Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bashing Google's rel="nofollow"

Sorry, going against the crowd on this one. (And if you aren't familiar with this issue, this will likely sound like a lot of gobbeldygook.)

Everyone is always looking for ways to rank better in Google, trying to figure out the innumerable facets of their ever-changing algorithm. Now Google gives a clear cut method, and everyone is up in arms. Why? Because they phrase it in terms of penalty, rather than benefit.

Just call rel="nofollow" "GoogleTagToHelpMeRankBetter"-and it would be much more popular---a white hat way to rank better! And regardless, it's basically just a way to prevent the organic SERPs from being sorted by money---which I think everyone agrees is a good thing. As Matt Cutts has pointed out:

"A domain that sells links that pass PageRank can lose the ability to flow PageRank, it can lose PageRank in the Google Toolbar, it can be demoted, and if the content is spammy enough, it can be removed from Google's index."

Google has been moving very rapidly to a much greater partnership with webmasters. They started out opaque and non-responsive, and are now much more transparent and responsive. This is a simple tool for webmasters to use to prevent the index from becoming all about money. Google has put the most impressive collection of brainpower ever gathered in a public company to keep the index clean and of high value. Search is not a trivial problem to solve, and Google does it better than it's ever been done.

People are also mad that Google added to the purpose of rel="nofollow" over time, from it's original purpose of blocking comment spam. Fine. Use a robots.txt blocked intermediate page instead. No one is forcing use of rel="nofollow"---it's a convenience.

And it's always been the case that some of what you do to optimize for one search engine will not help/may hinder optimization for another search engine.

(And, frankly, if you're aware of the problem, and you can't think of a way to make your paid links look "natural," optimization isn't really something you should be messing around with. While I advocate against this, still, those who complain should be able to find ways of doing things the way they want to.)

rel="nofollow" is a way, like robots.txt, to adjust your link equity to benefit your rank in search engines. All search engines do, and should, penalize excessive spam and black hat methods.

Google reduces the value of your content for a variety of reasons, whether you use robots.txt or rel="nofollow" (and other methods) or not. Using them gives you a greater variety of methods of adjusting your link equity and monetizing via advertising. The SEO/SEM community has requested a variety of things from Google to minimize content theft and organic rankings penalties. Google has responded to requests from this community, and continues to respond (addressing subdomain spam currently).

There are a lot of things Google isn't doing, but no one is doing what they do---the algorithm---better than Google. Helping users use advanced operators, tabbed results, and much more are proven to help users get better results over time. Google seems more interested in providing the best results from the simplest interface, leaving a great opportunity---the interface/GUI---to it's competitors.

My problem is that sometimes it's nice to make something look like a paid advertisement and have it pass page rank, when it isn't paid. Remember all the "ads" to help people donate after Katrina, or the tsunami? I had no problem "recommending" (passing PageRank) to the Red Cross at the time. (Now instead of an ad, you have to do a sidebar column article, or text link, or some such.)

Google has shown that giving great search results is rocket science, and I'm grateful for what they've done. The quality of their search results is what has made the internet such a life-changing part of modern culture. Giving savvy webmasters who buy and sell ads the opportunity to improve their placement in search results by adding rel="nofollow" to paid ads really seems pretty straightforward to me. Google's been publicly discounting obvious selling of PageRank for a very long time, now they are just making it easier for webmasters.

Since this is a blog with very little readership, I wouldn't expect much in the way of comments, but to forestall one kind, yes, I know Google is very powerful, and no, I don't think this is an example of them abusing their power.

I think their larger problem is trying to segregate business results from informational results. There can no such artificial segregation. It is not possible to separate commercial from non-commercial. You can take any example of one, and change it into the other. Google does this to try to make the job of keeping the index clean easier by encouraging commercial results to buy ads. Unfortunately, this is evil: suggesting that businesses should work with ads, and not their placement in the organic SERPs. I realize that commercial sites will try to spend money to improve their position in the organic SERPs, and that this effort often controverts the quality of the SERPs, but trying to strong-arm them with "Yes, spend the money, but give it to us (Google) instead" is not ethical. It's like paying protection because Google says "this is our turf."

Google should change their position on this. It's fine to emphasize the benefit of buying ads, but not to state that you should buy ads to the exclusion of doing all you can to rank in the organic SERPs.


