The Insidious Nofollow Tag: An SEO Rant

February 14, 2010

I’m normally a positive, upbeat kind of guy, and as someone who’s been writing professionally since the days of disco, rarely at a loss for words. Yet mention the “nofollow” tag, and that all changes. I, like many other many other web marketing professionals, am left sputtering with a mix of disgust and rage, fumbling for an adjective that conveys sufficient contempt: despicable, vile, loathsome, abhorrent, abominable, wretched, odious, detestable, downright evil.
The nofollow tag was misguidedly inflicted upon the online world by Google in 2005. According to Wikipedia (among the worst nofollow offenders), “The nofollow HTML attribute was originally designed to stop comment spam on blogs. Blog readers and bloggers were well aware of the immense problem. Just like any other type of spam affects its community, comment spam affected the entire blogging community, so in early 2005 (Google and Blogger engineers) designed the attribute to address the problem and the nofollow attribute was born.”

Though the originators of WordPress have developed a far more elegant and inoffensive solution to the comment spam problem with Akismet, the execrable nofollow tag remains with us, like a cancer impervious to drugs or radiation.

The justification for the continued use of this repugnant scrap of code is to prevent passing link juice from listings on directory and social bookmarking sites to spammy or other objectionable content. But, to be charitable, the nofollow tag is to the world of web links what “let’s just be friends” is to romantic relationships. It’s a way for site owners to say: “I’m happy to use your content to build my traffic, but not to reciprocate. I don’t want anyone to think we’re together.”

An alarming number of once-respectable social bookmarking sites—Digg, delicious, Mister Wong, Reddit, Mixx, Bibsonomy, Jumptags, Faves, Yahoo! Buzz, Simpy—have now instituted dastardly nofollow tags. It’s easy to determine if your favorite site should now become an ex-favorite, just “view source” in your browser and search for rel=”nofollow.” If it’s there for any reason other than Pagerank sculpting (e.g. nofollowing pages like “Contact Us”), move along. If you’re trying to promote your own content, it won’t work. If you are trying to promote some else’s, you won’t help them much.

Hey, here’s a novel idea: if someone is using your blog, social media site or directory to link to spam, porn, hate speech, discount online pharmaceuticals, miracle weight loss nonsense, or work-at-home scams—DELETE THE LINK. Why is okay to have such crap listed on your site, regardless of whether or not you’re passing link juice?

In fairness, this pernicious string of characters once served a purpose, as a less-than-ideal solution to a serious problem. But today, Akismet solves the link spam problem on blogs. The community can be used to solve the problem on social bookmarking sites. A little bit of old-fashioned work can deal with issue on directory sites.

I’m not alone on this. It’s time to demand better, to rid the world of the reprehensible, insidious nofollow tag once and for all. Ideally, Google should announce it’s no longer recognizing the tag. Absent that, site owners should boycott it. And if they don’t, users should walk.

Note: This post was originally published on the WebMarketCentral blog in October 2009. But it all remains true.

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28 Responses

  1. You make the following very ironic comment:
    “f it’s there for any reason other than Pagerank sculpting (e.g. nofollowing pages like “Contact Us”), move along.”

    People should not be attempting sculpt PageRank. Google declared last year that attempts at PageRank sculpting only resulted in sites delisting their own valuable content. There is absolutely no credible SEO reason for anyone to attempt to sculpt PageRank.

    NOFOLLOW was implemented because of the abuse by blackhat SEO link spammers, who use scripts to hammer blogs and forums with bogus registrations and messages that are intended to either compromise Websites or drop promotional links in them.

    It’s virtually impossible to moderate that volume of spam once your blog or forum is added to the various “dofollow” lists that are circulated. At least NOFOLLOWing comment links by default protects your site from being penalized by Google (a policy they implemented in November of last year).

    Google has certainly been gradually granting itself police powers over the Web. Their policy is atrocious but people who depend on Google visibility need to pay attention to Google’s guidelines and policies.

  2. Couldn’t agree me more with the sentiment of this post. Turns out, Google must have been listening to you, me and all the others who’ve complained about it. Apparently they have changed the rules again, this time to make it better to use follow links, than no-follows. In other words, the world has returned to an honest linking strategy. At last!

  3. Tom 

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments Michael. I agree that trying to use nofollow for Pagerank sculpting is a suspect practice, and don’t do it for my own clients, but I still see many sites attempting this and many SEO bloggers still advising use of this tactic. As I note in my post, nofollow had a purpose when it was first implemented, but there are better ways to block comment link spam now and nofollow has outlived its usefulness. Nofollowing comments disincentivises legitimate comments, needlessly reducing the interactivity of blogs. I disagree that it’s impossible to moderate blog comment spam; as I note, tools like Akismet have become effective at filtering out the vast majority of such spam. I’ve never heard that Google penalizes blogs for dofollowing comments, but if your information is accurate, then Google really is “doing evil,” contrary to its mantra. I’m not sure how this can be accomplished, but I hope this evil tag can eventually be banished from existence.

  4. Tom 

    Hi Eric, I had not heard that. Seems you and Michael are providing contrary opinions on this. Do you have a link to an authoritative source to back this up? I hope you are correct!

