On the value of nofollow


offline
Originally uploaded by revgeorge.

Last weekend I was completely offline. Comcast decided to disconnect my cable line instead of my neighbors, and thanks to Memorial Day weekend I got to wait extra long to get my cable restored. I wasn’t online, my only TV was from the TiVo, and all my GameFly games were in transit. In order to keep my mind distracted and prevent any quiet self reflection I was forced to read a book, like a common caveman!

During that time I got over 60 comment or trackback spams on my blog. I deleted them as soon as I got online, but the good news is that thanks to nofollow I knew I could let the blog get a little ugly for a little while without providing aid or comfort or PageRank™ to the enemy. If nothing else, nofollow lets me relax a little bit during unexpected downtime.

[Aside: While reading my, ugh, book I realized how addicted I’ve become to the ability in Mac OS X 10.4 to be able to instantly pull up a word’s definition in most applications simply by pressing Cmd-Ctrl-D. Who knew that books had such big words in them?]

nofollow

"nofollow" seems to be the name people are giving for the new anti-PageRank tool, it’s been pretty well received but there has been some criticism.
nofollow is not a panacea. Large-scale social problem don’t have easy answers, like stopping the spread of STDs (which I’ve heard comment spammers have plenty of). One person implementing it on their own doesn’t remove enough incentive to stop a comment spammer. Everyone using it removes the incentive for comment spammers. I’m hoping that enough people use nofollow that comment spammers will see a negligible PageRank boost (I use PageRank only because I don’t know the name for Yahoo! juice or MSN juice) and stop spending their time spamming and their money on spambots. E pluribus unam and all that.
On the plus side, the blogs with the highest PageRank are the best cared for and most likely to use nofollow. I assume software that allows comments will start shipping with nofollow in the default template, so the new blogs (and wikis, and guestbooks, and…) are taken care of. Hosted services like TypePad, LiveJournal, MSN Spaces and Blogger are deploying nofollow site-wide, which takes care of a lot of bloggers.
That leaves the abandoned blogs and the legacy blogs run by people who don’t keep up with this sort of thing. For the people who are unaware, get in touch with them and let them know how to help protect against comment spam. Reach out and touch someone and smack them upside the head until they fix their site.
Abandoned blogs are a tougher problem. Comment spammers already gravitate towards the abandoned blogs; how do we deal with a site that isn’t maintained anymore? I suspect that abandoned blogs that are self-hosted are in the minority due to the fact that it usually requires regular cash infusions to keep running, so it’s possible that we don’t need to reach those people.
One criticism I’m hearing is that removing PageRank from comments will lower the PageRank for commenting users. Guess what – if I want to support your site by linking to it from my own I’ll do it in a post. If you leave a comment on my site, that doesn’t mean your site is any good, it just means you left a comment. PageRank for comments artificially inflates a site’s worth and I think that losing that will make Google more useful. You can still earn PageRank the old fashioned way — post something interesting that people link to.
nofollow does have a fatal flaw though. When 90% Crud gets comment spam, the comments on the post are closed, and Google ads show up on posts with closed comments. It was a nice coping strategy, I could take comfort in the fact that comment spam was encouraging me to earn money on this site. If nofollow does succeed and comment spammers move on to greener pastures, I won’t be encouraged to make my 7 cents per day. Luckily it’ll take a while for the benefits of nofollow to appear, so I’ll have plenty of time to buy my yacht.
[Update: In the area of security there is a mantra: “Deny by default.” That means that the default action should be to deny access, and then if they meet the conditions, allow. nofollow is a deny-by-default approach to PageRank in comments. If you’re responsible enough to delete comment spam with whatever tool your blogging system provides, you’re already preventing comment spammers from getting PageRank (unless Google indexes your site before you get a chance to delete them…). For people who forget about or abandon their blogs, the comment spam can pile up. If no action is taken, nofollow will default to deny comment spammers PageRank.
This won’t stop comment spam overnight, but once weblog tools ship with this as the standard configuration, and once those tools are widely deployed, then comment spammers will not receive PageRank by default, it will be the exception, not the rule. At a certain point, the time spent developing and configuring spambot software would be better used doing some other sort of Google spam and we’ll see the number of comment spammers stop increasing. Then, as existing comment spammers stop and their cron jobs get broken, we’ll see a gradual decline of comment spam. In order to stop an epidemic, you need to inoculate everyone.]