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Google’s Recent Spat of “NoFollow” Orders Aren’t Really Surprising

It seems like everyone all over the SEO world right now is having a bit of a spaz attack, because Google is coming out with a bunch of statements lately that point out specific kinds of links that they believe should have the “nofollow” attribute. Links inside widgets is the latest one, but they’ve pointed out links in blog comments, links in press releases, and several more over the last six weeks. People are chattering about all of these like Google has gone crazy…but really, it’s a pretty childish reaction. Just take a look at this:

Here are some cases in which you might want to consider using nofollow:

Paid links: A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. In order to prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users, we urge webmasters use nofollow on such links. Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word “Advertisement”).

Now, stop and think about that. If you’re putting a link inside of a widget and then giving away that widget for people to put up on their websites, you’re essentially paying for the link they give you — you’re just paying in code instead of cash. If you’re putting a link in a press release and giving it to the news corps, you’re either paying some writer to write the press release, or you’re ‘paying’ your own time and energy to do it yourself — either way, the links that you’re putting out there should rightfully be considered ‘paid.’

Of course, this practice completely destroys a good chunk of the SEO industry that refers to itself as “backlink builders” — or, more likely these days, as “content marketers”, since that’s the new in thing. But there’s a story behind that and a reason for it.

The History of NoFollow
rel=”nofollow” was originally created by Google to combat link spam in blog comments. This was because Google wanted to implement ‘negative SEO’ — wherein linking out to ‘bad parts of the Web’ would make your website’s ranking suffer. The problem was that “Internet Marketers” of the rank amateur and/or advanced blackhat variety had thousands of bots out there that would meander around the web, and any time they came across something that looked like a blog, they would auto-comment and drop a link to wherever — and oftentimes that where was on the ‘Bad Part’ list. So the more popular a blog was, the greater the chance it would get it’s ranking nuked by these bots.

Google invented rel=”nofollow” so that bloggers could keep automated blog commenters from killing their blogs’ SERP rankings. Of course, that didn’t stop automated blog commenters — they’re still around in huge numbers — but it did keep the blogs’ ranks up. Since then, however, Google has decided that NoFollow should instead be used to demarcate more than just ‘links we don’t want Google to follow’ — they decided it should be forced down webmaster’s throats in the form of ‘links Google doesn’t want Google to follow’ — which, from the perspective of the monopolist, makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately, ‘links Google doesn’t want Google to follow’ consists of basically every link that a webmaster somewhere makes happen — even if it’s technically unpaid. It’s the entire ‘off-page SEO’ half of the SEO industry. Whether or not Google will actually meaningfully affect the behavior of such a powerfully market-driven industry by punishing not the websites being linked to, but instead the websites being linked from (the ones hosting the DoFollow links), remains to be seen — it seems to me like it’s a classic example of misdirected aggression.

But hey — I’m not saying that what Google is doing is right. It’s just not terribly surprising.

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