NoNoFollow FUD

Nofollow is an interesting case of elitism and monoculture actually helping the system at large. Adoption of the nofollow link attribute (introduced by Google and a host of others in order to combat link spam) only makes sense if the benefit to spammers is reduced nearly to nil. That requires all or most blogs to implement nofollow.

There is a tipping point here of course. Once WordPress, Moveable Type, Blogger, Livejournal, and Xanga adopt, it may (or may not) be the case that spammers focus on blogs not hosted by these services. But given that the cost of hiring a spammer is so low, a handful of adopters are not enough. It’s like a prisoner’s dilemma, with very low payoffs all the way around.

Of course, some of the FUD surrounding the nofollow plan has already been raised. The nonofollow page (via Amidasu), for example, suggests 12 reasons not to use nofollow. I don’t think the guy who started this is a spammer. He is the author of Das Blog-Buch, and seems to think this is all a conspiracy so that Google can diminish the influence of blogs. The reasons he lists (with my response):

1. nofollow does not prevent comment spam

Nofollow aims to reduce or remove the prime (but not sole) motivation for comment spam. It remains to be seen whether or not it can be prevented.

2. nofollow is semantically incorrect

rel is allowed by HTML 4.01. I’m not sure what he means here.

3. nofollow harms the connections between web sites

No, it helps the connections between websites by making them more than simply binary. In the end, people may be more willing to allow outside linking if they know it won’t add to a page’s standing in Google.

4. nofollow is not useful for humans, just for search engines using PageRank or similar a technique

Huh? Humans use PageRank, via Google. It is therefore useful for humans.

5. nofollow could be used to shut web sites out

No, it only makes it less likely that a web site will receive a high index on Google by spamming comments (or commenting frequently in a non-spammy way). How often you comment on others’ blogs shouldn’t affect how high you show up on Google.

6. nofollow discriminates legitimate users as spammers

Legitimate users are interested in leaving a comment and engaging in discourse, not inflating their PageRank.

7. nofollow heists commentators’ earned attention

No, it just doesn’t amplify it through Google et al.

8. nofollow will not stop comment spam

Running a bit thin here? You already tried that one.

9. nofollow could be used to further discriminate weblogs

Indeed. It allows us to discriminate between those who have links created by others and those who have tried to game Google.

10. nofollow prevents the Web from being a web

Huh? It doesn’t do anything to hyperlinks. It just allows the search engines to parse them in a more meaningful way. It improves the web by moving beyond binary hyperlinks.

11. nofollow eliminates the dissemination of free speech

I’m not sure if this is any sillier than the previous. You can say anything you want. Whether others choose to pay attention to you is another matter.

12. nofollow was developed in privacy with only search engines companies taking part in the discussion

First of all, that’s not true. Reps from the major blogging platforms were also involved. Second, so what? They have provided a useful tool that interfaces with their search engine.

Google and Amazon have developed their APIs in private as well, because they interface with their services. Likewise, nofollow is a way of interfacing with Google and others, and it makes sense that they would be the ones to develop it.

Unless someone makes money in spamming or search engine optimization, I don’t understand why they would object to nofollow. On the other hand, if enough people buy the FUD, it won’t work. There needs to be near universal adoption before the cost to spammers will even register.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted 1/24/2005 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    If I understand right you don’t need lots of bloggers to adopt it – you just need their hosting platform to make the tag standard for comments (what %age of blogs are hosted? I dunno – say 80%?).

    I worry that comment spam may continue for the same reason email spam continues whether or not the links also provide “google juice”.

  2. Posted 1/24/2005 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    How about “nofollow smells like my old tennis shoes?”

    Yes, there is a broad misconception that there will be a magic bullet against spam. It is one step Google can make to help out the little guys being swamped by the flood. I think they can/ought to do more (does it take a Stanford PhD to figure out that bestiality links have no relevance on an educator’s weblog?)

    The critics might make (or might have made) a point that nofollow removed the link credits for legitimate/relevant URLs left in comments. But you can turn this around and say it reinforces the pay off for a valuable comment if say, I leave a link in this comment (no google credit) that si impresses Alex that he writes a new blog posting with a link to my site in it (good google credit).

  3. Posted 1/24/2005 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, I must say I very much disagree with you here, Alex. I’m due to post my own thoughts about nofollow, because I think the blogosphere has accepted it all too heartily. I don’t think the 12 reasons cited here are all great, but some are valid, so I’ll write 12 responses to your 12 responses :)

    I’m going to try to keep this deliberately short…

    1. nofollow throws the baby out with the bathwater. If comment spam is the problem, stop comment spam, not PageRank from comment spam. They are different things.

    2. He means that rel=”nofollow” does not describe the relationshipyears in thinking–now we’re indexing on pure HTML. Boo.

