Nofollow Change is about Usability

// // June 29th 2009 // SEO + Web Design

The SEO community was thrown into a tizzy by the announcement at SMX Advanced that Google had changed the way it dealt with nofollow links. The details were a bit fuzzy. Conjecture ran amok. Was nofollow page sculpting dead, or just crippled?

Nofollow page sculpting is dead

A post by Matt Cutts cleared up any confusion.

So what happens when you have a page with “ten PageRank points” and ten outgoing links, and five of those links are nofollowed? Let’s leave aside the decay factor to focus on the core part of the question. Originally, the five links without nofollow would have flowed two points of PageRank each (in essence, the nofollowed links didn’t count toward the denominator when dividing PageRank by the outdegree of the page). More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows so that the five links without nofollow would flow one point of PageRank each.

Lost Page Rank

The days in which you could hoard page rank or authority on a few links by nofollowing others is a thing of the past. (In fact, has been in the past for over a year!)

Instead, the page rank or authority on nofollow links is lost, falling into the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

SEOmoz wrote up a great piece that illustrated this point and detailed ways in which you can continue to page sculpt without the use of nofollow. Though doing so might not be wise. Read on to find out why.

Nofollow change outrage

Many in the SEO industry became irate. They shouted and stomped their feet, decrying the whimsy of Google, who in 2005 introduced the nofollow concept, nurtured it (to a point) and changed the rules without notice.

The changing nature of SEO is what keeps most agencies, consultants and talking heads in business. If the algorithms were transparent and had been perfected then no one would need our services.

The truth is that the algorithms are a work in progress. Search Engines are like blind five year olds and, as such, are still learning. If you’re a parent, you know that as soon as you figure out how to deal with one problem your kid has moved on and given you another one to solve.

I mean, really, are you still grousing about how meta keywords are no longer important?

So why did Google make this change? Well, it wasn’t to target specific people or sites. And it wasn’t malicious or to make your life miserable. The truth is that the nofollow change is about usability and Google’s continuing efforts to make the web more useful for people.

Nofollow change is about usability

The problem with nofollow was that it didn’t allow the search engine to look at the page like a human being. If you nofollowed 20 links out of 25 on a page you were essentially telling Google that only 5 links existed.

But to a human being, all 25 links exist.

The fact that you were telling Google that those 5 links were what mattered most isn’t how a human being would interpret that page. This made Google unhappy.

Nofollow Design Guidelines

Yes, Google does have design and content guidelines.

Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number (fewer than 100).

The nofollow change essentially means that they’re counting your nofollow links against that 100 link benchmark. Translation. Stop putting so many links on a page!

Many at Google point to Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice as a favorite in the Google Tech Talk series.

The one hour video is absolutely worth watching but, to make a long story short, more is not better because more makes it difficult for someone to make a choice.

The Paradox of Choice applies to web design and user experience too. In a time compressed society with broadband access and tabbed browsing, you have a limited amount of time to communicate what your site is about and where they should go next. Overwhelm your users and they’ll run screaming to the next tab.

Search engines are simply trying to emulate the human experience. That’s not an easy job. It’s essentially designing artificial intelligence! Remember, right now a search engine will always fail a reading comprehension test.

Instead, search engines have to model the ability of humans to parse a site. The nofollow attribute interrupted that model. It forced the search engine to see authority where a human user might not. The nofollow change removes this bias and also pushes sites to design according to that model by tossing nofollow page rank and authority into the Bermuda Triangle.

The real nofollow question

Google is serious about this mission, which is why it has begun to execute JavaScript, another favorite way to obfuscate links without using nofollow. There are still plenty of ways to hide links and sculpt your page rank or authority but it seems clear Google feels it needs to see all the links on a page to properly evaluate how it is being processed and interpreted by people.

The nofollow change is a not-so-subtle push to encourage sites to simplify. Not just so the search engine can better understand, but so people can better understand too.

The real question resulting from the nofollow change is far more thought-provoking.

How comfortable are you with Google shaping user experience?

Postscript: Leave A Comment // Subscribe (RSS Feed)

The Next Post:
The Previous Post:

2 trackbacks/pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Google NOFOLLOW Change (and why this isn’t news) on July 16, 2009
  2. Pingback: Links of Note, July 2009: SEO and Search Engine Marketing ~ Google’s No Follow Change | Content for a Convergent World on September 10, 2010

Who Are You?

Your Email Address

Your Website

You can follow any responses to this entry via its RSS comments feed. You may also leave a trackback by clicking this link.