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(Updated) Follow On No Follow: Will "Fully web-expressed writing" Suffer?

By - January 19, 2005

Signdo15I am still not sure how I feel about this, everyone in the comments field of the last post have valid points to make. As I understand it from the Google Guy post (and I am not sure this really is a “Google Guy” – when will Google just stop being coy and let actual real people make comments?) the rel = tag will possibly extend how comment URLs can be understood, built upon, etc. That sounds like a good thing.

But certainly then one question is, do we default to “no follow”?

Now, I’m not questioning No Follow simply because I want to ensure that those who leave URLs in a blog’s comment space get more search juice. For the most part, I agree with Danny’s approach on this question. But what bothers me is that there may well be an ecology that evolves based on the link mojo in comments which we can’t imagine, but that would be important and wonderful, and that will not develop if every comment has a tag telling search engines to ignore it. Like it or not, search engines are now processors of our collective reality, and fiddling with that requires some comtemplation.

My gut take on this yesterday was “We’re making a decision without thinking through the implications.” My second gut take was “We can’t possibly imagine all the implications.” So my third gut take is “Don’t do it if we can’t imagine what consequences it might have.”

OTOH, there is much to recommend any system that foils spammers, and ecologies always evolve through a rubicon of conscious choice and unconscious wandering. I have found, however, that using the tools provided by MT, comment spam is no longer a big deal for me. I manage the problem on my end (with able help from my webmaster), and that’s that.

In the end, I remain unsure how I feel about this, and will continue to grok it, and if I come to some conclusion, I’ll share it, but for now, I’m still pondering it. Meanwhile, my webmaster has installed the software, but I’m going to ask him to take it off mine, till I figure out how I feel about it.

Update: I’m told by my webmaster that “No Follow” also applies to Trackbacks. I totally disagree with that, so for now, I won’t be No Following. If I have this wrong, can someone clue me in? I know there is trackback spam, but it’s about 1% the problem of comment spam….

Update 2: Anil has a good post on all this here. But as I read through it, I realized I really wanted to read the comments too. And bingo, they were great. Danny chimed in, as did many others, and I learned something. The comments themselves were very valuable information. Let’s imagine a scenario five years from now when someone – perhaps a student doing his thesis on the early growth of blogs – wants to do a search for intelligent commentary on the emergence of post-PageRank relevance schema. Assuming that everyone follows No Follow, does that mean that the comments in Anil’s post, which I found very good, will have less juice in the index, even though they use linking to make posts? What if the comments brought up entirely new ideas, ones that deserve to be found later, or linked to important concepts which elucidate the discussion?

In other words, here is one of the unintended consequences I worried about already becoming apparent: No Follow will discourage people from doing what I’ll call “fully web-expressed writing” on other people’s blogs – where they write in that rather post-modern way of linking as they write, which is what we all do in this bloggy world we live in. A deft web writer is like a spider pulling strands to support his or her central thesis – it’s an emerging form of communication, and from what I can tell, it’s going to be very important long term to our culture.

If as a commentator on someone’s blog, you know that you’re spending ten, twenty, or more minutes crafting a response, and that response – because it lives in someone’s comments field – will be ignored by the conferrers of future societal attention (ie – search indexes) – then I can imagine many folks will simply avoid writing thoughtful responses in comemnts altogether. Instead, they’ll post on their own site. It seems that one of the things No Follow will do – subtley or not – is discourage active and intelligent dialog on a post. That is not, to my mind, a good thing.

So far what I have read seems to frame the folks who are unsure about No Follow as not wanting to lose the ability to gain PageRank from comments they might post elsewhere. Danny pointed out in Anil’s comments that there is something rather seamy about using comments to announce your blog, or point to your favorite post, or whatever. With exceptions, I agree with that. But I don’t think this is about that – it’s not why I am still unsure. It’s more subtle – what am I locking down here that otherwise might flourish? What am I cutting off that might prove important in the future?

Also, the idea that we need to get “back to PageRank as it was in the beginning” feels a bit off – that was then, this is now. We can’t go back.

I would have liked to have posted this on Anil’s site, but he has TypeKey registration set up, and I’m not against it per se, but I just don’t like the siging up proceess getting in the way of thinking out loud as the impulse hit me. Sorry about that, but there you have it, proof in the process. As I have said many times, f*ing spammers.

Lastly, I sense that this is more about the search engines and their need to despam their indexes (important certainly), than it is about the bloggers and the need to despam our sites (which as I said before, we all are getting reasonably good at). Note that Ask – which takes a different indexing approach from the more PageRank-centric MSN, Google, and Yahoo – is on the sidelines on this one. Not that we don’t all live in an intertwingled ecology, and not that we don’t all potentially benefit from this move, but … this felt rushed and rather unilateral.

Anyway, yet more to chew on. This is drawing an amazing array of responses, far more than I can read right now. My apologies in advance if I missing some obvious advancements in the discussion, or have my facts dead wrong.

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  • http://percept.be Bart N.

    In essence this is not an anti-commentspam measure.
    Spammers won’t be stopped by this code, their webpages just won’t receive any search engine juice anymore. If people keep clicking the links in the spamcomments they still profit from this.

