(While there's no shortage of coverage on this issue, many small business owners are finding themselves a bit bewildered by the whole paid links debate. This series is designed to help them understand the issues at play so they can make their own decisions about how to move forward in regards to buying, selling and nofollowing links.)

My daughter has a shirt that read "it seemed like a good idea at the time." I sort of wish they made it in larger sizes. I can't help but think it'd be a nice Christmas gift for the team at Google. After all, I'm hard pressed to believe that phrase hasn't popped into the conversation at least once or twice in the last year as their engineers sit around debating their algorithm and the impact of paid links.

As I sit and watch the heated debate over Google's crusade against paid links, I can't help but shake my head in wonderment. I'd like to look at a wide variety of the issues involved in this debate but considering that a great deal of Search Engine Guide readers fall outside the search industry, I thought it best to begin with a bit of a primer about what the nofollow tag is and how it came into existence.

The Evolution of NoFollow

At the very heart of the current debate over paid links is a little tag known as "no follow." Created by Google back in early 2005, no follow was originally designed with the intention of helping cut down comment spam on blogs. At the time, Google explained the motives for the creation of no follow on their blog. After a brief explanation of what comment spam was, they wrote:

...we don't like it either, and we've been testing a new tag that blocks it. 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.

The post goes on to explain that most of the major blog platforms (LiveJournal, Six Apart, Blogger, WordPress, Flickr and others) had agreed to join force with Google, Yahoo! and MSN to support the new tag.

The change was a simple one. Blog platforms would be setup to add a simple tag (rel="nofollow") to any outgoing link that appeared in the comments of a post. The idea was to provide a deterrent to spammers who were using automated programs to leave comments (and links) in an attempt to up their back link count and increase their search rankings. (If you weren't around the industry then, you can read Search Engine Watch's original coverage.)

When they wrote the post, Google offered up a brief Q&A that included the following:

Q: What types of links should get this attribute?
A: We encourage you to use the rel="nofollow" attribute anywhere that users can add links by themselves, including within comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists. Comment areas receive the most attention, but securing every location where someone can add a link is the way to keep spammers at bay.

The Internet Reacts With Cautious Acceptance

The response to nofollow was mixed at the time it was introduced. While many (especially those heading up blogging solutions) welcomed the idea, others pointed out that nofollow was unlikely to have ANY impact at all on the blog comment spam problem.

At the time, Christopher Baus wrote:

Google won because they were able to harvest the rich data available in the link networks. Link data is Google's number one asset. Today they just admitted that asset isn't as valuable as it used to be. I hope all you Forrester researchers heard that. Plus the value in links isn't just in the page rank. Its in the clicking. Don't want people to visit a site, don't link it. Simple. If Scoble links something it is my experience that it WILL generate traffic regardless of the page rank. This is just admitting that the spammers are winning.

Still others worried about the impact it would have on the way people linked to each other. In fact, it was only a matter of days before SEO's started pointing out the potential of using the nofollow tag to cheat reciprocal link partners out of PageRank or to hoard PageRank for their own sites.

Then again, some folks were pretty happy about the new ability to link without passing Google juice on to other sites and the chance to have more control over how their links were interpreted.

Of course despite all the chatter about the pros and cons of the new tag, the fact remained that spammers aren't exactly known for being deterred by automated solutions. Why? Because those spam submissions usually came from a software program that really couldn't have cared less if the link was going to count for anything. They got the link in front of eyeballs. That made it worth something.

I mean really, ask yourself if spam filters on your email have kept you from getting 75 viagara emails a day. Yeah, I didn't think so.

The truth is, blog plug-ins like Akismet are a million times more effective at curbing comment spam than nofollow ever was. In fact, looking back, even WordPress founder Matt Mullenwag feels that the nofollow solution was a failure.

In theory this should work perfectly, but in practice although all major blogging tools did this two years ago and comment and trackback spam is still 100 times worse now. In hindsight, I don't think nofollow had much of an effect, though I'm still glad we tried it.

Nofollow and Scope Creep

It didn't take long before nofollow went from being a supposed solution for blog comment spam to being the generally accepted way of linking without passing any Google juice. (A concept Robert Charlton quickly dubbed "the link condom.")

Still, it didn't take but a few more months before Google was claiming the need for nofollow on links that had been purchased. Back in August of 2005, I posted about the O'Reilly/Ringnalda paid link debate. Really, the fuss over O'Reilly was the starting point of Google's new crusade against paid links.

