Is rel = “nofollow” really as !important as that?

I think, perhaps it is. It will not stop comment spam; it’s actually as likely to increase the pace, since now there’s absolutely no point in being subtle and hoping to sneak in one or two. Either a spammer has blindly lucked into an unprotected and abandoned blog without nofollow, or he’s not going to get anything anyway. Either way, he has no incentive whatsoever not to spend the extra one-millionth of a cent to give you a good going over, couple dozen posts per thread on every thread, rather than starting slow and working into it.

If you think he’ll look for nofollow first, well, I’ve got some nice logfiles that feature literally half a million hits which all returned 410 Gone over the last five months, from referrer-spammers pounding on my absolutely, completely gone wiki. Don’t get me wrong: I’m going to put a link with rel="nofollow" in my comments, probably linked to the Google announcement and saying something like “Protected by Nofollow,” a phrasing you should be familiar with from those fake alarm company lawn signs that are so much cheaper than having an alarm system. I doubt many spammers will bother to look first, but because I would, and because I would abort an attack if I found a single link with nofollow, I’ll put it there anyway.

But I do think nofollow is important, not so much for what it can do for us as for what it will do to us. You can’t possibly not know by now that Scoble’s delighted that he can screw people without getting them off too. Robert’s overestimating his power by a good bit: perhaps “one link from [his] blog would have automatically put the store at the top of the search page on Google for” a day or two or three, but good as getting Scobleized might feel at the time, it’s over pretty quickly. Picking a random day from last December, right now Nathan’s blog has just that one post listed well below the fold when you search for the phrase that was in the link text.

But, again, it’s not so much the effects I’m interested in as the effects on us. Will comments wither where the owner shows that he finds you no more trustworthy than a Texas Hold’em purveyor, or will they blossom again without the competition from spammers? Will we do the right thing, and try to find something to link to in a post by someone new who leaves a comment we deem not worthy of a real link, or will new bloggers find it that much harder to gain any traction?

And to that end, as soon as I heard that it was really real, I added a line to my userContent.css file:

a[rel~="nofollow"] {
  text-decoration:blink !important;
  color:lime ! important;

I hate blink (I had to re-enable the browser.blink_allowed pref to get it to work), and lime is by far my least favorite named CSS color, but I think that knowing whether or not someone actually stands behind the links they allow to remain on their site is !important. Not as important as, say, a crisp apple, a chunk of good sharp Cheddar cheese, and a sharp knife, but within the confines of a social network that we’ve invested a ton of energy in building, it seems a rather drastic move. So, on any page where anyone has decided that having a link to something shown to humans is okay, as long as it isn’t shown to bots, I will see it in blinking lime, and will not be able to ignore it.

Also interesting to see Anil talking about an awareness of the impact of choices in design of social software. It’s not easy to write the One True Nofollow Plugin for Movable Type, that does the right thing and only moderates comment links by nofollowing them just until the site owner has either manually approved them, or failed to delete them over the course of a couple of days… in Perl. For the PHP “dynamic publishing” it’s pretty trivial, and for Typepad, where scheduling things to run is less complicated, again it’s no big deal. I’m looking forward both to seeing how long it takes for someone else to do a gentler plugin (I see that Steve’s already doing it for himself though without the manual approval), and to seeing whether 6A actually does any more, or simply decides that the sledgehammer approach is no less than commenters deserve.

Some links, which I for one really wish you would put in my comments:

