In response to all the questions and comments I’ve received after my recent post on using nofollow with internal links, I’ve put together a few practical examples and a couple diagrams to better illustrate the concepts.
As I mentioned last time, slapping a nofollow on some of your internal links is not intended to remove pages from the index. In fact, what we’re trying to do is to get more pages indexed, by reducing the share of your site’s PageRank that flows to less important pages. I’ll begin with an example that illustrates this technique.
Moving “Overhead” Pages To The “Third Tier”
Close your eyes if it helps, but try to picture a typical eCommerce shopping cart site. You have a home page, several product categories, and products in each category. Your home page is the first tier in your site’s linking structure, the category pages are the second tier, and the product pages are in the third tier.
You also have several of what I call “overhead” pages on the second tier, like privacy policies, terms & conditions, shipping information, guarantees, contacts, price match promises, etc. It’s not unusual, in fact, to have more of these pages than you have product categories.
To make your users’ experience the best it can be, you probably have “run of site” links (on every page) pointing to all of the second tier pages.
The effect of this on the flow of PageRank should be obvious – the overhead pages on your second tier receive as much PageRank as your product category pages… and far more than the actual product pages. This is clearly an upside-down arrangement from an SEO perspective.
The diagram below illustrates a simple modfication that moves your overhead pages down to the third tier – this will drive more PageRank to your product categories, which pass it along to your product pages.
As you can see, we’ve “nofollowed” the run of site links to the overhead pages. We have a single site map page (directly linked from the home page) that passes PageRank on to the overhead pages.
In this simplified diagram, I’m not showing you “one way” and “two way” links… and I’m ignoring the third tier, which would also have “nofollow” on links to the overhead pages.
This structure allows you to get your overhead pages indexed (so they can appear in site: searches) without giving them as much weight as your product category pages.
What If The Overhead Pages Are A “Quality Signal?”
Some folks have expressed a concern that if search engines don’t find a “followed” link to these important overhead pages, they might consider your site to be of lower quality and rank your pages lower. I’ve never seen this actually happen, but I can’t say that this isn’t a legitimate concern.
If you are concerned about that, you can make some modifications, as shown in the diagram below. This time, I’ve shown the two-way linking relationship between the tiers, and added the third tier pages to the diagram.
In this structure, the home page passes PageRank to the second tier, which in a shopping cart site consists of overhead pages and category pages.
The overhead pages link back to the home page, passing some of the PageRank back, and they also link to the category pages on the second tier, passing some PageRank across.
The category pages don’t link back to the home page (they do, but the links are nofollowed), so more PageRank passes down into the third tier. The third tier pages link back to the category pages (and may crosslink, see below).
Mix & Match As You See Fit
Neither of the approaches I’ve illustrates so far is designed to remove pages from the index. The intent is to conserve the total amount of PageRank within the site, but to simply redistribute it to pages that matter more to us. The goal is to get more of our important pages indexed. By doing so, we can actually add to the total PageRank within the site, because every page has an intrinsic value.
Neither of these approaches is a “recommendation” for what you should do with a given web site. Every situation is different. Sometimes nofollow helps, but it’s not the only tool at your disposal, and not the only tool you can or should use.
Imaginary Real Life Scenario – PageRank Misses The Point
Imaginary real life. Sorry. Best I could do – this is based on a true story, but sanitized for your protection.
Let’s say that Joe runs an e-commerce store selling gardening equipment and supplies. Joe has 10 categories of products in his store. Most of the categories have a couple dozen products, but the “sprinklers” category has 85 products. Why? Because that’s what he needs to have in order to meet his customers’ needs.
Unfortunately, Joe’s having indexing problems. Google doesn’t have a problem picking up his other product pages, but he’s scratching his head over why they don’t want to index his sprinkler product pages. So he goes out to the forums for advice, and in no particular order, is told to:
- Rewrite the product descriptions in case they’ve been filtered as duplicate content. Done. No change.
- Submit an XML sitemap. Done. No change.
- Add content to the category page, in case it’s been filtered as duplicate content. Done. No change.
Experienced SEOs will already have spotted Joe’s real problem – it’s structural. The 85 product pages (plus 10 category links plus 15 overhead pages) add up to 110 links on his “Sprinklers” category page. The PageRank is just being sliced too thin, and the sprinkler product pages barely make the supplemental index if that.
So what can Joe do? Sprinklers are his most important product category – irrigation is the linchpin of good gardening after all. (OK, I made that up).
What if Joe “cut” the links between his product categories (2nd tier pages), by nofollowing the cross-links between his category pages? Except for the link to the Sprinklers category, which is left in place. The result: more PageRank for the sprinklers page, by borrowing a little from other pages.
Would this fix Joe’s problem? Well, it might, but it might also borrow too much from the other pages and create indexing problems elsewhere. That’s why you have to do the math, or do this stuff a little bit at a time.
Joe could also “fix the structure” (without using nofollows) by splitting his Sprinkler category into 3 or 4 categories, and if this actually increases sales, I’m all for it. That’s another option, but if it doesn’t add something to conversion / usability, Joe would be insane to do it simply for SEO reasons…
Don’t “Break” Your Site Over SEO!
In my experience (which goes back to the birth of Netscape as a browser), you never need to harm usability & conversion in order to accomplish an SEO goal. There’s always another way. Nofollow is a tool that can help.
We’ll talk more soon.