Earlier this month, Google’s Matt Cutts sent a shockwave through the advanced SEO community by saying that site owners could no longer perform “PageRank sculpting” using the nofollow tag in the way they’d previously thought. Now Matt’s posted more explanation about the change. But rather than stop PageRank sculpting, I expect his explanation will simply cause it to continue in an alternative manner.
Google Loses “Backwards Compatibility” On Paid Link Blocking & PageRank Sculpting is my previous post that covers the background on PageRank sculpting: how it works, how it became popular over the past two years and how Matt said it no longer works. It’s an essential companion piece to this update, so be sure to read it.
Nofollow Doesn’t Mean Nocount
In particular, Matt’s post today says that over a year ago, Google changed its algorithms so that links with a nofollow tag (technically the nofollow attribute) on them still counted toward how PageRank was divvied up among all links on a page:
What happens when you have a page with “ten PageRank points” and ten outgoing links, and five of those links are nofollowed? Let’s leave aside the decay factor to focus on the core part of the question. Originally, the five links without nofollow would have flowed two points of PageRank each (in essence, the nofollowed links didn’t count toward the denominator when dividing PageRank by the outdegree of the page). More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows so that the five links without nofollow would flow one point of PageRank each.
If you think that any page on your web site has a certain amount of PageRank it can give to the pages it links to — money that might help them rank better in varying degrees — then here’s how things have changed recently.
Before 2005, the nofollow tag didn’t exist. So, there was no easy way to “block” some links on a page from receiving some of the page’s PageRank. For example, imagine that a page had $10 of PageRank to spend. It contained 10 links. The money — the PageRank — was divided equally among the links. Each got $1.
In 2007, nofollow not only existed but became popular as a way for people to “sculpt” PageRank. The same page puts nofollow on 5 of the 10 links, such as on navigational links. The PageRank is divided equally among the remaining 5 — each gets $2. Potentially, that helps those five rank a bit better. Maybe a tiny bit; maybe much more depending on whom you choose to believe.
Sometime in 2008, Matt says Google changed things. The same page still has $10 to spend, still has 10 links and still has 5 of them nofollowed. Google looks at ALL the links (even the nofollow ones), divides PageRank equally and allocates $1 to each link. The regular links get their $1. Those with nofollow don’t get any spend at all.
What’s The Change Mean?
Should you worry about the change? I don’t think so. The reported change simply means that regular links no longer get to cash in on extra PageRank. It doesn’t mean that they get penalized. As I wrote before, it’s similar to how the meta keywords tag used to be rewarded more heavily in some search algorithms. When that changed, no one had to strip out all their old meta keywords data. It just no longer helped as much as in the past.
Should you change tactics because of the change? There are some people who swear by PageRank sculpting, that it really works. If you’re one of those, you have to decide whether you believe what Google’s saying or not. That leads to an important point on how long it took Google to disclose that this change happened.
Delay In Disclosure
Make no mistake, Google helped advanced the notion of using nofollow to flow PageRank. No one was forced to do it; no one is being punished that it might no longer work. But Google did help put it out there, and that’s why it should have spoken up sooner when it took nofollow out as a sculpting tool. Instead, it said nothing about the change that happened sometime from May 2008 or earlier. Why?
At first, we figured that site owners or people running tests would notice, but they didn’t. In retrospect, we’ve changed other, larger aspects of how we look at links and people didn’t notice that either, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been such a surprise. So we started to provide other guidance that PageRank sculpting isn’t the best use of time.
Other guidance? How about simply saying soon after the change — clearly and plainly — that nofollow didn’t leave links out of the PageRank calculations?
There were plenty of opportunities for this. PageRank sculpting was discussed at no less than four different conferences after the change happened, including our SMX Advanced search marketing conference in 2008. There was no end of articles and commentary on the web about it. In Matt’s video from May 23 of this year, specifically about PageRank sculpting, he said nothing about the change.
The delay has the conspiracy theories brewing. The top one is that PageRank sculpting using nofollow does work. That Google’s changed nothing, and that’s why no one noticed any changes. That PageRank sculpting with nofollow, in fact, works so well that Google’s now simply saying that nofollow links get counted again even when they don’t.
Ultimately, each person will have to decide for themselves what they want to believe.
Do I Have To Care?
