PageRank Sculpting – Ok Or Penalty Material? 10 SEO Experts Respond. | UK Search Engine MarketingUK SEM
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PageRank Sculpting – Ok Or Penalty Material? 10 SEO Experts Respond.

June 3, 2008 by Ben W. 

PageRank Sculpting DebunkedArguments over the use of “nofollow” tags on internal links keep popping up and it is time to answer these question with authority! We asked 10 SEO experts to share their view of the practice, researched exactly what Matt Cutts of Google has said about it, and created a detailed reference section. Please join us for a delightful evening of debunking the fuss over PageRank sculpting…

PageRank sculpting refers to the act of using nofollow tags on internal site links to focus page strength or link strength to the pages and anchor text that a site owner wants in a search engine. Over the last few months this has been a tricky subject with it being recommended by some and warned against by others. Comment discussions at Sphinn, SEL and SEJ has been long and lethal and a few days ago SEO Scientist posted an article reporting that it might have caused a brief penalty for a site in combination with other flags.

We emailed 10 SEO experts and asked them two questions about PageRank sculpting:

Question 1. Do you use “rel=nofollow” on internal site structure for your sites and or clients?

Question 2. Do you think the use of “rel=nofollow” tags internally is a giant red flag to Google that on its own, or in combination with other flags, might cause a penalty or problems?

Huge thanks to everyone that responded, here are the answers we got in the order received:

Joost de Valk‘s answer:

1. Yes, for myself AND for clients (and large ones at that).

2. Well it might cause a look from a search quality agent, but if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to loose. It is VERY hard to do right though, and in my experience, most people claiming it’s a penalty have just been doing something wrong, in the process taking too much link juice away from pages they needed to rank :).

Andy Beal of Marketing Pilgrim‘s answer:

1. Yes, very occasionally and very carefully. My favourite use of nofollow is for useless anchor text. If I have a page with two links pointing to the same destination, one with the anchor text “services” and the other with “search engine optimization services,” you can guess which one will have the nofollow added. 🙂

2. No. I’ve not seen it myself and would guess that other “flags” are causing the problems.

DazzlinDonna of SEO Scoop‘s answer:

1. Yes, but in a limited fashion. I think the use of NoFollow for forums or community sites is important so that all of the juice isn’t flowing to member profiles, etc. If you have 50,000 member profiles, you really don’t want to waste all of your juice on those pages, especially since most of those pages will be almost exactly alike (and may include links to bad neighborhoods as well). For many forum and community scripts, the script itself may automatically NoFollow such pages. (Note: In some community sites, the member pages ARE the main pages of the site, so of course, you DO want juice flowing to those pages, and would NOT want to NoFollow them.)

Likewise, extremely large sites can make use of NoFollow for the same reason – keeping juice from flowing to thousands of non-essential pages such as near-duplicate content from printable views, etc. Those are the exceptions in my book, however. The vast majority of sites don’t fit into those molds, and really don’t need to devote time to using NoFollow for PR sculpting purposes.

2. If the page-sculpting isn’t standard then…maybe. If a popular forum or community script automatically slaps NoFollow on certain pages, then no, it would be ridiculous for Google to even think of that as being worthy of a second look. However, any SEO footprint that is out of the norm has the potential for causing Google to stop and take a closer look. If the use of NoFollow makes sense in that it is being used in the ways Matt Cutts has described as being useful, then I wouldn’t be concerned at all. However, if you are already doing a few things that might put your site on shaky ground, then certainly adding one more SEO footprint might be the tipping point to getting noticed, and then penalized.

Keep in mind that any significant changes to a site OF ANY SORT could cause Google to stop and take a second look. So, sure, adding a ton of NoFollows one day could make rankings fluctuate as Google wonders if the site is still trustworthy. Then again, adding a ton changes of any other kind could affect rankings in the same way. So, if someone is noticing fluctuations, it may be due to large site changes in general, and not necessarily the act of applying NoFollows. In addition, you may *think* you’ve done a good thing by applying NoFollows, but you may have accidentally borked the flow of PR in a way you hadn’t anticipated. So perhaps the changes you made actually stopped the flow to some important pages, and you haven’t even realized that.

Summary: Some situations make the use of NoFollow a NoBrainer. Large sites, forums, and communities probably warrant the use of NoFollow in certain ways. Most sites don’t warrant the use of NoFollow, however, and worrying about sculpting PageRank flow on those sites is mostly a waste of time. In some limited circumstances, using NoFollow might be just enough of a tipping point to get an already-shaky site noticed, but for that matter, any SEO footprint could do the same.

