An Agency SEO's Perspective on Nofollow

Alright I'm giving in. I can't help but write a piece about the recent announcement from Matt Cutts regarding how nofollow links are treated by Google. There's been a lot of coverage on this so I'll skip rehashing it and instead provide some perspective from the side of the agency SEO in the trenches working with client sites. For simplicity, I'm going to interview myself.

Are you embarrassed about having recommended the nofollow attribute?

Not at all. Matt Cutts stated that the change in how nofollow is treated happened in the last year which means that recommending it was good for around 3 years. That seems pretty good to me. I know people still recommended meta keywords…

Also, adding the nofollow attribute was at worst ineffective. There is no penalty and it's generally a really easy thing to implement. So why not include along with dozens of other recommendations since a site is going to be updated anyway?

Nofollow has been called an unnatural change and a hack to make to a site, so why did you do it in the first place?

Unnatural or not, the online space is competitive and I believe you need to examine all of the tools available to you. If the potential reward outweighs the potential risk, that's a pretty compelling argument for me to move ahead with an idea.

And don't forget, although it was never labeled a top priority change, using nofollow was highlighted by Matt Cutts as an approved technique.

Shouldn't you have noticed the change in how nofollow is handled?

Ideally, yes. But there are so many variables being changed with the sites I work on that isolating the impact to just one change would be difficult to do. At some point you have trust previous results and the findings of reputable sources.

I think of it like what doctors have to do. They read research and rely on the findings of that research. They don't repeat every experiment before believing the results. Sure, SEO isn't quite that scientific, but the same sort of thinking holds with the idea of relying on research from reputable sources and augmenting that research with your own findings.

Why don't you recommend a site restructuring instead?

“The boilerplate recommendation to re-organize a site optimally for users and search engines is out of touch with reality.”The boilerplate recommendation to re-organize a site optimally for users and search engines is out of touch with reality. People who make such recommendations are either playing it safe or have simply not worked on a site of significant size. Aside from the enormous resources needed to redesign a site, it is next to impossible to get different business units to decide on what will appear on the home page let alone work out a complete site architecture. Everyone wants their link and their copy in the most prominent place. So if a full restructuring is going to take a year, why not make tweaks in the meantime?

The nofollow at least provided the opportunity to help search engines direct users to the most appropriate destination pages despite the mess that often comes with committee-based decisions.

Aren't there more effective SEO-related tactics than nofollow?

Oh absolutely. Again, I point to the typical large company engaged in an SEO project. Getting anything done is hard enough. So you go for what is likely to be the easiest first while working on the long-term changes.

Never worked with a big company? Here's an example of how hard it is sometimes: I've been trying to get a sitemap.xml and robots.txt file uploaded to a client's web server for 3+ months. These are changes that are invisible to end-users. Can you imagine what it's going to take to make content changes!?

Do you find it odd how Google didn't relay the change with nofollow for over a year?

Absolutely. But some big thinkers have already weighed in on that including Danny Sullivan and Aaron Wall.

Will you be telling clients to remove the nofollow attribute?

At the moment, no. At worst keeping it simply prevents link juice from flowing to pages that have been identified as low-quality anyway.

Will you recommend the nofollow attribute to future clients?

For the time being, no. As much to avoid having overly lengthy discussions with certain types of SEO clients.

I'd like to thank Marios for taking the time to speak to me today. For more commentary on the search engine marketing industry, check out Mario's SEM / SEO blog.

Note: Although I'm speaking as an agency SEO, I'm not necessarily speaking for an SEO agency 🙂

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1 Comment

  1. "The boilerplate recommendation to re-organize a site optimally for users and search engines is out of touch with reality. People who make such recommendations are either playing it safe or have simply not worked on a site of significant size" - I couldn't agree more . . working on a site with thousands of pages & unfriendly CMS systems (not to mention legal / contractual issues on redesigns, hosting, CMS) make a complete site reorganization expensive and in most cases impractical.

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