The post below is a guest post from Mindy Gofton from Manchester based digital marketing agency I-Com
So how much value do blog comment links and social bookmarks actually have? We’re talking about links with the rel=”nofollow” attribute here. Links that are not meant to pass any sort of PageRank value, links which have been so labelled so as to tell search engines “I don’t recommend this site – the link is either advertising or has been added by the site owner and I haven’t checked it to decide if it’s spam or not.” Some SEO commentators have humorously referred to “nofollow” as being a link condom in that putting it onto your link allows you to connect anywhere you like without having to deal with the consequences!
Theoretically, then, these “nofollow” links should be worthless which means all mentions across sites such as Twitter and Friendfeed, et. al. should be fairly worthless from an SEO perspective. So why, when we downloaded a list of links to the I-COM blog from Webmaster Tools, did Google report links such as the following:
You get the idea – all of these are links marked with a rel=”nofollow” attribute whether they are blog comments, tweets, or other types of social bookmarks of our various posts.
If these have no worth, then why is Google reporting them in Webmaster Tools? It makes no sense to me why they would report a list of useless links to distract SEO consultants from reverse engineering the algorithm. I mean, why bother reporting anything at all? Why give us any sort of incentive to clog up useful social media sites with crap even further, in hopes it’ll boost rankings when it won’t? This behaviour would, essentially, be Google giving SEOs the green light to spam up good sites for nefarious purposes and I don’t see what Google has against social media sites that the company would wish this level of badness on them.
This leaves us with a second option – even those “nofollow” links have some value. They may not pass PageRank, but they are telling Google something that’s useful for them to know.
Bear with my logic for a minute here:
The major search engines created rel=”nofollow”, to stop comment and forum spam from getting out of hand. Webmasters were being inundated and by adding a rel=”nofollow” link to anything that wasn’t added to the site by the Webmaster; it made it pointless for SEOs to use this form of link building to achieve any sort of result.
Then Matt Cutts told us to also use rel=”nofollow” on advertising. Surely, by putting an ad on your site to someone else’s site it is some form of recommendation. Alternatively, to put it another way, would you put an ad on your website to a product or service that you knew was a scam? No. You wouldn’t. Well, at least I wouldn’t – nor would any of my clients. So that rel=”nofollow” is a little unfair to the sites being linked. Surely, there is some signal going back to Google, even if it isn’t factored into PageRank.
Then clever SEOs started using rel=”nofollow” to “sculpt” their own internal PageRank. Google claims to have counteracted this by making rel=”nofollow” links take a percentage of the PageRank flowing away from the other outbound links on a page without passing any PageRank or anchor text weight to the target page. So, the rel=”nofollow” has started to take on a variety of uses for which it was never intended (some of which Google has had to counteract with an algorithm tweak).
Spammers being what they are, social/user generated content sites have been slowly queuing up to add the rel=”nofollow” attribute to all external links in order to stop themselves turning into unwitting link farms.
Whether I label a link “nofollow” or not; when I post a link on Twitter, it is a recommendation; when I bookmark a link on StumbleUpon, it is a recommendation. When I link any site from an active account with lots of connections and I regularly recommend content from a variety of sites, then that’s an even bigger signal that it’s a legitimate recommendation.
Google folding in real time social results into the SERPs is another suggestion that they consider these valid recommendations. Spending time and money on this development and cataloguing all of this data makes no sense otherwise, considering the scrolling results have little value to normal searchers.
The use of citations as a local search-ranking factor suggests that Google is also starting to understand and analyse the many ways people recommend things online. Why wouldn’t they build this into the main algorithm in some way, using social mentions as a signal for quality – even if it doesn’t contribute to the PageRank section of the algorithm?
The way people use the internet and share content on the internet has changed. Everybody has a say now, not just those savvy enough to understand how to build a web page, and increasingly people are looking for recommendations for good websites, products and services conversationally through social media sites and those people don’t really care if the recommendations pass PageRank – they’re given freely between “friends” to be social.
It follows that search engines have had to change and adapt the way they rank useful websites, and that these changes will continue to affect the way we need to promote sites and the way in which we think about links and what makes them good. If Google is telling webmasters that they’re cataloguing rel=”nofollow” social links and we know they aren’t passing PageRank, then they must be passing something; so maybe it’s time to ask Google to give us some indication of why they’re reporting these links and what value they might have?