Wikipedia implemented a little change to their website yesterday, in an attempt to make their popular social encyclopedia a less attractive target for spammers. It may have been a tiny change but it seems it may have a significant impact on many people in the web community. Some people think it is a good move while others argue that it will turn wikipedia into the greedy kid who no-one invited to the party!

What is nofollow?

When creating a link from one page on the web to another, any search engines which crawl your site will follow these links to figure out how pages on the web relate to one another. If for whatever reason you would like search engines to ignore (or ‘not follow’) certain links, you can include the rel=”nofollow” attribute. Then when engines like google crawl your page, these links are simply disregarded.

This is useful in certain situations as it can be used to make engines ignore links you can’t control – like those in comments to a blog post.

So is wikipedia right or wrong?

As with nearly everything that ever happens on the internet, wikipedia’s move to turn itself into an all-consuming “black hole” of incoming links has caused some controversy among the web community. No-one really agrees on which is the lesser evil, their fight against spammers and strive to maintain a certain quality of content, or the importance of them ‘contributing’ back to the web.

Search engine expert Philipp Lenssen is very much in the ‘its a bad idea’ camp, and feels wikipedia are being selfish. He shares his views on why he feels wikipedia’s decision is dissapointing one

What happens as a consequence, in my opinion, is that Wikipedia gets valuable backlinks from all over the web, in huge quantity, and of huge importance … this is what makes Wikipedia rank so well – but as of now, they’re not giving any of this back. The problem of Wikipedia link spam is real, but the solution to this spam problem may introduce an even bigger problem: Wikipedia has become a website that takes from the communities but doesn’t give back, skewing web etiquette as well as tools that work on this etiquette (like search engines, which analyze the web’s link structure).

Amit Agarwal provides an illustration of how the no-follow rule may have a negative impact on other smaller websites

Say you discover a cool feature in the iPod (called Stylus) and blog about it. Tomorrow, the Wikipedia contributors append the details of iPod Stylus (your discovery) to the Wikipedia page on iPod. They do attribute your blog but search engines will never see that attribution (or read your blog via Wikipedia) because of the rel=nofollow tag. Now that Wikipedia enjoys higher credibility and trust, the search algorithms will rank the Wikipedia iPod page higher than yours (for queries like iPod Stylus) because the search engine bots are not aware that Wikipedia’s content is actually based on your blog page. Result, your site appears after Wikipedia in the “iPod Stylus” search results and you get less or no traffic while Wikipedia gets to enjoy all the fruits of your labor.

Some people agree with the change, arguing that this may be the only viable way of preserving the credibility of wikipedia;

Wikipedia needs to protect their data in order to remain a credible source of information. Part of that data protection initiative must encompass putting a brake on the spam they get daily – and this is the best way to do it.

By adding the nofollow attribute to their links, wikipedia is effectively telling spammers that by adding links to their pages from wikipedia, they get no “juice” (or search engine ranking boost, if you prefer) in return. Which is good because that way there’s no point in them spamming in the first place – wikipedia readers win, and the web in general wins as well, as there’s less garbage being crawled.

Theres no dispute that the less rubbish their is on the internet the better, especially on sites like wikipedia where purity of content precedes all other priorities.

So What now?

I think we all agree that something needs to be done about spam, it is costly and it does nothing but hurt the internet. Spamming also abridges the historical freedom of the Internet, by attempting to force users to carry the costs of material which they would not choose.

But it seems that wikipedia are penalizing everyone for the wrong-doings of a few morally bankrupt individuals. Surely that is not right.

The official announcement from Wikipedia says that the no-follow tags are being added “for now,” so this may be a temporary measure intended to frustrate immediate spam threats while more long term provisions are made.