New Nofollow Link Attribute and Link Spamming

I heard a few rumors yesterday about this and just this morning saw a confirmed report on Search Engine Watch posted sometime yesterday by Danny Sullivan. Twenty minutes ago I had no idea what this was, but now after reading up on it in a few places let me share the jist of it.

Blogs, forums and virtually any other tool or component on the internet that allow visitors to a website to easily add to the content of that website are often quite succeptable to link bombing or Link-SPAM. SPAM in this case is not referring to unwanted emails, but rather equally annoying unwanted forum posts or blog comments that are not on topic and are contributed for the sole purpose of advertising one’s website via a link in that post or comment.

But they aren’t really advertising in the same way SPAM emails are. For the emails, the goal is to send out enough emails that at least a few people will take a direct action – buy some “pharmaceuticals”, or play some online poker, or contact someone about refinancing their mortgage. The email itself is the primary interaction with the target market (probably not even appropriately called “target” market in this case, but let’s move on). With Link Spamming, the sole purpose here is to generate a large volume of links across various websites all pointing back to the website run or being promoted by the spammer.

Why? Well link popularity, which in essence is a measure of the number of links from various sites pointing to a given website, mixed with a measure of the quality of the sites linking – is an important factor in the ranking of websites for the major search engines. Google, especially, rewards websites that have lots of inbound links, especially when they are from other sites that are seen as high quality and seen as dealing with the same general topic (relevance). In addition, the anchor text – which is the text or words that are actually clickable by the user – also can impact the ranking of the site being linked to. By linking to a website as follows:

…and another great site (blatant self-promotion) is the Local Attorney Directory which lists lawyers by region and legal practice area…

… the search engines assume that the site relates to the anchor text used to link to it. In this case, they assume the website must have something to do with topics such as “attorney”, “directory”, “local” and even moreso “local attorney” and “attorney directory”. Indeed, although its still only a couple of months old, the new MSN search ranks this site as # 5 for local attorney. When the value of the new MSN (beta) will actually start contributing is another matter…

Okay now the skinny. Now you know why there is link spamming. And suffice it to say that this is already a major headache for site owners – who have to deal with unwanted and off-topic comments and such, and for the search engines who clearly do not want these spammy links to be credited in the same way legitimate links are – thus they have announced this attribute as a way to help limit the artificial manipulation of search results via link spam.

The attribute is simply a small piece of code that is added to the HTML code that signals a link. Just add rel=”nofollow” either before or after the href=”” in your A HREF link tag.

This tag tells the search engines that you have not evaluated this link or added it yourself, but rather it has been contributed by an outside party who does not regularly maintain this website. If you wish to validate a link, you can simply remove or not add the code and the link will be counted as a “normal” link. If the attribute is in place, the search engines will not follow the link, will not credit the link in rankings (or PageRank), and will not credit the anchor text in rankings. (At least Google will not do this, but assume virtually the same treatment from the others.)

What’s particularly impressive is that this standard has been identified and agreed upon by Google, Yahoo and MSN – marking a rare collaboration of the major search engines for the betterment of the industry. Which gets me to thinking… Is search engine optimization really an industry? Ask Seth Godin about SEO in July of 2004, or ask him about SEO 6 months later. I think he’s starting to change his mind, although in fairness the industry is maturing in many ways and now warrants more credibility than it did even 6 months or 1 year ago.