Nofollow Leverages Mistrust Among People

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The Nofollow attribute indicates if the source of the link “trusts” the destination of it. Trust is a very critical element in human relations and not one of the easiest.

Too much mistrust can lead to paranoia and isolation. Too much trust can lead to abuse and being taken advantage of. We learn from childhood that you have to learn to trust, but also have a “healthy” amount of suspicion and mistrust if it is justified.

This is often not a very rational process, but driven by instinct and emotion. Most people experience in their life’s at least ones that their strong trust was a mistake, which in some severe cases result in complete mistrust and paranoia.

The nofollow attribute demonstrates all this very nicely and I wonder if it did already or will become subject of psychological studies. Next to the extreme cases that lead to paranoia or too much trust on the other side are the majority of daily cases where the nofollow attribute causes “bad blood” among people. “What? You are using nofollow to link to my site? You don’t trust me? Okay, now I know what you really think about me.”.

The reason for somebody who uses “nofollow” intentionally for a specific link might not be “mistrust” of the site the link points to, but rather “not complete trust”.

Unfortunately is there no way to indicate in shades of grey how much somebody trusts somebody else. The nofollow attribute is black and white, absolute, yes or no and that does not reflect real live situations at all.

Even the extreme “yes” I trust and “no” I don’t trust can not be measured equally. While an open person defines “trust” as “I don’t think he would try to rip me off” kind of trust does the overly cautious person define “trust” as “somebody I would steal horses together” kind of trust.

For that reasons do I believe that nofollow does not and can not work properly in the world of automated ranking algorithms that are completely unaffected by emotions, because search engines can not and will never be able to account for the persons emotional reasons to add or not add the attribute.

The fact that a lot of people never heard about nofollow makes the situation even worse, because search engines must assume a high level of mistrust if somebody takes the time to add a nofollow attribute to a link (assuming that not all links have that attribute).

I already mentioned in a previous post that I think that a link should not be considered a vote from one webmaster about another site to begin with. It is more of a pointer and by itself neutral without any indication of opinion or intention.

That on the other hand can be determined (in most cases) by the human visitor.

Based on the context the link was placed does it become clear to the human visitor if the link reflects a positive opinion, negative opinion or neutral opinion with a lot of shades in between.

The same is true when it comes to intention. Why do want a visitor to follow that link? Backup your claims? Show without being biased the source of your citation? Find additional content to the subject that goes beyond the content of the current page? Buy something? Register for something?

Those are only a few possible examples of intention, which are often clear to human eyes, but also not too clear some times as well.

Although most of the times is it in the interest of the Webmaster to make the intention clear, are there cases where the Webmaster is being deceitful on purpose. One example would be the use of contextual advertising in a way that casual internet users will believe that the Ad is part of the content or part of the site navigation. The commercial benefit for the webmaster makes it clear why he wants to blur the intention in the first place.

If search engines need help, because they can not figure those things out by themselves, options should be considered that first of all allow more than two choices if it is to express opinion and second, address intention as well.

For intention could be an attribute introduced with a number of values that are understood by search engines and can be extended as needed, e.g intend=purchase or intend=reference. The alternative would be a scaled attribute similar to Yahoo!’s experimental project “Mindset” that allows the user to indicate his intention on a 1 to 10 scale between “shopping” to “researching”.

An attribute for opinion is IMO not needed, because search engines are supposed to be unbiased, but if needed, then multiple levels of trust should be available to choose from.

In both cases would the absence of the attribute mean “neutral” until search engine algorithms developed far enough to figure out intention and opinion by themselves pretty good.

How far Search Engines trust the attributes set by the webmaster is a complete different story. I would not recommend to accept them blindly and be biased.

However new sites should start without a penalty. The trust level should be neutral, just like normal humans are neutral if they get introduced to a stranger for the first time.

The trust level changes with the time to the worse or better, the more we know about the other person including the persons past and past actions.

If all that is too complicated, how about a flag that indicates that a link is an editorial link, added on purpose by the site owner or that it is not an editorial link which would be added to forums, blog comment, ads that are not controlled by the webmaster. It would be better than nofollow, because it has at least 3 possible values:

  1. yes, editorial
  2. no, not editorial
  3. n/a

It also has the advantage that it is free of an opinion. 

Mix that with how you trust the website and the website theme and you have plenty of options to make something out of this to make the search results more relevant.

This is not a rant about the nofollow attribute. I tried to be as fair as possible and also hope that my suggestions are plausible and worthwhile considering by search engine engineers in their quest for better and more relevant search results.

I also hope that the nofollow attribute will be soon a thing of the past and accepted as a failed experiment.

It is already clear today that the original goal that was set when nofollow was introduced, the reduction of blog comment spam, was not reached. Not even closely.

The following changes to how nofollow should be used in an attempt to extend the life of the attribute for the sake of it’s existence were even worse and should be undone as soon as possible.