    ‘No Follow’ is here to stop searchengine spam, which is a huge problem for searchengines but they (the SE’s) are selling it as an anti-spamcomment ‘tool’.

  • http://www.memeorandum.com/ Gabe

    “But what bothers me is that there may well be an ecology that evolves based on the link mojo in comments which we can’t imagine, but that would be important and wonderful, and that will not develop if every comment has a tag telling search engines to ignore it.”

    But John, even now ecologies are degraded or deterred outright due to link bans, moderation delays, redirects, required registrations, the switching off of comments altogether — all comment spam countermeasures.

  • http://www.insanelygreatsites.com Chuck Lawson

    Speaking of interesting consequences, does anyone have a guess as to whether two “rel” attributes will both be interpreted and followed? It =has= been getting more use lately…

    For example, it’s probably coincidental that Technorati’s new tagging system uses “rel=tag” on hrefs, but if it can only be used once, they’ve managed to insure that the link to them won’t be restricting pagerank with “nofollow”…

  • http://www.capnken.com/wisdom Cap'n Ken

    For an initiative being touted as a joint effort between GOOG, YHOO, MSFT, et al, it sure doesn’t seem that they’ve given a whole of thought to the implications – or at least they did a horrible job of communicating their thoughts on it.

    And with pub tools having come so far in allowing sites to police comments, it seems like the engines are chasing a problem that’s already ahead of them.

  • http://www.mikel.org/ Michael

    Chuck, in the Movable Type implementation any existing rel=’x’ attribute will be converted to rel=’nofollow x’ by the plugin.

    As far as the other implications, I think caution is commendable, but I really can’t see this having a big impact in any negative direction, and it seems clear it will have a slight but significant impact in a positive direction – ie fighting comment spam.

    I would like to see more information and evidence about the assumptions this is based on – in particular the idea that comment spammers do this for google juice.

    BTW – anyone have any info on why Technorati seems to be offline? I’ve been getting a DirectNIC placeholder all day. Likely just a glitch.

  • pb

    I don’t think “nofollow” is necessary. There are other ways to combat comment spam (which seem to be working as I rarely see such) and comment links normally are legitimate variables to include in PageRank calculations.

  • http://www.billsaysthis.com BillSaysThis

    “Instead, they’ll post on their own site.”

    Isn’t this a trackback? But the nofollow tag means that even a connected conversation is degraded. So, agreed, this effort seems to have come from the right place in everyone’s hearts but not necessarily as well thought out as one would like from such a large, intelligent group.

  • http://searchingforthemoon.blogspot.com Shannon Clark

    I frequently comment, on many different blogs, yet I have for at least a year or two assumed that my blogs, whether or not a link to my own site (or sites) were mentioned will not result in much (usually any) “pagerank” or even much traffic.

    I comment to contribute to the discourse. The problem that I find, actually, is tracking down all my prior comments – it seems that Google (and most other search engines, including specialized ones like Technorati) do a poor job of offering search of comments as well as the sites.

    Shannon

  • http://speed.insane.com/ Scott Johnson

    As mentioned above, “No Follow” will not stop spam. In fact, it won’t even stop the spammers from receiving PageRank (or other engine’s equivalent) when they spam blogs. The problem is that ALL blogs will have to be upgraded to support this measure before it can possibly be effective. While this is a measure that we can each individually take to do our part in fighting the problem, there is no way we can force everyone to do so. In fact, many bloggers probably don’t even know how to implement it on their sites.

    Like you, John, I’m undecided. I think that valid comments and trackbacks should get that Google Juice like they always have. And MT-Blacklist seems to be working just fine for me at the moment.

  • http://feedster.com Scott Rafer

    John, I think that the nofollow effort falls somewhere between your second and third gut reactions as listed, and that the cure might lead to much worse diseases. However, whether nofollow fails or not, trackback spam is going to be a real hassle. Some jerk is going to set up a Trackback ping server offshore and loft a few million erroneous pings into the system a day and just make everyone turn it off. It’d be cheap and simple.

    Separately, I wouldn’t worry about “post-PageRank relevance schema.” We all have to come back by and re-crawl this stuff to use it anyway. The truly post-PageRank crowd will capture the nofollow tag, use it as information, and crawl what lives behind the link anyway.

  • http://b2ob.blogspot.com Anonymous

    Hello John,
    I understand your worry for the ecology of the net and all your considerations seem to be very logic, but pardon me for might be sounding naive, but i was shocked to ear that:

    “If as a commentator on someone’s blog, you know that you’re spending ten, twenty, or more minutes crafting a response, and that response – because it lives in someone’s comments field – will be ignored by the conferrers of future societal attention (ie – search indexes) – then I can imagine many folks will simply avoid writing thoughtful responses in comemnts altogether. Instead, they’ll post on their own site. It seems that one of the things No Follow will do – subtley or not – is discourage active and intelligent dialog on a post. That is not, to my mind, a good thing.”

