The no-follow tag has been in existence for over ten years now, and ever since the day it was introduced to now, people have actually been misusing it.
Originally, nofollow was designed as a means of combating spam, and giving more credence to websites, allowing search engines to rank them based on their links to other sites and the quality of those links. From inception to now, however, the nofollow tag has not been used for its original purpose, rather it has been abused by content publishers because of the fear that a single link would cause their search rank to plummet.
The Ideal of Nofollow
When nofollow was proposed, the correct use of it would have been to include it in links that you definitely don't want search engines to use in their gauge of how trustworthy your site is.
These types of links include:
Comments: On blogs where you allow public commenting, it's understood that you may not have control over links posted in that comment section and so nofollow would be a good idea
User Generated Content: Content generated by users may contain outbound links and since you don't control those links, it's wise to insert a nofollow there as well
Paid Links/Advertising: Search engines will see paid links as a "bad" link and including nofollow in those links is essential.
Embeds: If you add tools, widgets or plugins from external sites but donâ€™t want to endorse the sites, using a nofollow in your embeds accomplishes this nicely.
Where it All Went Wrong
Nofollow was a good idea to combat spam. It did a good job of keeping the links that didn't add to a site's importance (or cast it in a bad light) out of the eyes of search engines and enabled sites that provided good content to its users to prosper. Then the fear and doubt over which sites counted as â€œauthority sitesâ€ and which didn't started to crop up. Content publishers kept looking over their shoulders as they linked to other pages, carefully inserting nofollows to ensure that if the search engine didn't like those sites they wouldn't be condemned by association. By introducing this atmosphere of fear and doubt surrounding the nofollow tag, search engines have managed to make this tag into a veritable "Big Brother" of the Internet.
Why you Shouldn't Nofollow Everything
Tadeusz Szewcyk, in the Inbound.org discussion surrounding the topic, notes that if your site has all nofollow links what it implies is that the site either produces 100% user-generated content or all the content on the site is ad-based. Neither of these makes for good content, however, and the search engine is likely to rank such a site down. Modern nofollow usage includes the tag in such things as forum links and sitewide links.
Nofollowing every external link on your page also has the downside of crippling organic links. If you're afraid that your link will be considered spammy or unacceptable by Google then it's likely that you'll simply dispense with linking such a site. While it's easy for a user to see how it would work for a site to keep external links that it's not sure about down to a minimum, the issue comes to a head when high-quality sites are also considered to be "bad" links and Google advises webmasters to nofollow those sites.
The Problem of Guest Posting
As it was stated previously, user generated content is one of those things that is ripe for using the nofollow tag to control links that you otherwise would have no control over. An obvious exception to the rule is guest posting, especially on pages that already have a high authority score in Google. Recently, Rand Fishkin pointed out that Google flagged a Moz guest post on another author's blog for violating its quality guidelines.
For any SEO professionals out there, Moz is considered one of the best sites to link to since their content is of unusually high quality and they tend to be considered an authority on the subjects of SEO and content. The thing is, guest posts, especially on Moz, aren't traditional user generated content. Rand contends that they check every link that passes through the things they guest post on YouMoz. It raises the question as to whether the nofollow situation has gone too far. If high authority sites such as Moz can no longer be trusted then maybe nofollowing every link that we have might benefit us more?
What someone can contend from Google's point of view is that the nofollow tag is a means of controlling abuse by unscrupulous websites that aim to have their search ranking increased depending on links posted onto other sites with relatively high authority scores. Since the control of all content falls back onto the editorial staff of these sites, then it's obvious that things like user generated content and content on blog posts would be nofollowed by design since those external areas may contain sites that editorial staff has no personal control over. By having links to low-quality sites posted by users, the overall authority score of the page would be brought down with the editorial staff powerless to change it.
Nofollow gives power back to the editorial staff and allows them to mitigate damage from concerted spam and links to low-quality pages and content via an overall nofollow rule on content that is generated by users, which is what it was originally intended for. Now we see Google contending that things like press releases are about as bad as advertisements and that webmasters should consider nofollowing links from press releases as well. More fear and doubt interspersed around the nofollow tag doesn't help the overall usefulness of it and instead impacts it negatively.
The Crux of the Matter - Choosing your Nofollows
Determining what sites should get a nofollow and what sites shouldn't rests wholly on you. Searchengineland in their coverage of the nofollow tag states that it's all up to the discretion of the webmaster what links should be nofollowed. It raises the question, then, which authority sites can you trust? Ideally, sites that have a large amount of user generated content should be added to your nofollow list. Sites such as forums and public comment pages provide great resources, but should be nofollowed because although the information they provide may be useful to the user, it doesn't "look good" to Google. And this underlines the glaring problem with the nofollow tag: how can a webmaster be sure that what they're nofollowing makes sense?
