Dumb SEO Questions

(Entry was posted by Mark Traphagen on this post in the Dumb SEO Questions community on Facebook, Thursday, January 4, 2018).

NEWS: SEMrush now says nofollow links are actually a ranking factor

SEMrush now says nofollow links to a site are actually a ranking factor. I say they’ve once again (wrongly) assumed that anything that correlates must be a direct factor. What say all of ye?


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Selected answers from the Dumb SEO Questions G+ community.

  • Simon Cartier: I am no expert, but I`ve seen the results! ;)
  • Jim Munro: To be fair, it looks to me like a guest post on the SEMrush blog. If that`s the case we can`t say that SEMrush did anything other than accept the guest post. I think he`s on the right tram though. I`ve never cared whether a link was follow or nofollow. All gifts gratefully received. :)
  • Gerry White: No follow links are great, I just usually think follow links are better
  • Simon Cartier: The terms do and no are just Google way of saying I accept it officially and non-officially? Like my comment if you know what I mean
  • Simon Cartier: I`ll add more fuel to the fire, in facts, some big news websites like Forbes etc. went no follow in the recent years to push off us of SEO ing their website, but do you think an article from Forbes isn`t just as good as before?
  • Ammon Johns: Mark Traphagen, to your original question, we commonly accept that Google are factoring data about usage and traffic into their ranking algorithms. A link that passes no PageRank might still then be generating traffic popularity data for other parts of the algorithm. So, if you believe Google do use traffic data and user behaviour, as many of their papers suggest, then nofollow links would indeed still be at least a direct signal within a ranking factor.
  • George G.: SEOs are usually thinking only in therms of PageRank (the link juice that the link passes). Those are your follow links. the algo now unlike 10 years ago i advanced enough and pagerank is only one of the many factors. nofollow links, while not bringing direct `juice` are authority factor(different than pagerank) if placed on the right place. so in my opinion both nofollow and doffolow links bring value, it is just a different kind of value.
  • Jason Hennessey: While Nofollow links don’t pass page rank, they do pass trust value when coming from trustworthy sites. Therefore, they *could* be a ranking signal.
  • Mark Traphagen: Actually, I`d forgotten I`d participated in this test with Rand Fishkin’s IMEC group in 2014 (https://www.slideshare.net/mobile/randfish/mad-science-experiments-in-seo-social-media/63-Test_1_We_pointed_nofollow - link goes to slide #63, but you have to advance to #73 to see the nofollow test). We ran two tests with around 50 SEOs pointing nofollow links to two different pages ranking low for a low-volume term. One test was inconclusive, but the other showed a dramatic rank increase. Rand said he was going to run more tests of this, but I’m not sure he ever did.
  • Roger Montti: While a search engine can predict user behavior in a web page, no-follow means it drops out of that calculation. It simply does not exist as part of the web graph. Not existing in the web graph is an important distinction from saying no pagerank is flowing. SEOs like to think of it as no PageRank flowing. But that`s not what no-follow does. No-follow drops that link relationship entirely from the web graph. But there`s a monkey wrench in that machine. Can anyone figure out what it is? :)
  • Josh Green: As we were told in by Google multiple times at Pubcon, mentions matter more than links. A nofollow is just another mention with a tiny kicker. Of course it is good for SEO in a vacuum. I am pretty certain that the mention’s context is taken into account. So if it is a complaint about the company with a nofollow it also tell G about the site, but in a more negative light.
  • Steve Gerencser: I solve this issue for myself by simply not caring what type a like it may be and just look for opportunities that may drive traffic. With being my only consideration, it no longer matters if a link is nofollow or not to.me. and I let Google do it`s thing.
  • Dawn Anderson: BTW - It`s safe to say I hate the UK equivalent of the IRS employee at tax time more than I hate nofollow links
  • Mark Traphagen: Pushing back at my own original challenge for a moment 😉 here’s another reason why Google may HAVE to take nofollow links into more consideration. Google’s own behavior modification (through its penalties and statements by its public spokespersons) have driven more and more major publishers to nofollow all links. It would seem to me that this messes with Google’s fundamental core algorithm (based on links). So it makes sense that if followed links begin to dry up across the web, Google will have to increase the weight it puts on other factors, including relevant nofollow links. All nofollows are no longer equal. Nofollow has lost its original intention, which was to give a site a way of singling out blatantly paid or sponsored links. When major sites begin nofollowing all external links, then the original value of nofollow is lost, and Google may have to look at them differently.
