Hidden Links Explained
First and foremost, it's best to avoid hidden links in the first place to eliminate any chance of you being labeled as a "spammer" by a search engine. Most engines state they do not like hidden text, or perhaps more accurately, improperly hidden text. Therefore, the question is does this also apply to links? Although most engines say nothing about this subject, Google has stated on their site that they dislike both hidden text AND hidden links.
In reality, some types of hidden TEXT are completely acceptable. For example, keywords in your meta tags are hidden from the user's view but visible to many search engines. Other areas like ALT tags and the NOFRAMES area are also hidden from the user's view but are NOT considered to be spam by any search engines. However, if you include keywords in these hidden areas that do NOT apply to the visible content of the page, you have now crossed over into the realm of spam. Ultimately, the search engines want to index the same thing that the user sees which is why they don't like to index redirected or cloaked pages. In the case of a cloaked page, ALL the content is hidden in that one page is served to the search engine and another page is served to the user.
There are reasons a Webmaster may wish to hide a link from the end user but allow a search engine to find it. For example, you may have a list of pages that you feel are important that you want to ensure the search engine sees. However, if these pages are several links down from the home page, the search engine may never spider down far enough to find it. You could add links to your home page but too many links on the home page can often create a confusing user interface for the Web visitor. A solution used by many to this and similar problems is to create links that the search engine will see but the average visitor will not.
You may be asking "why do I need links that travel from my home page to arrive at my other search engine optimized pages? I could simply submit them directly right?" That's true, but many engines give additional relevance to pages that it finds on its own rather than having been submitted directly. In addition, some engines like to see a path from the home page to any other page it indexes. If it does not, it may penalize that page or drop it from its index. At the very least, the page may be more likely to be dropped by an engine at a later date if it doesn't find it each time it spiders your site.
So, if you wish the links to some of your pages to be hidden to the user but to be visible to the search engines, you'd submit your home page or another page which includes image links such as the following:
<A HREF="myoptimizedpage.htm"><IMG SRC="myimage.gif" ALT="mykeywords" BORDER="0"></A>
Note that the height and width tags were intentionally left out. It's possible that an engine may decide in the future to not spider links from images that are known to be only one pixel in size. Without those tags, the engine cannot easily determine the size of the graphic, so you eliminate that possible risk. Since the image is only 1 pixel in size, it is almost impossible for a user to notice unless the mouse cursor is very close to it.
Note that the ALT tag above is optional. However, you may want to include a description of the link that includes your important keywords. Some engines could choose to use them in evaluating the keyword relevancy of the page you link to, or for the page they are placed on.
The "myimage.gif" file in the above example would be a tiny GIF file with the color of the dot generally transparent. Click this link to download a zip file containing a sample of a 1 pixel GIF. Save the zip file "myimage.zip" into a local directory, and unzip "myimage.gif" into your normal images directory. If you do not have an unzip utility, you may click here to download WinZip.
Are invisible image links safe? Many Webmasters are known to have used the invisible GIF technique successfully for years and still use it today. However, others argue that the search engines may decide to look for and penalize pages or Web sites employing these type of links in the future, if they do not already do it now in cases. We have not thus far seen any specific examples of where discrimination has occurred, but it is worth noting. Some people suggest that using a little larger GIF with one or more visible pixels (dots) of a different color may be much safer. The search engines are notoriously fickle about what they like and do not like which tends to promote the paranoia, and the calls to play it extra safe.
Some argue that there are necessary uses for the invisible image links. For example, if you use a java script or other menu system on your page that does not have simple HREF links that search engines can follow, you need to provide SOMETHING for them to spider. Therefore, others argue that even if search engines can detect hidden links, why would they want to? The image links provide a service to the search engines by pointing them to content they would otherwise miss.
Some of the largest, most popular Web sites on the Web have home pages with menu systems that most search engines cannot navigate. Therefore, an argument can be made that you can use these type of links without fear of problems from the engines. The same argument cannot be made as strongly for hidden text.
An alternative to the hidden image method is the hidden text link. Hidden text links are closely related to the technique of hiding keywords in invisible text that we've discouraged for years. WebPosition will red flag your page in the Critic report if it detects invisible text created through the use of setting the same color text as the background. This is a big "no no" since it can get your page dropped from many search engines. Some Webmasters will vary the color code just enough to keep it from being visible to the naked eye, but to ensure it looks visible to a search engine.
One concern by the search engines is that you're going to hide keywords that are not relevant to the page in those hidden areas. The user would then wonder why XYZ engine ranked the page so favorably for their search when they don't even see the keyword on the page.
Some Web marketers will place keywords in hidden TEXT links to boost the relevance of the pages. For example, Google will rank a page higher for "Keyword X" if it sees many links pointing to a page using "Keyword X" in the link text. Since Google's algorithm relies heavily on what keywords are found in the normally visible link text, they are more apt to try to ban a page employing such a technique.
In conclusion, we'd encourage you to avoid hiding text or text links by setting the colors of the font and background the same. In the case of using hidden images with links to enhance navigation for search engine spiders, we'll leave that up to you to decide based on your particular situation. Many people find that they can avoid the use of hidden links, and thus any controversy, by creating a "site map" page. This site map will contain visible links to all their important pages. The site map page is then linked to from the home page, placing all their important pages within two "jumps" of the home page. Many large sites include site maps organized by topic. Even Google includes a site map page. Unfortunately, site maps have their limits too. Industry experts suggest that you avoid using more than 50 links on a single page to avoid some of those links from being ignored on some engines.
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