Dear search engines, please bury the rel=nofollow-fiasko

The misuse of the rel=nofollow initiative is getting out of control. Invented to fight comment spam, nowadays it is applied to commercial links, biased editorial links, navigational links, links to worst enemies (funny example: Matt Cutts links to a SEO-Blackhat with rel=nofollow) and whatever else. Gazillions of publishers and site owners add it to their links for the wrong reasons, simply because they don’t understand its intention, its mechanism, and especially not the ongoing morphing of its semantics. Even professional webmasters and search engine experts have a hard time to follow the nofollow-beast semantically. As more its initial usage gets diluted, as more folks suspect search engines cook their secret sauce with indigestibly nofollow-ingredients.

Not only rel=nofollow wasn’t able to stop blog-spam-bots, it came with a build-in flaw: confusion.

Good news is that currently the nofollow-debate gets stoked again. Threadwatch hosts a thread titled Nofollow’s Historical Changes and Associated Hypocrisy, folks are ranting on the questionable Wikipedia decision to nofollow all outbound links, Google video folks manipulated the PageRank algo by plastering most of their links with rel=nofollow by mistake, and even Yahoo’s top gun Jeremy Zawodny is not that happy with the nofollow-debacle for a while now.

Say NO to NOFOLLOW - copyright jlh-design.comI say that it is possible to replace the unsuccessful nofollow-mechanism with an understandable and reasonable functionality to allow search engine crawler directives on link level. It can be done although there are shitloads of rel=nofollow links out there. Here is why, and how:

The value “nofollow” in the link’s REL attribute creates misunderstandings, recently even in the inventor’s company, because it is, hmmm, hapless.

In fact, back then it meant “passnoreputation” and nothing more. That is search engines shall follow those links, and they shall index the destination page, and they shall show those links in reversed citation results. They just must not pass any reputation or topical relevancy with that link.

There were micro formats better suitable to achieve the goal, for example Technorati’s votelinks, but unfortunately the united search geeks have chosen a value adapted from the robots exclusion standard, which is plain misleading because it has absolutely nothing to do with its (intended) core functionality.

I can think of cases where a real nofollow-directive for spiders on link level makes perfect sense. It could tell the spider not to fetch a particular link destination, even if the page’s robots tag says “follow”, for example printer friendly pages. I’d use an “ignore this link” directive for example in crawlable horizontal popup menus to avoid theme dilution when every page of a section (or site) links to every other page. Actually, there is more need for spider directives on HTML element level, not only in links, for example to tag templated and/or navigational page areas like with Google’s section targeting.

There is nothing wrong with a mechanism to neutralize links in user input. Just the value “nofollow” in the type-of-forward-relationship attribute is not suitable to label unchecked or not (yet) trusted links. If it is really necessary to adopt a well known value from the robots exclusion standard (and don’t misunderstand me, reusing familiar terms in the right context is a good idea in general), the “noindex” value would have been be a better choice (although not perfect). “Noindex” describes way better what happens in a SE ranking algo: it doesn’t index (in its technical meaning) a vote for the target. Period.

It is not too late to replace the rel=nofollow-fiasco with a better solution which could take care of some similar use cases too. Folks at Technorati, the W3C and whereever have done the initial work already, so it’s just a tiny task left: extending an existing norm to enable a reasonable granularity of crawler directives on link level, or better for HTML elements at all. Rel=nofollow would get deprecated, replaced by suitable and standardized values, and for a couple years the engines could interpret rel=nofollow in its primordial meaning.

Since the rel=nofollow thingy exists, it has confused gazillions of non-geeky site owners, publishers and editors on the net. Last year I’ve got a new client who added rel=nofollow to all his internal links because he saw nofollowed links on a popular and well ranked site in his industry and thought rel=nofollow could perhaps improve his own rankings. That’s just one example of many where I’ve seen intended as well as mistakenly misuse of the way too geeky nofollow-value. As Jill Whalen points out to Matt Cutts, that’s just the beginning of net-wide nofollow-insane.

Ok, we’ve learned that the “nofollow” value is a notional monster, so can we please have it removed from the search engine algos in favour of a well thought out solution, preferably asap? Thanks.

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9 Comments to "Dear search engines, please bury the rel=nofollow-fiasko"

  1. JLH on 31 January, 2007  #link

    Where can I sign the petition?

  2. Sebastian on 31 January, 2007  #link

    Blog it;) word of mouth propaganda works best. Thanks for your support.

  3. JLH on 5 February, 2007  #link

    Sebastian, the no follow image looks great! I’ve been thinking about your post and others and came up with my own little contribution to the world on this subject. I’ve created a nofollow policy on my blog and posted it with a permanent link so everyone can see all the time how I feel about it. I think if more webmasters brought attention to this, the possibly some the changes you have proposed would be considered. I know blogger isn’t as flexible when it comes to customizing and it wouldn’t be possible on this site. If you’d take a look and give me some feedback I’d be appreciate it. My policy page is located at

  4. Sebastian on 5 February, 2007  #link

    Hey John, that’s *your* great looking image I’ve stolen from your blog ;)

    I think your nofollow-policy is pretty reasonable. As you’ve mentioned, I can’t do it here, because rapes all user comments with link condoms.

    But I’ve installed no-nofollow plug-ins on my WP blogs. Every comment I approve is worth the link juice it sends to the author. Spam filters and comment moderation are enough to avoid unsolicited links, so I don’t need nofollow.

  5. […] still imperfect REP standardization lacking major evolvements despite the newish X-Robots-Tags, or my pet peeve rel-nofollow. There’s a lot more exciting stuff I’d like to learn more about, and I could think of a […]

  6. Stop No Follow on 27 August, 2007  #link

    […] I’m going to write about this as I mentioned, until then here’s a good argument. […]

  7. Bob Longman on 28 December, 2007  #link

    Q: rel=nofollow in links is very confusing, indeed. But while it’s in effect (or at least ‘in da house’), the question becomes how to avail oneself of it.

    For instance, for an old-fashioned subsection index page, made almost entirely of important in-site links, which gets no Google attention (nor does it need to, because its purpose is for those who are already at the site). Would it be better to NOINDEX the entire page and leave the links alone? Or rel=”nofollow” the inbound links? Or just leave everything alone? Does it affect the pages it links to at all? Or even detract from them, SE-wise?

    Confusion abounds.

  8. Sebastian on 28 December, 2007  #link

    Bob, I wouldn’t condomize this page at all, and leave the inbound links alone. In general, rel=nofollow blocks Google juice on link level, and a nofollow meta tag does the same on page level. Please note that since I’ve posted this, Google has changed the crawler behavior, that is Googlebot no longer follows condomized links at all.

  9. Mike worst on 19 May, 2009  #link

    Is this still true? I have at least one confirmed inbound no-follow link that shows on webmaster tools as a link.

    [It is still true. Just because a link is shown in reverse citation results, that doesn’t mean it improves the link target’s rankings.]

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