New Technologies and SEM Judgment Calls

By their very nature, search engines have to be reactive when responding to cutting-edge Web programming techniques. Understandably, they can’t discuss the search friendliness of a specific technique until people actually use those techniques on their sites.

But sometimes official feedback takes much longer than we’d like. In today’s column, I chronicle one specific technique and how long it took for engine reps to discuss it, as well as some suggestions about how to make Web-programming decisions in the absence of official seal of approval from search engines.

Using Image Replacement and Text Under Graphics

While image replacement techniques were in use well before 2005, one of the earliest official mentions I can remember about engines’ acceptance of image replacement techniques came in late 2005 from Matt Cutts in his now-famous “Expo Markers” comment. In it, Cutts finally gave his users some long-sought-after concrete answers about acceptability:

    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…If you show your company’s name and its 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.

SEO (define) professionals were able to take away a good chunk of information from that comment, noting that typically if the graphic that covers the text duplicates the text exactly, there should be no problem.

About a year later, the Google Webmaster Central Blog went slightly further in recommending specific technologies to use when building a Flash-heavy site, naming sIFR among its list of practical suggestions:

    A technique like sIFR still lets non-Flash readers read a page, since the content/navigation is actually in the HTML — it’s just displayed by an embedded Flash object.

Finally, just last Friday, Google’s T.V. Raman discussed using CSS Sprites as a method of increasing usability without sacrificing graphics usage:

    It’s still possible to include that all-important descriptive text when applying CSS sprites; for a possible solution, see how the Google logo and the various nav-links at the bottom of the Google Results page are coded. In brief, we placed the descriptive text right under the CSS-sprited image.

Yet Another Obstacle

Even when you believe you’re doing fine by the engines, you risk violating another site’s rules. Ironically, this is likely because that other site believes it understands search engine guidelines better than you do. About two years ago, we submitted a client site to an industry directory. It was rejected due to “spam content” on various pages. We were baffled because we’d been over the site thoroughly. Finally, we got the directory to define spam for us, and it said that its ruling was due to hidden text on specific URLs.

The text was technically hidden, as defined by the client’s CSS (define) files. Hidden, that is, until a mouse rollover occurred, at which point it turned into a pop-up tooltip-style paragraph that described the current content section.

The moral here is that if you stand behind your coding practices and believe you’ve done nothing wrong, don’t accept rejection without a fight. Even the best human-powered directories sometimes have to resort to simple code searches to help them determine whether a site uses controversial techniques. At the first instance of “display:hidden” or “position:-1000px” in the page’s source, an inexperienced worker could easily make an assumption that ruins your chances for a link. Not responding to the rejection validates the decision; so in a case like this make some noise.


Keeping track of search engines’ official positions on coding techniques is difficult. It’s a large part of my job, and I’m still amazed at the things that slip by me. So I empathize with search-minded developers who don’t have a lot of time to trudge through forums and blogs, wading through conflicting opinions, to find the answers to questions.

The best rule of thumb when deciding whether to use a specific technology is to ask yourself whether you’d be embarrassed to explain and justify your technique to a search engine representative. That’s a much better litmus test than vague, easily dissected sayings like “show the same things to users and engines.” In addition, bookmark, tag, or otherwise organize official comments like the ones I cited here, because they’re helpful ammunition if you ever feel like your site has unfairly been singled out.

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