The nofollow tag has accomplished the opposite of what it was set out to do a decade ago.
When nofollow became common knowledge as a tag, the ideal that Google had in mind for search engine optimization was based around the authoritative score or “trust” that sites had with regards to one another.
Thus, links such as user generated content and paid links would be given the nofollow tag as a means to ensuring that they were not counted in a site’s “trustworthy” links, thereby allowing the search engine robots to notice those low-quality links and not allow them to negatively affect the final ranking of the page since the nofollow tag was used to exclude them. A noble ideal, but one that has led to horrible misuse of the very tag that was developed to help developers with their SEO.
Now, many sites (among them notable industry leaders as SEMRush and eConsultancy) have started to use nofollow with all of their external links. Why exactly would they do this? Well, let’s look at the history.
A History: What Happened with Nofollow
Nofollow was designed to be used by webmasters for links that they could not control. Thus content such as forum posts, user generated content, even embeds fell under the things that the tag excluded from counting in the final tally for page rank number. In theory it sounds like a great idea. Google was convinced that introducing trust scores to help in ranking web pages would make for a much more secure system and that nofollow would remove linkspam in comments once and for all. It was a great idea, but like all great ideas it fell apart when put in practice.
The tag allowed webmasters to leave links that did not conform to the rules of organic linking out of their final page rank calculation, but what those rules were seemed to be as unclear ten years ago as it is now. The nofollow tag is plagued with a number of problems in understanding what it considers high quality links and what it considers low quality links. Knowing the difference is of the utmost importance since, at current, Google still penalizes sites for having low quality links on a page, even though the content on those pages aren’t necessarily low-quality content.
How Nofollow Stopped Making Sense for Content
The Inbound.org discussion surrounding the nofollow tag is interesting in its gauge of how useful the tag is for content-centric pages. As Tadeusz Szewcyk pointed out in the discussion, a site filled with nofollow links is automatically considered by the search engine as a low quality site that consists entirely of content that the webmaster has no control over. From what we understand about good content, there is no way that a search engine would consider this as acceptable for a page. However, it could penalize the page further if those links were not given the nofollow tags if the links in question led to sites that Google considered “questionable”. It seems as though Google’s definition of a “questionable link” has changed a lot from the dictionary definition.
Uh-oh: The Guest Blogging Snafu
Notable SEO personality Rand Fishkin from Moz pointed out an interesting situation where Google flagged a Moz site as a questionable link because it was a guest blog. When said gust blog was linked to from another webpage the webmaster was hit with a warning that they were linking to a low quality link and in order to preserve their page rank they should consider changing the link or insert the nofollow tag to ensure that it doesn’t negatively affect their site. If anything this seems less like Google and has more in common with the Italian mafia.
This underlines a fatal flaw with nofollow when it comes to content. Google assumes that all links from a user generated content piece (such as a guest blog) will be low quality and therefore starts ignoring those links on general principle. The problem occurs when a high-authority site such as Moz produces a guest blog done by an industry professional and that piece is given the same raw treatment, despite the fact that Moz does all its research into all the links leading to and from the guest post to ensure the validity of links throughout the post. What this highlights is Google’s penchant for lumping all content of a particular type under one banner that is detrimental to all the sites that utilize that particular type of content.
The Death of Organic Link Building?
The nofollow tag never did get off the ground as a way to prevent content spam. Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, notes that comment spam today is as bad as it was when nofollow came out, suggesting that nofollow was an utterly pointless tag, something that some bloggers from almost a decade ago had already figured out. Google is known for going out on a limb where new technology is concerned, and we are likely to give them a bit of leeway when it comes to realizing their dreams for the potential of a particular advancement, especially when it might benefit webmasters in the long run. The problem is that nofollow has long since passed its “sell by” date. Like moldy cheese, it sits on a shelf daring you to throw it away and reminding you about how much potential it had ten years ago. If nofollow was simply a pointless tag then it would make sense discarding it, but nofollow is now a much more sinister tool when taken in context.
What nofollow does is it cripples organic link building to a massive extent. When webmasters are now linking to external sites the things that cross their mind most often are if this link would be considered by Google and if they should insert the nofollow tag before each link that they add. This in itself leads to a number of problems with linking and value, but the main inhibition that it imposes on the Internet is that it stops organic links dead in its tracks. Google’s John Mueller has stated unequivocally that nofollow shouldn’t be included in content links, but the practice is a far cry from the theory as users are warned about guest blogs, even those from high authority sites. If you can’t trust the authority sites as external links who CAN you trust?
Let’s just Forget that Ever Happened…
The best advice I can offer to any content producers and publishers in this day and age is that the nofollow tag should be discarded.
It adds nothing to your content but seeks to take away so much from what makes SEO an interesting subject. It hobbles your ability to be creative when building links and has you looking over your shoulder constantly to see if a particular link is “acceptable” in Google’s eyes. It’s time we stopped doing that. Google’s new paradigm is about judging a site based on its content. It’s about time we started playing the game by our own rules. The nofollow tag has absolutely no place inside your content.
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