SEO problem inherent in using CSS to hide internal links

3 min read

During a recent Google SEO Office Hours live session in 2023, John Mueller from Google addressed a query concerning concealed internal links within a website’s footer. Mueller shed light on the situation, explaining that such practices are no longer a significant concern regarding potential penalties. Instead, he emphasized the importance of fostering creative approaches to help websites distinguish themselves in a competitive landscape.
This perspective marks a notable shift, considering that concealing links has historically been considered a severe issue in SEO.
It’s essential to clarify that cloaking and hiding links are distinct concepts.
The individual who posed the question seemed to have misconstrued the term “cloaking,” inaccurately using it to describe the scenario where internal links were disguised using CSS.


What is cloaking exactly?

In the context of 2023, cloaking involves the practice of displaying varying content or URLs to search engines and human users. This technique is deemed a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines as it results in users receiving disparate outcomes than anticipated.

Some instances of cloaking encompass:

  1. Displaying a page filled with HTML text for search engines while showing image-based content to human users.
  2. Introducing text or keywords into a page exclusively when the requesting user agent is a search engine rather than a human visitor.

For more information, you can refer to the Google Search Central website.

Typically, this manipulation is achieved through the CSS “display” property, which allows an HTML element to be entirely hidden from a webpage without affecting its layout. The “display: none” CSS declaration can be employed to conceal links within any section of a webpage.

Recently, a query arose from an individual who expressed concern about his client’s website. The client’s website employed cloaking to hide links in the website’s footer. What surprised him was that these concealed links had remained unnoticed by Google for nine months without incurring any penalties.

His apprehension stemmed from the possibility that his client might be unwilling to address the hidden links, considering they had remained undetected for a significant duration. He sought insight into the reasons behind the absence of penalties and whether there was an immediate remedy to rectify the situation.

To this John Mueller answered that,

 The Google webspam team would not be bothered with footer links hidden with CSS. 


His exact words were: – 


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


But I don’t see the webspam team taking action on that. Because especially when it comes to internal linking like that, it’s something that has quite a subtle effect within the website and you’re just essentially just shuffling things around within your own website.


I think it would be trickier if they were …buying links somewhere else and then hiding them.

That would be problematic, that might be something that our algorithms pick up on or that even the webspam team at some point might manually look at.”


Mueller highlighted why the Google webspam team is unlikely to take action against internal links that are hidden.


He added:


“But if it’s within the same website if it’s set to display none then …”


Mueller took a pause paused, then continued:


“I don’t think it’s a great practice. If you think it’s an important link then kind of like make it visible to people.


But it’s not going to be something where the webspam team is going to take action and remove the site or do anything crazy.”


The person who asked the query then inquired if Mueller was urging him to leave the issue aside.


Mueller responded:


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


Because users are going to use it too or maybe if users don’t care about it maybe it isn’t actually an important link.


But I wouldn’t see it as something where I like to drop everything, we need to fix this, this week kind of thing.”


Our 2 cents:


We thank Search Engine Journal for consistently delivering swift and informative updates on SEO news.
From our perspective, the principle appears straightforward: when an internal link serves genuine value to users, it inherently contributes positively to SEO. To illustrate, envision an online store specializing in birthday gifts. Concealed links leading to categories like flowers, decorative items, or chocolates would enhance the user experience for someone seeking a birthday present. Conversely, incorporating hidden links to insurance providers within a gift shop context wouldn’t align favorably.
The concept boils down to this: if a user stands to benefit, the website’s overall health and SEO standing will naturally reap rewards.