No, the headline isn’t a joke. Google okayed hidden text–in certain contexts, of course.
Remember a couple weeks ago when Search Engine Land was outed for spamming? Several readers, in an effort to be helpful (I’m sure), pointed out that this particular trick was the Fehrer Image Replacement technique.
Despite what some commenters seemed to believe, most SEOs with CSS experience actually do know what the Fehrer Image Replacement technique is. I’ve used it before. However, by the strictest definition of “search engine spam,” it would, unfortunately, be considered spam. Showing a search engine something different than what you show your users is, by definition, not an “approved” technique.
Danny Sullivan (you know, Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Land), I think, knows a thing or two about what search engines find acceptable, being pretty much the foremost authority on search for over a decade. In fact, what he said in response was, “We were totally hiding text and technically might be considered spamming the search engines.” He vowed to correct it after things calmed down from SMX.
Good news, Danny. You don’t have to worry about it. Barry Schwartz, writing on SERoundtable, points out a Google Groups thread on this very issue. Susan Moskwa, Googler (okay, part of the Webmaster Central Google Groups support team), replies:
If your intent is purely to improve the visual user experience (e.g. by replacing some text with a fancier image of that same text), you don’t need to worry.
Barry also notes, however, that Matt Cutts says this does bring you closer to the “gray area.” So, note, if you’re using Fehrer & its ilk, other marginal activities on your site might make the Googlebot mad…