Once again, spammers pooping in Squidoo’s sandbox have caused inconvenience for the rest of us. Squidoo has now followed Wikipedia’s example and nofollowed all outbound links.
My opinion: it stings, but on the whole it’s a reasonable move. There are some drawbacks to nofollowing all outbound links. But those drawbacks are outweighed by the benefit: this will discourage those using Squidoo as a place to drop self-serving links, and encourage the use of Squidoo as a place to post actual content. For obvious reasons, Google prefers the latter.
Lakeerieartist concurs, in this succinct post on SquidLog: Spammers Be Gone.
Let me see if I can explain nofollow/dofollow links in plain English for those who don’t understand what this is all about.
Two Purposes for Links (and Two Audiences)
Links do two different things, for two entirely different audiences:
- They let human visitors click on them to find other webpages
- They tell search engines about other webpages
Search engines have long used #2 to help them decide how to rank webpages.
Back in the nineties, search engines figured out, “Hey, if lots of people are linking to a page, it must be pretty good! So let’s rank it near the top of search results!” Five seconds later, spammers figured out, “Hey, if we can plant lots of links pointing to our webpage, search engines will rank it well, and send us more visitors!”
Ever since then, it’s been an arms race. Search engines try to distinguish self-serving or affiliate links from genuine, “I honestly think this page I’ve linked to is good and relevant to my topic.” (These links are often called “editorial” links.) Websites try to find new ways to plant self-serving “backlinks” that they hope will make their pages rank better on Google and other search engines.
When you nofollow a link, it has no impact on purpose #1: human visitors can still see the link, can still click on it, can still visit its destination, and have no clue there’s an invisible code on the link marking it as “nofollow.”
That nofollow code is strictly meant for the search engine audience. Confusingly, they’ll still follow those links— whoops! — to find new pages that they may not have crawled yet. But the nofollow code tells them not to count the link for ranking purposes. That is, when a search engine asks itself, “Is this a good page? Are relevant pages linking to it?” it won’t consider that particular link in its calculations.
So why would we voluntarily nofollow links?
- Criticism: You may want to link to something you’re objecting to. You certainly don’t want to boost its ranking in search results!
- Paid or affiliate links. Google asks that we nofollow these, because they’re not unbiased links. They’re not, “Hey, here’s a cool thing I found.” We get a financial incentive for putting that link there: sales or commissions or ad revenue. That skews search engine algorithms, because they can’t tell which are editorial recommendations, vs. links the webmaster put there for some self-serving benefit. In the past couple of years, Google has gotten more and more strict about downranking sites with spammy linking practices, including lots of paid/affiliate links that haven’t been marked as such with nofollows.
Reread #2. That’s the second big reason why Squidoo is doing this. Many Squidoo lensmasters may not be spammers, but they may not be following Google’s guidelines about nofollowing affiliate links. That could hurt Squidoo as a whole. So now Squidoo’s nofollowing all our affiliate links for us.
So How Does Nofollowing Outbound Links Help Squidoo?
With outbound links set nofollow, Squidoo is no longer useful as a place to plant backlinks for the purpose of manipulating search rankings, but only as a place to post real content for its own sake. Google does all it can to downrank or penalize the former and reward the latter, so this may help convince Google to send Squidoo more traffic.
And again, since Google is cracking down more and more on sites that don’t clearly disclose affiliate/paid links with a nofollow tag, we need to make sure all our affiliate links are nofollowed. This takes care of that.
So How Does Nofollowing Outbound Links Harm Squidoo?
Obviously, this harms lensmasters who were using Squidoo partly as a place to put backlinks promoting their blogs, stores, websites, etc. Some may be less inclined to link to Squidoo without that benefit, or less inclined to post content on Squidoo as opposed to sites like Wizzley and Zujava that leave our links alone.
There’s one other problem with nofollowing outbound links. Search engines are trying their best to determine what a page is about, and how expert it is on that topic. If a page on topic X links to good pages on Topic X, that suggests the source page’s author knows what he/she is talking about. So linking to good, relevant content may actually help a page rank better in searches related to Topic X.
