Google on using CSS to hide internal links

Google’s John Mueller answered a question in a Google SEO Office Hours Hangout about internal links hidden in the footer. He explained why it is not a big deal in terms of penalties but that it is more a question of improving the site.

This is a bit surprising because hidden links have always been considered a big problem.

Hiding links is not hiding

The person asking the question seems to have misunderstood what the word cloaking meant, as he was using that word to describe internal links obscured by the use of CSS.

In general, this can be done with the CSS display property which can make an HTML element completely disappear from a web page without affecting the layout.

The display: none CSS declaration can be used to hide links anywhere on a web page.

Screenshot of Google’s John Mueller discussing hidden links

The person asking the question was concerned about a new customer who he said was hiding links on the website.

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The SEO said he was surprised the site was able to hide links in the footer for at least nine months without being penalized by Google.

His concern was that the customer would not be motivated to do anything about the hidden links since it has been so for so long and the site has not been penalized.

He wanted clarification on the absence of penalties and if that was something to be corrected right away.

Concealment is not the same as concealing an internal link

John Mueller asked SEO what kind of concealment was involved and SEO explained that the client was hiding internal links in the footer with CSS.

Mueller correctly answered that hiding links is not hiding.

Concealment means showing one type of content to Google (for ranking purposes) and a different version of the content to users.

The word masking indicates when the actual content is being hidden from Google, usually through the use of a script that detects when Googlebot is visiting and forwards the content to something else. It is camouflage.

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Mueller therefore first clarified that SEO was dealing with hidden internal links and not masking.

In theory, Google doesn’t like hidden links, but …

When it comes to hidden footer links with CSS, Mueller said that wasn’t necessarily something that Google’s web spam team would be concerned about.

Mueller said:

“I think that’s something that theoretically we don’t like about it.

But I don’t see the web spam team taking action on this. Because, especially when it comes to internal links like this, it’s something that has a pretty subtle effect on the website and you just mix things up within your own website.

I think it would be more complicated if they bought links elsewhere and then hid them.

It would be problematic, it could be something our algorithms are remembering or even the web spam team could at some point manually review.

The anti-spam team will not take any action for hidden internal links

Mueller explained why Google’s anti-spam team likely wouldn’t take any action against hidden internal links.

John Mueller:

“But if it’s on the same website, if it’s configured to show none, then …”

Mueller paused for a moment to think, then continued:

“I don’t think it’s a good training. If you think this is an important connection, then make it visible to people.

But it won’t be something where the web spam team is going to take action and take down the site or do anything crazy.

Hidden links are an opportunity to improve the site

In response to a follow-up question, John Mueller expanded on his response to explain how he sees this as an opportunity to improve the site.

The person asking the question asked if Mueller advised him to leave it as it is.

Mueller replied:

“Well, I wouldn’t leave it as it is. I would see it as something to try to improve in the long run in the sense that if you think this is an important link to an important page then it’s like… be simple about it.

Because users are going to use it too or maybe if users don’t care, maybe it isn’t an important connection.

But I wouldn’t see it as something where I like to let it all go, we have to fix this problem, this kind of week.

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Knowledge

The value of reframing the question around site visitors

John Mueller used an interesting trick to solve an SEO problem by thinking about how it affects site visitors.

For example, if the links are not useful for site visitors on the web page, then they are probably not useful for SEO purposes either.

Presumably, the site owner is concerned that the links will affect web page conversions and that is why the links are hidden so that users can focus on making a purchase.

From an SEO perspective, this page is about selling a product, so internal links to other products may not be entirely relevant for SEO purposes anyway.

But if they are relevant to users, they can be relevant for SEO purposes.

Identifying if something is good for SEO can often be answered by asking how it affects site visitors.

Google is not too concerned about hidden internal links?

The other cool idea is that the web spam team isn’t too concerned about internal hidden links.

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It appears to be more of a misunderstanding of what is good for SEO than getting away with getting away from Google’s algorithm.

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Hide internal links with CSS

Watch John Mueller answer the question at 5:09 pm:


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Rosemary S. Bishop