    Is that what this global conversation for you (and others, relying on their comments) was all the time? Participating for the benefit of PageRank? Audiences? Maybe for that sake i should have posted in my blog, or maybe i should speek only according to a market strategy for myself, or maybe what i thought since the begining was all wrong. I tought that we were all being part of a global conversation, extending ideas, making connections to exchange views, to grow and foster ideas, to learn…

    Guess i must have misunderstand what you have explained, guess i have it all wrong… and if that is so, i’m glad.

    One of your long time readers,

    M

  • http://battellemedia.com John Battelle

    I clearly am not communicating well Monica, sorry. It’s not all about getting PageRank. But it is somewhat about attention and being found. We’re building a linked conversation, as you noted. It’d be wrong to undervalue that conversation, just as it’d be wrong to overvalue it. I’m hoping for a balance.

  • http://www.preoccupations.org David Smith

    John,

    Your reply to M

  • http://nofollow.com Seyed Razavi

    I don’t think the search engine people have got it totally wrong: They have given us the beginning of annotated links (shame its only binary meta information with ill-thought out semantics but its a start).

    The blog tool publishers though are full of shit when they peddle this as even a mild cure for comment spam. Their assumption of some rational testing method (“I will not spam this site for it gives no PageRank”) is simply not supported by the evident behaviour. Consider email spam for no longer available sites, referrer spam when referrers are not published, zombie spam machines with out-of-date target lists etc etc

    I’m also wondering whether giving webmasters control over the direction of bots outside their domain is really the best way to build “better” search results.

    Consider: When discussing, say, a Nazi site people use the nofollow attribute to stop a search engine giving the site “credit” (PageRank or whatever).

    Fine, you may say – I don’t want my voice to give those whom I disagree with a more visible platform.

    Yet, is the search engine doing us a favour by effectively censoring the counter-argument perhaps contained within that site?

    Now, I’ve picked an example I’m sure few people will want to defend but think about it when its applied to something less universally reviled but still an (Internet) minority opinion.

    Is this the beginning of the reverse- (or anti-) google bomb?

    Does this also allow the head of the power curve to dictate the reality of the web by giving them an effective veto over the search engines results?

    Also am I alone in finding a link you’re not supposed to follow an innately funny concept? I mean why not just kill the hyperlink or not show it all?

    I’m expecting the next great announcement to be “Spam Problem Solved: Internet Shuts Down.”

  • http://nofollow.com Seyed Razavi

    Oh final thought, I declare 2005 the year the web rediscovered the “rel” attribute. First “tags”, now “nofollow”, may I suggest “whuffie” next?

    Finally, an non-passive authority metric can be born! Imagine the fun, the new arguments over link whoring, virtual stock markets, discussions on power curves in whuffie currency markets and self-congratulating armchair revolutions we could have!

  • http://www.komar.org/ alek

    FYI FWIW: Cool Firefox tweek so you can easily see if “nofollow” is set – put this in your UserContent.css file

    a[rel="nofollow"]
    {
    background-color: red !important;
    color: white !important;
    font-weight: bold !important;
    text-decoration: none !important;
    }

    Courtesy of http://blog.outer-court.com/archive/2005-01-19-n34.html

  • http://labnol.blogspot.com amit agarwal

    i just did some tweaking of my blogger template to implement nofollow attribute in my blog.

    those interested may see the full code here

    HTH,
    T.I.B.

  • http://orangehues.com Manu Sharma

    John — I’m a little surprised noone pointed the obvious here. Says a lot about how little people understand this attribute.

    Your concern about search engines not indexing comments is unfounded. That only happens if you use nofollow for the link to the comment page. Google doesn’t recommend that. They only suggest you use it for user generated links. Here’s the relevant text from Google’s post on nofollow:

    Q: Should I put rel=”nofollow” on the link to my comments page?

    A: Probably not, because lots of interesting discussion can happen there. Also, if other people link to your comments page, a spider can follow that link and find any spam that’s lurking on the comments page.

    The best places to add this attribute are the actual links that other people can create.

    That said, using nofollow still does discourgage discussion in the sense that an extra benefit of commenting [boost to your pagerank] has been taken away. However, the content of your comment will still be findable through search engines.

  • http://www.digme.net/ Anonymous

    I’m still not sure about the “rel=nofollow” idea.

    My immediate reaction was that it’s way better than using some comment link redirect script to hide the URLs from search engines, and I still think it is. The redirect idea was a really bad solution.

    However, I’m not sure that the choice of link type name is a good one. Reading the W3C specs I guess that a better link type name would be something like “irrelevant”.

    My current blog host, TypePad, implemented the nofollow feature immediately. Nice, but at present I’ve got no spam and have no need for nofollow links. I was very surprised when I was told there was no way to turn of the feature. There’s apparently an on switch, but no off switch.

    The nice people from TypePad tech support did mention that an off switch may be developed, but reading the post by Anil Dash that’s linked in update 2 of this post I’m not so sure an off switch is planned.

    I don’t mind whether the links in comments I make to other peoples blogs are typed nofollow, but I do mind when my blog host turns into BOFH and I lose control over my own website.

    I still think link types may be useful, but I’m still not sure that the nofollow link type issue as it’s being handled is a good idea.