The case against nofollow

Posted by Curtis Miller Curtis Miller

I just read an article by Loren Baker called 13 Reasons Why NoFollow Tags Suck. I don't know much about it, but the theory is that search engines will look for nofollow on a link and not count it as a valid link to content. Thus spammers do not get any search engine benefit from leaving stupid comments. I also know Wordpress has nofollow enabled by default for comments.

While I am completely open to the possibility that nofollow is not working as intended, the reasons given in the article lack substance. I'm also a little disappointed that Robert Scoble is waffling on his support of nofollow. Below, I outline my thoughts on the 13 reasons given in Loren's article.

  1. NoFollow = NoWorky – The basic premise here is that other things are more effective, like Akismet, for blocking spam. But from what I understand nofollow isn't about blocking spam, it is about preventing spamdexing, a technique used to increase a sites ranking in search engines. With the nofollow approach, if a link gets through then it is tagged with nofollow. This point also claims that nofollow “does nothing to discourage comment spammers” but offers no evidence.
  2. Bloggers should moderate comments – A lot of people do this, including me, but I for one do not follow every link that people post in a comment, including their own website link. Additionally, this is one of the reasons that Wikipedia took the approach of nofollow, i.e., there is too much content being generated to have a “human inspection” on everything posted. Again, nofollow is for stuff that gets through.
  3. Wordpress has nofollow by default – and therefore nofollow sucks? Sounds like a complaint against Wordpress to me.
  4. NoFollow = NoValue – This one poses a hypothetical question and uses the hypothetical answer as an argument against nofollow.

    What if they made the Yahoo! directory nofollow? Would anyone continue to purchase listings? Obviously the value of that directory would be zero of nofollow tags were applied to the listings.

    Obviously! Isn't the Yahoo! directory something you apply for? Something that goes through the “human inspection” suggested in #2? I don't see how this has any relation to a user-driven site like Wikipedia. Remember that moderators on Wikipedia are volunteers, unlike the Yahoo!s that accept or reject directory applications. You have mountains of data added to Wikipedia everyday and the volunteers cannot keep up with it.

  5. NoFollow = NoTrust – If you link to someone and add nofollow, yes it is certainly a sign that you don't want to give them an incoming link to boost their ranking. This is a personal choice. However, a commenter adding a link for their own gratification has nothing to do with me linking to them. Since I don't know what they are linking to it is safer to add the nofollow.
  6. NoFollow sucks because of lack of standards – Finally a good point. I agree, if this is to be used effectively, then it must have a consistent approach that can be followed by individuals and software (e.g., Wordpress) alike. But just because you have a standard approach doesn't mean people will follow it. There are tons of standards that people already ignore, so why not throw another on the pile – standards like this cannot be enforced.
  7. NoFollow is the result of search engine failures – Funny, I thought it was a result of spammers. It's a proposed solution (or at least a stopgap measure) to get more accurate page ranking because of a natural inclination to game the system. Everybody, except spammers, benefits from more accurate page rankings because that is what determines your search result relevancy.

    Search engines should be able to develop a method of identifying and devaluing links to spam sites which were placed in blog comments. Why should everyone who posts in blog comments suffer from the actions of a greedy few spammers.

    There are so many things wrong with this statement that I don't know where to begin. First, there are a lot of things that people, companies, software, etc. should be able to do, but they don't. This is akin to saying the staff at Wikipedia should be able to document all human knowledge on a wiki. While they could try, I doubt they could keep up. This is where we come in – the crowd. Why not use our wisdom to help out? Brilliant idea! The same logic applies here. Search engines need our help to make things better. If/when they/you come up with a better idea then we can all remove nofollow and have a good laugh about it. Trying to downplay the seriousness of the spam issue by talking about “the actions of a greedy few spammers” is laughable. Looking at Akismet right now shows a report stating 94% of comments filtered are spam. The greedy few indeed!

  8. Comments = Relevant content – Comments don't necessarily add relevancy.
  9. The wiki concept is to blame – Again, I thought spammers were to blame. Let's see, how could Wikipedia prevent spammers from adding content… aha! Remove the ‘Edit' link of course. Doh, it's so easy, why didn't they think of this before?!?
  10. Ads + nofollow = NoSense – This might be a whole other topic: Are ads relevant content? I have no answer at this time.
  11. Matt says it's bad – That's not really what he said. He said he was glad they tried it even though it didn't work out like they hoped. This is not necessarily a failure of the idea, but of the implementation/uptake of the idea. He also states that “comment and trackback spam is 100 times worse now” (without a citation for the 100x). If you believe that, then does it imply that spam blocking tools like Akismet are also failing? I don't think so. Why is there more spam? I can come up with two possible reasons off the top of my head. More people online means more spammers generating spam. Also, spammers need to spam in volume to make up for what they are losing because of tools like Akismet, SpamKarma, and, yes, maybe even nofollow links. Whereas before spammers could get 9 out of 10 spam comments through, they can only get 1 in 10 or less because of advances in spam blocking/filtering. And even the spam that gets through might not benefit them because of the nofollow link. Just a theory; I have no data to back any of that up.
  12. Search engine implementations are inconsistent – This tends to happen when something new is proposed. Look at CSS as an example – browsers still don't implement it consistently. This is not a failure of nofollow, but of the companies that said they would honor the principle.
  13. NoFollow Sucks. Check It! – He couldn't think of a 13th point…

It seems to me that there should not be an all or nothing approach to this issue. Why not retain unadulterated links in comments from trusted sources (e.g, whitelists)? When you prove to me that you are a worthy contributor to my content and I feel comfortable giving you a nod for that, then I will remove the nofollow by adding you as a trusted source. I would expect the same treatment for comments I place on other people's blogs.

What are your thoughts?

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