For the past few months, I have been listening to some of my colleagues talk about the nofollow attribute and how to use it to sculpt a page’s PageRank. I heard this SEO advice first at SMX in Stockholm and most recently at SMX in Santa Clara. Stephan Spencer wrote about it in a recent Search Engine Land article, Sculpting Your PageRank for Maximum SEO Impact.
My reaction? My jaw hit the floor. In a nutshell, if you want a site to have an effective information architecture for both end users and search engine spiders, then create a good information architecture. Search usability professionals have been doing this for years, creating web pages that rank and convert, and continuing to evolve their interfaces. Now I see SEO professionals moving back to a familiar strategy: building one thing for software spiders and another for site visitors. Honestly, I believe this dubious SEO advice is an accident waiting to happen.
Origin of the nofollow attribute
The original reason that the nofollow attribute was created was to limit comment spam in blogs. It was created to let search engines know that the web site owner cannot necessarily validate the quality of an external link. According to Google:
“From now on, when Google sees the attribute (rel=”nofollow”) on hyperlinks, those links won’t get any credit when we rank websites in our search results. This isn’t a negative vote for the site where the comment was posted; it’s just a way to make sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.”
Here’s the deal: the nofollow attribute was not created to be a substitute information architecture—one for end users and a different one for the commercial web search engines. Using it to artificially sculpt PageRank? Instead of solving the problem (poor or substandard information architecture and corresponding interface), SEOs are creating a new one.
Real vs. fake information architecture
I understand the reasoning behind the nofollow usage, as I have been in the same situation many times over. Clients just do not want to change their sites. They are convinced that the problem is their sites’ search engine visibility. They believe that once their pages appear at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), all site issues will miraculously be resolved. The site will suddenly generate thousands or millions of dollars of income. Yes, this occurrence happens some of the time, but as we all know, there is much more to search engine optimization than rankings.
Second, plenty of pages rank and convert with those boilerplate links present, and they rank without the need for PageRank sculpting. Pages have ranked in the past with boilerplate links. Pages currently rank with boilerplate links present, and they will still rank in the future.
I also think it is odd when SEO professionals put the nofollow attribute on URLs that search engines will not crawl anyway. Search engine spiders do not fill out forms. They do not “Add to Cart.” Those types of links do not need an attribute added to them. Maybe some SEOs just want some extra billable hours.
In my opinion, I think this entire PageRank sculpting is a slippery slope of giving spiders different content than site visitors. Search engines want what users want—such a simple concept that many SEO professionals still do not seem to grasp. If you do not believe that a page’s content is important, then don’t link to it. Better yet, remove the content. If you believe a web page’s content is important, then link to it and do it in a way that makes sense to your end users, your site’s visitors. I think it is very odd to put a nofollow attribute on pages within your own site. Essentially, you are saying that you cannot validate your own content.
With all due respect to Stephan Spencer and Rand Fishkin, who have publicly recommended this methodology, where do you get the idea that “search” and “usability” are two separate issues? All people exhibit a wide variety of search behaviors. Web site usability heavily addresses navigation and cross-linking, the sense of place, and the scent of information. Keywords are involved in SEO as they are involved with web site usability (using the users’ language). Yet you advocate giving users one information architecture and search engines a different one?
If people use the nofollow attribute as a substitute for information architecture, then we will probably see more and more ‘garbage’ sites in search results. The analogy I like to use is a car with engine trouble. Instead of fixing the problem (the engine), some SEO professionals put another coat of paint on the car, and maybe even change a tire or two. Instead of solving a core usability issue (information architecture), SEO professionals just create something different that end users might not even want. It is no surprise to me that SEOs continue to have a poor reputation. They keep selling good-looking cars with faulty engines.
I predict that many SEO professionals will massively abuse the nofollow attribute and that it will no longer be valued. Remember when meta-tag content used to heavily influence whether a page ranked well or not? Both the meta-tag description and keywords attributes were so heavily exploited that the search engine algorithms were modified to make this content less and less important in terms of relevancy. I see the nofollow attribute shaving the same demise.
People are going to do what they are going to do. I predict that the nofollow attribute will be abused and the attribute will shortly be devalued. I’m not going to use it to sculp PageRank. I have never had to because, unlike most SEOs, I try to build sites that have a good information architecture, site navigation, and cross-linking structure from the onset. Granted, not every SEO is a web designer/developer, nor does every SEO have experience, training, and/or education in web site usability, so my previous statement is certainly circumstantial. There will always be SEOs who are willing to use or abuse the nofollow attribute just to make money.
Many SEOs quote Jakob Nielsen and other usability professionals as long as it suits their needs. I view these people as usability parrots, not usability professionals or practitioners. I do not see many SEO firms practice true search usability, actually putting interfaces (wireframes, prototypes, etc.) in front of actual users, and genuinely measuring and testing the effectiveness of the interfaces. I do not see SEOs measuring and evaluation users’ actual search behavior.
I am going to nofollow this dubious SEO advice. And I am 100% confident that I will not have any problems with obtaining and maintaining search engine visibility.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.