When it comes to black-hat methods for ranking in the SERPs, SEO ‘pros’ have been outdoing themselves with their creativity since the earliest times of Google search rankings. Hidden text is one such method that Google has been very firm on, from the very beginnings of its work on the almighty search algorithm. In recent news, the US Patent Office granted a patent to the captain of Google’s spam fighting team. In 2009, Matt Cutts himself filed for the patenting of “Systems and methods for detecting hidden text and hidden links”, together with fellow inventor Fritz Schneider. Their system is based on previous work toward identifying concealed text and links, undertaken as early as 2003. On March 5, 2013, the system as finally patented. Beyond reframing the entire discussion about which practices are black-hat and which ones aren’t, the decision of the US Patent Office provides regular users with an opportunity for debate. Here are a few examples of what hidden text and links can be.
- White text used on white backgrounds, or, similarly, same-color text as background.
- Text snippets placed behind images.
- Off-screen text manipulated by altering CSS codes, or text hidden behind cascading style sheets.
- Using Java scripts to hide, replace, or modify on-page text.
- Text that is written in zero-sized fonts.
- Links attached to single, nearly invisible characters, such as mid–word hyphens. (See what we did there?)
- Links hidden behind very small images, whose size can be as small as 1 px by 1 px.
The Notable Exception
There are, of course, legitimate cases for using hidden text, such as the situation in which a website designer wants to use a font other than those supported by the major operating systems. In those cases, the page will not automatically render exactly how the designer wants it to, and the designer is forced to hide text behind an image that reproduces the exact same text, only in their font of choice. So long as the visible text is identical with the hidden one and all is done in the name of better visibility for the user, Google’s own John Mueller, from the Webmaster Help Forum, explains that this should not be a problem. After all, the text is not concealed per se, but actually revealed twice: once for the user, and a second time for the search engines.
This recently awarded patent brings up the debate on the frame of reference that SEO pros have at their disposal when discussing what constitutes good practice in the SEO world. While some have argued that the patent holds no actual benefit for the end-user and that its only upside is helping Google rake in more money, this view might be a bit over-simplified. Indeed, Google is one business that clearly focuses on keeping its standards updated. However, by cleaning the web of sites that will inadvertently create user impressions without the users’ knowledge, Google might also be contributing to the overall quality of content out there. Let us know in the comments section how you feel about it: is this patent entirely self-serving, or does it contribute to some greater good?