Ben’s Support for nofollow
No matter what else, it’s certainly good to see cooperation among search engines, among blogging software vendors, and between the two groups.
Steven Garrity’s Thoughts on weblog comment spam prevention
However, I fear this may hurt the web in the long run.
Chuq on why it isn’t the answer
but if the “install and forget” mentality exists in OS installs and blog software installs, it exists as well with spammers who download the scripts and use them without understanding them or really knowing what they do, too
Burningbird’s This is a disclaimer
Not only did it get me thinking about how nofollow is a disclaimer of the worst empty sort, “we can’t be held responsible for this, or pretty much anything, because, um, we don’t want to be responsible for it,” it gave me a chance to smile again at with big black eyes that once twinkled wickedly at saucy ladies who would show too much ankle.
Haiko Hebig’s rel=”nofollow” a good idea?
It certainly seems possible that this will solve the nasty problem of weblogs ranking very high in search results, to the extent that PageRank matters anymore (which can’t be too great, or the search engines wouldn’t have agreed so quickly to let people micromanage it): if rather than sharing out the PR from your post equally between the funny story on Yahoo! News you linked to and the blogs of your four friends who left funny comments, you give it all to Yahoo!, well…
Dave Walker’s Wouldn’t It Be Nice?
Among the things that worry me is the possibility that Unca Philtie and Greets From Me and ol’ Joe Incest won’t stop or change, because they aren’t sitting there watching the success or failure of their scripts, they just assigned a zombie or three to run them, and if they make a change they’ll just give it to a new zombie.
Daniel Berlinger’s modified his CSS
I understand that you’ll see any nofollows on his site (whether his own or those that came in through republished RSS items) in red. Me, I see them in the same old blinking lime. (By the way, Daniel, you really want to use [rel~="nofollow"] so you’ll also pick up links with more rel attribute values, since they can be a space-separated list: with ~= you pick up rel="scary nofollow stranger unclean" too).
Coincidently via Daniel, Hot Needle of Inquiry
An absolutely wonderful name for a weblog (Ghu knows I use mine exactly that way far too often), with a fine job of explaining something I’ve been trying to get across to some non-SF-reading friends. The story is so familiar that it amazes me when people don’t recognize it.
Jeff Moore: nofollow and comment spam
I think pings and trackbacks tend to conserve PR [amongst weblogs]. It’s a shame that Movable Type’s first implementation of Trackback didn’t include moderation (it’s a also a shame and an open bug that their current implementation doesn’t), because if people hadn’t been trained to go immediately look at the results of a Trackback ping, we could continue to conserve it that way, even if we leak some through not using comments to siphon it off.
Lachlan Hunt: Link relationships revisited, part 1
To be honest, Lachy’s rels and Vote Links and XFN all seem like so much metacrap in desperate need of something to consume them before they start looking for converts, but goddamn I enjoy reading people who are as serious and obsessed about their obsessions as I am about mine.
Mark Nottingham: On how Google fixed comment spam
I’m not sure if I find it disturbing, but I certainly find it interesting that this week we had both Google unilaterally declaring a secretly-developed rel value (without feeling the need to even nod to the spec’s desire for a profile) and two RDFers unilaterally declaring RSS 1.1, explicitly stepping over the moribund corpse of the RSS-DEV “Working Group”.
Chuq again: Burningbird: the other shoe drops
Good, meaty stuff riffing off Shell talking about hoarding your links, that I go around and around on every six or eight months. One of the bits of grit that keep sticking around, that I keep hoping will form pearls eventually: A-listers need love too: sometimes, you don’t see any links to their posts because they are all crap, but other times it’s just because nobody links to them because they think everyone has already read them.

And then, when I thought I was done for tonight, Asa Dotzler:

It sounds like we’re getting very close to a cure (or at least a decent prophylactic) for comment and trackback spam. It’s good to see the search guys working on this from both ends. Now, we just need all of the major blog tools to add this feature as an option.

I don’t know whether it was the combination of “prophylactic” and “from both ends” or the effects of reading all this again while writing or possibly my natural cynicism kicking in in the face of someone who’s not that involved in the guts of weblogging tech and just wants to stop getting all those crap comments, but my start of a comment there, transferred to here, seems to slightly belie my dispassionate observer of what’s next stance so far:

The bad news for you is that it’s not actually a prophylactic for you: you still get screwed by the spammers (after all, an automated script looking at this page before I add this comment and get tagged rel=”unclean” isn’t going to have any idea whether or not Kerz has already installed the plugin for MT, which he has), but then when Googlebot comes by to whisper sweet nothings in your ear, it’s going to want to slip that nofollow prophylactic on you, because it doesn’t know where you’ve been, but it has its suspicions. It only actually stops you from getting spammed when the ocean starts boiling, after we’ve forced every single person with weblog comments to implement it, and driven the unbelievers off the web. Until then, the spammers and the search engines are going to keep working you from both ends, but the search engines want to make sure they don’t catch anything from you.

Always nice to write my way to an understanding of what I actually think, but sadly for you this time I’m not going to go back and edit it down to just the gist.


Comment by Bill #
2005-01-20 05:08:58

Unfortunately, I think Ben Hammersley gets it right as do you do at the top. There is no reason this will prevent comment spam. Costs are negligible, so the few people who bite make the whole scheme profitable.

Comment by Dorothea Salo #
2005-01-20 08:51:06

Lime green and blinking? Um, you do realize the person you’re punishing is yourself, right?

Eyecatching doesn’t have to mean luridly garish.

Because, yeek, ouch, *cringe*. Lime green and blinking?

