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