Do we follow? A look at the notorious nofollow attribute

This is a post I wanted to do a while ago, but I didn’t find the time. It’s about the infamous nofollow attribute. As most of you know, I’m not particularly a fan of the nofollow tag. In this post I’m going to talk about why it is used and, I say this part sadly, why I am going to use it as well.

PageRank sculpting with nofollow

The majority of the nofollow debate centers around external and paid links. But nofollow can be used with internal links as well in a concept often called “PageRank sculpting.” The idea is to use nofollow to help shape the relative importance of pages on your site. In the eyes of search engines, certain pages on your site are clearly more important than others. Google and Yahoo determine this automatically by how many incoming links a page has, and they include internal links in this calculation. Of course what the search engine believes is important may not necessarily agree with what you think. With a commercial site, for instance, the pages that make the most money are the important ones, but users around the Internet don’t naturally link to commercial content as much as to informational pages. It makes practical sense that you want these moneymaking pages listed in the search engine index, and you can use nofollow on internal links to lessen the importance of some pages and thereby increase (internally) the importance of others.

There are people in the SEO community who don’t encourage this. You can do similar things with information architecture, JavaScript or other methods after all, and nofollow is just another way. For a large e-commerce site like Amazon, for example, it might make some sense. Amazon has a good toolbar PageRank, but there are so many pages available that they will want the most PageRank on the most important pages. But for the vast majority of sites out there, I don’t think this is a problem. The focus should really be getting PageRank in the first place. Think about it this way: what’s going to benefit your site most, incremental tweaks of shifting PageRank in between pages, or getting more PageRank juice to start with? I think, for most of us, the latter is true.

A follower no more

That is one particular use for nofollow. Search engines, of course, are encouraging sites to use nofollow for paid links. As I’ve outlined before, I don’t think this is the best solution and search engines have other alternatives they should try. But some blogs and other sites nofollow everything with the hope that they can keep all of their internal PageRank for themselves. If you read my latest post on SEOmoz about how PageRank works, you understand that this idea really doesn’t hold water. You’re still going to share some amount because of the way the PageRank algorithm is designed. If everyone starts doing the same thing, it’s going to be harder to get links and I don’t think it’s a good idea to promote this behavior.

Until today my blog was a dofollow blog. I wanted to reward my readers for reading and commenting. As SEOs, I know that one of the hardest problems we face is getting links to our sites. So why did I reverse my decision and go from a dofollow to a nofollow blog? It’s because I simply don’t have the time anymore to moderate all the comments and filter out the spammy ones. I’m finding that some first-time readers feel like they need to write a comment on every single one of my posts, even ones that are several months old. It takes a lot of time to delete these things.

To me, all this is sad. I feel that I am sending out the wrong message because I am very much against the nofollow attribute. But I don’t want my blog to become a source of spam comments either.

If you want to contribute to the conversation, you’re as welcome as ever. Above all, I still want my readers to be active with this blog and be rewarded for it. With that in mind, I’m soon going to install another plug-in called Linky Love. The idea is that after several approved comments you can get dofollow link for your comments.

Let me know your opinions on the subject of nofollow. Your comments do matter here!

21 replies
  1. Levon
    Levon says:

    It is sad to see that so many people will take such blatant advantage of your dofollow status. Personally, I only really comment on dofollow blogs and I DO use it to increase link pop. However, I am always respectful in the comments and don't use spammy names like 'web design newcastle'.

  2. Dharmesh Shah
    Dharmesh Shah says:

    We've debated this internally a bit.

    Although getting more PageRank (SEO authority more generally) is always better, a lit bit of "nudging" (PR sculpting) doesn't seem like a bad idea. There are some pages on the site that need to be linked to, but just aren't important enough to try and get indexed or rank.

  3. Dr. Pete
    Dr. Pete says:

    I was just having the same internal debate yesterday about nofollow, as I've had a deluge of blog spam since changing hosts and redesigning my site. The cat and mouse game gets tiring. On the other hand, from the usability side, I hate punishing visitors for the actions of idiots. I have the same reaction to CAPTCHAs; I understand why they're necessary in some cases, but I wish we had better alternatives.

    At the end of the day, it's something we have to re-evaluate constantly and strike the best balance we can. For me personally, while it's great to get some link-love, I try to read blogs because I value the content and comment because I have something to say. So, follow or nofollow, I'll still be reading.

  4. Sam Daams
    Sam Daams says:

    Haha, I didn't even realize they were dofollow until you mention it now; go figure!

    I think it's a good idea not to blindly just dofollow all links that you don't pre-moderate. I guess you were moderating comments being posted on older entries and the time spent doing so was what ended up triggering this decision? One way would be closing commenting on posts after a while. It's kind of harsh, but even if you do start nofollow'ing, in my experience the comment spam just keeps on coming. And that still leaves you with the same work, because you're not really going to want to have viagra links posted in your comments, regardless of if they are nofollow'd. It might minimize it a little, but the majority of real spammers just don't care that much or don't check. Since adding nofollow to our site it hasn't changed spam postings one iota, although I know that was the original intent of the thing. Cutting out the ability to comment on older posts should keep workload somewhat manageable I'd think?

