Big week for the a/@rel attribute

by Bob DuCharme

Related link:

On Monday I wrote about Technorati's use of the a element's rel attribute to let people link weblog entries to taxonomy entries. I mentioned that this attribute, which was designed to implement link typing, has been all but ignored in its twelve-year history, and that its use by a big-time application would give people more incentive to use it.

Yesterday one of the biggest applications of all announced a use for the same attribute. To fight the practice of referrer spam (the addition of irrelevant comments to a weblog entry in order to boost the number of links to the spammer's site), Google has announced that a rel value of "nofollow" on a link will tell their crawlers not to consider this link when calculating the link destination's page rank. Several weblog applications have already updated their software so that links added in comments by weblog readers will automatically include this attribute setting. This gives perpetrators of referrer spam much less incentive to do add these worthless comments.

Comments added to my post of Monday (the good kind, not the spam kind) led to a discussion of how allowing people to add data and metadata to web pages that they don't own leads to abuse, and whether the potential abuse renders user-added metadata features useless. This has always been Google's justification for ignoring metadata, so it's nice to see them encouraging the use of link metadata. (It was tempting to title this posting "Newsflash: Google crawlers paying attention to an attribute value besides href!") They get extra credit for doing this with an attribute that's been around for so long, instead of making up a new one, which is what many companies would have done.


2005-01-20 11:00:35
Wouldn't a spectrum of link types be better?
I think that Google's decision to ignore "nofollow" links will be a great weapon in the fight against comment spam, but I also think it's only half way to where we should be. Unfortunately, Google's assumption that a link confers credibility or not is too simple a model for the real world. A link on a web page may fall anywhere in a broad spectrum in terms on conferring credibility to the linked page. Let's say I've put together a web page which is a collection of links on topic "A" and that half of the links are to what I would consider primary resources on the topic and the other half are links to secondary resources. Wouldn't it be great if Google could understand the difference between the two groups of links? Readers of the web page can understand the difference through visual clues (grouping, highlighting, etc.) but there is nothing in the HTML that differentiates the links from Google's perspective. Maybe a collection of rel attribute values like "strong", "weak" and "none" is an appropriate spectrum to indicate the association between two web pages or maybe it needs to be more complex than that (clearly "nofollow" would be at one end of whatever spectrum is appropriate). The addition of the "nofollow" value for the rel attribute is definitely an improvement, but the black or white distinction isn't adequate in my mind.
2005-01-20 12:19:40
Wouldn't a spectrum of link types be better?
Some would say that even a spectrum is too one-dimensional, and that a taxonomy of link types would be better. On the other hand, the rel attribute has had a selection of values to choose from for years and no one has used them.

What seems like a very simple, limited choice to us is a big change with a lot of work behind it for Google (only a major change to their ranking algorithm!) so I understand why they did it so simply.

I've written a lot in this weblog about link typing, particularly at

2005-01-20 13:04:08
that it only solves Google's problem, and noone else's — in fact, it threatens to worsen everyone else's problems. See Ben Hammersley's commentary.
2005-01-20 14:53:32
Unlike Hammersley and a lot of other people, I'm not judging rel="nofollow" by how it may or not be eventually used by different people with different motivations at various points in the future. I'm judging it by what it is now: additional metadata about a link to give a clue about the link author's feelings about the link destination.

If someone creates a reverse Google that ranks pages more highly because they have more nofollow links than anyone else, and someone else displays little icons showing what percentage of total links to a site were nofollow links compared with non-nofollow links, then good for them. More metadata provides more opportunities to do more things with more data; that's why I'm happy to see it.

2005-04-26 12:58:08
Lo tek trackback
Still showing my n00b blogger stripes:

"BTW, Bob DuCharme was one of the few people with sensible commentary when Google debuted rel="nofollow". See "Big week for the a/@rel attribute". But then again, what's new? Bob's the best commentator I know on linking. Full stop."

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