  • Doc Sheldon: I would say that it`s certainly POSSIBLE that Google has decided to start considering nofollowed inbound links as a ranking factor. But too many -even many of those who should know better - still conflate correlation with causation. And these days, it`s harder than ever (virtually impossible in many cases) to isolate factors. Personally, I`ve always considered all inbound links as possibly valuable from an SEO perspective - just as I consider non-linking citations to provide some value. Whether their value is as a direct ranking factor or indirect is, IMO, less important than it once was.
  • Roger Montti: As to the answer to my question about the wrench in all these arguments, it is related to internal PageRank flow. Discuss! :P
  • Steve Wiideman: I say who cares if they are or aren`t good for SEO if they have a high likelihood of driving relevant traffic or helping to improve brand authority. Which also makes me wonder how many SEMs out there are remarketing on pages linking to them as a strategy?
  • Micah Fisher-Kirshner: To piggyback off of Mark Traphagen speculation, I`ll throw a fun one out there (not that I agree, just fun to think) : with machine learning very specific types of nofollow links are featured as regular links again, but only in select situations (say news articles).
  • Roger Montti: We went from this:
  • Roger Montti: To this:
  • Jeff Ferguson: Agree with you, Mark. It’s easier to jump to this correlation than what is more likely a very complex system. Everyone wants it to just be tick boxes, but it’s way more. Just like people claiming content length is a factor instead of content quality. Counting words is easier than the alternative.
  • Alan Bleiweiss: SEMRush is on a mission to prove, once and for all, that correlation proves causation. For a data company, they sure do go too far with their methadone intake. Almost to the point where they may even be mainlining heroin these days. Just my opinion, of course.
  • Ammon Johns: Now that I`ve gotten most of the things that needed doing done, I can finally come back to this properly and spend the time that is deserved. Obviously aside from whether the article under discussion happens to accidentally be right or wrong, the arguments used are complete garbage. The author makes a number of specific points to argue his case, and it is quite astounding. Not one single one of those points is even close to correct. It takes serious talent to be that far wrong that consistently, so I`m not sure whether I`d feel compelled to applaud him before I fired him, or after. But there`s absolutely no doubt at all that I`d fire him, and as fast as possible. Quote: ... One of the biggest ranking factors for Google is brand trust. In other words, they need to trust your brand before they will allow you to rank at the top of their search results. This is mostly accomplished by your homepage SEO, or in other words the backlink profile of your homepage. But one of the key metrics Google uses to establish if your website is a trustworthy brand is whether or not you have any nofollow links. Think about it for a second. A nofollow link sends a message to Google that you are paying for the link because it is an ad. ... Seriously. Every single one of those points he made are not just wrong, but astoundingly wrong. This demonstrates such appallingly little actual knowledge about Google that I`m flat-out astonished he spelled their name right. He literally got everything else wrong, so I was expecting the full set. ;) Google have said that they like brands, sort of. What was actually said was far more nuanced, and was pointing out that *people* like brands. Google find that if they put more trusted brands in the search results, their customers, the searchers, are generally happier. But there is no such metric as brand trust. Brand trust is what the users, ordinary search users, have. And people don`t run on algorithms. Google`s algorithms merely attempt to model that behaviour, and present people with what they want, but they can`t use `feelings` to get there the way humans do. What they do instead is watch people, looking for brand links and brand mentions, and for which sites seem to get more clicks than just position alone might predict. Links and user behaviour are the two main signals they can use to identify whether an entity that Google has identified as a brand, is generally trusted by users, or has more negative sentiment. Another big factor is brand search, but this one is tricky to predict how they implement it. Certainly people searching directly for a brand or domain by name is a strong signal that that is a brand people are aware of, and want to see again. But while `amazon` is a brand that gets more searches per day than the volume of visitors an average site would get from ALL search in a month, there obviously has to be scaling systems to make the brand effect a proportional one. I would also think it sensible to put more weight on brand searches that followed being exposed to that brand in other recent non-brand searches, where this would be even more of a signal of preference and selection. But that`s