But times are changing and the nofollow attribute is “evolving” so there is some hope in the struggle for better and more relevant SERPs
As evidenced from the eleven year old post above, I’ve never been a fan of excessive use of the “nofollow” attribute. In fact, the whole concept always seemed like a misguided attempt to fight spam that ultimately failed because passing authority in Google’s eyes was always just part of a link’s value. Low value spammers using automated systems would continue spamming low value content and low value links because other search engines ignored nofollow and the links still generated more than zero direct clicks.
It also gave a lot of webmasters a false sense of security. They thought: “As long as my links are nofollowed, I don’t have to worry about spam!” But that’s simply not true, because spam still ruins the user experience.
The Shallow Web
The other problem with “nofollow” is that Google actually needs the information provided by user generated content. Even if a lot of it is noise, there’s also important signal in there that has to be decoded to get the fullest view of the internet.
Where direct democracy is susceptible to fraud and absurd or extreme whims (remember when searching for “failure” took you to Bush’s biography?), a Republic concentrates more power in fewer hands. “Power bloggers,” mainstream news outlets, and “power-Diggers” get to vote on behalf of their followers. This may theoretically lead to a circle of self-reference and a “shallow web.” Unchecked and taken to the extreme, much of the diversity and sporadic innovation that marked the web’s early days could become less common as established interests protect their spheres-of-authority. Instead of mass movements and a herd-mentality, you’re liable to end up with conspiracies among the powerful and cartels designed to preserve control and influence.
Unfortunately, all of these concerns have come to pass.
Between crowd-sourced sites going nofollow and additional emphasis on branding, Google’s results have never been so limited – or so lacking in accuracy. Complex, long-tail search queries used to bring up extremely relevant results – even if those results were located in extremely obscure places. I specifically remember searching for information about an air conditioner part on my truck, and instead of bringing info about the part I needed, Google’s results were dominated by the truck brand’s domain and the local dealers who were selling AC tuneups. DuckDuckGo was actually able to get me the info I needed, and it was buried on page 23 of a 35 page thread on some small auto forum I’d never heard of. Google used to do that too, but in the last 10 years their shift to downplaying user generated content and focusing on the largest brands has created a very, very small version of the internet.
Nofollow evolves after March 1, 2020
For once, though, my criticisms of nofollow aren’t just to complain. This time I get to acknowledge that Google has recognized the problems with its implementation, and they’re working toward something better.
As of March 1, 2020, rel=”nofollow” will be treated as a suggestion rather than a rule. What does that mean? Well, as usual in SEO, we can’t know for sure. But there are some additional hints here based on alternative implementations of link attributes that are now available.
- rel=”ugc” – ugc in this usage indicates User Generated Content
- rel=”sponsored” – refers to affiliate links and other paid promotions
- rel=”nofollow” – can still be used to disavow link schemes, but Google also reserves the right to consider it as a ranking signal anyway
So my interpretation of this is as follows: Google absolutely doesn’t want paid links and affiliate URLs to count toward ranking metrics.
On the other hand, they may be interested in user generated content again. By splitting up nofollow in to distinct categories, it allows them to experiment with different ways of weighting different types of content. It turns out there’s actually a lot of useful information buried in obscure forum threads and blog comments from a dozen years ago – and there has to be a way to separate that signal from the noise of user generated spam.
Luckily, advanced spam detection plugins and algorithms have gone a long way to reducing the amount of user generated spam that stays up on public sites. Users are more inclined to report it, and systems are better at detecting it automatically. Google has also stepped up its own detection methods, and sites that let spammers run wild tend to be deindexed and deranked regardless of whether or not those links are nofollow.
This evolution of nofollow probably won’t be the return of the internet democracy of the pre-2008 days, but it does suggest a new era of populist reform might be coming. That’s probably also a good thing, because the same dozen websites were starting to get boring in a world that has so much diversity and depth to offer!
The other interesting detail to keep in mind is that this is now occurring simultaneously with a significantly disruptive economic environment. Large firms that have grown through financing may have trouble in a situation where growth stalls, but smaller more nimble firms are less likely to have such high overhead. Is user generated content and nofollowed links are getting a second look, this could be a big opportunity for small webmasters… one we haven’t seen in more than a decade.
We’ll start to see results as soon as March 1st, and it will probably be a full few weeks before the full impact of the initial effects are known. We should probably also expect a lot of experimentation as Google calibrates their new tool (although they’ve probably been testing it behind the scenes for a year or more by now).