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How Is NoFollow Data Treated By The Search Engines?

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

In theory, the search engines don’t follow links with the NoFollow attribute attached. That’s what NoFollow means. However, anybody who has been checking backlinks for multiple websites (for example, if you have many SEO clients, prospective SEO clients, competitor websites, etc.) will notice that Yahoo lists many NoFollow links as backlinks (I wrote about this last year, too.). I have seen this at Google (I believe in Webmaster Tools, but my memory is not certain on this point – sorry). 

If the search engines index NoFollow links, it is possible they use the data (otherwise, why waste so much computing resources indexing them?), despite that purpose of the NoFollow attribute being that the links should not count in their algorithms. This post speculates on how the search engines might use this data. 

A Partial History of NoFollow

Seasoned SEO experts can skip this section. It is intended for newbies, and it is only partial because I am sure I am missing out some details.

Before there were blogs, there were guest books. Guest books were like prehistoric Web 2.0 . They allowed website owners to create some form of user interaction with otherwise pamphlet-like websites. They engaged the user. They created stickiness. Best of all, they were set-it-and-forget-it, so many website owners thought “why not?”

Spammers quickly learned that they could drop links in guest books, which were often unmonitored. The extent to which this was happening reached near epidemic proportions to the extent that serious SEO specialists were leery of leaving any links in guest books for fear of having their websites penalized for spamming. Search engines were concerned because any mass linking scheme threatens to skew the quality of the search results they present their clientele – the searchers.

The search engines were let off the hook by the website owners. Those who did not moderate their guest books were disgusted by the spam. Those who did moderate their guest books were frustrated by the spam. For a low- or no-maintenance tool, guest books were proving to be a pain without any obvious benefit (such as increase in sales).

In truth, blogs came along and offered a much better way to engage visitors in a two-way conversation. Blogs offered a venue for opinionated and chatty webmasters to engage with visitors, and the blog CMS was much easier to handle than an “articles” section on the website (especially because many bloggers found they could dispense with pesky technicalities like grammar and even staying on-topic.). Blogs also offered a much more obvious business benefit than guest books – search engine rankings, which could be translated into increased sales.

It wasn’t long before blog comment spam had replaced guest book spam. But this time, the search engines would not be let off the hook. Blogs had so many obvious benefits and so much more invested in them that, instead of petering out, they kept proliferating. Indeed, each blog spawns hundreds or even thousands of pages, each one fertile for dropping a spammy link in a comment. And many blog owners were (and still are) lazy, allowing comments to be automatically posted without moderation. NOTE: This blog is moderated, and I use a DoFollow plugin. If your comment is worthwhile, your link will count. If your comment is not worthwhile, sorry.

Many bloggers became alarmed at all the spammy links, and were worried that they might be penalized for linking to bad neighborhoods. That’s why the search engines created the NoFollow attribute. And if you believe that, I have some superb oceanfront property on the moon that might interest you for a surprisingly reasonable price.

In fact, search engines were once again concerned because as I said earlier any mass linking scheme threatens to skew the quality of the search results they present their clientele – the searchers – and mass automatedblog comment spam was showing no sign of slowing down.

The search engines gave everybody, not just bloggers, a simple means to indicate when an outbound link from their website should not be followed by the search engines because it is not a link in which they have placed trust. Basically, the whole point of NoFollow is to eliminate user-generated links from the algorithms, since those links cannot be considered as “votes” for the sites being linked to by the sites doing the linking.

So Why Are Search Engines Indexing NoFollow Links?

 This is a puzzle. If the search engines created NoFollow to tell their robots not to follow, obviously something has changed since then, because they are following. But do the links affect the rankings? Here are a few theories of how the search engines might be using the data. These are highly speculative, so feel free to throw in your own speculations into the comments below.

  1. One obvious theory is that the search engines are not using this data at all in their rankings.
  2. A second theory is that the search engines are using the links to determine relevancy (a link from a comment on an SEO blog to my website helps the search engines confirm that my website is about SEO), but that the links do not count toward link popularity or PageRank.
  3. A third theory is that the search engines have built into their algorithms a process for selecting which NoFollow links they should include in their algorithm calculations. For instance, they might choose to follow all Wikipedia NoFollow links, but no MySpace NoFollow links.
  4. A fourth theory is that the search engines use NoFollow external links to dampen their trust rating of a website. If a website owner has lots of external links that it is not willing to trust, that is one signal that the linking website itself is not all that trustworthy. Makes sense for MySpace. Bummer for Wikipedia (but I’ve voiced my opinion on Wikipedia’s abuse of the NoFollow attribute before).
  5. A fifth theory is that the search engines use NoFollow internal links to dampen their trust rating of a website. Unlike some of these theories, this one makes sense. After briefly experimenting with internal NoFollow internal links on one of my websites, I removed them all. Think what message it sends the search engines about the quality of your website if you say you can’t trust your own web pages.
  6. A sixth theory is that search engines do not use NoFollow links directly in their rankings, but that they are included somehow in a link profile establishing a website’s level of activity on the Web.

