Nofollow Bookmarking Heats Up the Aggregator vs Content War

It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream social bookmarking was a content writer’s best friend.  Not only could you have some attention for your websites, it was a natural and organic way to build links for popular content.  People who “digg” your stuff are easily empowered to vote for it – and the search engines started using this information to evaluate the relevance and importance of various URLs.

The relationship was reciprocal:  blogs & websites produce content, social sites leverage larger communities to maximize exposure and link power.  Obviously, the social communities themselves wouldn’t have much to talk about if it weren’t for the content provided by producers, but the content writers may not have much of an audience or a chance to promote their work.

Unfortunately, the relationship is deteriorating thanks to the overuse of “nofollow” and intentionally disrupted links.  Webmasters have long known that social media traffic is too savvy to click on links and that its search engine traffic that really tends to make purchases and generate revenue.  The Digg effect was similar to a sudden swarm of locusts devouring your bandwidth and CPU limits, but it paid off in the end thanks to the power of popular Digg links and the volume of secondary links it could generate as people submitted their favorite stories to all the social sites they participate in.

Now though, more social media sites are relying on nofollow as an alternative to actively managing spam submissions and accounts.  Social surfers still don’t click on ads or make purchases, but the traffic they bring is just as disruptive to hosts as ever.

Social Bookmarking becomes Scraper Spam?

Do you remember the plague of scraper sites a few years back?  Scraper sites basically rip off other people’s headlines and copy word-for-word snippets from other websites.  If you’re lucky, they’ll put a link back to your websites – but it is assuredely nofollowed.  Since they mix up excerpts from multiple domains, they sometimes manage to trick the search engines into thinking they’ve got a unique page of content.  Since the process was automated, a developer or two could build thousands of web pages without actually contributing any new information to the web.

Today, most of these sites have been identified by the search engines and cast into the oblivion of page 20 – but how does a nofollow social bookmarking site really differ?  The only advantage social media currently provides is screens full of user comments competing with the original content for keywords.  With nofollow in place, how will Google choose to rank 500-750 words written by a subject expect vs. 3000-5000 words written by casual amatuers, on a higher ranked domain, paraphrasing said expert?  Luckily, Google does seem to care at least a bit about spelling and grammar – so pagerank isn’t the only way to be recognized these days.

A Few “Play Fair” and Get Rewarded

There is still some good news in the world of bookmarking for webmasters.  The sites that “play fair” by providing valid links for popular stories are still growing in user-base, influence, and quality.

  • Reddit – I would probably get a lot more work done if it wasn’t for all the time I spend here reading interesting stories and user comments that are often as good or even better than the stories being linked to.  I wouldn’t want to quit though, because I’d miss out on a lot of valuable knowledge and quality debate.
    • Link Status: Reddit lets users vote any link up or down.  In addition to increased exposure, comments and links that get positive votes enable clean, followed links.  Links that annoy users get lot of down votes, and the software automatically changes the status of the live links to nofollow.  This works for submitted stories, links in the editorial box, and links in the individual user comments, as well.
    • Other Anti-Spam: Reddit doesn’t stop fighting spam there, it recognizes problem accounts as well.  All new users enter something like a trial phase.  Any stories they submit have a little less exposure until they’ve gotten a few votes.  It can be hard to earn the votes due to a lack of visibility, but after a few “karma” points accrue, future submissions are given a bit of an advantage over the subsequent newbies.  Now, if an account receives a ton of downvotes during this trial phase, it can be dumped into the oblivion bin.  Instead of banning the account and tempting the spammer to return under a new name, these negative karma accounts may end up becoming invisible to search engines and other users.  The difference is the spammer can still log on and see their own comments and submissions:  they’ll just wonder why no one is clicking on their links or responding to their spammy comments.
  • Digg – Digg is the original, mainstream bookmarking site and it probably doesn’t have to worry about anyone usurping them any time soon.  My opinion of Digg has fluctuated wildly, but they’re still one of the few who listens to their users and the content producers and working toward mutually beneficial solutions.
    • Link Status: Live.  There’s no tricks or conditions.
    • Anti-Spam: Digg is based more on social networks, so it uses a Recommendation Engine to help individuals sort through recently submitted links.  It helps you find the new stories that your friends and friends’ friends like – and this goes a long way toward filtering out the junk.  Otherwise, Digg users live and die by the ban stick.  Members who are particularly annoying or self-promoting may end up reported just enough times to have their account shut down.  There isn’t much stopping them from showing back up under a new name, but losing all your “effort” and networking connections is enough to encourage some good behavior.  One activity that is particularly frowned upon is building a large network of webmasters and content writers in the social section for the purpose of promoting each other’s links.  Stick to making friends with people who share an interest in your niche – and if your niche is “make money online spamming social sites,” you might want to skip Digg all together.
  • Sphinn: So you say you want a place where you could socialize exclusively with other web writers, designers, and promoters?  Sphinn is the original in webmaster social bookmarking – and the best.
    • Link Status: When stories get enough votes to get to the front page, title links drop nofollow and comment links to external sites are set to nofollow on default.  There is also lots of room to set up clean links to your websites in your user profile, but they generally frown on self-submissions.
    • Anti-Spam: It is rather difficult to go popular and get live links, but these are powerhouse links in the SEO/web niche.  People who consistently try to spam the system with stolen content or ad-focused links are swiftly reported and often banned by a moderator.

Clean Links Are Good for Traffic

Compete (now defunct) compares traffic rankings on the web (I’d say quite a bit better than Alexa), and they’re showing Digg and Reddit with huge traffic growth over the last year.  Digg has added 62% traffic volume, and Reddit has more than doubled at 141% even if the line looks kind of flat here:

In contrast, let’s take a look at a rising then falling star in the social bookmarking world.  Mixx just went nofollow last month, and the traffic results are in:

Oops. It looks like a year worth of growth at Mixx has crashed in just a month of being nofollow.  The last month dropped 48% from the month before.  That’s 500,000 unique visitors who aren’t submitting links or leaving comments or adding to the potential revenue of the site with their very presence.

Here’s the bottom line:  If you want your site to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with other sites, you should probably add something of value for them.  If you’re going to rely on their content and not provide your own, you really need to have some real links in there at the very least.  When SEOs and webmasters complain about nofollow, they’ve got a good point.  Why should your aggregator claim original status with the search engines?  Why should a social bookmarking site focus on discussing URLs they won’t even vouch for?  Whether they realize it or not, a social site that disables links is abdicating its vote and influence on the web.  With time, that means the users who do want a vote and influence will simply move along…

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