Nofollow Change: Why Life Just Got Tougher for Niche Sites

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Niche sites exist, by their own definitions, to fill the gaps left behind by their larger, less focused competitors.

However, have those gaps really been left behind because the larger site is inept, or because their focus was in a different place all along?

Enter PageRank sculpting.

For years, large sites have focused PageRank flow to broader, more easily monetized, landing pages. They’ve sacrificed much of their deeper content to do so. This deep content, as it turns out, is exactly the content that many niche sites use as their competitive advantage.

Recently, however, Google stated that the use of Nofollow to sculpt PageRank is ineffective. The large site, built around PageRank sculpting for years, now has something to consider.

Follow this thought progression carefully:

  1. The large site has been very successful with SEO using PageRank sculpting.
  2. The large site learns that they have been successful in spite of, and not because of, PageRank sculpting.
  3. The large site now realizes their perceived incentive in Nofollowing deep content was taken away some time ago. Yet, they were wildly successful with their pages done this way.
  4. The large site, having no reason to continue Nofollowing deep content, removes the Nofollows. Potentially millions of previously buried, deep content pages are now crawlable.
  5. This long tail content, granular, linked well and detailed by nature, is now made powerful and accessible to Google.
  6. The depth and focus of this long tail content turns out to be exactly what the niche site has been built around exploiting.

And now it’s not so niche.

Do you see this as a very possible result? Are you, as a niche site, concerned that your competitive advantage could be in jeopardy? How do you see Nofollow changes, or clarifications, changing the SEO landscape? Am I right or wrong? Let all of us know how you feel. Make sure you comment below as this one has the potential to get heated down there in the ‘Comments’.

Matt Leonard currently directs SEO, SEM and Revenue Management for Cruise Critic, the world’s largest cruise site and part of the Trip Advisor Media Group. You can follow Matt Leonard on Twitter to keep up with his updates

Matt Leonard
Matt Leonard currently directs SEO, SEM and Revenue Management for Cruise Critic, the world’s largest cruise site and part of the Trip Advisor Media Group.... Read Full Bio
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  • I’m not so sure this is true. This arguement assumes that nofollow PageRank sculpting used to work, something I was never convinced of. However, I have to admit that if nofollow PageRank sculpting ever had any effect, this is an intriguing idea…assuming that other methods don’t replace the NoFollow method.

  • David,

    Thanks for the comment. I was waiting for exactly that comment to further explain the reasoning here.

    I’m not arguing whether sculpting was, or wasn’t effective. Rather, I’m arguing possible fallout from the confirmation. With SEO, of course you know so many factors make up rankings. Many large sites had used page rank sculpting, and had effective SEO. I’m not saying there is or isn’t a relationship there. Simply I’m saying that they employed sculpting and had good rankings.

    My point is that they now realize with certainty their success was in spite of this, and not because of it.

    With that in mind, their choices now are either to remove nofollows, or remove the links that were nofollowed entirely from the page. Removing the links entirely can cause a catastrophic user experience. So, the logical conclusion would be that they remove nofollows to deep content.

    Since their desired pages rank well already, what harm is there in just removing the nofollows?

    Before anyone suggests it, I’m not even touching the idea of making links non-crawlable through various techniques. I believe that to always be a short term solution as Google is clearly showing their intent here.

  • The new Nofollow it´s better than the last definition of it, but now many SEOs company need change the structure of their websites.


  • This assumes that nofollow either A) once worked and now does not (very flimsy if your evidence is found in Matt Cutts’s recent SMX off-the-cuff remarks) or B) never worked as well as people thought.

    In both cases this is a lot of wax with no evidence to back it up.

    There is a lot of spin going on here, and my recommendation is to make no assumptions unless you’re prepared to test them.

    Launching a campaign now to remove PageRank sculpting from a massive website because Mr. Cutts said so two weeks ago would be pretty foolish.

  • Thanks for the comment, Mike.

    You said:

    There is a lot of spin going on here, and my recommendation is to make no assumptions unless you’re prepared to test them.

    I say:

    You’re dead right. Absolutely be prepared to test. That’s the whole point here. Google has definitively stated that nofollow does not work for sculpting and PR dies. Let’s test it. If it’s true, you can expect the fallout to be lots of previously nofollowed deep content links to be opened up.

    Hence my conclusion.

  • Good Article Matt. If Google is saying that the no follows are no longer stopping the flow of link juice, then why remove them? Additionally, if a company had a true link scupting strategy in place, any resources should be spent on using the canonical link element to flow juice to the targeted pages instead of removing the no follows. Canonical Link Element – the NEW Link Sculpting Tool – Google approved! ;o)

  • The long term impact remains to be seen for both large sites and niche sites, but Google certainly telegraphed this move to anyone paying attention to the links being reported in WMT.

    Some large sites attribute a great deal of their ranking success for high competition/high search volume terms to their PageRank sculpting efforts. It will be interesting to see if their rankings go down now that the nofollow no longer mitigates the link juice leak – a school of though I never fully subscribed to in the first place.

