NoFollow Considered Harmful?

I've noticed a fair number of people recently calling the rel="nofollow" mechanism a failure and calling for its end. Loren Baker is one such voice, with a post called "13 Reasons Why NoFollow Tags Suck". Andy Beal is another, with a post entitled "Google’s Lasnik Wishes 'NoFollow Didn’t Exist'".

I'm on the opposite side of this argument. As I mentioned a while back, I think that web pages need even more control over the "voting intent" of hyperlinks. So instead of sending NoFollow to its grave, I'd like to see it extended (though probably with a new name and format, such as the Vote Links microformat).

I don't want to re-hash that discussion today. Instead, I want to examine the most prominent argument from the anti-NoFollow crowd: that it just doesn't work. Comment spam has increased in blogs since the time when NoFollow was introduced. Because of that, these people argue that NoFollow is an outright failure and isn't needed in the first place because any good blogger is vigilant in moderating comments.

Again, I disagree. Of course comment spam has increased. Blogging and spamming both have little barrier to entry and high growth. It was inevitable that comment spam would increase, even if the benefit to the spammer for each instance was reduced (which NoFollow ensures, by eliminating any PageRank bonus). But that growth alone doesn't mean that NoFollow is a failure. If a disease grows, do we assume that all related medical treatments and research are failures and should be stopped?

Comment spam would be even worse if the NoFollow mechanism didn't exist. Its practitioners would be multiplied because every shady marketing guide around would be touting "amazing benefits" of using blog comments to increase one's standing in Google.

Even if I'm wrong and NoFollow has done nothing to reduce comment spam, at least it has protected the quality of search results. Google isn't the only one with a vested interest in maintaining quality search results. We would all suffer if we had to go back to the "bad old days" of low-quality web search.

What about the idea that any good blog will have vigilantly moderated comments and make NoFollow irrelevant? Good moderation of blog comments is very important. But the argument that it can displace NoFollow assumes that blatant spam is the only threat. As I mentioned in my "Hyperlinks as Votes" entry, a PageRank-style system in part depends upon us each voting in our own "name" (URL). Without NoFollow, that system breaks down with hyperlinks coming from your URL which aren't spam but also aren't something you would intend to positively endorse.

Suppose I post a comment on your blog with a link back to an entry of my own which is completely relevant but disagrees with you at every turn. It isn't spam. And unless you're particularly thin-skinnned, you probably shouldn't exercise your moderation power to delete it. But should search engines interpret that link to be your positive vote for the quality or importance of my page? And even if you think it should, would you want that vote to be of the same strength as one given to something which you directly referenced in the body of your post?

It isn't time for NoFollow to go away. It's time for it to grow up into something more powerful and expressive.

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