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If you have been reading up on SEO, blogging, or content marketing, chances are you’ve been told to “nofollow” certain links. If you’re like most, you probably didn’t quite understand what that means, and you may or may not have followed the advice blindly.

But, even if you’ve been using the nofollow tag for a while, if you don’t understand what it is or how it works you may be hurting yourself as much as you’re helping.

The nofollow tag is how publishers can tell search engines to ignore certain links to other pages. Normally, these links count similar to votes in favor of the linked content, but in some circumstances this can make search engines think you are abusing optimization or blatantly breaking their guidelines. Nofollowing the right pages prevents search engines from thinking you are trying to sell you’re influence or are involved in link schemes.

To help webmasters and content creators understand exactly when to nofollow, and how it affects their online presence, the team from Search Engine Land put together an infographic explaining when and how to use the tag. They also created a comprehensive guide to the tag for those who prefer long walls of text to nice and easy infographics.

So last month Matt Cutts posted a blog entry giving away some startling news.  Apparently the “nofollow” tag makes a link still absorb PageRank, but not pass it on.

In the past, most (educated) SEOs used the nofollow tag to adjust PageRank flow.  This was done because using the tag would completely block the link from passing PageRank, and that PageRank was passed on to the other valid links on the page.  This is called PageRank Sculpting.

The way this works is like this: say I have 4 links from a page I run.  The page has 60 “points” of PageRank.  Well, by default, all 4 links each get 15 points.  Before, if I wanted to make some of these links get more points (PageRank Sculpting), I’d add the nofollow tag to links.  So if I nofollow’d one of my 4 links, then the resulting 3 links would now pass on 20 PageRank points, adding more “link juice” to the pages they were pointing to.

From the updates on Google (which, apparently, have been running for over a year), this now is a bit different.  The link that I added the nofollow tag for still absorbs the 15 points, but does not pass this “link juice” on.  So I now have a page with 60 points of PageRank, 3 links get 15 points, and 15 points are lost.

As you might believe, this made many SEOs rather unhappy.  I myself am not thrilled with this news, this now makes me have to rethink/redefine PageRank Sculpting for my own SEO projects.  I know this is going to affect how many SEO’s use their blog comments, as well.  Before, defaulting the blog comments to nofollow meant that all links stayed intact, PageRank points stayed in the places the web developer wanted them to be.  Now, any additional comment (even if they are nofollow) pulls PageRank away from the site page.

Because of this, I suspect many SEOs will now either make their comments in an iframe, or remove comments from their blogs entirely.  I’m of the opinion Google actually gives PageRank to some sites based on links they have going out, not just links coming in.  This is very hard to test thoroughly, but I’m starting to wonder if leaving comments in a blog as dofollow would be better than not.

Eh, I’m just trying to keep integrity and do white-hat SEO, so I’ll try to find the best way to do it all.  We’ll see what comes of it.