Follow up on NOFOLLOW – still a good idea for skeptics

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Louis Brandeis (Other People’s Money: and How the Bankers Use It, 1914)

Linking directly to Internet misinformation and explaining why it is wrong is skepticism’s answer to Brandeis’ sunlight. But because Google and the other search engines use hyperlinks to determine the importance of web pages, many skeptics are fearful of linking to pseudoscience and paranormal sites. They fear that doing so will help (in some small way) boost the visibility of misinformation on the Internet.

They are right. Every time we link to the sites of our cultural competitors, we give them a tiny boost up in the search engines. It’s as if we’ve contributed ten cents to a fund for them to eventually buy a billboard. Those coins eventually add up.

I’ve seen some skeptics try to deal with this in various tricky ways. Some don’t link at all or include the URLs as unlinked plain text. (This inconveniences and annoys your readers). Some link through a link shortening service like TinyURL. (This does not work – Google still counts the link).

Some have even gone so far as to create a special online service to solve this problem. One which targeted British tabloid newspapers had the unusual name of IstyOsty. It looked and acted like a URL shortener but it was actually what technicians call a “proxy service”. That kept Google from following the link, but it also violated copyright laws. As a result, IstyOsty was forced out of existence back in August.

There is a simpler way to deal with this issue (which I wrote of three years ago) called NOFOLLOW. Read my original post for all the gory technical details, but essentially you add a special tag to each hyperlink to tell Google and other search engines to ignore that link for purposes of ranking content. A normal hyperlink looks like this when you create a web page:

<a href="http://bad.example.com">This is a link</a>

And a “nofollow” hyperlink looks like this:

<a href="//bad.example.com" rel="nofollow">This is a link</a>

It’s as simple as that. I recommend that skeptical bloggers and webmasters make sure to always nofollow links to sites which we are debunking. It should be our standard practice.

Feedback from Skeptics

Some time after my original post, a handful of skeptics expressed doubts about my recommendation. You can see some of their objections in a thread in the JREF Forum. I won’t reiterate all of the arguments here, but let me address a few of them.

For those who saw a fairness or reciprocity issue, I would point out that most of our cultural competitors do not even bother to link back to our sites. They act as if we don’t exist. So the argument that we shouldn’t do it to them because they don’t do it to us, is (more often than not) moot.

For those who argue that nofollow is intended as an anti-spam measure, and my suggestion is a misuse of it, I would point out that Google’s own documentation contradicts that. Quoting from their SEO Starter Guide, page 23:

Another use of nofollow is when you’re writing content and wish to reference a website, but don’t want to pass your reputation on to it. For example, imagine that you’re writing a blog post on the topic of comment spamming and you want to call out a site that recently comment spammed your blog. You want to warn others of the site, so you include the link to it in your content; however, you certainly don’t want to give the site some of your reputation from your link.

I think this clearly describes skeptical blogging.

Finally, for those who saw this as a way to cheat other website owners out of rightfully gained clicks or traffic: you’re wrong. A nofollow link is still a working hyperlink. If you click it, the other site gets a traffic hit like normal. It gets to display ads just like normal. They are not denied readers or the opportunity to make their case.  (Incidentally, this is exactly what got IstyOsty in legal trouble, as it was preventing visitors from getting to the original website by copying the content).

Criticism notwithstanding, I was pleased to see that many skeptics agreed with my recommendation back in 2008. In fact, some have adopted it as a standard practice and evangelized it to other skeptics as well.

Australian skeptic Joel Birch decided to take it one step further. Knowing that the extra tagging could sometimes be tedious, he built a tool to automate it called NoFollowr. This is a plug-in for the WordPress blog software that makes adding the necessary tag as simple as a single click. I recommend it if you run a site on WordPress.

Additional Justification

Since my original call to action, a further reason to use this technique has emerged. Although the quality of inbound links to your site are a primary driver in your Google rank, it is also true that outbound hyperlinks can affect your ranking. In other words, who you link to might affect how a search engine judges your site.

In a YouTube video entitled “Can my blogroll affect my blog’s reputation in Google?”, Google employee Matt Cutts warns not to link out to “spammy sites”.  A story is recounted of a blog that included dubious link in its blogroll, and subsequently had a severely lower rank in Google searches.

Now, I’m not saying that pseudoscientists are necessarily spammers, but do you trust them not to be? I don’t. I recently documented how some chiropractors deeply misunderstand how Google ranking works. If we’re not careful with our links, lack of knowledge on the part of those who we debunk could actually damage our efforts.

How are we doing?

A casual survey of top skeptic sites reveals that we still have a long way to go. Several major skeptical bloggers still do not make a habit of using nofollow. (You can check this yourself by choosing the “view source” or “view page source” option in your browser and looking for the nofollow tag). Especially if the site is highly prominent, these links are subtly undermining our efforts to improve the overally accuracy of science information on the internet.

I hope that by calling attention to this technique again here, I can make it standard practice for skeptical blogs. If you blog, make it your habit. And use the “view source” trick check to see that your favorite skeptical writers have made it their habit too.

This post originally appeared (in a very slightly different form) at the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s SWIFT blog as Follow Up on NOFOLLOW and is cross-posted here.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

13 Responses to Follow up on NOFOLLOW – still a good idea for skeptics

  1. eyeonicr says:

    Can NoFollowr work for wordpress.com blogs? How?
    And does rel="nofollow" affect pingbacks?

    • Tim Farley says:

      I don’t think there’s a way to install plugins on wordpress.com blogs (like this one). Personally, I just remember to add the tags manually.

      I don’t think nofollow would affect pingbacks. I suppose we could do an experiment to see if the pingback still goes out on a nofollowed link to another blog.

  2. sgerbic says:

    As usual Tim you are waaaay ahead of everyone else thinking about these things.

    I rarely ever link to paranormal pages, but I’m going to book mark this for future use.

    My question is, can we add the “nofollow” on links we put up on Facebook and Twitter? And how about Wikipedia?

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  4. Tim Farley says:

    On the point about trusting our cultural competitors not to engage in “spammy” behavior, it recently came to my attention that Tim Bolen, an alternative medicine proponent well known for getting in very public legal battles with skeptics such as Stephen Barrett, has had his newsletter blocked by Spamhaus (an email abuse clearinghouse) on at least one occasion.

    Also, in this Usenet thread he apparently admits to sending unsolicited emails to a list of 340 supporters of Stephen Barrett he had obtained somehow. That’s unsolicited email, the very definition of spam.

  5. carolm456 says:

    I’ve just been reading both your articles on the nofollow debate. I found you in a link from Joel Birch’s plugin page – all links are do follow (Nice one Josh) but no comments box supplied. :)

    I want to second your recommendation for the nofollowr plugin – it’s so cool! I love it. It’s included in my Review of Best Must Have plugins.

    I’ve also just been reading http://www.seowizz.net/2009/04/relnofollow-debate-lets-try-and-get-to.html which explains about Page Rank and follow vs nofollow. That guy says you should make almost all your internal links nofollow as well. Do you have any views?

    Carol http://www.mysecondmillion.com

    • Tim Farley says:

      I think that internal nofollow idea used to have some merit, but Google has changed the way they calculate PageRank on numerous occasions, so it may not still apply. Here’s a video from Matt Cutts of Google where he clearly says you shouldn’t use NOFOLLOW on internal links. Note that video dates from 2011 and your article dates from 2009, so there were no doubt algorithm changes in the 2 years between them.

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