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Nicholas Chimonas

Links, NoFollow II: The Reckoning | Rated NC: Not for Content

Nicholas Chimonas
Links, NoFollow II: The Reckoning | Rated NC: Not for Content

The nofollow tag was never meant to be applied to editorial links the way it is today.

A decade has passed since nofollow’s introduction, and it would seem that through a combination of Google’s campaigns against low-quality guest blogging, link spam and 10 years of hearsay, something terrible has happened.

Some people really believe that nofollowing every external link in all blog content on their domain is a good idea. Currently, SEMrush nofollows most external links in a given blog post.

[Ed. note: Links are made nofollow by default, as stated in our Writer Guidelines, but follow links can be created (and have been) at the discretion of the editorial team.]

More macro, does that mean sites that nofollow don't trust many of the sites they link to? What kind of signal does that send to Google?

Nofollow Everything = “Hi Google, We’re Just a Spam Site?”

Here’s a quote from Tadeusz Szewcyk, over at the Inbound.org conversation happening around this topic:

“IMHO a site adding nofollow to all outgoing links will be discounted as less trustworthy as it does not have editorial oversight and publishes only UGC [User Generated Content] apparently. Otherwise all their links could be paid links aka ads.”

It’s a reasonable conclusion. After all, the nofollow code was originally meant to combat comment spam. Look at the original post from 2005. It came as a response to an era of intense comment spam that was ruining blogs. The nofollow code was meant to dissuade spammers. So if all of your links are nofollowed, are all of your external links pointing to spam?

I actually disagree with Tad here, though.

I think it’s more likely that Google considers ignoring the nofollow tag on your links, if YOUR site’s link profile is filled with backlinks from authoritative and trusted places, and Google trusts you … Then they might not trust your nofollow tags on every external link. Do Wikipedia nofollow links pass PageRank?

Perhaps they only pass “topical” PageRank, or trust, or relevancy signals?

signsNo signs. I’m not a sign, I just look like one. Curse my maker!!! Source: Mike Markley, Twitter

Over time though, the use-cases of nofollow has expanded beyond just comment links. You can find the official documentation here, but of course, statements from Matt Cutts and John Mueller contradict some of the things mentioned in the “official documentation.” So, proceed with a questioning mind. Here’s my summary:

  • Forum links - and any other kind of self-submit non-reviewed link on a site, which might encourage spam.
  • UGC content - For sites with massive amounts of UGC content that can’t have every link moderated, the domain gets the capability to say, “We might not trust the links our users can create in content on this site.”
  • Paid links/banner ads/etc. - You can sell links and ads without selling ranking manipulation.
  • Sitewide links - Because Penguin might eat you up if you get too many. And John Mueller says so ... (i.e. site design by [brand]).
  • “PageRank Sculpting” - Something that has been long dead, but some people still believe it can be done. The way it once worked is that you could apply nofollow tags to internal or external links that you didn’t want to funnel equity to, and “hoard” or direct the link equity to the pages you want with followed links. That’s been dead since 2008.
  • Crawl prioritization - You could toss a nofollow tag on links to your “login” and “terms & conditions” type pages that you don’t care to be crawled by Google.
  • And now … external links in a company’s blog.

The thing is, SEMrush isn’t alone. There are plenty of other major publications out there nofollowing their external links. eConsultancy is one that nofollows at least all guest blog bio links. Dailymail.co.uk nofollows ALL in content links:

daily-mail-textdailymail.co.uk doesn’t trust time.com. Hmm.

Google Needs Us to Speak Up

They’ve got it wrong. We shouldn’t succumb to the fear.

I was pleased to see Rand take a stand on this issue. A grand stand by Rand. Rand stand.

A few months later, he came out with this post after a Moz contributor (Scott Wyden) received an unnatural links warning flagging his YouMoz guest contribution in Webmaster Tools:

"Dear Google, Links from YouMoz Don't Violate Your Quality Guidelines"

Good on ya, Rand. Fight the fear!

UGC is a legitimate reason to bulk apply nofollow to a blog, if there is no human filter between users submitting content and having it published. If you have too many users and not enough moderators to vet all of the content and links, using the nofollow tag for all links in UGC content can simplify the situation. Really, this makes the most sense in an application like a public forum.

But in Moz’s case, all of their UGC content has to go through the process of editorial review. Which means those links have been vetted by an editor, and approved by the site. Those links should be followed, as they are human-endorsed by the publisher.

This is my argument I’m presenting to SEMrush (and you, dear reader!)

Every guest post on the SEMrush blog is high-quality. They all go through rigorous, manual, human editorial review. The links deserve the endorsement of SEMrush. So why do they do nofollow the majority of links?

Well, during #LinkaratiChat yesterday, the issue of applying nofollow to all external links came up. I mentioned that SEMrush is a prime example of a high quality blog that does this. Afterwards, Kathleen Garvin contacted me. She does blog and community management at SEMrush.

[Ed. note: First and foremost, all editorial policies, ours included, are at the discretion of the editorial team. Twitter screenshots were used with permission.]

kg-twitter-1

Ah. Future-proofing. Because, Google Fear. That’s why Google’s PR stunts (like penalizing Doc Sheldon's entire site for a single external link in a guest post) have been labeled as FUD campaigns (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). Read more about Doc Sheldon’s penalty at the Inbound.org discussion, if you missed it last March.

