Google’s John Mueller answered a question about hidden internal links in the footer in a Google SEO Office Hours hangout. He explained why getting punished isn’t a big deal, but rather that it is more about improving the website.
This is a little surprising as hidden links have traditionally been seen as a major problem.
Hiding links is not cloaking
The person who asked the question seems to have misunderstood the meaning of the word cloaking as they are using that word to describe internal links that have been hidden through the use of CSS.
Usually this can be done using the CSS display property, which can make an HTML element disappear completely from a web page and not affect the layout.
The CSS declaration display: none can be used to hide links anywhere on a web page.
Screenshot of Google’s John Mueller via hidden links
The person who asked the question was concerned about a new customer who he said was masking links on the website.
The SEO reported that they were surprised that the page was able to hide links in the footer for at least nine months without Google imposing any penalty.
His concern was that the customer would not be motivated to do something about the hidden links because it had been that way for so long and the site was not penalized.
He wanted clarity about the lack of punishment and whether it could be remedied immediately.
Cloaking is not the same as hiding an internal link
John Mueller asked the SEO what kind of cloaking was involved, and the SEO said that the customer had been using CSS to hide internal links in the footer.
Müller answered correctly that hiding links is not cloaking.
Cloaking means that Google is showing one type of content (for ranking purposes) and a different version of the content to users.
The word cloaking denotes when the real content is hidden from Google, usually through the use of a script that detects when the Googlebot visits and switches the content to something else. This is camouflage.
So Mueller first made it clear that SEO was about hidden internal links and not cloaking.
In theory, Google doesn’t like hidden links, but …
Regarding the footer links hidden using CSS, Mueller said that wasn’t necessarily something the Google web spam team would be concerned about.
“I think that’s something we don’t like in theory.
But I don’t see the web spam team taking any action on this. Because especially when it comes to such internal links, this is something that has a very subtle effect within the website and you essentially only mix things up within your own website.
I think it would be more difficult if they … buy links elsewhere and then hide them.
That would be problematic, our algorithms could pick it up or even the web spam team could look it up manually at some point. “
Spam team does not take any action on hidden internal links
Müller explained why the Google web spam team would probably not take action against hidden internal links.
“But if it’s on the same website, if it’s set to not show any, then …”
Mueller thought for a moment and then continued:
“I don’t think it’s a great exercise. If you think it’s an important link then make it visible to people.
But it won’t be something that the web spam team will take action and remove the website or do anything crazy. “
Hidden links provide an opportunity to improve the site
In response to a follow-up question, John Mueller expanded his answer to explain how he sees this as an opportunity to improve the website.
The person who asked the question asked if Mueller had advised him to leave it as it is.
“Well, I wouldn’t leave it as it is. I would view it as something to try to improve yourself over the long term, in the sense of like, if you think this is an important link to an important page then just say it directly.
Because users will be using it too, or if users don’t care, it might not be a really important link.
But I wouldn’t see it as something I’d like to drop everything on. We have to fix that this week. “
The value of redesigning questions about website visitors
John Mueller used a nice trick to solve an SEO problem by thinking about how it would affect website visitors.
For example, if the links are not useful for website visitors on the webpage, they are likely not suitable for SEO purposes either.
Presumably, the website owner fears that the links could affect website conversions, so the links are hidden so users can focus on making a purchase.
From an SEO perspective, this page is about selling a product, so internal links to some other products may not be entirely relevant for SEO purposes anyway.
However, if they are relevant to users, then they can be relevant for SEO purposes.
To find out if something is good for SEO, one can often ask how it is affecting website visitors.
Isn’t Google particularly concerned about hidden internal links?
The other interesting finding is that the web spam team isn’t too concerned about internal hidden links
It seems like a poor glimpse of what’s good for SEO rather than getting through something at the expense of Google’s algorithm.
Hide internal links with CSS
See John Mueller answer the question at 17:09 minutes: