Matt Cutts was kind enough to give us a "heads up" (I really hate that phrase, but it's totally apt) about "hidden links". He mentions the often used tactics of white text on a white background, using CSS to make the links minuscule or making a full-stop a link. He obviously understands the need to format links to match the style of the site, but asserts that it is against their "Webmaster's Guidelines" to actively hide links from human users.
So if you do use this method to hide links then if you're still determined to be "black hat" then find another method. If you want to be "clean" then be upfront (including me) about your associations with other sites then make links non-hidden so the average Internet user can see that a link exists.
But where is the line drawn? What can you do and what can't you do?
If you look at the three 4 elements to make a link fall within the normal flow of text (assuming normal formatting) you'd need to:
is it any two or three of the four? People often use "TEXT-DECORATION: none" but then match it with an "a.hover" in the style sheet as they just prefer the formatting - especially in menus. If you're doing this you may also want to break out the text colour from the base style a.link colour.
Also if you've got an affiliate site and you don't want to make it obvious that it's an affiliate link then surely you've got the right to do "window status=' ' "? The American Federal Trade Commission states that "companies engaging in word-of-mouth marketing, in which people are compensated to promote products to their peers, must disclose those relationships." But does that mean UK sites focusing on UK users should comply to the FTC position? What about UK sites with US users? Are we expected to redirect US users to another version of our site? Or do we just have to put up with the US government agency telling everyone in the World how to do business?
I'm going to separate out my views on this as it's extending the topic a bit far off "hidden links" but we need to categorically understand what we need to do if we do have what could reasonably be construed as "hidden links".
My advice is not to worry about getting your menu links to be formatted with your site, but DO NOT CHANGE THE CURSOR STYLE TO "TEXT"!
Changing the decoration, colour is totally acceptable and changing the status bar is marginally acceptable. But there's a simpler solution.
Any site should be counting out-bound clicks. Any affiliate should be comparing their own click data with that of the merchant or network. It's a great way to see if there's a problem with the tracking. But even better, it's a great way to see if the links you're offering are relevant to the users you have on your site. If you're writing about a product and sending traffic to Woolies for example, and they go out of stock so you're wasting the users' time then it's worth tracking your own data than relying on a network's. You would then offer your visitors a useful alternative.
If you are going to use a click-tracking file, say using a 302 redirect then make sure you put it in a folder and robots.txt it out so you don't confuse the heck out of the search engines, they don't need another copy of the merchants landing page in their system!
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