When presented with content that is useful to a user, such content should raise the authority value of the site. By adding a nofollow to that link, you distance yourself from it and stop that link seeing any traffic whatsoever from it. It's not a fair practice sometimes and since the internet is supposed to be a meritocracy, where sites are judged on the quality of their content, it begs the question of whether Google is actually aware of the content of these pages or if they trust the viability of content solely to the discretion of their indexing robots.
The Failing of Nofollow and the Resulting Fallout
What started as a great idea ended up as something that is a fair country mile away from a great idea. The nofollow ideal of using the tag to control links has been corrupted into using nofollow out of fear of being penalized for having low quality links. Although Google's John Mueller has come out as saying that there's no need to add nofollow to the natural links within your content, it begs the question, "What does Google consider a natural link?" It's clearly not links that we've taken for granted as being natural up to now. Links from high authority sites are still viewed with suspicion, despite being extensively checked before being added to a guest post. There are a few glaring reasons the nofollow tag itself seems to be redundant from a content production perspective, such as:
The Inability of Google to Make up their Mind about the Nofollow tag: Probably my biggest beef with nofollow is that Google does things that shake my faith in their system. The nofollow tag keeps getting addendums as to what is considered a natural link and what isn't. By stifling links via nofollow, Google may see it as pruning the content tree and removing "bad" links. However, it can negatively affect the growth and development of natural links. Inexperienced webmasters find themselves in the unenviable position of having to determine what links should fall under nofollow and what shouldn't. And it's not just webmasters like these that simply nofollow all external links: eConsultancy is another high-authority site than simply nofollows all links in order to preserve their page rank.
Nofollow is Counterproductive: The idea behind the current twisted version of nofollow tries to use editorial staff's discretion when linking. Is this link at a high enough authority score that I can safely link to it? Is it user generated content? What if I link to it and it affects my overall page rank? Questions like these sow doubt in a content publisher's mind and does little to help the building of natural web links. If anything it slows the development of organic links. So what if the link is relevant, displays good information and enhances the lives of the audience? This is one of the major failings of nofollow in my personal opinion: it encourages isolationism over healthy link building.
It Has Lost Its Original Purpose: WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg is noted as saying that nofollow didn't have much of an effect on blog spam and WordPress had tried it initially as a means of controlling spammy links in comments. He stated bluntly, however, that he considered nofollow a failure for the task for which it was invented. Currently, comment spam is a lot worse than it was when nofollow was introduced. It speaks volumes for it failing to do what it was designed for.
This is Not New Information: Blog posts dating all the way back to 2006 stated unequivocally that nofollow was a bad idea and that it probably wouldn't work. Those blog posters were likely able to see into the future of the Internet and we are now coming to understand that their insight (some posts as old as nine years) about the nofollow tag was well founded. Reading about some of their apprehensions (such as reducing the validity of comments on a blog or the idea that it would cause problems with actually viable, relevant links) makes you wonder why nobody took this seriously back in 2006.
Complicating Matters on the Content Front
So where does this leave us as content publishers and creators? To be succinct, it leaves us in the lurch. We can't nofollow all our external links, despite there being a call by Google that we do so with the threat of ramifications to our search rank hanging like the proverbial sword of Damocles over our heads. Do we simply link to high authority sites? If we do, then we could end up being penalized anyway if Google considers those high authority sites as not worthy of its quality ranking. This particular messy situation is one of the worst sides to SEO and the nofollow tag, instead of helping, simply makes it worse. Google currently determines a site's relevancy partly based on high-quality outbound links tied to anchor tags that are descriptive. If those links are considered low quality, maybe nofollowing everything might be the only solution?
Stop Using Nofollow for Content Links
The viability of your content links lies solely on the shoulders of the content publishers and producers. Finding good links is an easy enough task, and finding links that are relevant as well as high quality limits your selection. Google's consideration of high-quality, authoritative sites as low-quality links simply exacerbates the problem of finding and linking good, relevant links to support your statements. Content production companies are in the business of creating high-quality content, but if that content is bogged down with low quality links, then it doesn't enhance the site it's posted on at all.
The best thing is to simply dispense with the nofollow tag for content links. Nofollow has become a means of leveraging content producers to do the search engine's work for them and it is unacceptable. SEO is supposed to be based around the idea of a site being considered better and more authoritative as time goes by the more relevant links there are to them that are relevant. Nofollow flies in the face of this and actively works to undo the good work of SEO by encouraging isolationism and reducing value from linking. I think it's time content producers and publishers stood up and said that nofollow makes no sense for content.
About The Author:
Julia Spence-McCoy is the CEO of Express Writers, an online copywriting agency that began in 2011 with thousands of web content pages written to date and more than 50 talented writers on the team. Her passion is copywriting and all that pertains, including the ever-changing game of Google algorithm updates.