Monday, May 15, 2006

Got a Web site? Tell Google what you think about NOFOLLOW

Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who actively fights Web spam, has a personal blog where he occasionally discusses how Google views the Web. For the most part, though he provides insight from Google's perspective, Matt is expressing his own opinions, which may not necessarily be the same as Google's official position.

But one area where Matt has been championing Google's cause through his blog is the REL=NOFOLLOW attribute. This is an HTML attribute Google proposed that Webmasters begin using last year. Supposedly the other major search engines have agreed to support the attribute, although there appears to be no consensus on how much they are doing so.

The attribute was designed to address a very specific problem which is usually referred to as "blog comment spam". In reality, the comment spam afflicts guest books, forums, classified ads sites, and any Web site that allows people to post information about their Web sites. Blogs, however, have been especially hard hit by comment spammers who drop in links to their sites.

For the most part, these links lead to junk, auto-generated content sites that were only created to host Yahoo! Internet Marketing or Google AdSense advertisements. The spammers are therefore achieving two things with their heavy linking: they are bringing in random traffic from click-throughs on their links and they are boosting the link popularity of their pages.

Link popularity has a more direct impact on Yahoo!'s search engine listings than on Google's, but it is possible to boost pages to the top of many Google searches. Recent research still indicates that most surfers don't know enough about how to use search engines that they continue to click mostly on the first five listings. Generally speaking, on any random search, the odds are pretty good that you'll find equally useful and sometimes more useful content 2-3 pages past the 1st page, but about 80% of all searchers stay on the 1st page of results.

So the spammers do whatever it takes to get their junk sites in the top ten results on Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and Ask. From there, they just count on people clicking on one of the advertising links to get away from the junk. Advertisers hate these kinds of sites because they don't bring in any sales (or very few) but they cost a lot of money.

I personally disagree with the REL=NOFOLLOW approach. Google wants Webmasters to insert this tag on any link they don't trust. It is intended to be automatically inserted on comments and in forum posts, signatures, and profiles. But in my opinion, REL=NOFOLLOW does nothing to address the problem, which is that Yahoo! and Google are paying the spammers to abuse the Web.

If you operate a Web site, and if you are familiar with this issue, check out Matt Cutts' latest comment on NOFOLLOW. I think it's important for the Web community to speak up and let Google know (they often read Matt's blog at work) what people feel will or will not help.

This is an opportunity for Webmasters to share honest feedback with Google through someone who truly listens and cares about what happens on the Web. But be quick, because Matt will be leaving on vacation this Friday and he'll be offline until the end of June.

I moderate comments here on this blog. So far, it doesn't take much of my time. Eventually, the comment bots may find me. But if they do, using NOFOLLOW won't stop them. I'll still have to moderate their junk posts.


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