  1. Whilst I agree that the prevention of buying links is Google's problem (although it is a problem) I do not agree that it is hypocrisy.

    The target here is paid links which pass PageRank. Google adWords do not pass PageRank.

    Neither is this just a semantic argument. Buying links which pass PageRank in order to affect the SERPs is not advertising, it is trying to exploit a weakness in the algorithm.

    It is refreshing to read a post where the blogger is devoid of a tin-foil hat, but I still feel that, even though Google are using their weight to make this happen, the evil just is not there.

    Rather than spending the link buying budget on adverts, I envision more effort being put into natural organic link building, search PR and better, relevant content being build to target appropriate search terms.

    Nice post.

  2. Dave, I am not a webmaster but work closely with my webmaster since turning the job over - however, I have been reading all content regarding the Google paid link trama I have gone through in the past 3 weeks, searching for help and answers.

    You see all we do is flower girl dresses. My website, is about the largest and only manufacturers direct to public site that I know (except coming from China). For 11 years, since starting the site, I have been on the first page for keywords, "flower girl dresses" - then on 12.12.7 BAM its gone.

    In fact the index is gone....we had a high PageRank as well - why were we thrown a penalty. The nearest I can figure is that an innocent ad on a wedding blog caused a sudden (10,000+) links in the short 2-3 months we advertised with them.

    I am waiting until tomorrow to have the new nofollow tags added to their page but this was an innocent advertisment - not to raise my page postion - hell - I was on the first page - but instead just to get brides to my site!

    Ignorant that I am - I am looking for help/answers.....


  3. Hey Marg,

    Pages indexed, PR

    Your toolbar PR today from my Google server shows up as a 4. What was it previously? Also, how many pages SHOULD show up? Here are some results from recent searches:

    402 [Google]
    399 [Google]
    537 [Yahoo! site explorer]
    614 Backlinks [Yahoo! site explorer]

    It looks you may have been in part affected by Google's "end of supplemental" algorithm changes. Google is also doing something strange to your results for the search
    flower girl dresses I'm looking into that. (Also, wasn't completely clear on your comment about 10,000+ links).

    Regarding PR, Google made a wide-scale adjustment that could have affected your site. If you only dropped one, that could be because of less PR available---it dropped in a number of areas. Google spokesperson Matt Cutts has pointed out that PR doesn't always go up; dropping PR doesn't necessarily mean you're doing something wrong. However, in combination with the other changes you mention, it could be a penalty. does show the link Vendors: Photography Eric McCarty

    If this is meant on the order of a photo credit, the phrase "photo credit" would be better than the phrase "vendors" as far as not looking like an ad missing the rel="nofollow"
    Keyword SERPs position

    I do see that your home page is a bit overstuffed with the keywords:
    flower girl dresses

    Many SEOs have hypothesized a penalty for "over"stuffing a particular keyword phrase. It DOES appear that overstuffing sometimes meets with a penalty, the problem is it isn't clear how much is too much.

    However, from some guidelines I've seen, it looks IS "over"stuffed for that keyword phrase. You might want to tone it down a little.

  4. Dave
    after 4 excruciating weeks we are back on page one for flower girl dresses - amen - our PageRank has been at 4 for as long as I have been paying attention - maybe a year....
    I am learning....we toned ourselves back and I hope that this will be the sign of good things to come again.
    Also, the 10,000 links - I had a paid banner ad still do) and believe that was the penalty - so we had them correct that banner ad (it is on a wedding blogging site) to have the nofollow tag -

    but now I too see the 10,000+ links are no longer showing on a search - I had believed that was the penalty. In any event, I am up and running again on the first page for flower girl dresses.

    Will take the advisement for the Photo Credit - further reading on my part too found that Cutt and other sited the VENDORS being a no - no - -- too bad that is the term Brides use!

  5. Great news!

    Be sure to get yourself a free account (or use your existing Yahoo! account, if you have one) over at

    Google's link operator has long been broken, and most SEOs use the Yahoo! service. However, early last year Google updated the service for webmasters going through webmaster tools, so its worth comparing the Yahoo results to the Google results, but only those from within Webmaster tools.

    If you want to promote a vendor write up a little text about them, and then hyperlink the appropriate keywords. It will do more for them in the SERPs that way anyway.