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Hyperlink nofollow tags 

(First published 2007, updated August 2009)

While "nofollow" has been around since 2005, I thought I'd publish an article on the history, implementation and issues for consideration relating to use the nofollow tag in hyperlinks after a question I received from a reader recently.

Why/when was the nofollow tag implemented?

All major search engines use the number of inbound links to a site and the quality of the sites being those links appear on as part of their calculation in determining ranking of the target site. 

Due to the increasing amounts of link spam being submitted to blogs, forums and guestbooks, and the effects that the onslaught was having on skewing ranking results in all the major search engines; on January 18, 2005, Google introduced the "nofollow" attribute for links.

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How do search engines treat nofollow?

The idea behind the nofollow attribute was to provide a clear signal to the Googlebot (Google's search engine spider) that the link was most likely user contributed; as in blog comments, and wasn't necessarily a "vote" for or endorsement of the site it linked to.

The change to link coding was quite simple; e.g;

From:

<a href="http://www.site.com/">Spam link</a>

to

<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">Spam link</a>

or 

<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="external nofollow">Spam link</a>

When Google comes across the nofollow tag in hyperlinks, those links don't get any "credit" in Google's ranking system. While this method doesn't provide any ranking boost, there is still a great deal of debate as to whether search engines do actually follow the link.

Nofollow attribute effects

It was a simple, but solid idea and MSN Search and Yahoo search soon joined the party. Many blogging software companies and service providers, such as WordPress, Blogger and LiveJournal, also participated in by making the nofollow tag a default feature for blog comments. In fact, in the case of WordPress, You need a special plugin to strip out the nofollow tag in comments.

Did the introduction of the nofollow tag discourage spammers? Judging by the amount of garbage my Akismet anti-spam plugin service filters out every day; not a chance; spammers just don't care. 

They employ shotgun methods and hope to scoop up a few "good" links or visible posts here and there; but at least the SERP's (Search Engine Results Pages) of most major engines are now not so cluttered with sites that have been artificially inflated by blog link spam.

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Nofollow considerations

If you're putting in serious time commenting (and I mean quality commenting) on blogs in the hope of gaining a little link love; view the source code of any comments pages to see if the site uses the nofollow tag. 

If you find it is used; while your efforts may have been wasted in that aspect, bear in mind that blog commenting is a good way to put yourself in front of many other blog readers who may follow the link to your site. Also, if you're having problems with getting noticed and given that search engines *may* still follow the link, it could be an additional way to at least flag with search engine spiders that your site exists.

Another important issue relating to nofollow to be aware of: If you offer articles for reproduction as a way of boosting inbound links as part of your search engine ranking strategy; it may be an idea to stipulate in your terms of reproduction that the live links in the articles cannot have the nofollow tag added. 

Some sites that reproduce content have a habit of doing so, which aside from being pointless in most cases is a bit stingy in my opinion as the content didn't cost them a cent. They are effectively giving the content you provided them for free a vote of no confidence. That being the case, why have they published it? 

I'd go as far as to say that any site owner doing that to you should have their permission for reproducing your content revoked; unless of course it's a mega-site sending you a ton of direct click through traffic.

PageRank "sculpting" with nofollow

PageRank sculpting is used internally on a site; the idea being using nofollow tags on internal links to focus that page's ranking strength to other specific pages and anchor text of the site owner's choosing.

Here's how it's supposed to work: on a page you may have 10 internal links to other pages on your site. That page has a certain amount of ranking strength which is passed along to the pages being linked to. The more links to other pages, the less "juice" each of those pages receive. By using the nofollow attribute on links to pages of little importance, it was thought that you could pass on more ranking juice to the remain pages.

So, does PageRank sculpting work? Some would say yes, but others have tried it with disastrous consequences. According to Matt Cutts, a senior software engineer with Google, "I wouldn’t recommend it, because it isn’t the most effective way to utilize your PageRank. In general, I would let PageRank flow freely within your site."

While the nofollow attribute isn't perfect, hasn't discouraged spammers from submitting spam comments and has caused some collateral damage by failing to give link kudos to links in legitimate comments; the alternative was far worse - search engine results pages dominated by spam in just about every industry sector imaginable.

Related articles:

Why isn't my site listed in search engines?

Anchor text optimization

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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