SEMrush is afraid of Google doing to them what Google did to Doc.

nick-twitter-1

More to come on this.

kg-twitter-2

Well, maybe the higher ups will read this blog post.

twitter-3

By the way, that is not Kathleen’s email address. I used my pro Photoshop (Microsoft Paint) skills to do that. I should go see if that hotmail address is available. “Bad As SEO”. SEO is Bad. Bad-A that is.

I agree, though — nofollow IS a victim of a bad PR campaign. Google’s FUD PR campaign, which has largely been a success. Then again, perhaps it’s actually been an utter failure.

TL;DR? The Modern Failure of rel=nofollow

The point of nofollow was to combat spam. Yet now we have entire websites dropping all of their votes from the link graph by tagging every external link as nofollow. That HARMS the natural web. The links from SEMrush would benefit Google’s ranking quality — because SEMrush links are exactly what Google based the link graph on: editorial, relevant, human-reviewed links. Links that would be good signals for Google’s own search algorithm.

As of June 16, 2015, John Mueller has serendipitously posted a thread on G+ that seems to agree with my sentiments here.

John-Mueller-Google

Thank you for reading. I’m happy to discuss any of the points I’ve made in this piece further in the comments below.

For now, I’d like to conclude with an excerpt from an excellent piece on the same topic, penned by one of my favorite authors in this niche, Dustin Verburg. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here’s one of my favorite parts.

Excerpt taken from "Rantin’ and Ragin’: Baby’s First Nofollow Request"

The Super Official History of Nofollow

Back when I was building links for clients, the common idea was that nofollow=bad. Sometimes it happened, though. There’s always a human being on the other side of every link, and sometimes that human being decided that a little rel=”nofollow” was the way to go and there was no way around it.

Arguments would arise, and I’d always take the position that a nofollow wasn’t the end of the world. Someone might actually click that link, right? Especially if it was placed in a non-obnoxious way that made sense. Especially if the content around it was compelling. Especially if it was on a relevant website.

That’s the deal with links now, and I think that’s one of the best ideas that’s risen out of the gigantic mess the SEO industry is currently in. Links are meant to be clicked on, and we should always have that in mind. But god dammit, links still work for search engine rankings too, and that’s a fact I don’t want to pretend to ignore to look cool in front on my inbound marketing friends.

“I heard you got a good link yesterday, Dustin. I bet a bunch of people clicked it.”

“I actually have no idea, but it’ll probably help boost some rankings.”

“Turn in your badge and Moz login, you’re off the force!”

Header image: Canva & Pixabay

Nicholas Chimonas is the head of research and development at Page One Power, a white hat relevancy first link building firm located solely in Boise, ID. He loves beer, links sans nofollow, old cars and Tweeting with strangers on the Internet. Get at him @nchimonas on Twitterland!

Comments

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Christopher Madsen
Nicholas,

Thank you for this post. As a website owner, this problem seems to be getting worse. Over the past 6 months, I have gotten legitimate editorial links from websites such as bgr.com, idigitaltimes.com, ibtimes.com and many others, yet every link on their site is nofollowed!

This trend seems to be increasing, and there is a ton of confusion about what the nofollow tag is supposed to be used for. In my opinion, if you write an article about a website, use their stats and possibly even their quotes, why wouldn't you trust them enough to give them a dofollow link? After all, you trusted them enough to use their information as the basis of your article.

In my opinion, if you cannot trust a link enough to make it dofollow, you should not be including their information in your biog post.

I know you didn't discuss it in your article, but another disturbing trend (which I also blame Google for) is the widespread use of unlinked mentions. Because of the fear of linking out, legitimate news websites such as USA Today, CNBC, NBC News and others have severely cut back on their linking, and now prefer to write websites out in plain text such as "semrush.com" with no link.

They are even doing it with surveys and other information that people want to see, yet are not providing links to the information because of linking policies. Again, if you do not trust the website enough to give it a dofollow link, you should not include their stats and figures in your article.

Again, I appreciate this post and I feel like there needs to be more education for both webmasters and large news organizations. Dofollow links are not evil, and should always be given when you reference a site in an article on an editorial basis.
Kathleen Garvin
Kathleen Garvin
[Magda Savin, link removed]:

In the WMT account I find info about all the links that point to my blog, and I see even links with nofollow tag or even links with noindex tag which is quite strange in my opinion.
Silkstream
Silkstream
This really was a great read. Had me sternly shaking my head at points, whilst reducing me to uncontrollable giggles during others (e.g. "I was pleased to see Rand take a stand on this issue. A grand stand by Rand. Rand stand.").
Kathleen Garvin
Kathleen Garvin
Silkstream
Thanks for stopping by, Silkstream! I like 'Rand stand' as well. :)
SeoKungFu
The only effectively efficient thing that G has created is FUD - nothing else, nothing more.
My practical stance on whatever they tell us to do is: F U I won't do whachyatoldme !

P.S. This extremely rare occasion of decent filtering of eff-oul-language is a courtesy to the ladies at SEMRush :D
Kathleen Garvin
Kathleen Garvin
SeoKungFu
Haha, appreciated.
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