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Weighing Up the “nofollow” Attack on Comment Spam

Posted By Darren Rowse 22nd of January 2005 Pro Blogging News 0 Comments

Is Google’s latest attack on Comment Spam going to hurt Bloggers as much or even more than the Spammers themselves?

As I mentioned a few days ago, Google have announced a strategy for eliminating comment spam on blogs by implementing a ‘rel=”nofollow”’ tag which would cause links using the attribute to not be given any credit in their rankings.

Google already have the support of some pretty major bloggers and blogging tools including.

– Brad Fitzpatrick – LiveJournal

Dave WinerScripting News

Anil DashSix Apart

– Steve Jenson – Blogger

– Matt Mullenweg – WordPress

– Stewart Butterfield – Flickr

– Anthony Batt – Buzznet

David Czarneckiblojsom

– Rael Dornfest – Blosxom

MSN and Yahoo have also agreed to the system making it a pretty big deal.

A number of people have asked for my opinion of this new development. I’ve written some initial reaction here previously before it was announced and have similar feelings now.

Whilst I applaud the efforts to eradicate comment spam I’m not convinced that this is the way forward and worry that whilst it MAY help to combat the problem, it will not stamp it out and in the process it will be bloggers themselves who are penalized. Let me reiterate what I’ve already written on the topic….

1. Yes some bloggers will use this system (some like TypePad users will have no choice). I’m considering implementing it for the good of all but am not rushing to do so immediately.

2. I’m not convinced this will stop spammers. I suspect that there are thousands of blogs already out there that will not update their software and therefore will not implement this sytem. Spammers will continue to spam blogs because it is so easy to do with automated bot programs – they will do so in the hope that a certain percentage will still end up on blogs without the rel=”nofollow” tag.

3. Legitimate commenter will lose the value previously gained by leaving comments on others blogs. I do not and have not ever left comments on others blogs for the gain of my own blog in Search Engine rankings – however I have no doubt that my comments have been beneficial to my ranking. My concern is that with the introduction of this system that my backlinks will tumble in the Search Engines (along with any other bloggers that take the time and energy to comment on others sites for genuine reasons).

One of the things that attracted me to blogging in the first place was that it was so interactive. Bloggers actually gained so much not only by writing a blog but interacting with others. This system takes a little bit of that interactivity and mutual benefit of commenting away.

As I’ve written previously – I leave around 10 legitimate comments per day on others blogs (I think I’m pretty average in this way). I’ve been blogging 2 years – thats over 6000 links to my blogs that potentially could disappear from Google. You do the math and work out the cost to your blog. I know this is a selfish way to look at things and I do hold it in tension with the benefits of decreasing the links to spammers sites – but I wonder why legit sites that work to build up the blogosphere should be the one’s to suffer because a few abuse the system.

Whilst I understand the motivation for Google and other SEs and the big blogging software producers to put this system in place I wonder what the cost will be to the blogosphere and what the gains will be?

Will it kill off spammers? Maybe, but probably not. Will it decrease the profile in search engines of legit bloggers? I fear it will.

All in all I’m torn by this latest development and wonder if there might be another way?

Update: John in This is Not a Solution to Comment Spam points me to a good post with similar sentiments over at TheMiddle’s The Spammers have Won

Update 2: Six Apart have announced their plans to roll out plugins for the rel=”nofollow” strategy. Typepad users will not have to do anything it will all be automatic (looks like they don’t get a choice whether they want to use it or not), MT users can download a plug in here. WordPress users can download a rel=”nofollow” plug in here.

Figby also has a good report on the new anti-spam links making some good points. I especially like:

‘Dishonest webmasters will use this attribute to game the system. I’m not quite sure how, but they’ll find a way. One obvious way is to set the nofollow attribute on all external links, to prevent precious PageRank from leaking out of their sites. Whether this does any good or not is debatable, but they’ll do it anyway, and it’s bound to confuse the already-strained algorithms that produce PageRank.’

askDaveTaylor has a good explanation of the new system and writes:

‘And, finally, is it going to work? I dunno. There are some definite problems with this strategy, not the least of which is that it means that if my friends and colleagues pop by and post an erudite comment – or write their own article that trackbacks to mine – I would like to give them some of my PageRank goodness, but now I can’t. You’re all throw into the ‘spammer scum’ box, like it or not. Also, having it as an add-on is like Microsoft solving security problems with a system patch: it only works if every single person installs it and in this case, I’m sure that even three months from now there’ll be a statistically significant percentage of MT, WordPress and other self-hosted Weblogs that will not support “nofollow”, and as we’ve learned in the last few years, spammers are happy to send out a million messages for a handful of positive responses.’

Arstechnica writes – ‘Publishers online now have the ability to point to websites and companies they don’t particularly like without artificially inflating their Page Rank, simply by inserting this special attribute into the link. As with any sort of change like this, 20% of people might initially take advantage of this paradigm shift, leaving 80% “unprotected.” Fortunately, many companies responsible for hosting a majority of online blogs are involved and may push the number of initial participants well above 50%. Only time will tell if has done irreparable harm to how we think of searching and linking or if they’re heralding a new era of cooperation and online publishing.’

Update 3: Buzz Marketing weighs into the debate writing – ‘links are links, and if spammers spam, people will still click. Page rank won’t grow as much for the destination URLs, but they’ll still get traffic.  And for spammers who are trying to simply deface or plaster their message around, this does nothing.’

See the Link Condom for a funny commentary on the NoFollow system

Jeremy writes – ‘it’s not going to “stop” comment spam. It just changes the economics and metrics. The reality is that one of the apps I’ve seen can spam 1 million wordpress and / or movabletype blogs in 5 minutes. At those economics levels, only one person needs to click, only 10 blogs need to not be using the “nofollow” for it to be worthwhile. This solution is akin to saying “net identity solutions will solve email spam”, which is false. Knowing who people are is step one. Knowing that their intent is malicious is step 2. Being able to do something about it is step 3. Having a central authority is step 4. This little piece of Google’s doesn’t actually solve any of those, and it treats all commenters with equal disdain, which is sad (if understandable).’

Anil from MT posts an interesting post answering some of the negative feedback that has been leveled at this new system.

Danny Sullivan gives an extended response to Anil’s response (last link) responding to the Link Condom (link about last link… phew). He writes – ‘What is clear is that nofollow will NOT stop blog comment spam. Not at all. Don’t believe it? Then right now, all bloggers can stop making use of blacklists, registration schemes and other tactics used before nofollow emerged. Sit back and see if the spam goes away. It won’t. Nofollow is a nice new tool that we can use, one that as I’ve said many times before is welcomed for giving us choice and more options, but it’s not a magic bullet. Well, it’s a magic bullet for one thing. It now lets the search engines say to bloggers, we gave you want you wanted, stop blaming us for the problem!’

This post originally was posted at my Blogathon site.

Update 23433 – (I lost count) – A number of bloggers have developed little buttons to put on your site to let your readers know if you use NoFollow or not. Some are in other languages but you’ll get the gist. Check them out at:
No NoFollow
Contra el No Follow
¿ Todos los buscadores contra el spam ?
    nofollow, nofollow free and follow buttons

About Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
  • I think it was a valid idea at first, but now it is out of date. A lot of blogs like myself have started using DoFollow plugins to remove the nofollow tag from comments. I think it is important to give back to your readers and award them a backlink that is actually counted. Otherwise they have no incentive to leave some feedback.

  • I have installed DoFollow on all my blogs hopefully this will attract more visitors and more links for everyone.

    – Jack