Back in November during a Google Webmaster Central Hangouts session, John Mueller revisited the SEO repercussions of content residing in tabs or click-to-expand designs, saying that Google will discount its ranking and indexation value. In short, if the content is hidden on your site using tabs or click-to-expand features, Google will not index or weigh the text towards potential rankings. This decision is based on the belief that any important content should be clearly visible and easily accessible to users visiting your site. According to Mueller, if you’re hiding the content from visitors, it must not be all that important and may risk confusing users who land on your site with a specific need, but cannot meet it immediately.
What does this mean for your strategy? Well, the tab functionality is a popular design seen across major brands, from Best Buy and Target to CVS, just to name a few. When conducting searches such as "eos tangerine ingredients", for example, CVS’ hidden tab structure doesn’t seem to be impacted by Google’s caution against the design, especially if the term is labeled in the tab itself. However, longer-tail keywords may be at risk, especially when Google is constantly emphasizing the importance of quality, rich, on-site content and catering to semantic queries. After all, a search engine’s job is to deliver the best source that can answer user questions, without adding an extra obstacle of users having to search for the answer within that same source. If a search engine is like our site’s talent agent, and high rankings represent both agent commission and talent paycheck, then search engines depend on our sites to deliver what they pitch to the outside world. Failure to deliver means no paycheck or commission (rankings), and no more representation (indexation).
Ok, So Tabbed Content is a No No. Now What?
Well, it’s not that simple. Remember, Google stated that it would attribute less ranking weight towards hidden content. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you should eliminate hidden tabs altogether. It simply means that rather than going tab-crazy for the sake of visual appeal, we must approach it through the lens of content prioritization.
Before looking at your current hidden tab structure, make sure you know what topics, key terms, and pages are your biggest customer-drivers. Take a look at the content that is separated and evaluate whether or not hidden sections contain valuable key terms and information that matter to your target market. If so, restructure the information so that supplemental content that does not contain key points about your service can be tabbed instead.
Other Design Options
You can implement tabbed design without sacrificing hiding valuable content in a few ways. For example, Wal-Mart’s product pages makes all of its content visible on the page, but uses clickable tabs to simply scroll to desired sections. This is done by using fragment identifiers to specify the location of a specific section of content on the page and appending them to the page's URL.
Another example of using fragment identifiers is by creating a table of contents above the fold that links to topic sections. This fulfills content segmentation while providing full transparency of information to your users. See the Android Application Framework FAQ page as an example.
A final case of applying a tabbed option is none other than Google’s Help Center. They use hidden tabs for the list of questions only, and dedicate separate pages to their corresponding detailed answers. Thus, hidden tabs can be used instead for table of contents. If a site was looking to rank a similar help center page for certain key terms within the questions, for example, an introductory paragraph highlighting a few of these popular questions may be a possible strategy.
Watch the full Google Webmaster Central Hangouts video on tabbed content.