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noFollow noWorries: An SEO Linking Update

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165/365 It takes a VERY steady hand...Creative Commons License photo credit  (just fragmented link-juice by 2 links to do the right thing): Mykl Roventine

The most important news to come out of  ‘Advanced 2009 is Google’s blurt-of-a-revelation that they removed the algorithmic benefit from internal page rank sculpting, “about a year ago.” The change also affects how Google handles noFollowed outbound links.

Boiled down, noFollow still prevents the passing of link juice (energy) to the internal or external destination page. However the value is no longer divided up amongst the remaining followed links on the page. Though this 180 degree about-face in what Google had been preaching (literally) to webmasters was poorly handled from a public relations perspective, presumably it was made because the tag was overused, abused and had the potential to skew Google’s rankings.

No worries. We actually think the change will bring some positive changes to the SEO process, though as always there are tradeoffs. Here’s what we’re telling our clients:

Internal Linking & noFollow

  • Don’t panic! Google dialed in the change a year ago and nobody noticed. Even Matt Cutts noFollows hundreds of internal links on his blog including his subscription form and “comments” #anchor links.
  • Link-count matters at least some of the time. The new PageRank sculpting is about not placing unnecessary links on a page to extraneous or duplicate content, as opposed to noFollowing links. Sadly, at times this sometimes may seem incongruous with usability. This usability-sacrifice may  hurt the Internet IMHO.

    Forgoing gratuitous internal linking to pointless or little used pages does not mitigate the critical need to create a keyword-rich, diverse and colorful internal link graph to compliment global navigation. Just don’t build tons of extraneous crap-content and associated navigational links,  which could dilute the power distributed by other links to important content.

  • Don’t hide links. Google’s already told us that they read javascript and that the links can pass juice. iFrames in conjunction with robots.txt may work to mask links. We’re telling clients not to bother. Today’s effective cloaking is tomorrow’s red-flag penalty. Really the days of PR sculpting by hidden links are over.
  • Arguably, it still makes sense to send Google sparse clues that some pages should not receive internal link energy. We think it’s still fine to noFollow privacy policies, registration forms and other obviously inconsequential pages that webmasters’ truly don’t want to waste site strength on.
  • If you have already noFollowed internal links holistically on your site, Google says you won’t be penalized. It’s not necessary to remove existing noFollow attributes that are not gratuitous. Because Google was steadfast in their PageRank sculpting recommendations for the last year, we’ve made some conservative noFollow suggestions to clients.  It does not appear that any damage has been done. In fact, sites we’ve been working with are thriving. This is congruent with what other SEOs are reporting.
  • Reciprocally, we don’t recommend adding many if any new noFollow internal links. It’s a good time to watch and wait, while focusing on re-tooling sites to “sculpt” link juice by better architecture using more meaningful links that lead to more to valuable content.
  • Some or all sites may be ranked differently than by traditional theories. The algorithm is complicated and, outside of Googlers, most analysis regarding black box factors is speculation. There are credible theories to suggest that some sites may not be evaluated by the PR bean-counting approach.In fact there is reliable evidence (watch the whole video) to indicate that, at least for some sites, there is a pot of link power applied to the entire site and hoarding excess domain juice could be a negative.
  • (Not a recommendation) If you’re feeling snarky, radical, and you’re not the Washington Post, consider making unnecessary navigational links copy and paste instead of hot. For instance, look at the date archives on this blog in the left hand sidebar.We don’t offer them as clickable (hot) links anymore  because we don’t want to dilute the link-count on the page.

    We hope any user motivated enough to view our date archives, won’t mind the the copy/paste. Sadly, welcome to the new copy and paste era of web navigation. Without noFollow, that’s just what you get. :)

External Linking & noFollow

  • Don’t panic! This is not a very big deal.
  • Outbound links are simple to think about. As a rule of thumb, only follow links you can vouch for from an editorial perspective. The obvious intent of eliminating noFollow benefits for outbound links is to impel webmasters to police their own links. This is good for SEO. It’s known that linking to quality sites provides an organic boost to the link-source site so linking out to other respected sites is a great thing to do. However, choose outbound links wisely and link out to high quality relevant and top trusted sites when appropriate.
  • The new rules present somewhat of a conundrum in regards to user generated content that contains links. Link-count in user generated content could be a problem. There’s been much written about what the effect of long comment threads, with many noFollowed links, might be.

    Many believe that Google “knows” the footprint of popular blogging platforms like WordPress and will somehow compensate. There are those respected webmasters who believe that all approved user generated content links should be followed.