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2005-01-20 09:12:11

Ah, but that’s rather my point. This isn’t a minor backend tweak with no effect save magically causing comment spam to go away: it’s a silent and invisible change in our social contract. Only, for me, for now at least, it’s not so invisible. Instead, it hurts.

Comment by Laurabelle #
2005-01-22 21:59:57

Try mine:

a[rel~="nofollow"]:after {
    content: " [NOFOLLOW]";

It’s still noticeable but much easier on the eyes. :-)

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2005-01-22 22:24:13

I might have to: have you read a Wikipedia article with several external links with fairly long link text lately? Yeouch!

But aren’t you likely to wind up breaking overly-fragile layouts by adding unexpected :after? Probably the best use of it (for some nasty-minded value of best) is to tweak your own internal redistribution of PageRank by choosing which navigation links will and won’t pass PR, and navigation tends to be fairly intolerant of being mucked about. With. Intolerant of muckhood.

Comment by Laurabelle #
2005-01-23 22:43:13

I suppose I might end up breaking someone else’s layout, but so far the only sites I’ve actually seen nofollow on (since enabling userContent.css) are yours and mine. My TrackBack links look a bit ugly now, but that’s my own damn fault. :-)

I can’t think of anything else that would be visible but not painful, so I’m going to stick with my solution, at least for the time being.

Comment by Micah #
2005-07-21 22:45:45

Especially now that has no-follow’ed all their links, my bookmarks page is a danger to my sanity (flashing lime green).

emacs .mozilla/msittig/xxxxx.slt/chrome/userContent.css

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2005-07-24 20:21:37

Yeesh. Not only is that unpleasant to look at, it has a very strong feel of a John Robb lesson.

Comment by Roger Benningfield #
2005-01-20 11:14:49

Phil: Despite my initial enthusiasm for the whole thing, I’m kind of questioning ”nofollow” now. Not because I care about Scoble’s use of his PageRank, though.

It’s just that, well, I sat down this morning to implement nofollow and realized that I don’t even know where to start. For something that seems like such a simple no-brainer, there’s a lot that goes into the process, at least for me.

Do I apply it to unregistered guest posts, or all comments? (And what if a comment is also a blog entry?) Do I apply it during the posting or rendering phase? (The difference between sterilization and a prophylactic, really.) Do I apply it equally to the browsable HTML view of a thread *and* the RSS feed?

And I’ll be launching a UI for the integrated aggregator here in a day or two… do the ”feed posts” get the same treatment as other messages? The meaning of rel=”nofollow” seems to be evolving into ”the owner of this site can’t vouch for this link”, after all. Hell, in a community full of blog entries, comments, and feed items, I can’t vouch for much of *anything*.

I may end up punting on this one for a while.

Comment by Haacked #
2005-01-20 11:55:21

I think it may still have some impact, though it’s not a panacea.

The financial benefit to a single piece of comment spam has been decreased. It’s perhaps raised the cost to get the same benefit from comment spam. As you said it, they’ll just try to spam more.

Question is, what’s the cost benefit to them?

Comment by Collin #
2005-01-20 19:43:33

I like your idea of tagging nofollow links, but I have a much less obnoxious way of doing so ;-)

/* tag rel=nofollow links */
a[rel~="nofollow"] {
    background                  : url('icons/nf.png') right center no-repeat;
    padding-right               : 14px;
    margin-right                : 0px;

Along with this icon in my chromeicons folder, it adds a small NF after any nofollow link.

Enough to alert me it’s a nofollow, but not so blinding :-)

I should also note that I believe you need to toggle one option (security.checkloaduri) to false, unless you put the icon on a webserver.

Comment by Jacques Distler #
2005-01-20 19:48:23

I am appalled at Scoble’s glee about rel="nofollow". This is, clearly, barely the start of the mischief that will follow as people figure out ways to game the search engines using this attribute. It’s not a blog issue, per se, it’s a web-wide issue (Scoble: ”link to your competitors…”). And SEO experts are, I’m sure, licking their chops.

On the other hand, my feeling is that robotically-added links should not automatically confer PageRank, because no human intervention was necessary to create them. (Auto-Discovered) Trackbacks are a prime example. And it’s no accident that trackbacks are particularly amenable to automated spamming. The whole ”no-human-intervention-necessary” thing makes them easy to generate robotically, and hard to defend against.

Comments are a different matter. If you’ve done a decent job of ensuring that automated spambots cannot add comments to your blog, then the links that remain were generated by people. Some of those people may still be spammers, but I’d rather give my commenters the benefit of the doubt.