What to do next? I was never a big pusher of PageRank sculpting myself. I figured that Google’s algorithms simply looked at all the links on page, the location of those links, the repetition within a particular web site and figured out for itself how to spend a page’s PageRank on them. Matt himself confirmed this during his keynote talk at SMX Advanced 2009, and he confirmed it again in response to my comment on his blog post:
Yes, I would agree that Google itself solely decides how much PageRank will flow to each and every link on a particular page. But that’s no reason to make PageRank a complete black box; if I can help provide people with a more accurate mental model, overall I think that’s a good thing. For example, from your proposed paragraph I would strike the “The number of links doesn’t matter” sentence because most of the time the number of links do matter, and I’d prefer that people know that. I would agree with the rest of your paragraph explanation
Based on his comment, I revised my explanation of how Google assigns PageRank to this:
Google itself solely decides how much PageRank will flow to each and every link on a particular page. In general, the more links on a page, the less PageRank each link gets. Google might decide some links don’t deserve credit and give them no PageRank. The use of nofollow doesn’t ‘conserve’ PageRank for other links; it simply prevents those links from getting any PageRank that Google otherwise might have given them.
For the most part, I hope this underscores the fact that it’s Google that’s really playing PageRank investor, not the site owner. That’s also why many site owners, I feel, shouldn’t worry about sculpting. In addition, there are often far more useful things that can bring about changes (fixing bad page titles, obtaining quality external links, creating quality content).
But still — it’s hanging out there. Even with Google playing investor, the more links you have on your page, the more PageRank is going to be divided up among them. Having relatively fewer links might mean that the remaining ones get more credit. And if you’re an advanced SEO looking for some extra oomph, you might decide sculpting is still worth chasing.
Sculpting Without Nofollow
Certainly Google’s not putting people off that idea. While it’s taking nofollow off the table, it still talks about other methods of sculpting. From Matt’s video of May 23:
In the video, he says:
I would say that it’s not the first thing I would work on. I would work on getting more links, having higher quality content, those are always the sorts of things that you want to do first. But then if you have a certain amount of budgeted PageRank, you certainly can sculpt your PageRank. I wouldn’t necessarily do it with the nofollow tag …. but a better more effective form of PageRank sculpting is choosing, for example, which things to link to from your home page. So imagine that you have two different pages. You’ve got one product that earns you a lot of money every time someone buys, and you’ve got another product where you make, you know, 10 cents. You probably want to highlight this page [the one that earns a lot], you want to make sure it gets enough PageRank so it can rank well. So this is more likely to be a page you want to link to from your home page. So when people talk about PageRank sculpting, they tend to think nofollow and all that sort of stuff, but in some sense, the ways that you choose to create your site, your site architecture and how you link between your pages is a type of PageRank sculpting. So it’s certainly not unethical to have all the links come into your site, and you decide how to link within your site.”
Again, with the caveat that you’ve done all types of other important SEO, the bolded parts make it clear that sculpting is something that Google itself is saying may be effective. Google’s also saying that the more links you have, the less all the links benefit (hence Matt’s advice about carefully deciding what to feature on your home page). The only change is that supposedly, nofollow hasn’t been a way to filter out some of those links over the past year.
If that’s the case — and people still want to pursue sculpting, then I think we’ll see both a combination of folks being more selective about the links they put out on their pages and/or pursuing other methods of showing links but not having them count. A leading contender is the use of iframes. Using an iframe, someone could have comments appear within a blog post and yet not have any links in those comments get counted into the overall PageRank allocations.
Google Says: Yes, You Can Still Sculpt PageRank. No You Can’t Do It With Nofollow from Rand Fishkin over at SEOmoz gets into some of this a bit more. And the headline says it all. Rather than kill the idea of PageRank sculpting, I ironically find the recent kerfuffle is simply confirming it as something that advanced SEOs might want to think about.
The further irony is, if you believe Google, then SEOs who’ve been using nofollow and saying it’s given them boosts over the past year are all messed up. It wasn’t helping them at all. That would have knocked the wind out of those sails if Google had also said number of links doesn’t matter. But Google is saying number of links matter — it is saying sculpting might have an impact — so rather than the concept of sculpting getting knocked on its butt, it instead gets a helping hand back up, courtesy of Google.
For related commentary, see Techmeme.