  5. The fact many SEO bloggers say that PageRank sculpting works doesn’t mean anything. Most SEO bloggers are just repeating crap they read on other Websites, either because they are reporting the latest buzz or because they are trying to establish a reputation for themselves by writing about SEO and really don’t know enough (or feel confident enough in their own experiences) to share something new.

    I’m well aware of Akismet but WordPress is not the only blogging platform out there. Just as people should not feel compelled to use nofollow on comment links, nor should they feel compelled to use any one blogging platform.

    And Akismet is only as good as the people who use it. Some comment spammers do a very good job of getting past the human filtering.

    Google’s war on comment spam has passed through some controversial phases. It’s also possible that people in the SEO community (including me) have overinterpreted a stern warning Google published about comment spam last Fall. However, allowing spammy links in blog comments that point to malware or other really bad sites might get a site penalized by Google’s “bad neighborhood” filter. That is the real reason why I advocate the use of “nofollow” in comment links.

  6. i am a newbie in Search Engine Optimization but i think that the submission of articles in article directories is one of the best ways to gain backlinks. |

  7. According to my own links with the nofollow does not count as backlinks in Google and other search engines, so you do not get search engine ranking benefit for a link to this moment all nofollow.At of a movement has developed, who was set to remove NoFollow. The commenter’s blog can play with the so-called link love. I think the world has returned to an honest linking strategy.thanks for sharing information!

  8. Mart 

    Ok, I´m a SEO newbie too, but as far as I know comments are not posted automatically instead it waits for the blog administrator to approve the comment who of course will inmediately delete it if it results to be a spam or add no value to the content of the blog, so I simply just don´t get it..

  9. Tom 

    Mart, you’re right. For historical perspective, at the time nofollow was introduced, the tools that we have today to block most spam comments didn’t yet exist and so bloggers could be overwhelmed by spam comments; hence nofollow made some sense at that time. But at this point it’s both outlived its usefulness and become subject to abuse, e.g. with social bookmarking sites like Reddit and delicious and social networking sites like LinkedIn using no follow on all links. There’s no longer a justification for nofollow and it should be ended.

  10. Cindy 

    I can’t stand the way you have to follow all these ever changing rules to make your site adapt. It’s like a constant search for tricks.

  11. Amen!

    Nothing is worse than reading a great article and wanting to comment on it until you see that:

    1. Comments are nofollow.

    2. The comments section is filled with spam comments.

    The solution is to make comments dofollow, and for the blog to prevent and delete spam.

  12. Tom 

    Couldn’t agree more Kevin. That’s what I try to do here. A spam comment may get through now and then, but not very many.

  13. The feeling I get from the NoFollow value is like putting a pair of gloves on first before shaking someone’s hand. If comments are NoFollow you might as well go for No-Linking instead.

  14. I’ve followed the “nofollow” saga a while now on and off over the years. Due to widespread abuse of it by nearly all major Internet sites now, Google’s had no choice but to count the links. Try a little experimentation–make a site, find an easy enough keyword but one that does have enough competition to require a little SEO, toss out a bunch of well targeted, non spammy, but nofollow links and you will see the site make some progress.

  15. Tom 

    That’s been my theory now for a while. Thanks for the validation.

  16. very good post. theres nothing wrong with following links, but its just hard to keep your blogs of dofollow lists.

  17. No Follow links are the bane of the SEO existence. I don’t see why blog authors and webmasters can’t simply stick to their policy of reviewing and approving comments.

  18. Tom 

    Completely agree Mark,

  19. i just started working for SEO last year, I mostly like social bookmarking, classified submission, forums, p. release,and article submission, but what I do hate most is directory and blog commenting. It took a months or so before my comments are approved, or sometimes they don’t and it really frustrates me as well.

  20. Tom 

    I feel your pain Sherri. That’s why link building is partly a numbers game, and partly building up a good link catalog over time.

  21. Bill 

    Excellent post. While I do get tired of the daily stacks of spammers attempting to post comments on my blogs, legitimate comments should not get penalized with a no-follow. It doesn’t take that long to spot and report the spam as spam. When compared to the overall amount of time necessary for maintaining a blog, editing out a few spam comments is not that much of a burden.

  22. Tom 

    Hi Bill – a big Amen to that!

  23. JC 

    What a great post! I really agree that most of this changes make our job as web designers almost impossible to create SEO friendly sites. With so many changes being done by the big search engines all the time, I have found that the best solution is to be true to your content and to also do your research as to how to create good readable content that both to people and to the bots can understand. My philosophy is to just write relevant content that will help your target audience find what they are looking for in a concise but well structured content with relevant key phrases instead of worrying about the “nofollow” tag.

  24. Tom 

    Thanks JC. I agree with your strategy, but – the nofollow tag is still insidious.

  25. Nice Post! Thanks a lot for sharing wonderful post to SEO

  26. Tom 

    No worries Sean. Nice to see this post has some shelf life.

  27. Nofollow tag, I remember, was the talk of the town a couple of years back. But anything that is related to SEO and website marketing, this has changed significantly. Google makes sure of this. SEO and SEM are always dynamic and no one can predict these. It is very attuned to the times. That is why life as an internet strategist will always be fun and new.

  28. Tom 

    Hmm, fun and new – that’s one way to put it. :-)

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