But if the link is nofollowed, then search engines ignore it for ranking purposes. Fooey. (Thanks a lot, spammers.)
SquidHQ’s post said that they hoped to find some way to evaluate trusted lensmasters and allow links on their lenses to be dofollow. This, by the way, is exactly what Matt Cutts of Google recommends doing on Google’s guide to nofollow links. Here’s his video, describing a situation very comparable to Squidoo’s. Skip ahead to about 2:00:
So if Squidoo can figure out a rational way to allow trusted outbound links to be dofollow, that would be ideal. But even if it can’t, I think this imperfect solution is a step forward in restoring Squidoo’s reputation as a place for real content rather than spam.
There are two kinds of links that I was concerned about when I saw HQ’s announcement.
Authorship links are a way to tell Google, “Hey, I’m the author of all these pages.” If Google decides your content is good and that you’re an authority in a particular niche, it may reward you by putting your author icon in search results next to your articles with a “More by [your name] link” to some of your other pages. That author icon makes your pages stand out in Google search results. It draws the eye and draws clicks.
To set up authorship in a way that Google recognizes, you must link your Squidoo profile out to your Google profile (here’s how). I was afraid that if Squidoo nofollowed the link to the Google profile, it might screw up authorship. However, after I read Google’s guide to nofollow links more closely, I saw at the bottom of that page that nofollow links still work for authorship.
So this change won’t impact authorship for our Squidoo lenses.
Internal Links (Cross-links)
There’s one last concern: links between different lenses or different parts of Squidoo.
When I studied the impact of the Panda Algorithm on Squidoo and Hubpages back in 2011 — and boy howdy do I need to update that lens! — I found that the sites were set up almost the same way, yet Hubpages took a tremendous Panda traffic dip, and Squidoo was untouched. What happened? How could such similar sites fare so differently?
I soon discovered that while Squidoo has lots of cross-links — links between lenses and other parts of Squidoo — through the tags and “Related lenses” in the sidebar, Hubpages did not. ANY sidebar or “related articles” links on any hub were nofollowed and/or hidden from search engines.
So Hubpages had the structure of an upside-down tree balancing on its branch-tips, with individual “leaves” giving no support to other “leaves.” Whereas Squidoo had the internal structure of a fishing net or honeycomb mattress, with cross-links reinforcing and connecting relevant content.
The cross-links on Squidoo aren’t perfect. People can tag spam and try to get unrelated content to show up on tags pages, category pages, or the “related lenses” sidebar. But by and large, this means that when you create a new page on Squidoo, it instantly, automatically gets links to and from related content, just by being plugged into Squidoo’s tags and categories.
Google rewards pages that link to and from good, related content. Squidoo has a built-in system to help lenses get such links. That’s why posting an article on Squidoo may cause it to rank better than if you posted it on your own website.
Therefore I’m relieved to see that SquidHQ has chosen to nofollow only external links, not internal ones.
What’s the advantage of linking out, if it doesn’t boost search rankings anymore?
If you’re just planting a link in the hopes of making a page rank better on Google, that’s the wrong reason to be linking anyway. That’s what Google defines as “webspam,” and it’s always looking for ways to detect and neutralize those kinds of links.
On the other hand, if you’re linking to good, useful, relevant, interesting content that your visitors like, then the outbound link gives something valuable to your visitors. This is why Squidoo’s lensrank algorithm rewards visitor clickouts on outbound links.
Also, if you create great pages on Squidoo that attract visitors, then those visitors may click on your links to check out your blog, store, business, or website. Who cares that the link doesn’t help with search engine rankings! It can still send human visitors, even if it’s nofollowed. But in order to pass on those human visitors, your Squidoo lens has to attract human visitors and impress those visitors.
In short, Squidoo can still be used to send traffic to your websites. But now it’s not a one-way freebie. You have to put good content on Squidoo that attracts visitors, first.