Full disclosure: this post was written late at night under the influence of a free streaming music site with healthy doses of Them, Leonard Cohen, Kruder & Dorfmeister, & Portishead.  No volcano vaporizer was harmed in the making of this post.

The effectiveness of nofollow tags has been the subject of epic debate on the SEO blog of record as well as on the other ten million and growing SEO blogs of record.  I guess if Google were using them that might put the argument to rest right?  Well, feast your eyes on the YouTube home page (the pink highlights=nofollow):

The YouTube HomePage Does Not Promote Individual Videos

Upon closer inspection you will notice that YouTube is tagging all video title links off its homepage as nofollow. Conventional SEO wisdom says that if you tag a link as nofollow the link does not pass pagerank.  So why would YouTube not want to pass pagerank to videos featured on the homepage, perhaps the most important content on the most powerful page SEO-wise on the site?  My first reaction was, as noted above, that YouTube’s SEO guy had scored some Bopper.

Or had he?  Maybe he was on to something with his bizarre bot herding tactics.  And maybe it was I, your trusted companion in looking through the glass onion that is Google, who had perhaps taken it one toke over the line?

I noticed the homepage links that are “dofollow” are the member channel names (e.g. “The Amazing Atheist“) and the main navigation links.  So?

The Video Detail Page

Click on a video title link and the method to the madness starts to unfurl a bit.  As you can see below on YouTube’s video detail page, all video title links continue to be nofollowed, as do the member name links in the comments.  The only non-navigation links that are not nofollowed are the member channel names.

The Member Channel Page

Click on a member channel page and you’ll notice that almost every link is nofollowed again with a few glaring exceptions:

and perhaps most significantly:

  • Video title links to the most recent video on the channel
  • Video title links to videos that have been recently rated (in the “My Recent Ratings” section)

What gives YouTube Guy?

Additional Pages

If you click over to one of those commenter pages like JesusBroughtMeAKitty, you’ll see the same pattern basically as the member channel page.

If you head up to the main navigation and hit the “video” link in the nav you get the video browse page which appears to be passing pagerank to member channel pages and not to site channel category pages (e.g. “Comedy“) – these are blocked in YouTube’s robots.txt file.   The same pattern is used on the member browse page as well.  Interestingly, the “Community” page has no nofollow tags.  It consists primarily of links to member channel pages.

There are a number of other pages on the site but this covers the big ones.

So what have we learned from our long strange trip down the nofollow rabbit hole?

  1. YouTube apparently thinks it’s worth using the nofollow tag – and then some
  2. YouTube seems to think that member names are a big deal
  3. YouTube seems to think that it’s worth trying to improve pagerank for only the most recent videos and recent commenters

So why is that?

Here’s what I think:

  1. The YouTube SEO guy is playing such a 3D chessboard kind of game here that perhaps he is not on crack after all.  This is starting to look more like an acid trip to me.
  2. Seems like YT is banking that good videos will get all of the pagerank they need from inbound links from other sites.  More than almost any other site YouTube enjoys perhaps the most linkable content – Yahoo says they have 239,000,000 inbound links – so who cares about internal pagerank flow from the homepage when you’ve got a firehose coming in through the side door?
  3. The focus on the member channel pages seems like a play to become the defacto homepage for these people/brands.  I guess if I am YouTube, I would rather outrank your MySpace page, your blog, your Linkedin page, etc. for searches for you.  And given the insane amount of power YouTube has in Google, I am guessing that it is pretty easy for this strategy to get them to the top or close to it for many of its members.  A data point of one, but if you look at this results page for The Amazing Atheist you’ll see this effect at work.
  4. The lifting of nofollow tags from the most recent videos and commenters on certain pages seems like a way to prime the pump on new content.  Despite YouTube’s massive SEO power, it still has to prioritize content for the search engine bots.  I am guessing that they want this new stuff in the index and ranked as fast as possible, perhaps to take advantage of topical searches, but more likely just to give this new stuff a head start in the index.

So there you have it.  This is YouTube:

This is YouTube on nofollow:

Any questions?

A tip of the crack pipe to Mark for turning me on to this particular stash of nofollow tags.