At the time, O'Reilly argued his point by defending his right to sell advertising on his blog:

It's pretty clear that the practice of "cloaking" -- that is, hiding links so that you're selling only the page rank -- is illegitimate. But what if someone pays you for a real ad, even if you know that they are paying you primarily because of your page rank rather than your targeted audience? As long as there's no deception as to the nature of the sponsored link, and a legitimate opportunity for click through, isn't this still an ad?

Matt Cutts followed up with a comment explaining:

Selling links muddies the quality of the web and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results. The rel=nofollow attribute is the correct answer: any site can sell links, but a search engine will be able to tell that the source site is not vouching for the destination page.

O'Reilly went on to ask in his original post if it is "the search engine's responsibility to adjust their heuristics to counteract any attempts to game the system?"

I echoed O'Reilly's sentiments. After all, Google rose to the top of the search engine game because of their ability to stay ahead of those who aimed to game the system with irrelevant results. Considering Google is the one who built a system that ranks web sites based on incoming links, you'd think it might be up to Google to learn how to discount the links they don't wish to count. (There's that darn tee-shirt again.)

After all, can you imagine what would happen if Google would issue an edict asking all Viagara spam sites to add the following meta tag to their site:

<META NAME="Quality" CONTENT="WeSpam">

Yep, they'd be laughed off the web.

And yet, Matt Cutts explained that it's just not nice to expect Google to do all the work of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

At this point, someone usually asks me: "But can't you just not count the bad links? On the dailycal.org, I see the words 'Sponsored Resources'. Can't search engines detect paid links?" Yes, Google has a variety of algorithmic methods of detecting such links, and they work pretty well. But these links make it harder for Google (and other search engines) to determine how much to trust each link. A lot of effort is expended that could be otherwise be spent on improving core quality (relevance, coverage, freshness, etc.). (emphasis mine)

Pardon me if I don't jump right on making my life harder to make Google's life easier. It's this pesky site I have to run and those darn bills I have to pay. I'm all for altruism, but a girl's gotta make a living.

Of course earlier this year Google switched from "we don't like paid links" to "now help us get your competitors!" That led to quite a bit of backlash as site owners and SEOs alike cried foul on Google's attempt to define how one site can link to another.

Of course now the question becomes even foggier as many begin asking if Google is on a crusade against paid text links or on a crusade against ALL paid links, not to mention how relevancy factors in.

Is our graphic ad for Search Engine Guide on a blog about making money as a blogger on the same level as the Jack Daniels ad on O'Reilly's tech site in Google's eyes? If so, does that not strike you as a little strange? Wouldn't you think a search engine that prides itself on relevancy could do some relevancy calculating of it's own? Especially considering that most of the blogs our ad appears on link to us editorially as well (even before we purchased ads from them.) Somehow I doubt that Jack Daniels ad was a regular part of O'Reilly's conversation.

Is it "wrong" to purchase a banner ad on a site without having that link nofollowed? After all, a banner ad or graphic ad isn't going to pass any link text, though it may pass some link juice. Besides, how hard would it be for Google to simply discount links from images in the standard IAB ad sizes? I'm fairly certain the brainiacs at Google could program a nice little algorithmic diddy like that.

Where does it end? Google doesn't like paid text ads. Google doesn't like paid graphic ads. Oh, Google doesn't like sponsorship of blog themes either.

But what if you actually created those blog themes? Are your links going to get tossed out with the "sponsored" links folks are buying and attaching to the code of these templates. If so, you have to as yourself...how is creating and promoting a popular blog theme any different from creating and promoting link bait?

You can see the slippery slope argument coming into play here. Where will it end? Will Google ultimately have an entire page outlining what we're allowed to link to and what we're not allowed to link to if we wish to stay in their good graces?

Will we eventually need to nofollow any links that have keywords in them? Perhaps Google will decide that every link created should use the words "click here" to make sure sites aren't unfairly passing contextual information along with a link. The sarcastic part of me wonders what Google would do if a worldwide effort was launched to block Google from indexing any link. Seems like it might leave them hurting just a little bit, wouldn't you think?

Stay tuned for part two of this article when I question or not Google plans to take part in selective destruction.

(Hat tip to GreyWolf, Threadwatch, Search Engine Journal and Alcibiades Would Never Blog for serving as resources on this post.)

October 8, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Jennifer, thanks for the great article. I agree with you 100%. I don't like Google trying to tell me what to do with my own site. I don't use "nofollow", not even for my comments. I don't see why we should be doing Google's job for them.

Thanks you! I spent most of this morning ranting about this very issue (as I suspect many others have).