    But even with that in place I would probably still go nofollow by default till you can ascertain that commenting's not just being done for link juice – dumb anyway if you ask me because I reckon anything within an id='comment' or class="comment" etc gets weighed FAR less than other links by G.

    What we do on blogs on our site is to nofollow all links to the blogs by default, but once they've posted 10 entries the links become dofollow. By the time anyone has posted 10 entries we've figured out if they are in it to really blog or just to game the system. Links outgoing from the blogs or forum are always nofollow, although longer term members can add follow'd links from their blogs. The latter might be a little harsh and we might tone it down for members that we know we can trust, but then again, that might make it look like links are dofollow for everyone visiting the site?!?

    The real bottom line is that you always have to moderate anyway, dofollow or nofollow. If you run a site that you want others to view as professional that is!

  5. Arachne Jericho
    Arachne Jericho says:

    Not even Akismet rules out all the spam in the world. And for large sites, moderating every single comment is not an option, although Linky Love sounds like it's a great middle ground.

    What I really hate are the antics some folks get up to; there are some first-time posts that ride the fence so closely that I end up googling for to see if they're just spamming repeatedly to build pagerank in the hopes of dofollow—and yes, they are.

    My funniest example is a guy who spent all of 2 seconds on the page to search for #comment and comment. He came in on an IceRocket search, and then basically stalked all my posts for comments via co.mments. If only we had filters that could detect such ridiculousness without us having to step in.

  6. DazzleCat
    DazzleCat says:

    to be totally honest the majority of blogs out there are nofollow.
    I see on so many blogs people spamming even when they are clearly nofollow.
    The type of users that do spam blogs with comments to get backlinks are obviously the ones with less knowledge as they would firstly know of this attibute and realise what they are doing is pretty much pointless.
    What you are suggesting with link love is a good compromise!

  7. Paul Montwill
    Paul Montwill says:

    Hamlet, Link love is the best solution. You should include your Top Commenters there. And give Jez 2 follows 🙂

    I am not surprised you joined no-followers as Flickr, Wikipedia etc. did. This way you will save yourself a bit of time. I also think that too many blogs go too far and put nofollow to ALL external links, even if quoting. That really damages the whole system and is so selfish.

    This whole idea is very sad. I can understand the usage of nofollow for internal purposes but to do it for external links? Why complicate things so much? If somebody is selling tons of links, because this is what it is all about, they probably have some decent site. Otherwise, who would buy links there. If it is a spamsite, why not sandbox it?

  8. AndrewS
    AndrewS says:

    Hey Hamlet, don't sweat it. Most of your commenters will participate in your blog if the conversation is interesting enough regardless of the link potential. Re nofollowing on client sites, my take is that it's a fairly inexpensive development task and it couldn't hurt (as long as it's done right), but it's definitely not a P0.

  9. Cavan Moon
    Cavan Moon says:

    Glad to see your recent posts! Too bad about the spam, although not surprising since I've seen you included on a number of "dofollow lists". Linky Love sounds like a good option.

  10. identity
    identity says:

    Great post Hamlet, even more so b/c it took me back to your YOUmoz post which I was overdue in reading….long, long overdue, sadly.

    I like you, have been reluctant to jump on the "nofollow" bandwagon — hmm, "nofollow" and "bandwagon" — quite the interesting contradiction there.

    It's not that I don't think it may serve some value, but that I feel that it's promotion by engines, outside of comment blog spam and similar, is somewhat self-serving, and that it is still missing a deeper exploration of the impact of such actions. More to the point, regarding the latter, is that websites are like their own little communities or microcosms. What happens long-term when PageRank sculpting is performed blindly? Can more harm be done than good? Can we unknowingly choke off the life of part of a site? I don't know that these things can happen, but I also don't know that anyone has convinced me yet that they can't.

    Look forwarding to finally meeting you in person at SMX Advanced!

  11. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    Hi Paul,

    Glad to see you back. I agree I need to give Jez a loyalty badge 🙂

    Andrew – The question about PR sculpting is whether it can help every site. Even the small ones that don't have a lot of link juice to share among their internal pages. You need to spend time testing and learning to do it properly. Again, I like the idea but I don't think that it is useful for most small sites.

  12. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    I'm looking forward to meeting you too, Brian.

    I didn't mention this on the post, but I think it is wise for black hats (and gray hats) to avoid nofollowing their internal links. Why?

    Search engines might not penalize sites for the technique, but it makes it a lot easier to identify SEO'd sites. If the techniques are black or gray then you will be in trouble.

  13. Andy Beard
    Andy Beard says:

    As far as I am concerned Linky Love is still a dofollow plugin, it is just more sensible for most people.

    There are all kinds of ways to get juice flowing to where you want it or need it.
    One of these days I am going to have to test exactly how many links Google follow on some of my larger pages, though they tend to have more juice.

  14. Gavin Mitchell
    Gavin Mitchell says:

    Linky Love should cut your modding workload, but as long as that dofollow carrot is being dangled in return for a set number of comments, I'd bet on quite a few ninja comment spammers showing their persistent sides.

    Of course, if your blog has now found its way on to some dofollow lists as Cavan suggests, you'll probably keep getting a steady stream of them for ages anyway. I doubt many will check your dofollow/nofollow status before cranking out a "Great blog! SEO is very important! Thanks." comment.


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