In order to understand the rise of paid content, it’s necessary to understand the meaning of the nofollow tag and how it is used (and some would say abused) by large sites like Twitter.
The nofollow tag is used to tell some search engines (*cough*Google*cough*) that a hyperlink should not influence the link target’s search engine ranking. It was originally intended to reduce the effectiveness of search engine spam. Spam comments were the nofollow tag’s original targets: spam comments on blogs were used to get back links and try to squeeze a few drops of link juice from as many places as possible. By making comment links nofollow, the webmaster is in effect saying, “I am in no way vouching for the quality of the place this link goes. Don’t give them any of my link juice. Maybe it’s a good site, but I’m not taking chances.”
Nofollow links are not meant for preventing stuff from being indexed or for blocking access. The ways to do this are by using the robots.txt file for blocking access, and using on-page meta elements that specify on a page by page basis what a search engine crawler should (or should not) do with the content that’s on the crawled page.
Nofollow was born in 2005, and since that time, in the SEO arms race between the search engines and those who want to game them, websites started selectively using the nofollow tag to “sculpt” page rank for pages within their own site. In other words, a link going to an internal page that was ticking over nicely could be made into a nofollow link in an attempt to “conserve” PageRank juice to give to another internal page that was just starting out, or struggling, and needed some help.
Well, Google frowns on this, insisting that you’re better off in the long run to use links to your site’s pages but not to selectively use the nofollow tag in an attempt to juice up the pages you think need a boost. According to Matt Cutts, the only time you should use nofollow is when you cannot or don’t want to vouch for the content of a site. An example would be a link added by an outside user (say, in a comment thread) that you don’t trust. Cutts suggested that unknown users leaving links on your guestbook page should automatically have their links nofollowed.
Right, so what does this have to do with paid content?
The nofollow tag was supposed to squash paid links, which Google hates.
Paid content companies take advantage of Google’s emphasis on domain authority, by buying up trusted sites like eHow (purchased by the seemingly insatiable Demand Media) and dumping lots and lots of esoteric content into it. Why do they do this? They get the domain authority, and the esoteric content helps ensure that when someone, somewhere searches for an article on, say, how to make a butterfly shaped cake, the content that they paid a content writer a couple of bucks for will show up at the top of the search engine results. In other words, they’re targeting the proverbial “long tail.”
How do these sites know what content to buy? They have algorithms that comb through keywords and keyword combinations and determine where there are gaps in information. Then the content buyers commission writers to write content specifically to fill those gaps. You may have heard the statistic that 20 to 25% of queries on Google have never been searched before. That’s a huge, huge number of queries. The more of those queries you can anticipate and answer, the more hits your site will get over the long term.
While link spam and comment spam were clear attempts at short term efforts for sites to claw their way to the top of the search engine rankings, and were relatively easy to squash using nofollow tags, paid content is more of a long term strategy, and it’s not clear what, if anything Google can do about it.
What seems to be happening is that sites like Twitter are kneeling down before their Google overlords (as one side of the story goes) and automatically making even the most harmless links (such as your own link to your own website on the “Bio” part of your Twitter profile) nofollow links. That has seriously ticked off a lot of long term Twitter users who legitimately poured in lots of very real, original content and can now no longer get any link love from that Bio link, even though it’s from them, to their very own site. When this happened, the metaphors about Google and Twitter ran rampant: “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” “shutting the barn door after the horse gets out,” “cutting off its nose to spite its face,” etc.
The strategy seems to be that if nofollow links are being used as they were intended (well, as Google intended anyway), sites that are all promotion and no content would have a harder way getting to the top of the search engine results pages. Google’s fear is that paid content will game the system when it comes to odd or unusual searches, and the person who really does devote his life to making the world’s best butterfly-shaped cakes will lose out to the paid content sites who had writers or videographers hack together a 5-step instructional page or video.
Whether it will work or not is yet to be seen. As for now, paid content sites are doing pretty well for themselves. And the search engines that cater to them, like Ask.com, which wraps a few “real” sites in with sponsored results, are doing pretty well too. From February 2010 to March 2010, Ask.com’s share of search engine traffic went from 2.84% to 3.44%, while the traffic for the other (and admittedly much larger) search engines stayed relatively flat. Have a look at the screen shot of Ask.com’s results for “How do I bake a butterfly shaped cake” to see for yourself the influence of paid content on this search engine.