I welcome any comments, suggestions, criticism, thought etc. you might have to this. No matter if it is positive or negative, it will be appreciated. Thank you.

Carsten Cumbrowski
Internet Marketer and Entrepreneur. Operator and Owner of the Free Internet Marketing Resources Portal.

Carsten Cumbrowski has years of experience in Affiliate Marketing and knows both sides of the business as the Affiliate and Affiliate Manager. Carsten has over 10 years experience in Web Development and 20 years in programming and computers in general. He has a personal Internet Marketing Resources site at learn more about Carsten, check out the "About Page" at his web site. For additional contact options see this page.
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  • Dane Morgan

    Some interesting points. It is obvious that nofollow is a dismal failure as far as it’s intended purpose, but the idea of transforming it is intriguing.

    I don’t know that I go along with transforming nofollow to this purpose, so much as the idea of a new attribute. Maybe even a couple based on the points in your post. maybe something along the lines of trust=”[1-10]” for a 1-10 scale of how trusted the source is by the link author and editorial=”[t/f/u]” for a true, false, unknown flag on wether the link is editorial in nature.

    Some cool things to think about there.

  • Peter van der Graaf

    Nofollow gives you the possibility to link to untrusted sources without being associated with them. But as more and more websites start using nofollow for all/most of their links, how can search engines accurately define what a website is about? And why shouldn’t search engines just follow nofollow links to still associate your website with them? Nofollow may work so far, but things are bound to change.
    I think Nofollow is a leaky condom!

  • Andy Beard

    Well this blog is currently using nofollow in a neutral way, “I don’t know whether I can trust them” for user generated content.

    Whilst I haven’t been a regular reader for long, I don’t recall seeing any pure spam comments, so there is a relatively good barrier, though there are always ways to improve that.

    My biggest worry on spam comments isn’t whether I am linking to a bad neighbourhood but whether a subscriber to comments would end up with a spam message that didn’t get filtered.

    I have added subscribe to comments, I just need to find time to hack the plugin to make it CAN SPAM complient, so if a blue pill comment does make it through, at least I have something to stand on.

    You are actually one of the people who requested the ability to subscribe to comments

    One reason to use nofollow is to prevent linking to bad neighbourhoods. I control that using a comments policy. If someone abuses it they lose their ability to comment.

    Another use is controlling link juice within a domain.

    I don’t think it should be expanded, but I do think it shouldn’t be used under any circumstance where someone is citing your content, or aggregating it in some way.

    As for commercial links, that should be handled by disclosure and your relationship with your readers. Google are the only company that I am aware of that have unofficially suggested the use of nofollow for commercial links. It is something I won’t do until I can effectively disclose that I get paid for referral units.

  • Carsten Cumbrowski

    Just for the record. I do not agree with Loren’s decision to have nofollow enabled for blog comments. In my opinion should he either turn it off or enable nofollow for every link from the site. It is his descision, because it is his site.

    The ladder would be very radical and I don’t suggest it to him.

    I don’t know if SEJ is authority enough, like Wikipedia, to have the Search Engines take notice.

    It would harm him, as an individual too much, if they don’t. A risk that is not worth taking.

    I get an email for every comment that slips through the spam filter and check it. If it is spam like the one a few minutes ago for this post, I delete it.

  • Sushubh

    Nice article. nofollow has technically failed to discourage spammers from comment spamming on blogs. And it is used by RSS Script Blog Post generators to rip content without giving any attribution!

  • Halfdeck

    Nofollow is a temporary bandage and far from a perfect fix, but it buys Google time while Googlers dig around for a better solution. Reality is that some paid links can never be algorithmically detected.

  • Andy Beard

    It is not a problem that the publisher of a blog post receives spam comment notification – that is how things should be.

    If you use a subscribe to comments feature, if a spam comment gets through, it goes to everyone on the email subscription list before the blog post author has a chance to moderate it.

    Spam complaints can do nasty things to your internet business, can can even affect other people.

    If for instance AOL decided to blacklist a site, then it is quite likely that any RSS article, delivered by email, that contained a link to that site would also end up in the spam folder.

    This type of thing frequently happens with large affiliate promotions. It is one of the reasons many affiliate managers insist that affiliates use their own redirect in emails, or register a suitable domain name to cloak an affiliate link.

  • SEO Web Design

    A quote from my previous comment :

    Should i “dofollow” a link to Google and “nofollow” a link to my clients or sponsors? Google it is time to wake up before losing the trust from webmasters whom contributed to what you are today. Have Google ever wonder what will happened if one day more than 60% of the sites block googlebot with their robots.txt?

  • SEO Web Design

    If i trust a site, why shouldn’t i follow a link to it? Including a nofollow attribute would mean that i do not trust the site and yet i wish to use that site as an additional resource to my article.

  • online business blog

    “Awaiting comment moderation” is enough trustranking for me. There is No need for punishing approved comments..

  • SEO in SG

    Its ok.. as long as readers are sharing ideas and related to entry