Google is ‘discounting’ content held in hidden, ‘click to reveal’ sections of a page. There is a danger that the general SEO industry response will be an over-simplistic “don’t use, it’s bad for SEO” position. Alternatively, we could treat this as an opportunity to take a more sophisticated and long-term approach to content.
Users at Webmaster World noticed that content hidden on a page in tabs or with a “click to reveal” link is not being highlighted in snippets when searched for.
This suggests Google is recognising the content as hidden and treating it differently to visible content. This was almost confirmed by John Mueller in a Hangout where he stated:
“…if we can recognise that the content is actually hidden then we’ll just try to discount it….we kind of see that it’s there but the user doesn’t see it so it’s probably not something that’s critical for this page. So that includes the click to expand, the tabbed UIs, [and other tabbed content].”
Google Webmaster Hangout Start at 11 minutes
I say “almost” because the word “discount” is slightly ambiguous here. In this context it could mean ‘ignore completely’ or it could mean ‘diminish the effect of’.
I’ve tested a number of cases and my feeling is that Google might be diminishing the relevance signals or simply not showing in snippets rather than ignoring the content completely. I’ve been able to find pages by searching for content (using quotes) which is only found in ‘click to expand’ sections. Most of the time, despite returning the page, the text does not appear in bold within the search snippet as you would normally expect. This is consistent with comments from John Mueller that users feel “misled” when they can’t find the content that they’ve seen in a snippet.
My tests have been inconsistent though, I’ve found some sites where hidden text does appear in snippets and I don’t know if that’s a result of it not being crawled since Google’s changes or some other anomaly. Regardless, we have confirmation that Google is treating hidden content differently to visible content and that’s enough.
Thinking like a search engine not how to trick one
SEOs sometimes provide decent advice without really understanding why it works. For years, the text which appears at the start of a page (or keywords at the start of a title) have been considered a stronger signal for relevance than those at the end and we’ve recommended using clean, keyword rich URLs which reflect the directory hierarchy.
The reason that these recommendations align well with good user experience is that search engines find and use signals which indicate that users will get a good experience from a site or page for their query. Search Engines, let’s not forget, are trying to provide their users with the pages which best answer their queries.
There’s no point in trying to reverse engineer an algorithm when we know what it is trying to achieve.
By considering what search engines are trying to achieve and delivering sites and pages which best fit that profile, we end up creating better pages which rank well naturally. From an SEO point of view, an additional win is that working this way, we are taken more seriously and become able to integrate more seamlessly with broader digital marketing strategy.
Old SEO v’s future-proof SEO solution
Given that Google is ‘discounting’ hidden content, the old SEO reaction would be to introduce an over-simplistic rule such as ‘Click to reveal content is bad for SEO and should never be used.’ This thinking, whilst it might avoid the pitfalls of losing out on relevance signals, unnecessarily puts SEO in direct conflict with content, designers, UI, UX and developers who are never going to accept that the page must always be created long and linear with a single layer.
In our new integrated, transparent, strategic SEO world we need to treat this as a user experience issue.
If the content is important for the journey from a search engine, why is it hidden? The answer might be ‘Because it contains keywords, we don’t really want users to read it’. That response should be like a red rag to a bull for a modern SEO.
Content isn’t about having a place to stuff keywords, it’s what people come to the site for and should be treated as an opportunity to confirm to them that they found the right page, answer their query and inspire them to take further action. Thinking about SEO in this way will allow you to create content which performs better (in search and for conversion) than the old alternative. By talking in those terms, you’ll also find that user experience and content people warm to you and solutions become easier to find. Occasionally they’ll even find you.
So what should I do today?
It’s not a sudden change so there’s no need to immediately recommend changing page layouts etc. Anything that’s been ranking for a while isn’t going to drop now, but it might not be ranking as well as it could, depending on what content is hidden. So, it’s a longer term consideration which should fit into an overarching content and/or user experience strategy.
Rather than developing rules or heuristics around ‘hidden’ content or simply recommending that it’s ‘not good for SEO’, we need to treat this as a user experience issue and ask the question of whether the page provides the best experience to users who have been referred from organic search, in its current state. To answer the question for any site, consider the bigger picture of who they are and how they search – which keywords, what intent, what type of device?
Thanks for reading this far, here’s a final thought…
Google treating ‘click to reveal’ content differently opens up some other cans of worms which I haven’t yet considered properly (although the above suggestions give a good starting point.)
Google is moving towards a world where pages with good mobile device experiences will have more visibility in relevant mobile device results. Given that the mobile display often involves responsively hiding some of the desktop content, this is likely to become a major consideration in future. Additionally, how is it treating content that it finds by executing AJAX or which uses the hashbang system ?
The Webmaster Tools Fetch and Render tool is going to prove very useful in the coming months and years.