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 seemed like the right move at the time, and looking at it now; it still makes a lot of sense. I can’t imagine how bad things would be without it.
For the unfamiliar, “nofollow” is an attribute that can be assigned to links on websites. This attribute, when recognized by Google, causes the link to be ignored in Google’s index, thus preventing it from contributing to the sites “PageRank” score on Google. Therefore, in theory, leading to more relevant search results.
Here is my gripe, when Google announced this feature, it 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 it has very much maintained a strong and effective walled garden. Considering that Facebook has pushed users to make more of their content public (while also having major issues with privacy), it is downright unfair that they will not allow a PageRank incentive for this.
At first glance, however, the inclusion of “nofollow” 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, a platform with a substantial spam problem, “nofollow” seems like a practical solution to de-incentivise spamming. At least in the short term.
Despite this reasoning, I still believe it to be the wrong solution.
Flickr is a publishing system, and some users use it as a blog with very long written posts to accompany their photography. Yet Flickr automatically attaches “nofollow” to any link posted anywhere on its site, even in the user’s 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 has been effective for increasing my readership. 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”? In my opinion, it is lazy and unfair, especially as a Flickr Pro user. 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 doing the opposite of its intention and hurting Google’s relevance. The three biggest traffic sources to this site are Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr; 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 set up 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?