Cool Design Feature or Accident Waiting to Happen?

So, a friend and I were having a conversation after I mentioned dealing with several clients in the past using css layers on their sites and I thought I’d open it up for opinions, since we couldn’t seem to come to an agreement on the topic…

Here’s the deal… the specific site we were looking at as an example is an e-commerce site and it uses css to make their site “pretty”. They have a square box with tabs on the top and every time you click a tab, a different set of text comes up utilizing css layers (product information, shipping information, guarantee… the usual).

Now, the friend (who asked to remain an anonymous voice – chicken shit) had immediate concern that this use of layering might be seen as hidden text to the search engines – not under a hand review of course, but rather as part of an automated process to detect people doing evil things with css.

My instinct/opinion was (and is) that it isn’t an issue at all – it’s a design concept gaining more and more popularity and the thought of a site being banned or penalized for utilizing css layers without it exuding other “red flags” to the engines in addition to the layers just seemed, well, dumb.

Now, I’m not saying the engines don’t do dumb things, I’m just saying that this seemed a little “extreme” on the dumb meter.

I went in search of official statements from the engines on the topic and saw this post on Captain Sprite’s blog – who thankfully has thick enough skin to be the target of my humor for the day – where he mentioned evil css doings and saw several people ask questions about using css layers legitimately and what Google’s stance was on it. The only comments Matt made on the entire post were:

Comment – Search Engines Web, you said that ‘That site has a perfect right to use that “invisible” text and the h1 tags’. I agree. In turn, Google has the right to decide not to return that site in our search results, because we feel that hiding text that is not visible to users is deceptive.

Ok, well, that’s what Matt thinks of a users “right” to hide text…

Comment – If you’re straight-out using CSS to hide text, don’t be surprised if that is called spam. I’m not saying that mouseovers or DHTML text or have-a-logo-but-also-have-text is spam; I answered that last one at a conference when I said “imagine how it would look to a visitor, a competitor, or someone checking out a spam report. If you show your company’s name and it’s Expo Markers instead of an Expo Markers logo, you should be fine. If the text you decide to show is ‘Expo Markers cheap online discount buy online Expo Markers sale …’ then I would be more cautious, because that can look bad.”

Common sense 101 – treat css under a graphic the same as you are *supposed* to treat an alt tag.

I’m starting to lose interest, and then I see Jennifer Sullivan state:

Comment – What Matt said earlier guys, is that hidden CSS layers are not penalized, UNLESS they are intent to deceive.

Now I’m thinking in my boredom due diligence I missed an actual definitive statement on using css layers to hide larger blocks of text (as opposed to in place of an alt tag)… go back, check… nope. So, looking to the official voice of Google didn’t reveal anything (I know, I’m shocked too).

So, without an “official” statement on using css layers in the manner I specified in the example site above… I go to those who know the engines best… what’s your theory? Perfectly acceptable design implementation or risk of being penalized? And for added fun, do you think Google is capable of determining the difference between “Expo Markers logo” and “Expo Markers cheap online discount buy online Expo Markers sale” algorithmically?

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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