Why Did Google’s Nofollow Change Go Unnoticed?

20 Jun 2009, Posted by admin in Google, 6 Comments

Why Did Google’s Nofollow Change Go Unnoticed?

In case you’ve missed it all, Matt Cutts told people at SMX Advanced, and later on his blog, that Google has changed the way they deal with nofollow, in such a way that it effectively prevents link sculpting using the attribute, and the change has been live for well over a year. If you’re an SEO, then it’s quite a big deal. Danny Sullivan has a great article up explaining it, as does Rand. Aaron Wall picked up on another point, which is – why didn’t anyone actually notice?

Matt Cutts said that Google hadn’t announced the change because…

“…we figured that site owners or people running tests would notice, but they didn’t. In retrospect, we’ve changed other, larger aspects of how we look at links and people didn’t notice that either, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been such a surprise…”

And that’s interesting.

It’s also interesting to see so many people in the comments of other blogs backpeddle as hard as they can, saying “We’ve never recommended PR sculpting! I’ve never believed it works!”. Sure. But other very well respected SEOs did. I did too.

Back to Matt Cutt’s quote, they introduced this change to how nofollow works over a year ago and apparantly no-one noticed. Despite all the SEOs that use nofollow to link sculpt, nobody saw a change. That, to be honest, seems unlikely. Changing nofollow in the way that they have (with value evaporating when it sees a nofollow link, instead of being distributed to the remaining dofollow links) would have had such a significant change on how sites rank that it would be almost completely unbelievable that nobody noticed a difference.

Sites that would have been most heavily affected would be sites that use nofollow all the time, particularly for external links. These sites, with their huge use of nofollow, would see a significant portion of their link value within their domain drop, and the internal links throughout their site would pass less value. Assuming that Page Rank has a significant effect on ranking then this would cause them to have a massive change in their rankings, and therefore traffic, and we’re looking for this change somewhere towards the start of 2008. Lets ask Google trends for websites.


Wikipedia Trends

Er, no.

Yahoo Answers

Yahoo Answers trends



Wikihow trends


So what’s going on? While this seems to throw some more weight behind the idea that Google is up to some sneaky smoke and mirror based lying to prevent people from link sculpting (and as much as I love the drama), it just wouldn’t make sense for them to do so. I don’t think Google is intentionally misleading SEOs and I don’t think they’re lying.

It’s possible that the notion of Page Rank (and I mean the actual Google calculated version of Page Rank, not toolbar PR) only plays a very, very small role in ranking, with other factors like trust and authority having a greater role. To be honest, it’s too difficult to say right now exactly what’s going on, but if you can take anything away from this post it’s that the use of nofollow links all over the site hasn’t appeared to have affected Yahoo Answers, Wikihow or Wikipedia.

Before you go off removing all your nofollowed links, iframing your blog comments or embedding all of your links in JavaScript like some people are suggesting, stop and think about it. Don’t do anything drastic.

(Flickr image from yaili)

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June 20, 2009 8:05 pm



That was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind, how come no one reported Wikipedia getting hit, but Matt spoke only about the way PR cannot be sculpted anymore through nofollowing internal links, not external.

I guess that your notion of PR playing a small role also can be true, but with mammoth sites like Wikipedia or the ones you have mentioned, the cumulative effect would already be observable, even if the PR effect is minimal…

June 23, 2009 12:34 pm


I thought the nofollow change only affected internal links, if it didn’t then Google are absolute idiots.

June 24, 2009 7:53 am


If google is to make a huge change like this, maybe they slowly released this change more and more over the past year to make it not appear like “something happened”. I could see google making tweaks like this for other drastic changes as well.

It’s also possible, but I’m not sure they could tweak other algorithm settings to get a very close match of what they had without this sculpting taking place.

June 24, 2009 9:10 am


@neyne @James – I thought Google would treat nofollow internal links differently to nofollowed external links too (in fact, I still pretty much do) but then Matt Cutts mentioned this on his blog:

Q: If I run a blog and add the nofollow attribute to links left by my commenters, doesn’t that mean less PageRank flows within my site?
A: If you think about it, that’s the way that PageRank worked even before the nofollow attribute

(Which you can see here).

I don’t think it really works like that, but that’s what he’s said :/

@possible? – It is possible, but even with gradual changes you’d expect to see Wikipedia dropping gradually. Matt Cutts also mentioned that they didn’t tell anyone about the nofollow change originally because they thought people would notice, it wouldn’t really be that fair for him to say that if they’d introduced it slowly to disguise it. Although, guess you can’t rule anything out with Google

July 16, 2009 11:39 am

Google NOFOLLOW Change (and why this isn’t news)

[…] Why Did Google’s Nofollow Change Go Unnoticed? | Shark SEO – […]

September 2, 2009 4:32 pm

Groove Factory PR

The change in thought related to no follow isn’t a change, or even a problem to me. The real problem is the fact that Google made this shift a year ago and never told anyone…and then Matt Cutts has the nerve to suggest that since very few people didn’t notice the change, it isn’t really a big deal. Talk about BUNK LOGIC.

That is like a bank skimming a penny per transaction from your bank account for a year, and then when they finally reveal their theft – saying “well since you didn’t notice until now, I cant be that big of a deal.”

More shady behavior from a behemoth monopoly that controls a big slice of the online revenue pie – and shows no signs of doing so with any regard for anyone but themselves. Time for the FCC to have a look.

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