I would like to hear your comments and theories. I should note that I have not researched this post in any great deal, because it really is just speculation. I wrote it while my daughters danced last weekend, and there is no WiFi there. So feel free to add your theories and enlighten me and our readers if you know of any great sources that can shed some light on this.

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NoFollow “Neutered” Links On Wikipedia Are Now Pink!

Friday, May 9th, 2008

It was not all that long ago that I wrote how Wikipedia should be spanked for using the NoFollow attribute on all external links. 

NOFOLLOW BACKGROUND

Just by way of history, NoFollow is an attribute the search engines approved to help combat blog comment link spam.  The problem was that so many bloggers were too lazy to moderate comments, that tons of spammy links were being created in blog comments around the world and this was skewing search engine results.  NoFollow neuters any link it is applied to, so bloggers were encouraged to place it on any links they could not vouch for. 

So many blogging programs made NoFollow the default setting for external links.  For instance, this blog uses WordPress, and I had to apply the DoFollow plugin to un-neuter comment links.  Most bloggers have no clue about this and unwittingly act as agents of Web neutering.

However, the opposite problem has since happened, that billions of legitimate links have the NoFollow attribute applied to them, since most bloggers are not even aware of the NoFollow attribute.  And then Wikipedia, one of the top authorities who weighs its external links more carefully than anyone, applied the NoFollow attribute to all external links.  Arguably, by removing the most carefully scrutinized links on the Internet from the search engine algorithms, Wikipedia has skewed the search results as much as any spammy blackhat SEO tactic ever could.

And I still say they should be spanked.  :)

FIREFOX PLUGIN

Now you can easily see NoFollow links, whether created by laziness, unawareness or nastiness.  This is very helpful when deciding the SEO value of any participation on the Web.  Needless to say, SEO is a factor in much of what I do online, so these tips can come in handy. In fact there are two ways, one of which worked on my computer and one of which did not.  Both require FireFox, which is a very handy browser for SEO work.

The first way is by a handy little hack, which has worked for a lot of people, but for some reason it does not like me.  The hack is good because it can be manually controlled in all sorts of way (except, obviously, by me).  TDavid explains the Firefox NoFollow highlight hack quite well here.  Cheerfully, he seems to be even less of a fan of Wikipedia’s NoFollow chop-chop than I am!

The other way, which worked well on my computer, is a plugin called SearchStatus, which, among other handy tools, makes all NoFollow links show up pink in my FireFox browser window.  Here is a screenshot to show you just an example.  This is from a page from — you guessed it! — Wikipedia.  Click the image for a larger view.  See how pink it is?

Wikipedia, consider yourself spanked!

 


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Wikipedia should be spanked!

Monday, February 26th, 2007

I must be feeling edgy today.  I just posted a message on a public forum saying Wikipedia should be spanked!

The post is over at Webdigity webmaster forums.  It is consistent with what I wrote a month ago about Wikipedia being the dead end on the Information Highway, although I don’t think I mentioned spanking that time.

 


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This Blog Uses The DoFollow PlugIn

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

I love Loren Baker’s post on 13 Reasons Why NoFollow Tags Suck.  It goes right in line with my thinking when I posted the comments about Wikipedia and the NoFollow attribute, and the experiment to test the NoFollow attribute, with no stop-the-presses-results

I have said this many times before…the World Wide Web (www) works when linking is encouraged.  The Only One Orphan (ooo) works when linking is discouraged. Thanks to Loren for showing me the DoFollow WordPress Plugin.  If you post a comment here, you can be sure there will be no NoFollow attribute on your link.  

UPDATE February 2009: We have switched to the No Follow Free plugin, which seems to work better with the Intense Debate Plugin.  We have set the threshold at 5 comments.  So if you have commented more than five times, the DoFollow kckjs in…and no, firing off five quick comments all at one does not count.  This is a fully moderated blog.

 


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Testing the NoFollow Attribute II

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

On February 5, I announced a test of the NoFollow attribute.  It seems that Google is still respecting it.  That’s good, I suppose.  But also too bad, given Wikipedia’s decision (see previous post).

 


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Testing the NoFollow Attribute

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Following my earlier post about Wikipedia: the Dead End on the Information Highway, after they added the nofollow attribute to their external links, I decided to launch a test to see whether the engines are really respecting the nofollow attribute.  So I created a page optimized for a non-existent word, with a single link pointing to it.  Let’s see if the page gets into Google’s index, and how long it takes.  I’ll keep you posted.

 


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Wikipedia: the Dead End on the Information Highway

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

I was not going to blog about this, since so many people have blogged about it so quickly, but I decided I need to, if for no other reason to add my opinion to the debate.

Wikipedia is an organization famous for its narcissistic fascination with linking madly between internal pages, but not linking out to good additional sources of information.  Well, they’ve just gone one step up on the anti-social ladder, adding the rel=”nofollow” to all external links, making it the biggest cul-de-sac on the Information Highway. 

The question in my mind, and I am sure in many a search engine algorithm engineer’s mind, is whether the engines should still be respecting the rel=”nofollow” attribute.

 And “no”, I won’t link to Wikepedia’s announcement on this…not even with the nofollow attribute!

 


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