When Google announced it would support the “nofollow” HTML attribute back in 2005 I was pleased. Blog spam was (and still is) a major problem. The invention of “nofollow” took a lot of bite out of the usefulness of comments for spammers. It really seemed like the right move at the time and looking at it now it still makes a lot of sense. I can’t image how bad things would be without it.
For the uninformed, “nofollow” is an attribute that can be assigned to links on websites. This is recognized by Google and then subsequently ignored in Google’s index, thus not allowing sites to raise their “PageRank” on Google. Therefore, in theory, leading to more relevant search results.
Here is my gripe, when Google announced this feature they did so under the stated guise of “Preventing Comment Spam” but it’s turned out to be abused. There are those who would argue that “nofollow” has become a tool that creates an unfair balance where higher trafficked sites don’t share traffic with lower ranked ones. Now I’m not saying that “nofollow” should go away but that it should be used less. Why am I complaining? Because three of the sites I use most often implement “nofollow” in places that, while well intentioned, work out as unfair. These sites?
For starters, Facebook’s usage makes no sense. Facebook has several checks to prevent spammers from joining the service and multiple ways to report it when it happens. I am not saying they are perfect but they very much maintain a strong and effective walled garden. When you factor in that the site has pushed its users to make more of their content public and had major issues with privacy. It’s downright unfair that if they are going to push me to make my content public that they aren’t going to allow me to get a PageRank incentive for this.
At first glance however, the inclusion of “no follow” does seem logical for Flickr and Twitter. The ease of access to these sites makes them obvious targets for spammers. In the case of Twitter, it’s no secret that they have a large spam problem, so in the short term “nofollow” seems like a practical solution to de-incentivise spamming.
Despite this reasoning I still believe it to be the wrong solution.
Flickr is a publishing system and there are those who use their Flickr accounts as blogs with very long written posts to accompany their photography. Yet Flickr automatically attaches “nofollow” to any link posted anywhere on their site, even on the user’s own written content.
With every photograph I post on my Flickr account I include a link to a related blog entry whenever possible. These things directly relate and semantically should be linked. My analytics also clearly show this is an effective tool for increasing my readership and traffic as a significant portion of my traffic comes from these Flickr links. Yet, Google ignores them because of the “nofollow” attribute. The same with Twitter.
Doesn’t this go against the whole spirit of “nofollow”? If you ask me it’s lazy and unfair. Especially in Flickr’s case when you consider that many users are “Pro” users like myself who pay for a Flickr account. I’m paying for a service that is going out of its way to prevent me from getting PageRank from it. That’s a bunch of crap.
There is another way to look at this though. One could argue that PageRank is actually doing the opposite of it’s intention and hurting Google’s relevance. The three biggest traffic sources to this site are Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, in fact these account for almost 50% of my traffic, however Google’s mysterious PageRank algorithm ignores these sources, thus making it harder for my site to gain relevance in search results. Isn’t this leading to an inaccuracy in what’s “relevant?”
“nofollow” is used almost ubiquitously by any service that has an easy sign up system, therefore it is creating a tiered system on the web that takes away power from user generated content and gives more strength to those who have a greater technical knowhow. There are many out there who will never understand how to setup a blogging platform such as WordPress or MovableType but can easily get a Twitter, Flickr or Facebook account. Why should their voice matter less to PageRank? And on the flip-side, why should a major media outlet matter more? Isn’t this working against the democracy of the web?
How do we decide what is signal and what is noise? Surely just because something is easier to do doesn’t make it less relevant, does it? Can’t we come up with a better technological solution that empowers users not punishes them for their lack of tech savvy?