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31 Response Comments

  • Stever  April 7, 2009 at 9:21 am

    My initial thinking is – If YT lifted all the nofollow tags we’d have SERPs polluted with videos on just about every short, medium and longtail search terms. They might be telling their SEO guy to hold back. Passing the juice through user names lets it spread around but not as strongly as through keyword rich video titles.

    Think of the cries of favoritism, and mentions of anti-trust issues, GOOG would be getting if you-tube results where everywhere in the SERPS.

    And i’m not talking about the “universal results” where they stick a couple vids in mid page. The Amazing Atheist example above shows what I mean. YT has top organic, and mid page a couple images for video results.

    Adding dofollow on fresh new content makes complete sense.

    Nice investigation there Andrew. My nofollow highlighter in my browser has shown me them in YT but I never stopped to check how they are using it to sculpt.

  • David Fairhurst  April 7, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Wow not spotted this one before – I suppose it’s really good news for those trying to establish a YouTube identity… which is great as that’s exactly what I’m trying to do for our company at the moment! I’m kinda guessing that sooner or later everyone will cotton onto the fact that nofollow links are better used for funneling content within a website rather than blocking off external links (which, although seem to stop the flow of pagerank, don’t affect trust at all)

  • Andrew Shotland  April 7, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Whenever I hit YouTube those highlighted nofollows were burning into my retinas.

    Interesting point Stever. Though if G wanted to suppress YT’s presence in the SERPs you’d think they could just push a button.

  • Stever  April 7, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I use the seobook firefox extension so the nofollows are bright red, not light pink, thus they should have been burning into my retinas too. I guess i’m just selective. And while on YouTube i’m usually very busy with checking out the latest in Mentos/Diet Coke powered rockets and other highly compelling content.

    All entirely speculation of course, but that button they do have, and use on other sites, to tune down Authority levels, might not work as intended on YT. Maybe it would mean the vids drop out of universal results too? And ranking profile pages/personal brands IS part of the same strategy. So they use the PR sculpting to kill multiple birds at once. maybe. Otherwise YT might just look like Wikipedia on steroids.

  • Andrew Shotland  April 7, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Or maybe they are just screwing with us and it’s all just a big smokescreen.

  • Andrew Shotland  April 7, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Nothing against seobook’s firefox extension but I find Quirk’s SearchStatus’ pink nofollow highlights a bit easier on the peepers.

  • Will Scott  April 7, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    From the too much time on my hands section: one can adjust the color of the SEO for Firefox nofollow highlight to any color one likes… including a nice salmon 🙂

  • Stever  April 7, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    Oh hey, look, i can has salmon now.

    Thanks Will.

  • Outrider Canada  April 8, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I agree with Stever’s first comment, that if YT unleashed the hounds on keyword rich title links Google SERPs would be littered with Youtube videos left, right and center.

    Goes to show how sculping should have a place in our toolbox.

  • Nick Stamoulis  April 10, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I’m sure they have a strategy of what pages they would want to rank more than other by diverting some of that link power around.

  • Andrew Shotland  April 10, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Agreed Nick. The questions are: what is that strategy and why are they pursuing it?

    Nice to see you here btw.

  • Jaan Kanellis  April 14, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    For not telling us to not worry to much about the nofollow attribute it does seem a little overboard on YT. Of course I see YT videos ranking all over the place. Now it could and probably has nothing to do with this nofollow layout, but you never know.

    I am going to assume that Google is pretty aware of how to use a attribute they promote so much to us.

  • lazar  April 17, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    YouTube is not trying to push its results down. Think about this:

    YT homepage PageRank is 9.

    Lets assume pages linked from homepage have PR 6.

    Most video titles have at least 3-4 words. To rank high for a 4 word phrase, most of the time a page doesn’t need a pagerank 6.

    Channels are however 1 or 2 word phrases. They do need higher PageRank, precisely assuming that authors homepage has similar title, and therefore this blog post correctly assumes that YouTube wants to outrank those main author profiles.

    YT not only doesn’t want to push its results down, but wants to go above your personal website homepages when people look for you.

    Having a homepage PR 9, linking to channels (of which some are “featured” whatever that mean$, and some might be “regular” folks), makes them have PR 6 or 7, and even channels like CBS get into top 10 out of 150,000,000 results.

    YouTube SEO is not smoking crack.


