To follow or "nofollow": How to handle paid links

Last week, I (Karen) posted a link on Facebook about nofollow links and the dangers of not using them. It generated a great deal of confusion and many excellent questions. So, I started doing some additional research into this issue (and indeed it is a hotly debated topic). What I found was that the supporting links in the post I shared were only telling part of the story. 


I started with Wikipedia:

nofollow is a value that can be assigned to the rel attribute of an HTML a element to instruct some search engines that a hyperlink should not influence the link target’s ranking in the search engine’s index. It is intended to reduce the effectiveness of certain types of search engine spam, thereby improving the quality of search engine results and preventing spamdexing from occurring.

The original purpose of the rel=”nofollow” attribute was to prevent comment spam. It didn’t (and doesn’t) work perfectly to solve the original issue and there are a host of issues with the attribute - read more about the issues here

In 2005, Matt Cutts wrote about Google’s stance on paid links, suggesting that using the nofollow attribute would give search bots the heads up that a link was paid (or not recommended):

But for everyone else, let me talk about why we consider it outside our guidelines to get PageRank via buying links. Google (and pretty much every other major search engine) uses hyperlinks to help determine reputation. Links are usually editorial votes given by choice, and link-based analysis has greatly improved the quality of web search. Selling links muddies the quality of link-based reputation and makes it harder for many search engines (not just Google) to return relevant results. 

So, for 7 years, there has been an ongoing and lengthy debate about whether or not to use nofollow and why. This particular quote [emphasis mine] is probably one that would be considered extremely controversial:

But not everyone agrees it’s up to webmasters to help Google figure out how to rank websites. Romanian search blogger Ionut Alex. Chitu told me that webmasters should put paid links on a separated place on the website, and label them in such a way that users don’t think the webmaster is affiliated with them. Other than that, Ionut argues, “Search engines should be smart enough to detect navigation areas, unrelated links or spam.” When asked on whether he thinks webmasters should use the “nofollow” value, Ionut says, “No, they shouldn’t. Unless they care a lot about search engines. Ideally, webmasters should act as if search engines don’t exist.”

It would be interesting to know what that blogger’s views are five years later.


The nofollow attribute is not exclusively a signal to indicate a paid link. It’s also a flag that a link is not being endorsed by the site hosting the link. Why? Nofollow links receive no SEO benefit. That can be a reason to use them if you have a difference of opinion with the site you’re linking to for any reason.

Not All Search Engines are Equal

I’m not referring to market share. I’m talking about how they treat the nofollow attribute. Here’s a breakdown, courtesy of the Wikipedia article:

rel=”nofollow” ActionGoogleYahoo!
Uses the link for ranking No No No ?
Follows the link Yes Yes ? No
Indexes the “linked to” page No Yes No No
Shows the existence of the link Only previously indexed pages Yes Yes Yes
In results pages for anchor text Only previously indexed pages Yes Only previously indexed pages Yes

My Conclusion

Originally, my advice was to nofollow any paid link. My view on this has changed, despite the threat of negative action from Google, which appears to be minimal from what I’ve seen so far.

Whether to use the rel=”nofollow” attribute is a grey area. I know of many bloggers who will add any advertiser to their blog to generate revenue. I know of just as many who carefully vet the advertisers they promote for the express purpose of endorsing their business. 

My personal practice going forward will be to use follow/nofollow as an endorsement method. If I want to endorse even a paid advertiser, I will not use the nofollow attribute. For links to sites I don’t endorse, I’ll determine if it’s appropriate to add nofollow to the link or not. 

Do you understand the nofollow attribute better now? Do you need to know more to decide how you’ll decide to use (or not use) it?

Social 101: Facebook changes and the currency controversy

Facebook has gotten pretty huge. And pretty complex. With every revision to the site, users push back and demand that the design go back or at least have the option of going back. If you're one of those feeling this way, let me point out a couple of things:

Creating the architecture for a site like Facebook isn't simple. There are massive numbers visiting the site daily. In February 2010 (a mere two years ago), TechCrunch published a story that 175 million Facebook users log in daily (this blog you're reading couldn't handle 1/10th that number in an entire year without crashing).

In January 2011, DigitalBuzz posted an infographic that 250 million log in daily. Facebook's newsroom was updated in December 2011 to say that there are now a whopping 483 million users logging in daily- that number nearly doubled in less than a year! Because Facebook regularly updates that page, I'm going to paste the numbers here for you:


We had 845 million monthly active users at the end of December 2011.
Approximately 80% of our monthly active users are outside the U.S. and Canada.
We had 483 million daily active users on average in December 2011.
We had more than 425 million monthly active users who used Facebook mobile products in December 2011.
Facebook is available in more than 70 languages.

Because of the complexity of the site - and it's offered up to users at no charge (more on that later) - it's not reasonable to run two versions simultaneously on a permanent basis. Not to mention that there would be roughly 7 versions running if everyone had their way. Even Microsoft, Apple and other software developers stop supporting old versions. That's the way software works. There's a development cycle that exists to keep everything efficient and up-to-date with current advances. Facebook is a network, but its foundation is a complex piece of Web-based software which is the key. Multiple versions don't work well on the Web.

Facebook is free to its users. This is an interesting argument, because it's not strictly true except in a monetary sense. Facebook built a platform that is ingenious because we like connecting with friends and family. The currency we use to pay for Facebook is our "privacy". Your data. My data. (Not to mention time.) The demographic information you put in on the back end. The status updates that mention various subjects. The comments we leave. The pages we like. Facebook is making money off of the information that you and I voluntarily enter on their site. That's why I put privacy in quotes. Users need to be educated on this so they know the impact of what they say when they log in. Want to know a secret?

Facebook isn't the only site you use that does this. Google does it. Bing does it. Twitter is trying to do it. Klout does it. That's just naming a few. This is why it's so important to view the Internet as a place where your every action and word is being recorded - because it is.

Business owners get value out of Facebook that is worth sharing data. Many - including myself - use the Facebook platform for business and the value is proven in the traffic I see to my sites from Facebook, which leads to revenue-generating opportunities. For those of us using Facebook for business, it's a no-brainer to be there. The return on our time investment and data sharing is worth it. I'm selective about what I say on my personal profile and what I populate in Facebook's back-end (phone numbers, address, etc.). I'm also not bothered that Facebook delivers ads to me based on what I say and pages I like. Why? Because it's all automated. I know there's not some room in Facebook's basement where a bunch of creepy people watch our profiles and send ads to my Facebook page when they see me say certain things. That isn't the way the Web works - at all.

(BTW, again, Facebook isn't the only or the first site doing this - millions of sites we visit every single day use data that deliver ads this way.)

It does bother some people when ads show up on Facebook that match a topic they've mentioned, so I'm going to talk about privacy as we go through the month and point out some of the issues that exist and how users can protect themselves from sharing more than they're comfortable with on Facebook.

Are you concerned about your privacy on Facebook or do you feel confident that your own usage boundaries will protect you?