The No Follow Attribute

The Do Follow plugin removes the nofollow attribute that WordPress adds in comments.

The nofollow attribute was introduced by search engines and key blogging software in 2005, in an effort to discourage comment spam. A tremendous amount of debate followed its introduction.

A Look at the Controversy

Some, including ourselves, denounced the nofollow attribute as a shameless effort to try to blast blogs off search engine listings. Others saw an opportunity to gain more control on the way their sites’ pages fit in a web of interrelated pieces of information.

On paper, adding a rel=”nofollow” attribute to anchor tags will tell search engines that the link in question (typically leading to a comment author’s blog) is not relevant to the topic being discussed on the web page.

The attribute gained momentum in marketing spheres when some SEO experts — but not all — highlighted that you could use the attribute to kill Google juice “leakage” that could come from outbound links. A few expanded on the idea that it could be used to avoid leaks on your own site — say, by adding nofollow to links to your “About Us” page.

The Case for Do Follow

In practice, the case for using nofollow is thorny at best.

On the one hand, meaning on the web is essentially conveyed by a page’s position within a web of interrelated documents. From the search engine’s viewpoint, the denser the interlinking, the better. When pages are tightly interrelated, strong rankings for a few of them will convey benefits to neighboring pages on neighboring topics. If everyone were to embrace and use nofollow everywhere, rogue pages would randomly rank high in search engine listings with little if any benefit to their surroundings.

Assuming only a few sites use it, webmasters face a prisoner’s dilemma. It’s in everyone’s best collective interest that no one uses the nofollow attribute at all, because meaning would then flow more seamlessly. Then again, it’s in everyone’s best personal interest to use nofollow, even though nobody wants incoming links with a nofollow attribute.

On the other, expanding on the idea that meaning should flow unhindered, the fundamentals underlying the nofollow attribute are flawed as site to site linking also has social networking connotations. Long before the advent of social networking sites, it was common for webmasters to maintain bookmark pages that linked sites they deemed to be of interest.

Example. Role playing game (RPG) pages are not in any way related to computer science pages. From a sociological standpoint, however, your odds that a random computer nerd will also be interested in RPG are relatively high. Suppose one such nerd is maintaining an RPG-only web site that is interlinked with dozens of sites that discuss RPG and computer science. Were nofollow attributes to be added all over the place, this otherwise very relevant and useful bridge would no longer exist.

The same could be said of other topics in general, and of blogs in particular. It’s common for sites to have minor areas of interest in addition to their main topic. As comments add up, sites with similar — minor — areas of interest become interlinked, and this ultimately generates a close-knit web of loosely interrelated sites. Upon introducing nofollow into the equation, they fare worse as a whole in search engine indexes.

On an historic note, nofollow had no impact whatsoever on what it was officially designed for: comment spam is still striving, and it will continue to strive for a long time. Its impact on blog rankings, on the other hand, was tremendous. Blogs still turn up towards the top of keyword searches, but much less frequently than they did at one point.

A Recipe for Certain Disaster

A last word of warning if you decide to embrace nofollow. One place you do not want it is on links from your own site to your own site. Keep in mind that it was designed to combat comment spam. It was not designed to allow you to outsmart Google and control where the Google juice goes on your site.

Leaving aside the actual usefulness of adding nofollow to inbound links, doing so is easily detected by search engines. At one point or another, someone in Google Labs will highlight that an easy way to detect wannabe cheaters is to detect whether nofollow is used on inbound links. When this happens, sites that use the attribute on inbound links will see their rankings ruthlessly downgraded. Stick to outbound links when you use the attribute.

In 2008, some in the Semiologic forum asked whether they should use nofollow on inbound links, on grounds that the first links on a page were given more weight by google. The reasoning is erroneous, and it is due to a misunderstanding.

Suppose, for an instant, that the first links on a page get more weight in Google. It would make zero sense. Google would end up giving an indexing bonus to stub pages (pages where you link to deeper content). But Google would be better off giving an indexing bonus to the deeper pages to the deeper pages instead.

What makes good sense is to give a bonus to the the first occurrence of each link (as in, each particular url) on a page. Google then ends up giving more weight to the first anchor text related to each link, and downgrading the relevance of subsequent links to the same url further down in the text. In a way, one could say these repeating links end up treated like stop words.

Nofollow in Semiologic Pro

The way we tread the nofollow attribute in Semiologic Pro has evolved slightly since the software package has been around.

In its early days, and consistent with my opinion on the topic, we only offered to get rid of it outright through the use of the Dofollow plugin. Insistence from end-users have nonetheless led us to introduce it in a few areas. Specifically:

  • External Links lets you add a nofollow attribute to all outbound links on your site. The behavior is configurable in Settings / External Links;
  • Bookmark Me and Subscribe Me widgets let you add nofollow to the bookmark and subscribe links respectively.

We have remained adamant on the idea that nofollow should never be added on inbound links, and we will never add this feature to Semiologic Pro.

What we recommend in practice:

  • Activate Dofollow on your site if you enable comments;
  • Do not add nofollow to outbound links, except in Bookmark Me and Subscribe Me widgets;
  • Reduce the number of outbound links on your site by placing your link widgets on static pages using Inline Widgets;
  • Never add nofollow to inbound links.

Our word of conclusion will be for those who will want to add nofollow to inbound links in spite of our recommendation. You’ll achieve the same result in a safer way by using javascripts instead. But never forget that, as far as ranking algorithms are concerned, the more pages are well indexed, the better for your site as a whole.