    11. Whatever.

    12. Well, it wouldn’t have hurt them to solicit comment. It couldnt have hurt!

    In any case, I’m not implementing nofollow on my site–why would I?!

  4. Posted 1/24/2005 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    (please delete the above comment… it has an HTML error that’s screwing up its display)

    Well, I must say I very much disagree with you here, Alex. I’m due to post my own thoughts about nofollow, because I think the blogosphere has accepted it all too heartily. I don’t think the 12 reasons cited here are all great, but some are valid, so I’ll write 12 responses to your 12 responses :)

    I’m going to try to keep this deliberately short…

    1. nofollow throws the baby out with the bathwater. If comment spam is the problem, stop comment spam, not PageRank from comment spam. They are different things.

    2. He means that rel=”nofollow” does not describe the relationship of the link. Rather, it recommends behavior.

    3. This is just poorly worded.

    4. See #3

    5. I don’t understand this. Perhaps he means that users navigate to sites via search engines, and nofollow hurts PageRank… or something. Dubious.

    6. Your response here assumes guilt. Do you think I’m trying to inflate my PR by leaving my URL here? No. But don’t you think I deserve PR for it? This is a legitimate comment, and just as legitimate as a blog entry that’s not part of the comments area.

    7. I guess what I said in #6 applies here?

    8. Agree

    9. HE IS RIGHT. Google is using nofollow to solve their problem with blogs’ inflated PR.

    10. Search engines have become far more useful in recent years because of the idea of gauging whether other users find pages useful… this is done by incorporating into PageRank the number and profile of sites that link to other sites. nofollow eliminates much of this context and takes us back years in thinking–now we’re indexing on pure HTML. Boo.

    11. Whatever.

    12. Well, it wouldn’t have hurt them to solicit comment. It couldnt have hurt!

    In any case, I’m not implementing nofollow on my site–why would I?!

  5. Posted 1/24/2005 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Comments on your comments:
    1. When there is a fever, you treat the cause. The cause here is (largely) spammers seeking PageRank. If that motivation is removed, there is likely to be a great reduction in spamming. Why would you treat the symptom when you know the cause.

    2. I see no problem in a relationship implying a behavior. This is just playing with words. I suppose you could call it the “noendorse” relationship rather than the “nofollow” relationship, but this is just playing games with words.

    6. No, I don’t think you are trying to inflate your PageRank. So why should you care if you don’t? I just don’t understand this. I don’t particularly care about my commenters “PR” or my own. I don’t think that’s what blogging is about. I have a blog that relatively few people read, and I’m fine with that. If others want to use my blog to build traffic to their own, well, that’s just not something I care much about either way.

    9. Google does not have some kind of vendetta against blogs. They want to allow people to find things more easily. If blogs help people to do that, then fine. I find this Google paranoia to be highly unconvinving, especially given that they own the largest host of blogs in the world.

    10. Obviously, you are exaggerating here. We are not indexing on “pure HTML.” PageRank still works like it always did, but the influence is taken out of the hands of the blog commenters and placed in the hands of the bloggers themselves. If you link to something from your own blog, you boost its PageRank (particularly if you have high PageRank yourself). This takes comments out of the equasion. I strongly believe that links in the body are more important than links in the comments. Yes, that is conceited, but… oh, that’s right, I’m a blogger!

    Note that if it turns out there is value in following comment links, there is no reason another search engine can’t ignore the nofollow recommendation.

    12. Corporations are not democracies. Google and Microsoft own IT. They will tell the customer what they want :).

    > In any case, I’m not
    > implementing nofollow
    > on my site—why
    > would I?!

    I take it you aren’t planning on updating your MT install at the next major revision? Or do you see someone writing an un-nofollow plugin?

  6. Posted 1/25/2005 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Good replies. As to your parting question… I plan to update my MT install, of course, and yes, I do think someone will write a nonofollow global attribute for MT. It wouldn’t be hard. :)

    (Hey, if it comes down to it, I’ll just change the source. It would be extremely trivial. Someone’s probably already posted the directions.)

  7. Posted 12/5/2005 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    In my opinion, nofollow is not the right way to limit comment spam. A simple use of captchas is a good enough deterrent.. while it may inconvenience genuine people, but there’s a fair price to pay. Also, it could be programmatically arranged that people on your blogroll would be able to comment without the need for validating captcha text….

One Trackback

  1. […] In other words, I’m not going to start using nofollow until I can control– easily– which links they are applied to. While I agree with most of what Alex has to say about the naysayers, there is one point with which I firmly disagree. Alex writes, in response to the contention that this attribute will hurt linking between sites: No, it helps the connections between websites by making them more than simply binary. In the end, people may be more willing to allow outside linking if they know it won’t add to a page’s standing in Google. […]

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