speculation by that point, with no solid evidence, so features here only as a side-note of possible interest. Anyway, the author`s laughable assertion that Google need to trust your brand before you can rank well is just utter nonsense from someone who I can only possibly conclude has no industry experience at all. Even if the author had not shown clearly that he has no real idea of what brand is, or how it matters in Google`s parlance, they do not make the discovery of new things, including new brands, impossible by insisting that only previously established brands can rank. Heck, the only reason Google have a spam team, and spend any time on their campaigns to end spam, is because spammers can dominate SERPs above brands, and furthermore, rather than age a domain to do so, often use churn and burn tactics, doing it with a site that has existed for less than a month. That`s a fact that we all know. Blindingly self evident and readily apparent. To all except this article`s author, that is. :D Second specific area, nofollow links were NOT created just for marking ads. At the time, one of the biggest spam issues was comment spam. Making your blog nofollow all user-generated comments and links was much more important than just marking up one or two ads per page. The nofollow does NOT send Google a message that you are paying for the link, as this `author` states. Because it isn`t the link recipient that actually has control over whether the link is marked nofollow or not. The nofollow says "this link is not meant as my personal endorsement and citation, please don`t give me a penalty for linking to a bad neighborhood if they earn such". That`s why when the rel="nofollow" first came out, a good number of us started calling it `the link condom`. It`s mostly about the prevention of infection, and is not especially reliable at preventing the thing you might think it is there for. :) The nofollow is not, and never has been a part of the robots exclusion protocols, and is (in my experience and testing) not given the same weight as having a NOFOLLOW directive in the robots meta tag. Not even close to the same weight. Possibly, and arguably, not any weight at all. At first, Google kind of gave the author some trust in deciding whether or not to weight the link, but they had to complete reevaluate that position, when webmasters and SEOs started to advocate use of NOFOLLOW for PageRank sculpting, or link siloing practices. These days, from my own testing, I feel confident that your decision to use a nofollow or not has absolutely no effect on whether Google will decide to give that link weight or not. Instead, link weighting factors, which apply after base-line PageRank, are entirely algorithmic, except in the rare cases where a manual action has been set to devalue all links from a site or domain. There will be a lot of times when your decision on whether a link should carry weight or not will coincide with the way google`s algorithms do, and thus through correlation alone make it seem like the tagging was doing it. But my own opinion here is that link weighting is entirely under algorithmic control these days, with the only manual override possible being a manual action by Google. And yes, we have had statements in the past that indicate one of the forms of manual action doesn`t penalise or ban the site itself, but instead blocks any and all of its links having any weight at all. The days when all that mattered when looking at links was PageRank, and whether or not bots could access the link, are long gone. Now there is at least a second, and I believe a third too set of filtering or factoring into link weights. Google (Gary Illyes in particular) have said as much, though of course, without any real specifics on how. Just because a page itself has PageRank, and it`s links are not blocked or nofollowed, does not mean that the links from that page will pass any value. Some of the factoring is certainly based on past history of links from the domain, and includes whether the domain is known to have linked to bad neighbourhoods, accepted paid links, and especially undisclosed and unmarked paid links, etc. Basically, anywhere that you can easily create or buy a link soon automatically devalues itself to zero, which is exactly the scalable, automated model that Google like. There`s also factors related to link placements, just like how certain penalties and ranking factors are applied according to whether you have a ton of banners and sponsored content above the fold. Links in the comments area for example are devalued. Links in the footer. Links in ad blocks. And default, run-of-site links such as the navigation also have less weight than links that are contextual, within the main body of content, and from the pattern of language around the links are deemed to be relevant, editorially selective, citations.
  • Eric Enge: Yes looks like he took the leap from bad science to NO science
  • Kristine Schachinger: Well I know what I`m reading in the plane tomorrow lol thanks for the discussion everyone.

View original question in the Dumb SEO Questions community on Facebook, Thursday, January 4, 2018).

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