January 19, 2005

New nofollow tag cheers bloggers, but fails blogs?

by brian_turner

SPECIAL REPORT

A new tag is to be introduced to the internet, instructing search engine spiders to ignore specified links, and major search engines Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft will support it. Publicly claimed to be for the fight against blog spam, it effectively leaves the search engines asking webmasters to help improve their results.

A simple attribute, the new tag is intended to be placed inside a link anchor, like this:

rel=”nofollow”

and is placed within the link anchor code.

The intention is that the “nofollow” rel attribute is used to indicate to search engines that the link should not be followed.

While a number of people in the world of blogging are touting this as a solution to blog spam, the actual effect is likely to cripple the link popularity blogs have so readily enjoyed between one another, while additionally providing a tool that webmasters can use to hide useful content from search engines.

A number of options have already existed for blog software development companies, such as:

  • Allow only registered users to post
  • Disallow HTML in posts
  • Use a jump script to mask the target URL
  • Place comments in a folder and allow only registered users to access them
  • Place comments in a folder and use the “nofollow” meta-tag
  • Place comments in a folder and use a robots.txt file to block search engine spiders

Although some blog developers have employed one or more of these methods, some very popular releases have continuously failed to address the problem. For example, Blogger blogs suffer relatively little comment spam – yet SixApart only set the default installation of their very popular MovableType release to registered users only for comments at the start of the year.

The “nofollow” tag is just another option on top of an already rich set of possibilities, that many responsible web publishers have already employed themselves, to help cut out comment spam altogether.

However, it is very unlikely that the new “nofollow” attribute will actually prevent comment spam – it will simply mean that search engines will be asked to ignore it.

More to the point, if implemented to any small degree, it can only encourage more aggressive action from automated blog spamming scripts, and worms such as Santy have already shown how search engines themselves can be used to implement this on a large scale.

There also remains the problem of abuse of the “nofollow” tag itself. For example:

  • Webmasters trying to hide reciprocated links, so that search enignes think the link popularity is all one-way,
  • Directory owners trying to preserve PageRank by crippling content links,
  • Webmasters hiding links in RSS feeds they publish, thus gaining content without search engines being able to attribute it to source
  • Exploitation of Creative Commons material, by distributing it (modified or not) on other websites, but preventing search engines from being able to attribute source
  • Forum admins crippling member links, to gorge on the PageRank preserved

When looked at in these terms, it is difficult not to think that Google and other search engines, see this method as a way to make Webmasters police themselves – presuming anyone takes up the new attribute for the long term.

Here’s how the internet movers are covering this issue:

Search Engines:

Not surprising, the search engines themselves cheer the move. After all, they’ve just asked the webmastering community to police the internet for them, and help them remove a process that automated spam filtering could not work against:

  • Preventing comment spam: Matt Cutts and Jason Shellen at Google report from that this is intended to tackle blog, guestbook, and referrer list spam. They list helpful guidelines for the application of the “nofollow” tag among the webmastering community, to whom they appeal to apply it – yet despite being informative on the technical side, the announcement itself reads as cold.
  • A Defense Against Comment Spam: Jeremy Zawodny writes in the Yahoo! blog that he expects this to start combating comment spam right away. Although he tries to indicate that a particular concern is reducing server load for blog hosts, he tellingly comments “In the coming weeks you can expect to see the changes reflected in our web index.” In other words, Yahoo! effectively sees comment spam as a major factor in making Yahoo! provide irrelevant results.
  • Working Together Against Blog Spam: MSN warmly relates on times in student halls, and makes no claim to the tool actually having affected the MSN index, nor of comment spam being solved by this issue. However, there is a clear invitation to accept/reject/comment on the matter, while Search Development Manager Ken Moss suggests it will be a “good thing” and “put bloggers back in control.”