  • I was at the SMX you&a and listening to it and I think Matt said something slightly different or I heard it differently.

    in the dialog he said something to the effect ‘it use to be the case that when you no followed links the the rest of the pages pagerank would go to the other links, thats not the case anymore it all doesn’t go to the other links’

    This was followed by the follow up question from Mr Gray, and the it evaporates comment.

    I do not think matt was saying that all the page rank evaporates, but a % (whatever that amount is) does to balance the flow on the page more.

    personally I think everyone is over reacting a bit, I think there is still value in nofollow selective links (shopping carts, log in pages, etc) and pages of no particular ranking value and remove them from the google submitted sitemap as well.

    One thing I think this will force people to do is to take a closer look at link balance on pages and not over link out.

  • If we take Matt Cutts word for it:
    It doesn’t change a bit. If it would make a big difference we should have noticed it a year ago.

    Matt Cutts says here Google changed this nofollow subject over a year ago.

  • i am fully agree with jack ,force people to do is to take a closer look at link balance on pages and not over link out.

  • Thanks Matt, thanks for the useful information regarding niche sites and on do follow link. Keep it up..!!

  • From Matt Cutts’ Blog today:

    Q: Why did Google change how it counts these links?

    A: For one thing, some crawl/indexing/quality folks noticed some sites that attempted to change how PageRank flowed within their sites, but those sites ended up excluding sections of their site that had high-quality information (e.g. user forums).

    As mentioned above, this content is exactly what I have said will create problems for niche sites.

  • I was never completely sold on the idea that PageRank sculpting (as you call it) really worked. It didn’t make sense to me for it to work. I believe that now and in the recent past Google has tried to program itself to look at the domain value and the value of the pages within it. The deep internal pages received a certain amount of value based on the domain itself and the other domains linking to it.

    So in that respect, larger, more linked to domains have the advantage in my opinion and that’s just how life in the free market is.

  • This will have a big impact on blog comments. Here for example, each of our links will be causing the PR to ‘evaporate’, so moderators will have to be far more selective. It could be the death of user generated content.

  • After ScarySEO, October and some of the late night eavesdropping on others.. i cratfed an experiment to prove nofollow was complete poo poo….

    the people that participated have been msg me all week.. “this is what you were talking about”

    yes it was…

    as early as decemeber a site with nofollow blocked the page from going to #1 in 4 hours.. all the sites that didnt use no follow or had them on by default in comments but had no comments..

    all went to #1 in 4 hours.. (the google spider interval at the time)

    the people that then removed no follow had theirs to front page in about a week or so… but the damage had been done..

    those people that never used nofollow will be at an advantage.. because for those that did… it’s still attributable to the domain.

    (yes, everything flows back to the domain.. what u do now counts 5 years from now.. think about it)

  • You say that ‘deep content’ pages will now be crawlable with the nofollows removed. They were always crawlable so there’s no change there. The change is that their page rank will now be higher.
    I don’t think pagerank is such an important issue for deep content pages as most won’t have a great pagerank anyway. Other factors are likely to be more important.
    And fans of siloing will tell you that if the deep content pages are in a silo of related content they will still appear well in SERPs.

  • I’m aware that they were always technically crawlable. I’m stating that with more priority placed on them (more followed links) the likelihood of more deep content remaining indexed is greatly increased. When dealing with a large site, there are issues with things such as pagination. With a focus on deeper content, large sites should look for ways to address things that would otherwise have been non-worthy projects.

  • I am inclined to agree with your theory. Around the time you published it, my little niche site went from receiving hundreds of referrals from Google to none. Traffic from other search engines who receive data from Google declined later.

  • Your working on the assumption that nofollow tags are not followed but the evidence suggests that they are followed but do not pass page rank. Google will follow a link with a nofollow tag – allegedly .

    But I am depending on second hand information with regard to this evidence, one way to check if a nofollow link is followed is to set up a page within a directory with no incoming links other then nofollow and see if it’s indexed

  • when i was young, i used to like custard… but now i don’t like it so much anymore. i like cereal though just fine. hope this helps in some way.

  • No follows are followed and even presumably passing some PR. The long and short of the article is that opening the doors to your deeper pages is going to back up the Niche sites. We tend not to look at PR or funnel it as much as build pages we need and get them indexed. Our primary site’s rankings speak for themselves, and think we need to move past PR, No-Follows.. etc,, That was a toos me a link comment.. LOL

  • Interesting article – but I don’t see the end of niche sites in sight. We will see a shift from the big web sites to remove pagerank sculpting activities – but I think you’ll find that the link acquisition strategies of niche sites are more focused on long-tail, and that those links are what primary drive rankings. Pagerank sculpting is one of 2 dozen ways niche sites try to outperform the big boys… the others aren’t going away.

    It was revealing for us though… We had spent a few hours sculpting our site in the past… what is revealing for me is that I need to be more judicious about exactly what content I want to put on the home page and in the sidebar of my articles…