  • Many webmasters don’t use WordPress or other common and recognizable content management systems to handle user generated content. Since we don’t trust Google to tell webmasters what they need to know straight up, maybe we should remove the links from our comment-threads as opposed to noFollowing UG links or eliminating comments.

    This is not a “recommendation.”Users would still see the anchor text along side the non-linked URL for easy copy and paste. This will reduce the link-count on the page to potentially mitigate any potential dilution factor, should Google not recognize WordPress and compensate. It would be great for Matt Cutts to provide some honest clarification to this point before fear of the new algorithm guts webmasters’ willingness to engage their readers.

  • It might make sense to apply this principle to other outbound links on the page. Maybe Twitter links and other outbound links in widgets should no longer be hot. Thanks Google …welcome to the new copy and paste navigation paradigm.
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10 Comments

  1. Yura on June 24, 2009 at 3:54 am

    What about “build websites as if SEs didn’t exist” and “build sites for the people”?

    Why not just remove nofollow from comment links to reward commenters? They are, essentially, writing content and building links for you.

  2. Andy Beard on June 24, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I haven’t worked out quite how to get Disqus to dofollow as I am not running the javascript only implementation.

    It doesn’t change my beliefs, and I still have to be careful who I link out to.

    However even though I give away some juice, I have a flat site architecture and can compensate for the additional outbound link by adding more internal linking to pages where I can precisely control where the juice is funneled.

  3. Chris Boggs on June 24, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Hi Marty great timely post! Our strategy team has been researching the ramifications of Matt’s announcement over the past couple weeks and have come to many of the same conclusions you draw. Bottom line: more careful consideration of site architecture and internal navigation, as well as further leveraging of tools will probably end up working better than has. I love how you eloquently summarized that as follows: “a good time to watch and wait, while focusing on re-tooling sites to “sculpt” link juice by better architecture using more meaningful links that lead to more to valuable content.” (hat tip to Charles Armstrong – http://blog.charles-armstrong.com/ – for pointing out this post to me, and reminding me yet again I need to set up an RSS for the Marty)

  4. Marty Weintraub on June 24, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    @ChrisBoggs: Cool, we’re glad it’s helpful. All morning long, I’ve been getting DMs from “known” webmasters, all of whom I respect. The tone has been “gee Marty you’ve turned into a Google drone,” “let’s talk about how to correctly cloak and blow off Google’s PR line,” or “absolutely not, that’s not how to think about PageRank.”

    We want to be safe and copacetic with our clients. Actually all of this is a tempest in a teapot, because things are the same as the ever were: Good content, good architecture and things will come out better overall anyway than using noFollow. Thanks for stopping by Chris and (of course) we’d be honored to have your subscription. :)

  5. Brian Hancock on June 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Everything in your post makes sense except for the new copy and paste links. Did you do any analysis beforehand to see if people actually peruse those archives?

    If people didn’t click on those links, why not just obliterate that widget? I would assume most go by categories anyway, or find your blog through a search for a particular topic. If they did click on those links, is it worth hurting the user experience to horde link juice?

  6. Marty Weintraub on June 25, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    @Brian Hancock This is our testing, just for fun :).

  7. Michael on June 29, 2009 at 6:55 am

    I think that some sites take using no follows internally to seriously. We create no follows to pages like contact us, forms, member log in, privacy and so forth. I think that at times people get too worried about plugging in page rank. In regards to linking to outbound sites I havent noticed any paged rank leak when linking to contextual sites. In fact I think that it has helped rankings and has helped users find supporting content.

  8. Kye Swenson on July 8, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    In general, I think you don’t have to worry too much about linking to contextual sites. Links can never really hurt your pagerank, but tracking those who are linking to you or performing the “inanchor” search on Google will be especially beneficial to ensure you are not linked to any spammers.

    - Kye, searchschwag.com

  9. Nick Stamoulis on July 15, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    In my link building travels I found that if you just focus on building your business online the links will come naturally. For example if you seek out targeted niche directories and or blog commenting that is targeted you can’t help but to build your links naturally just from trying to build your business.

  10. John on July 22, 2009 at 4:55 am

    I had a suspect that Google is always few steps ahead of webmasters and SEOs simply for the fact that – if they know what they are doing they would be able to manipulate the SERPs.
    That’s the reason Matt let the PR sculpting thing let know after one year.
    The wisest thing is to concentrate on the job without bothering about changes and keeping in mind not to violate the Google TOS.

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