Search Engine commenters

The rest of the internet sees things a little differently, though. There is a mixture of enthusiasm, pessimism, resignation, and also real concern that should a move, if widely implemented, could indeed cripple the blogosphere of the very “free exchange of thoughts and ideas” that created it:

  • Support for nofollow: Six Apart publish blog software, but until now have done precious little indeed to combat comment spam effectively, though options have been available. It was only at the start of this year that the public version of MovableType even defaulted to comments being moderated – which should have been one of the first defences to be implemented long ago. For the most part, the company is upbeat – but perhaps more because it is seen to be acting in some way, even if it doesn’t actually address the issue.
  • The Social Impacts of Software Choices: Anil Dash waxes lyrical about how only “spammers” will suffer from widespread implementation of the links, and suggests are its only real critics. He also cheers Six Apart’s implementation of the tag, yet fails to point out that users will still end up with comment spammed blogs – it’s simply that search engines won’t have to look at the mess.
  • Google Admitting Defeat over War with Spammers?: Nick Wilson brings together a number of threads at Threadwatch, and the general tone from experienced SEO’s and webmasters – lack of faith that the attribute will combat spam, but instead will be easily abused.
  • Google, Yahoo, MSN Unite On Support For Nofollow Attribute For Links: Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch enthuses over the fact that search engines are trying to address some webmaster concerns – but he concedes that this move in itself is unlikely to stop comment spam behaviour.
  • Report: Google to Put Kibosh on Blog Comment Spam: Steve Rubel welcomes the move – if it actually addresses the issue.
  • Fighting blog comment spam – what companies need to know: Charlene Li at Forrester suggests that companies should be safe to turn on comments, and that the nofollow tag should protect – but she fails to mention that just because search engines may not credit a link, does not mean to say that automated spam bots won’t leave company blog comments filled with spam hawking adult, pharmaceutical, and gambling services.
  • Follow On No Follow: John Battelle realises that there are implications way beyond simple elimination of comment spam, and expresses unease – responding to comments on how blog linking may be adversely affected, he ponders that there may be serious consequences for ordinary bloggers if widely implemented.
  • Fighting blog comment spam Silicon Valley reports on its scepticism that the nofollow tag can overcome the greater resourcefulness of comment spammers – and also pauses to express unease
  • Comment spam – it’s going to get a little better: Alex Barnett simply welcomes the move – but as a dedicated supporter of RSS marketing, does he realise how badly RSS feeds could be abused by this by provision of content for search engines, without the source site being attributed?
  • Google to Kill Blog Comment Spam?L Darren Rowse notes that it would require large-scale implementation to have any effect, and also notes that this could serious impact not only how blogs interact, but also kill search traffic to sites that are maintained by links from other blogs.
  • Winer set to deliver comment spam knockout: BlogHerald imagines that the announcement will mean that all comment spam will disappear over 12 months – but presumes that all blogs will somehow auto-update to ensure this happens.
  • More on the Rel=NoFollow Tag…: Aaron Wall at SEO Book is resigned to the move being widely applied, and simply points out that comment spam had offered “low-hanging fruit” for people to easily abuse. However, he also points out that where the markets move, so does the money – if “nofollow” is effective, other methods will be applied to achieve similar means.
  • Massive weblog anti-spam initiative: rel=”nofollow”: MT-Blacklist recognises the fact that blogs will lose out in popularity – both in terms of linking and traffic – if this method is widely applied. Interestingly enough, the issue is seen as fair-trade for over-valuation of blogs in the first place, which has especially created the problem.
  • The Spammers have Won: Andy Wismar points out that the blogosphere was created and defined using comments and trackbacks – and if the “nofollow” attribute is used, it effectively means the deconstruction and devaluation of the blogosphere.

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Story link: New nofollow tag cheers bloggers, but fails blogs?

 

5 Responses to “New nofollow tag cheers bloggers, but fails blogs?”

  1. NetInstitute Search Engine Marketing Weblog on January 20th, 2005 6:19 pm

    Bloggers Cheer Google As Their Rankings Plummet

    I’m very glad that Brian Turner sees the implications of the nofollow tag. But will the average blogger catch on? Great report. Every blogger should read it.

  2. pacemake on January 24th, 2005 11:14 am

    Google Spam Medicine Worse Than Problem It “Cures”

    Google’s new comment spam “cure” is also a poison that harms the powerful inter-linking process that blogs use to create much benefit on the internet. As you know, one reason that blogs add value to the web is by linking…

  3. Brian’s Blog » Referral spamming test on December 16th, 2005 11:34 am

    [...] When the search engines promoted the “no follow” tag earlier this year, I feared webmasters would see a deluge of referrer spam. [...]

  4. Brian’s Blog » No follow: one year on on January 5th, 2006 1:54 pm

    [...] This was pretty obvious at the start, but only a few bloggers realised the implications. [...]

  5. Brian’s Blog » Google Sandbox in action? on January 6th, 2006 6:51 pm

    [...] After the introduction of nofollow, the humour site http://www.linkcondom.com was set up to parody the concept of nofollow. [...]

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