text on a website. When you install this browser extension, you can discover a gear icon in grey colour on the upper right corner of your browser.
By clicking on this icon you will find many options and to save you some time, here I mentioned 10 best ways to find hidden text and links in the website content using web developer plugin:
- To locate text hidden within page background click on Disable > Page Colors.
- To discover hidden links and text in cascading style sheets click on CSS > Disable Styles > All Styles.
- To detect content hidden under images click on Images > Disable images > All Images.
- To reveal content inside image alt text attribute click on Images > Display Alt Attributes
- To identify hidden links and text beneath image or webpage background click on Images > Hide Background Images.
- To find all the links on the web page click on Information > Display > Link Details
- To spot the list to all the existing links on the page click on Information > View Link Information.
- To disable all the plugins and extensions features of the website click on Information > Display Topographic Information.
- To locate hidden external links on the page content click on Outline > Outline Links > Outline External Links.
Using Web Developer Toolbar you can do various technical search engine optimization audit and also this tool provides a handy “Reset Page” feature under “Options” to set the web page back to its original look.
2. Using Link Grabber chrome extension you can quickly extract all types of links on the webpage and prepare a report so that you can easily spot any unusual link on the website. (Link Gopher is the extension name for Firefox web browser).
Although this extension will revealed all kinds of weird links exist on the webpage (for example, site theme functionality links, plugin feature links, etc). If you find it hard to differentiate between the genuine and hidden links in the report, then make use of the first or third method mentioned in this article.
3. MozBar is one among the handy tools to find hidden links on the website content. Along with finding the links on the website, it will also provide a brief SEO analysis of the webpage such as page title, meta description, image alt text, rel canonical tag, DA & PA, inbound link metrics, heading tags, etc.
After installing this extension on the browser you can locate a Moz icon on the upper right corner of your screen. MozBar will also help you to distinguish between the types of links on the website (i.e Followed, No-Followed, External and Internal Links) but you can’t find noopener and noreferrer links with this toolbar.
To discover either visible or hidden links of the web page, click on MozBar icon then select highlight links option (pencil icon) and click on the type of link you want to highlight on the webpage content.
SEO Friendly Way to Implement Hidden Text and Links
Not all hidden content leaves a negative impression while optimizing a website. Sometimes a responsive website will be have hidden features which will behave differently for mobile and desktop users.
Such strategies are completely fine while optimizing because search engine bots and users see the same content on a specific device. But you do need to avoid black hat SEO tactics which aim to boost the page ranking in SERP by manipulating search engines through hidden content.
A search engine uses various algorithms to determine whether the content on a web page is hidden or not, but it will also allow other types of hidden content on a website. Here I mentioned few SEO friendly ways to hide content:
#1 Hidden content inside navigational elements (for example, multiple hierarchies or drop-down menu, accordion or tabs, etc) can be implemented to page keep the page user-friendly. Too many links on the website will make the appearance of a page cluttered.
#2 Search engine will allow hidden content on online publishing platform where the website allows paid subscribers to view the content. It is also referred to as “First Click Free” method where the first visit to the website you will see the webpage content but on the second visit the content will be hidden and you need to login and make the payment to view the content on a webpage. The intent of this strategy is to allow a free demo of the website and give a preview to the user on what the website will offer.
#3 Responsiveness feature on the website will dynamically change and adjust the dimensions of a webpage. In this scenario, some elements of the page will appear and disappear based on the user device screen dimension. Although in the page source code the content will exist but at the same time, it will be temporarily hidden to the users.
Search engines are aware of these situations and your website ON Page ranking factors will be affected when the content is hidden due to responsiveness. The intent of this technique is to provide a better browsing experience on all types of gadgets and screens.
Sometimes website text or links will be hidden when the page cannot load due to low bandwidth or when plugins disable some features on a browser. Search engines can analyze both pieces of content and it shouldn’t be a problem as long as the content that appears on a dynamic view is exactly the same as the content on the normal view.
Does Hidden Text or Links in Content Affect SEO
You need to understand that many online audiences make use of mobile browsers, screen readers, browsers without add-ons and slow internet connections which might block webpage content from viewing and it might acts as hidden text or links. In these situations, the website will be benefited if you implement descriptive text on the page content.
Here are some strategies to make your website more accessible by both web users and search engines:
Images: Provide descriptive text in image alt attribute property and also I would recommend to include image captions and description. You can refer image best practices guide for more advice on image optimization.
Videos: Implement descriptive text in your HTML about what the video is about and also provide video content transcripts for better optimization of the web page. You can refer to this video best practices article for more advice on video optimization.
You’re only intended to hide links or text should not be related to game the search engine ranking algorithm but it should be an attempt to improve website ranking without violating the search engine guidelines.
While there is much software available in the market that can scan websites to find hidden text and links. Although it is always a good idea to manually analyze the web pages because sometimes the software will follow certain strategies to find hidden links and text and may not always detect all types of hidden content in a website.
If you know any effective strategy to find hidden text or hidden links on website then please do let us know in the comments below..!