While SEO-types seem to be focused on Google's claim that paid links have an adverse impact on SERPs, non-SEO types might be inclined to think that Google is using its position as the dominant search engine to eliminate competition for advertising dollars.

Face it, the money advertisers spend on text link ads isn't being spent on AdWords. And the organic search rankings gained from those text link ads also takes potential revenue away from AdWords.

Google is essentially telling everyone who would advertise on the web that the only ads that are acceptable are the ones that are bought from Google -- anything else could incur a penalty. I'm not a lawyer, but this sure sounds a lot like the sort of business practice that got Microsoft into trouble not so long ago. It's only a matter of time before someone makes an anti-trust complaint against Google.

Yes, Google is on a crusade. They gather in the Googleplex dressed up like knights of the round table, with their horses, and predict the way the internet should behave.

They are also on a crusade against article directories and all of the duplicate content that is contained from one article directory to another.

The way to get links, one at a time, and only one.

While I don't want Google telling me how to run my site, I don't want them catch me doing what I'm doing! lol

Thanks for the post, just exactly what I thought after reading some 10-20 plus posts on the subject. For some reason, after all the different posts I read about the nofollow issue I can still read more of them, go figure. Thanks again.

Let's make another search engine.Let us make tools to make our own search engines. **** google. lol.

Nice post. You aren't kidding about the worst case of "mission creep" ever for Nofollow. This is not what the tag was intended for in the first place.

Great post. Just a note. We are seeing some examples of cases where comment spamming is increasing rankings, which means Google is following and counting nofollow links.

Social SEO,

Are you sure the comment spamming is happening on sites that use nofollow? Keep in mind that blog owners can turn nofollow off. I've done so on some blogs I work on and I know others who have as well.

It's always possible that a portion of the blogs being spammed don't have nofollow implemented which would obviously help deliver some results.

Jennifer, I run two main blogs, one of them being about Black Hat SEO.

I my latest post I blogged about a real example where the blogger outed himself so I had no second thoughts talking about it (many times I don't blog about BH stuff because I don't want to out my fellow BH Players - this was not the case since he outed himself).

In this example he describes how he achieved rankings by leaving comments on blogs consistently during a few months using the right keyword he wanted to rank for.

I checked his backlinks and they seem to be consistent with what he claims happened. Of course it could be a linkbait experiment on his side to get people to talk about him (he may have hidden ranking weapons that are hard to spot like for example 301 domains passing authority) but I don't think this is the case.

It is not my intention to spam this blog so feel free to remove this url, I am just adding it because I feel it adds to the conversation:

Forget About Paid Links: Comment Spamming Kicks Butt

I don't get the hysteria at all. The IHY forums discussed this exact thing about 2 years ago when the nofollow tag came out. We stated then what Google is finally doing right now. So what? Trying to trick Google into thinking your site deserves better positions because you can buy links is crazy thinking. It's the same thing as trying to trick google by showing googlebot different content than a browser would see. No difference. Both are search engine spam. If you want to sell links, and someone wants to buy links off your site, either use javascript for the link or use the nofollow tag. After all; aren't you buying and selling because of the referrals and advertising money you get? You certainly don't buy and sell links because of Google, right?

The SEO industry has had their collective heads in the sand for a few years now on this issue. It's pretty easy on our end; abide by the Google guidelines, or don't. It's up to you just like any search engine spam you want to implement. At the same time, Google can do as they please as well. There is nothing new about this issue as it made perfect sense two years ago, and it makes perfect sense today as well.

Where have you all been anyway?

Great article!I have learnt a lot about the origins of Nofollow.

"Where have you all been anyway?" asks Doug Heil.

We've been here, Doug. We've been here since long before Webcrawler was the dominant search engine. Before Mosaic. And long before Google. And being the Internet newbies that we were, we never believed that Google or China or anyone for that matter had the right to build the World Wide Web's equivalent of the Berlin Wall. Remember that, Doug?

Free transmission of information includes my right to share my link love with any site I feel has value - yes, even if they don't pay me. Yes, even if they do.

And I will not use Nofollow anywhere on my sites or blogs. My intentions for being online never hinged on the Google construct of PR and they never will. That is what makes perfect sense to me, Doug, not slavishly following the will of one search engine.

I am obviously missing something fundamental here but to me this is a complete no-brainer.

If I run a site which sells (for example) Wedding Dresses and if I had deep pockets then I could go out and buy links with "Wedding Dresses" as anchor text.