Caveman SEO Consulting‘s answer:

1. Almost never.

2. The question IMHO is, should people use nofollow attributes on internal links to “sculpt PageRank” and generally I think that the answer is “no.” The Google Web Spam team works to stop people from “cheating.” So, is it “cheating” to add the nofollow attribute to links pointing to photo galleries with no text and unoptimized pages? I would think not, since you’re keeping essentially duplicate, unrankable pages out of the index.

But is it “cheating” to add the nofollow attribute to a couple of sitewide nav links to refocus more link equity into critical parts of the site? The question is debatable, and to some extent depends upon degree, the intent of the site owner, and the perceptions of a search engineer. Based on the patterns of thinking I’ve seen from Google in the past six or seven years, I suspect they think that altering the nature of sitewide nav links for ranking purposes could indeed be cheating.

Matt has made some comments that lead people to believe that the use of nofollow attributes at the link level is not cheating. The problem is, people have a tendency to take individual comments out of context. Like most coding elements, it’s all down to how you do it.

Knowing that it is not hard for the search engines to identify nav links on a site: If you’ve got a site with, say, 15 sitewide nav links to core sections and pages, and suddenly a third of those are modified with the nofollow attribute at the link level…would that raise a red flag? How about two thirds? I have to believe that at some point it’s an issue.

So for me the question is, why use it? Personally I think it started as a way for the engines to get site owners to do their work for them. Now it’s evolving into a sort of link level site sculpting tool, and it’s hard not to regard it as a possible means of abuse. Using it when there are other equally effective options available makes no sense to me.

There have been a very few cases when we have recommended it to clients, when there was just no other easy alternative. But we recommend it rarely, and regard it as a last resort. Basically, with a few unusual exceptions, if your site is unable to achieve top rankings without using nofollow to sculpt PageRank, you might be better off rethinking what’s going on with the site.

Rand of SEOmoz‘s answer:

1. Yes, we absolutely use nofollow to sculpt the flow of search engines link juice through a site, and have done so both on our own domain and recommended for nearly all of our clients (which includes companies like Yelp, FastCompany, Inc, Village Voice Media Group (which owns 17 national papers), NPR, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Farecast, AllBusiness, and many more.

2. No. I believe that Matt Cutts and the other search engine representatives certainly would not penalize for the use of nofollow internally after specifically noting that this was an approved SEO technique. After all, this is simply a new way to use a very old process. Webmasters since the late 90’s have used javascript links, links in Flash, links in iFrames that were blocked by robots.txt, etc. so flow link juice through a site. The concept that suddenly, nofollow would trigger negative attention is not only paranoid, but would necessarily mean that the search engine representatives are directly lying to the webmaster community.

Jane Copland of SEOmoz‘s answer:

1. Previously answered by Rand.

2. It’s something I’ve been taking quite an interest in lately. I read that post over at SEO Scientist this morning, actually, and it surprised me… I hadn’t heard – and still like to think I haven’t heard – any definitive evidence that using nofollow for PageRank Sculpting acts as a red flag to Google. In fact, in this interview with Matt Cutts that Rand conducted in 2007 suggests the complete opposite. In the interview, Matt says:

The nofollow attribute is just a mechanism that gives webmasters the ability to modify PageRank flow at link-level granularity. Plenty of other mechanisms would also work (e.g. a link through a page that is robot.txt’ed out), but nofollow on individual links is simpler for some folks to use. There’s no stigma to using nofollow, even on your own internal links; for Google, nofollow’ed links are dropped out of our link graph; we don’t even use such links for discovery. By the way, the nofollow meta tag does that same thing, but at a page level.)

However, that interview took place in August, 2007, and there is no reason why Google hasn’t “changed its mind” or modified its views on the practice. If they’ve seen significant manipulation to the extent that their search results are compromised, I see no reason why they’d put an end to any tactic, no matter whether they’ve approved it in the past or not. We saw something similar happen quite recently with the badge and widget-bait debate.

As for using nofollow on our sites or those of our clients, we do it at SEOmoz (have a look at any of our pages with the nofollow display Greasemonkey plugin) and I use it on various sites of my own. I’ve also recommended clients use it and recommended it to PRO members at SEOmoz. In two instances, I noticed an increase in SERP placement after carefully nofollowing certain navigational links. The two most popular stories I hear regarding the use of internal nofollow is that search traffic either doesn’t change or gets better. I have never before heard of it getting significantly worse.

Like I said, I’m not convinced that it’s a dangerous practice, but I’m of course open to new evidence, as Google will undoubtedly change the way it views most of our optimisation tactics at one point or another.

Aaron Wall of SEO Book‘s answer:

1. If a content management system (like a blog) has nofollow in it by default then yes I leave those links there. Otherwise I generally do not use nofollow much on most of my sites because I generally think Google engineers despise SEOs, and since I am well known as an SEO and have had an engineer hand edit one of my sites before I feel that using nofollow is just another way to put a kick me sign on my sites.

