We can’t discuss hidden content without first returning to the (digital) age-old debate between SEO and aesthetic web page design. Lately, it seems that “read more” buttons and ‘click-to-expand’ tabs have been the go-to compromise. Finally, a way to tidy away text neatly but still benefit from keyword opportunities. Or so we thought.
Recently, Google has caught up with our efforts to try and outsmart its algorithm. To be blunt, it has outsmarted us. More and more Google is learning to view sites as a human would. Outdated tactics like using white text on white backgrounds to sneak keyword spam into your text are now ineffective. Gone are the days of content cloaking which were popular in the SEO stone age. Search engines are more sophisticated than ever and are constantly improving. Although it is possible to still use the likes of “read more” buttons to capitalize on SEO-optimized text while saving space, Webmasters should no longer have separate scripts for visitors and search engines. As a rule of thumb, what a person would deem relevant, useful content so would Google.
How Does Google View Hidden Content?
Not all links are seen as equal in the eyes of a search engine. Placement of external and internal links on your page could have a major impact on SEO ranking. The same goes for hidden content, it could make or break your site.
But how exactly does Google penalize your site for using hidden content? Unsurprisingly, there has been no definitive answer offered. It seems that any text on your page that loads after the viewer has taken action, such as a “read more” button, can affect your place on SERPs. Especially without careful consideration of where you place keywords.
After extensive research and consideration of the murky allusions Google has made in regards to how its algorithm views hidden content, it seems that contrary to belief, it does take hidden content into consideration. When trying to crack the code of Google’s algorithm, the first port of call is returning to the search and render tool it enabled in 2004. This isn’t breaking news to us, but we can look at this to remind ourselves of how Google really works.
How Does Google Rank Hidden Content?
John Mueller, an SEO expert at Google, went from stating that Google “may not” index or rank hidden content, to claiming the hidden content is “discounted” in 2014. This was followed by a clarification in 2015 by Gary Illyes, a website trends analyst at Google, who explained that content of this type is given “way less weight in ranking” because it is hidden.
Any content that comes after the “read more” button does not carry the same weight as what came before. In other words, if it’s not immediately apparent to visitors, Google deems it as less important. What adds an additional layer to our understanding is that hidden content will, however, be indexed by Google.
This means that pages may rank for search terms or phrases that are related to the content that appears in hidden sections. While ‘hidden content’ is not treated equally, you could say it still holds some value when it comes to ranking.
Putting Hidden Content Theories to the Test
Despite the fact that comments from Google representatives seem conclusive, there has still been much debate around ‘hidden content’ within the SEO community. Rebootonline.com attempted to put this to rest. Last year they carried out a study that aimed to determine whether Google’s claims surrounding hidden content were true.
Yes, the “read more” buttons can be useful depending on your site’s intent. For example when it comes to data tracking, monitoring user engagement, or adding ease of use. However, keep in mind that it may push you down in ranking. When designing your webpage, you need to ask yourself: is it worth devaluing your text and, therefore it’s ranking, in favor of these minor benefits?
How Will Google’s Mobile-First Index Change This?
Another vital development to consider when deciding how and when to incorporate hidden content is Google’s Mobile-First Index. With this update, everything we have figured out about how Google sees hidden content could be set to change.
As more and more web users migrate from desktop to mobile devices, Google has followed suit. At the moment, ranking systems typically look at desktop sites to evaluate how relevant they are to the user. This becomes problematic when we consider that most people are used to searching on Google via mobile devices. While the majority of internet users currently use multiple devices, 2014 was predicted to be the year when mobile-only users would surpass desktop users.
The following year, this forecast became a reality in the U.S. Currently, mobile digital media time in the US is now significantly higher at 51% compared to desktop use at 42%. It goes without saying that we do need to remember that the majority of internet users do still use multiple devices. However, being easier, quicker, and more accessible to use, mobile accounted for 50.3% of all web traffic generated worldwide in 2017.
What’s more is that according to Smartinsights Search Engine Statistics for 2018, more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries, including the US and Japan. The implications of this movement towards mobile devices mean digital media has had to start evolving mobile-first approach.
Google’s answer? Switch over to evaluating mobile pages and ranking websites accordingly. This is problematic as mobile pages with less space typically have less content than desktop pages. This forces us to speculate that Google’s algorithm will have to resort to giving accordions, drop-down menus, tabbed menus, slider menus, and other forms of hidden content more weight.
John Mueller added fuel to the fire when he confirmed our speculations. In a Google hangout session, he confirmed that Google will move towards a more equal ranking of hidden content due to lack of space on smartphones and tablets. If this does happen, it will be a gamechanger in terms of web design. These changes will elevate hidden content to greater value and allow us more options when it comes to organizing content, enhancing visuals, and providing an engaging user experience.
How can Sites Adapt to Make the Most of Hidden Content?
For now, it is advisable to place crucial information and relevant keyword phrases in the most visible sections of your website in order to increase your ranking. If using a “read more” button, maximize the ranking weight of keywords by placing them in the top portion of the page where they are visible by default. Besides keeping clutter at bay and giving your site a facelift, the hidden content text should serve a purpose. You should make sure to incorporate a way of letting visitors know that there is more information there.
Not only will the user experience be enhanced, but you are showing Google that your content is relevant and valid, which will have no negative SEO implications. In preparation for any possible future changes that Google’s Mobile-First Index may bring, you should be paying more attention to your mobile versions of your site.
With the direction Google’s algorithm seems to be going in, an effort that is put into making your hidden content count now will have a huge payoff in the future. Don’t let the ambivalence and debate around the likes of “read more” buttons put you off. They can be useful additions to your website.
Hidden content is not only a great way to up your page’s ranking. If used intelligently, it can also greatly enhance the user experience your website offers. So when it comes to utilizing hidden content, don’t try to outsmart Google, try to up-smart your site.