My current implementation (which did little more that install 6A’s plugin) adds rel="nofollow" to Trackback-URL links and to Commenters’ URL links. I don’t touch the links in the Comment-Body, on the presumtion that those are relevant to the topic at hand — and hence ought to be followed by the GoogleBot.

All of the above are subject to change…

Comment by Phil Ringnalda #
2005-01-20 21:22:19

On the other hand, Luke would like to remind me that there are times when nofollow is just exactly, precisely what you want on your commenters’ links.

Trackback by codestream #
2005-01-20 03:34:05

Now that comment spam is taken care of, I can get on with my life

Phil Ringnalda has a great wrap-up of the rel=’nofollow’ mini-series and the varying opinions it’s provoked. I think the most interesting thing about it is that it happened so quickly and without any of the rancour and turf-warfare that I…

Trackback by Das E-Business Weblog #
2005-01-20 06:11:10

Verwunderung über Google und Weblogsoftwarehersteller ob ”rel=nofollow”.

Unter der Überschrift ”Preventing comment spam” hat Google etwas Neues eingeführt: Hyperlinks, die ein rel=”nofollow”-Attribut tragen, werden künftig nicht mehr für den Pagerank gewertet. Weblogsoftwarehersteller wollen in ihre Software implementieren,…

Trackback by adot's notblog* #
2005-01-20 09:27:29

more on nofollow

I realize I’m late to the game on this one (and kerz has even set this up for the MozillaZine-hosted weblogs, including me) but I’m catching up quickly. For any one else that’s just getting up to speed on this, Phil Ringnalda has a great post up at his…

Trackback by Full Speed #
2005-01-20 11:53:45


The new rel=”nofollow” syntax for html a tags has caused quite a stir on the web this week. It seems that almost all of the blogs that I read are abuzz with opinions and comments regarding this impressive feat of…

Trackback by Jason Edgecombe #
2005-01-20 16:45:18

Phil Ringalda chimes in on ”nofollow” links

phil ringnalda dot com: Is rel = ”nofollow” really as !important as that? ”I think, perhaps it is. It will not stop comment spam; it’s actually as likely to increase the pace, since now there’s absolutely no point in being…

Trackback by WebCites #
2005-01-20 20:19:56

Is rel = ”nofollow” really as !important as that?

Inhibiting linking behavior to fight SPAM is destroying the social network, no two ways about it….

Trackback by Ogawa::Hacks #
2005-01-20 20:45:50

Show ”nofollow” bookmarklet

Show ”nofollow” Bookmarklet This bookmarklet allows you to change ”nofollow” links’ color ”lime”. You can customize it whatever you like ;-)…

2005-01-21 00:01:01

I Broke Nofollow

Trackback by Zepfanman Blog #
2005-01-21 08:33:40

Link dump

I need a better way to keep up with quick links and tidbits of info around the web. Here is a dump of a bunch I’ve found in the past month.

Trackback by einfach-persoenlich #
2005-01-21 10:26:43

nofollow – noLinks, noComments, noTrackbacks, noPageRank?

Google, Yahoo & MSN erklären, sie kämpfen seit Mittwoch gemeinsam mit Six Apart und anderen Weblog-Herstellern gegen Kommentar-Spam. Endlich, super, mögen viele zuerst meinen! PR-Gag, Aktion gegen die Kommentar-Spamer oder einfach n…

Trackback by Musings #
2005-01-22 11:28:23


Our policy on rel=”nofollow”, explained.

Trackback by Laurabelle's Blog #
2005-01-22 21:45:40

Nofollow 2: Screwed from both ends

I think Phil Ringnalda is right about nofollow: It only actually stops you from getting spammed when the ocean starts…

2005-02-02 09:50:42

Separation anxiety, colors, MAD,

Separation Anxiety Ben’s been really cool about getting dropped off at daycare for months now. But in the past two weeks, he’s started hating it a little bit more each day. I used to be able to give him a…

Trackback by Q Daily News #
2005-02-17 11:28:30

The sky ain’t falling, people!

A plea to all the reactionaries who are thinking about jumping onto the anti-Google bandwagon over the latest beta of the Google Toolbar: perhaps you might think about trying the freaking thing before you lambast the company for behavior that…

2005-07-20 03:12:24

nofollow – 6 Monate danach

Im Januar 2005 sollte ein neues HTML-Attribut das Internet revolutionieren und Spam-frei machen. Google verkündete seine strategische Allianz mit Blog-Herstellern und Suchmachinen-Konkurrenten gegen Spamer. Was hat nun »nofollow« nach…

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