2. I think it is a red flag if you are…
– a small publisher with limited reach on a commercially focused site (especially if you are in a spammy or seedy niche)
– an affiliate (the thinner you are the higher the risk)
– a well known SEO (Google hates you)
– or just about any publishing/arbitrage play where you are not an obvious leader in your category, you do not have a well known brand, and/or you have not spent millions on branding, public relations, & advertising.

If you are a corporation you are OK to spam, but Google engineers get their kicks by crushing small webmasters. They keep the web safe and healthy by policing smaller players, hoping that this consolidates traffic against larger corporations which will grow dependant on Google traffic, and will end up easily swayed by Google’s business interests. Short term the corporations are not well policed so that they can become addicted to free traffic, but after many of the smaller players have been driven off the web (largely in the next 5 years) Google will start policing the profits out of corporations too.

Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting‘s answer:

1. We do use NoFollow on selected elements of web sites, whether they be ones that we publish for ourselves, or on our client sites. We use them judiciously, to simply cut down PR flow to no value pages. For example, your “Contact Us” page, or your “About Us” pages.

We don’t completely cut these pages off by the way. We just link to them without a NoFollow from the home page only. We think they should still show up in the search engines. They just don’t need to be considered the most important pages on the site.

2. No I don’t think it’s a giant red flag. In the interview I did in September with Matt Cutts he openly recommended that NoFollow be used as a tool in this fashion. He also made similar comments in an interview he did with Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz. We have never had any problem with it on any of the sites we work on.

However, SEO is a VERY complicated science, so there could well be scenarios where this could be a flag. In particular, it could flag the publisher as being SEO savvy. This is not inherently bad, but if there are other signals that merit the attention of someone at Google, it could be used as an indicator that would increase the chance of a human review.

For example, if you had several potential signals about your site, it could be an additional signal that would increase the chance of a report. Or, if you are using a lot of NoFollows, and your competitor reports you for buying links, it could be an extra flag to look at a site more closely.

In spite of the SEO Scientist report, I doubt that there is a standalone algorithmic penalty for using NoFollow like this. There must be something else going on as well. We have simply used this on too many sites with no problem at all. Bear in mind, though, that our approach to SEO is as white hat as it gets.

As a final note, I also don’t believe that Matt would publicly make the recommendations that he has, if it was fundamentally a bad thing to do.

Branko of SEO Scientist‘s answer:

1. I have presently taken off all of the nofollow attributes from our clients’ sites, after the bad experience I had. Additionally, not all our client’s sites need nofollowing. I am using nofollow on some of my test sites, but that is for research purposes only, testing in which cases nofollow helps and in which cases it actually hurts the site.

2.Is it a GIANT red flag ? I don’t think so. After all, Google themselves said it is OK to use it and I don’t believe that Matt would purposly mislead anyone. Is it a signal that could be used in combination with other signals, definitely yes. I think that it is important do discern penalties from filters here: filters are more automatic and can be keyword and even country specific. Since they are automatically applied, I believe that there is some kind of negative point system that accumulates for each site that is doing things Google deems manipulative. Selling links gives you X negative points, over-optimization gives you Y negative points, etc. Of course each of those penalties could be invoked manually, but I think the majority of them are automatic. Once you reach a negative point threshold the filter gets applied and your site goes down by X places (-60, -900, whatever). In this model, I do believe nofollowing your navigational links extensively could serve as a signal.

Neil Patel of Pronet Advertising‘s answer:

1. Yes, I do use them internally for my sites as well as client sites. It is a great way to control PR.

2. I don’t think it would cause any problems or raise any flags. I have been doing it for a while and have not run into any problems yet.

Thanks to all the SEO experts who contributed their time and knowledge to this question!

Matt Cutts And What Google Says About PageRank Sculpting…

So the first question we need to answer is what does Google, i.e. Matt Cutts, specifically say about PageRank sculpting?

In August 2007 Rand of SEOmoz did a fantastic interview with Matt Cutts and asked the very direct question:

“Does Google recommend the use of nofollow internally as a positive method for controlling the flow of internal link love?”

Matt Cutts responded with:

“The nofollow attribute is just a mechanism that gives webmasters the ability to modify PageRank flow at link-level granularity. Plenty of other mechanisms would also work (e.g. a link through a page that is robot.txt’ed out), but nofollow on individual links is simpler for some folks to use. There’s no stigma to using nofollow, even on your own internal links…”

This was followed in October 2007 with a posting on Google Groups and an interview with Eric Enge of Stone Temple on the subject. In the Google Groups post by Matt Cutts Aaron asked him “What are some appropriate ways to use the nofollow tag other than to protect against blog comment spam?” Matt responded with this post and here is the key part:

“What are some appropriate ways to use the nofollow tag? One good example is the home page of expedia.com. If you visit that page, you’ll see that the “Sign in” link is nofollow’ed. That’s a great use of the tag: Googlebot isn’t going to know how to sign into expedia.com, so why waste that PageRank on a page that wouldn’t benefit users or convert any new visitors? Likewise, the “My itineraries” link on expedia.com is nofollow’ed as well. That’s another page that wouldn’t really convert well or have any use except for signed in users, so the nofollow on Expedia’s home page means that Google won’t crawl those specific links.