If this then pushes my site to top of Google, who exactly loses? How does this make Google's search less relevant?

The searcher gets a site which sells wedding dresses, Google's results are accurate and I (hopefully - but by no means guaranteed, in which case I will have to curtail my link-buying practices) make a profit from my advertising.

The only way I could se this being a problem is if I was some mad billionaire who, as a bit of fun, decided to buy Wedding Dresses anchor text when, in fact, my site is all about Fishing.

Assuming this scenario was even plausible and not a far-fetched piece of nonsense, surely other parts of Google's algorithm could see that there was a problem here and decide that my site was not really very relevant to Wedding Dresses and put a few crosses in the checkboxes to ensure that I didn't place at all well for Wedding Dresses.

By buying links and making my site prominent for Wedding Dresses, I am actually helping Google produce more relevant results because I am putting my hard earned cash into keywords that I believe best describe what my site is about.

With freebie reciprocal links, I could decide to "experiment" with all kinds of keywords, some of which I know my site does not do too well, but which I know will drive "related" traffic to my site.

If Google in any way penalised my site for buying links then they are punishing everyone.

Searchers wouldn't get to see my great site which sells Wedding Dresses, possibly of better quality and better prices than anywhere else, Google would therefore throw up a lesser site at the #1 spot which makes their results worse and I don't make as much money.

Everyone loses.

As I say, I must be missing something here because this really does seem simple to me.

Hi truth_seeker,

It seems you possess the technology to 'make' a Search engine better than Google. Well then , Go Ahead !

Sean Taylor

Hi Jennifer,

loved reading your post. I really doubt Google's ability to distinguish between a real paid link and a natural link. If their objective was to discount links that are been created solely for the intention of inflating PR or improving SE rankings, then it will fail.

Thanks for this post. I have been trying hard to figure out this nofollow, dofollow, ifollow stuff and I'm now one step closer to understanding it.

I don't know why eveyone is doing so much whinning. If everyone who has an adwords or adsense program running on Google, moved their account to Yahoo or MSN for the next 30 days, it would definately get Google's attention. Those people are the real Google customers, and they spend a lot of money every month. It might make them realize how poorly they treat their real customers.....Just a thought.

Dixie - Why are people whining, you ask?

Because nobody likes a bully. And nobody likes to be told what to do. Are bloggers entitled to freedom of speech? Should they then be entitled to freedom to link - without being judged by a company of 13,000 or so employees because of who they link to?

Google is supposed to be a search engine, not the Link Police. The trouble is - we gave them the Police Badge because we used their search, we used their sites, we gave them the power to censor and to remove people from the engine if they feel like it. Other search engines which used to be excellent disappeared because we all used Google.

They seem to have forgotten that they are supposed to be a search engine just lately, though.


I would like to know the workings of the search engines and how much credit is given to links that use nofollow

I agree. That nofollow tags kills it for everyone. Google makes it imposible for the startup dot com to really get thier name out their.

The official claim is that links with the rel=nofollow attribute do not influence the search engine rankings of the target page. In addition to Google, Yahoo and MSN also support the rel=nofollow attribute.

i think it helps indexing

i think it helps indexing

Very well written article. Sounds to me like rather than trying to change its own flawed system, Google feels the only way to achieve its objectives is by trying to get everyone else to conform to Google. Bad move, but they're so big that one has to ask if we have any choice but to conform.

Some time ago I've managed to remove nofollow tag from my blog @ blogger. And hen I informed some ppl about it I've gained traffic. I, of course, remove spam but the traffic is bigger and getting bigger each month.

I recommend Do-follow for everyone.

The policy that I use to use common send when adding a "no follow" tag. As with every aspect of good white hat SEO there should be a balance...any time any apsect is over done (adding "no follow" tag to many links on a page) then it could be something that could hurt your overall effort...

Thank you for this information. So I will consider whether or not to put ads on my blog.

Great article! I wasn't aware of the nofollow rules until today. I changed my blog to Do Follow: http://www.learninghdtv.com

I admit, I have not been on this webpage in a long time... however it was another joy to see It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to help making people more aware of possible issues. Actually I own a site about baccarat is it wise to make the paid lnks no follow without giving it's information to the client. Also I want to know that how can we remove no follow tag from the blogger,

I find it amusing that after that meaty post, this page still adopts the nofollow algoritm.


Comments closed after 30 days to combat spam.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > NoFollow is for Blog Spam...no Paid Text Links, wait...Paid Ads...Aww Heck, Just Stop Linking and Let Calacanis Decide the Rankings - Part One