Nofollow considered harmless

Monday, 20 June 2005

Google introduced the rel="nofollow" attribute earlier this year; most blogging platforms now support it. Its initial promise of ridding the web of blog comment spam has not happened, and there has been a lot of conspiracy theory about the “real” reasons Google would do this. But it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. This issue came up in the IO Error blog — I started to write a comment on it, but the logorrhoea set in, as it often does.

Did anybody really think nofollow would reduce comment spam? Widespread use of nofollow removes the PageRank incentive for comment spammers, but of course it doesn’t remove the link incentive. Obviously, spammers will still do it. Google knew this, I knew it, and presumably many other people knew it.

Google talked up the supposed comment-spam-reduction effect of nofollow. They were hyping their new feature, as companies are wont to do. But this was only a secondary effect. It was always clear that Google are most interesed in the primary effect: nofollow helps prevent site authors from increasing their own PageRank by adding backlinks on other websites. This applies to spammers, bloggers, and everybody else on the web. Because of the effect on blogs, the IO Error blog says that nofollow hurts the entire blogosphere:

It is no longer enough that your reader left an insightful comment or a trackback to his blog with more information.

So if your reader wants Google to rank her site highly, she’ll just have to post insightful content on her own site. If it’s really good, other bloggers will link to it (in posts, without nofollow). Is this so terrible?

Now, as far as Google juice is concerned, it is as if all of your readers were never there and you had received no comments or trackbacks at all.

This is ambiguous — readers posting comments on your site never had much effect on your Google juice anyway. Let’s clarify this:

  • As far as your readers’ Google juice is concerned, it is as if they never read your blog and you had received no comments or trackbacks at all.
  • As far as your Google juice is concerned, it is as if you never read any other blogs and you never commented or trackbacked other blogs at all.

This is as it should be! It’s hard to see why adding content (comments) to somebody else’s site should affect your Google ranking. IO Error says that if carried to its extreme, nofollow “will result in most blogs being relegated to obscurity”. Well, most blogs already have been relegated to obscurity, and people with a more jaundiced view might say that they belong there.

Finally, the IO Error blog laments the slide of blogs “as they drop out of the top 100 search engine results.” It indirectly raises an important question, and fails to answer it.

blogs often are the search results people need

In many cases this is true. So why would Google shoot themselves in the foot by not providing the search results people need?

nofollow certainly changes the rules for how websites gain search engine ranking. But it doesn’t unfairly discriminate against blogs, much less provide evidence of a Google-led anti-blogging conspiracy. Search engines have changed their ranking rules before, and the web goes on.



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  1. There is a nofollow value for the rel attribute for links but there is no such thing as a nofollow tag.

    By the way, I hate nofollow in comments with a vengeance, I’ll never use it on my site for the semi-purpose of stopping spam.

  2. (Damn, my Q elements got stripped out.)

  3. Mathias, I got caught up in the excitement of the whole “tag” buzzword. You’re right, of course, but calling it “the nofollow value for the rel attribute for links” seems a bit cumbersome. Google calls it ‘the rel=”nofollow” attribute’ and that’s pretty close. I’ve corrected the post — thanks for being exact.

    And yes, I agree that it’s useless for stopping spam.

    Finally, sorry about stripping out your q elements. WordPress made me do it.

  4. And I also agree that it’s useless for stopping spam, so why have it in the first place? Google ‘claimed’ that the implementation of ‘nofollow’ would reduce comment spam. Now, since most people, including Google, state that it does no such thing, why even have it?
    If the actual reason to have it is to reduce ‘page rankings’ of commenters, then let’s say that.
    I stated in a comment at the other blog you mentioned that to reduce spam, as we all know but really aren’t saying in these discussions, you have to remove it or not allow it to be posted in the first place–nofollow is not needed.
    Let us then focus our energies on implementing things that stop spam from getting posted in the first place–if spam isn’t posted, then Google’s ‘official’ reasoning for nofollow is eliminated.
    In the end, if the GoogleBot hits my website, it’s ‘allowed’ to follow all links therein.

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