Most webmasters don’t need to worry about sculpting the flow of PageRank on their site, but if you want to try advanced things with nofollow to send less PageRank to copyright pages, terms of service, privacy pages, etc., that’s your call. “

And the interview with Stone Temple Consulting Matt Cutts goes over the same issue. Eric Enge asks some really great questions on how it is all handled and here is what Matt has to say:

Matt Cutts: Another good example is, maybe you have a login page, and everybody ends up linking to that login page. That provides very little content value, so you could NoIndex that page, but then the outgoing links would still have PageRank.

Now, if you want to you can also add a NoFollow metatag, and that will say don’t show this page at all in Google’s Index, and don’t follow any outgoing links, and no PageRank flows from that page. We really think of these things as trying to provide as many opportunities as possible to sculpt where you want your PageRank to flow, or where you want Googlebot to spend more time and attention.

Conclusion and Confusion Over Google’s Stance

Google’s message seems to be pretty clear on this issue. I think the problem is this seems to contradict their previous actions as well as possibly Google’s Quality Guidelines. Google says to make “pages primarily for users, not for search engines” and asks webmasters to ask themselves “would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?” and “Does this help my users?” All those statements seem to contradict to some degree what Matt is saying about PageRank sculpting. Maybe they need to write a new guidelines section entitled “Guidelines For Advanced Webmaster Practices” which explains what is allowed when tweaking your site for what search engine’s see and how they attribute link weight.

June 2008 Update From Google

Google issued several changes along what everyone was complaining about! First they posted new guidelines on the nofollow tag and they changed their mission statement to say that you should design primarily for people but also help serach engines. Good update that helps to clear up some of the misconceptions.

References Articles On PageRank Sculpting – In rough order of mention…

SEOmoz posted an in depth article on using PageRank sculpting on their site and the results. It very clearly helped boost their traffic and the rank of the pages they wanted. A must read if you are going to follow this path.

The SEO Scientist wrote a wonderful article entitled Anatomy of a Google Filter/Penalty (or how not to do nofollow PR sculpting). In the article he believes that there is a chance that PageRank sculpting, together with other manipulations on his site, caused a filter that then caused a penalty. Great read and graph of the timeline of the problem.

SEOmoz interview with Matt Cutts where he clearly explains what you can use NoFollow to do. Stone Temple interview with Matt Cutts on exactly what you can do and a lot of other great info. I highly recommend you read both of these interviews as they are fantastic! Great questions and detailed. Also be sure to read this Google Groups post by Matt Cutts on the same subject.

GrayWolf adds another positive vote to the use of PageRank sculpting with his post “Why there is nothing wrong with sculping your pagerank”. I love his writing style and some great user comments.

The Search Engine Journal posted a key article entitled NoFollow: An SEO Red Flag? Pages and pages of comment discussion on this one and a must read. And Sphinn off that article with discussion.

Hobo posted a very well put article on NoFollow tags saying he would not be using them for internal links but rather optimising his pages through other means. He wants to save nofollows for bad neighbourhoods.

Dave Naylor’s take on PageRank sculpting is that it is good on short tail but bad on long tail and good on slightly higher traffic but bad on overall rankings. A good read with his experiences and thoughts. Recommended if you are implementing on a long tail or e-commerce site possibly.

Joost wrote an excellent article entitled PageRank sculpting – Siloing and more! He makes a great point in that this is not a new tactic but rather just a new method that appears to be ok with Google. Very well written article.

SEO Fast Start wrote on their blog that it is a tactic they are using to get more pages indexed. They see the discussion as being one of discounting pages you don’t want indexed in order to give more weight and index space to those you do.

The SEO Theory blog makes the point that you can’t sculpt PageRank until you can see it. A good article with some interesting points about why Google is approving sculpting something that is semi invisible to webmasters.

Search Engine Land posted that you’d be wise to NoFollow this dubious advice in response to the argument. This is an excellent article about the slow move of the nofollow tag from being a no vote in the link to a hacked use in explaining the site hierarchy.

Alan asks “Should You Sculpt Your Google PageRank Via Internal “No Follow” Links?” This is a great summary of the argument and some solid comments on the bottom.

If I have forgotten a link to anyone or any article please let me know. It is never my intention and I apologize ahead of time if I did.

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