Why Nofollow Links Could Become the Redheaded Stepchildren of SEO

This week alone, I’ve run into about 50 sites with advertising policies that specifically state all links will be nofollowed. They’re all more than happy to sell a link, of course, even without disclosure, but don’t even think about asking them for a followed one. Is this a smart practice or is it leading us down a dangerous path where we can’t trust anything that we read online?

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If you buy a link, you should nofollow it, according to Google. You should nofollow links in other situations as well and the list of “links intended to manipulate PageRank” keeps growing.

I’ve always liked nofollow links because I think they can be great for traffic, but what worries me is the whole idea that webmasters seem to think that slapping on a nofollow somehow relieves them of the need to be relevant and actually provide their readers with a good resource. I’m worried that link builders will care even less about relevancy than they do now and then what? We’re overrun with content that no one trusts.

We were overrun with SERPs that no one could trust, so links started to become the redheaded stepchildren (as a ginger myself I feel like I can say this without offending), but efforts to fix that have led to unfair penalties and people losing their livelihood over practices that they either didn’t know about or didn’t know would be added to the big list of things not to do to offend the almighty Google.

Here’s what started my ever-increasing bad feeling about nofollows:

I approached a webmaster about a link that I did want to be nofollowed, but I mistakenly sent her the incorrect page that I wanted to add a resource to. I’d meant to include our link in a page about online insurance resources, but instead I sent her the URL of an article she had written about a cool kid’s cake she’d baked because I’d just been looking over her site to make sure I thought it was good enough for the client. She wrote back to say that it would be fine to do a link there and that it would be $250 but it would have to be nofollowed. I hadn’t mentioned payment, but she explained that she only did nofollows in order to follow (ha!) Google’s guidelines. She told me about her commitment to her readers and said she couldn’t risk her site.

I was taken aback. If I was that concerned about my site, I’d probably not put an insurance link on a cake baking post.

I wrote back to explain my mistake and say that I’d sent her the wrong URL and she said that it was no problem, just to tell her what page and where to put the link and she’d get it done (for $250) ASAP. That’s a real commitment to your readers, isn’t it?

Yesterday I received a mass email that basically said the webmaster was open to selling nofollow links on her list of 15 sites. I usually get these for followed links, and we immediately put those sites into a database of sites never to approach, but the nofollow bit was a first for me. I suspect I’ll soon be inundated with these. I’ve already gotten 3 emails offering to write sponsored posts with nofollowed links for my clients just since I started writing this article a few days ago.

What’s all that going to do in terms of content? We keep advising people to create it in order to generate links naturally but that certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying to get our links placed in someone else’s content. If using a nofollow makes that practice safer (for the time being) then all the webmasters who were previously happy to sell links will still sell links, just nofollowed ones. The problem won’t be with manipulating PageRank this time though. It will be with manipulating trust and eventually don’t you think Google will decide that it needs to step in and change the guidelines yet again in order to account for this? It would not be the first time we’ve seen something that was once a good idea become a really bad one.

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Webmasters will always want money. If they can get it by selling nofollowed links, they’re going to do it. If they think that nofollowing a link means they can’t be penalized, they’re going to do it and maybe not care as much about what they’re linking to based on what I’m seeing so far. But what could Google do about this? Penalize you for too many nofollowed links? Decide to manually penalize you for all the irrelevant links you post? Unleash an update that cracks down on sites that have more than 50 percent nofollowed links?

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I hate to be the voice of doom here. The Internet is full of amazing webmasters who do have a dedication to their readers, of course, but this whole link thing isn’t just the fault of manipulative link builders or SEOs. Money-hungry webmasters are just as guilty of filling the web with untrustworthy content.

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