SEO Changes: Is it Time to Abandon the NoFollow Directive?

Fri, Mar 6, 2009

Link Building

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum, no doubt you are keenly aware of the roaring popularity of micro-blogging sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. The popularity of these sites, combined with the ease of updating them, has transformed the blogosphere. Today, more people update their micro-blogging sites more than they do traditional blogs. Millions of people are linking to their status updates left on these sites and the search engines are happily crawling along looking at the links. The question for SEO firms is this: How does this change affect SEO techniques, and is it time to abandon the nofollow directive?

The nofollow directive in links has always been a safety net of sorts. You could use it to link to contact outside your pages that might come from an unknown source, and it was the accepted standard to linking to your own content so that the search engines didn’t believe you were link stuffing. Search engines pretty much adhered to nofollow directives and all was well.

Today, we face a much different environment. It all started with Wikipedia in some ways. By default, Wikipedia nofollows all outbound links on its site – in other words, the site isolates itself from the rest of the Internet. Plenty of people are linking in, but from the search engines point of view they aren’t linking out. Yet SEO professionals noticed something rather interesting about this arrangement. Wikipedia consistently ranks near the top for a lot of search queries. Was this “black hole” actually being rewarded by the search engines? Or could it be that the search engines were ignoring the nofollow tags altogether?

Before an answer was found for that question another wave of links without the nofollow directive hit through the micro-blogging sites. Since almost all of the micro-blogging sites require users to “host” their micro-blogs on their sites the #1 rule of blogging was broken – host your content on your own domain. Because of this the links to that content started pouring in. People were linking up to Twitter feeds and Tumblr posts left and right, and almost nobody was using the nofollow directive. It didn’t matter to the average user if they trusted the person or not, they were just interested in linking to the content for their own purposes.

A third scenario popped up as well, led by the Wikipedia example above – people started to nofollow all links from their sites to replicate the success Wikipedia had. So now we had three situations where nofollow was coming into play:

  • To isolate sites entirely from outbound links.
  • Ignoring it completely because of the popularity of sites like Twitter and Tumblr.
  • Search engines choosing to ignore nofollow and following anyway.

Have you kept up? It’s a nightmare for anyone engaged in SEO to try and figure some of this out!

To throw another twist into the mix, recent tests have shown that sites that have nothing but nofollow links pointing to them are actually ranking. This gives credibility to the theory that search engines are choosing to ignore the directives.

So how can you use all these findings to make your sites better and to increase your rank? Simply put, it’s something where right now there is no clear answer. You should continue to use the nofollow directive as you have in the past for paid links and such, but when it comes to social networking sites you may want to drop it altogether. You may want to try several different versions of pages to see which ones ranks better trying a combination of nofollow directives. Questions like this make the perfect scenario for A/B testing.

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This post was written by:

Cassiano Travareli - who has written 90 posts on SEO Blog | SEO Marketing World.

SEO Specialist! Loves everything about Search Engine Marketing.