  • Aaron  January 23, 2010 at 12:35 am

    I love this post, well written and points out some facts that ease my mind.

    Obviously Google want their search results to be as relevant and updated as possible. I think this is a genius method of sculpting PR. It gives your most recent videos a PR kick start since they wouldn’t have had time for natural backlink growth.

    If the video hasn’t got enough PR flowing from external sources to sustain its rankings by the time the nofollow is added then obviously the video isn’t of huge relevance and quality and doesn’t deserve to rank.

    If all links were do follow, new videos will have no chance in ranking over older matured videos. This would be a case of the rich get richer, the poor stay poor. Old vids ranking high will continue gaining a large amount of views and backlinks while new vids wont have a chance.

    I think they have the youtube ranking algo tuned to allow an even mix of new and popular old vids and thats the way it should be.

    Dofollows on your profile/channel links are an awesome way to filter out the junk videos from channels with little PR. They have little PR due to
    -small amount of videos with average view count.
    -average volume of videos with small view count.
    -lack of YT community participation in adding friend, subscribers, channel commenting, etc, etc.

    High quality videos with high view counts and viewer involvement and conversation will generally get the videos profile/channel a lot of subscribers and friend requests.

    The PR flows to your channel from all the subscriber profiles, and participation in conversation you have made on other channels and the websites that have linked or imbedded any video from your channel and this is where your channel PR authority and trust comes from.

    The channels with higher pagerank obviously have a lot more PR authority and trust they can give to their recent dofollowed videos than untrusted channels. inturn, this will outrank a video from an untrusted channel with the same title every time. Trust is HUGE to Google.

    I also loved this post coz it points out Google using PR sculpting techniques on their own sites. Cant get much better proof than that, that PR still matters when ranking and not to listen to the so called gurus that say PR doesn’t matter anymore and you should ignore it. “In your face, Gurus”

  • Andy  April 29, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Really interesting article. I had been led to believe that even though there is an extensive use of no follow on the descriptions of the videos that they still conferred some weight to the web pages they were embedded into.

    This has given me some food for thought!

  • David  May 14, 2010 at 10:16 am

    So does this mean all links in comments etc are nofollow links? What do you use to highlight the nofollow links automatically, i have seen that before somewere?

  • Andrew Shotland  May 14, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Search Status extension for Firefox

  • gillet.brian  July 16, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    YouTube adds “nofollow” to all video titles… except those displayed under ‘Recent Activity.’ so keep most desired videos in “Recent Activity” section. Building links to these videos is ideal for SEO.

  • Michal Praca  August 20, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Very good article. Keep up the good work!

  • Michael  November 5, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Very interesting article, I use the SEO Firefox plugin quite regualry helps heaps

  • James Whitrow  November 8, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Wow, the further you look into this the deeper it gets. Really interesting article, as are the comments and viewpoints from others. Some great advice for when using YouTube. Thanks guys.

  • Enda McLarnon  December 23, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Being new to all of this I must have watched tons of videos about this stuff, not that it makes me that much wiser. The general consensus of opinion appears to be that any link is a good link and Google expects to see a mixture of links to make the whole thing look organic. That makes a reasonable amount of sense to me. There are certainly a lot of people going down the video route for both information provision and backlinks, so can’t do any harm to do video.

    The whole follow/no-follow thing is strange. Again probably a mix is required and that is most likely what I will do. The one piece of continuing conflicting advice I get is about how quickly you should build links. I would love some proper advice on that one?

  • Sam Orchard  May 2, 2011 at 3:33 am

    Looks like they’ve changed this now – any idea when this was? I just quickly checked the homepage and pretty much every title seemed to be follow links.

  • Doboura  July 5, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Points for referencing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    Very interesting to note how YT influences SERPs.

  • Dave  August 21, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    FALILV is awesome 😀

  • Marc Callec  September 16, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I had just assumed that all of YT was nofollow… but it’s nice to get a better understanding.

  • Marc Callec  September 16, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    I actually thought all of YT was nofollow… interesting article, thanks.

  • Michael Anderson  December 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I have noticed that the page rank for youtube videos has gone through the roof lately.

    Some videos I’ve posted are only 2 months old and seeing PR2 with little linking to them.

    Youtube is changing a whole heap like google

  • eryn  January 11, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Hmm, now I’m debating whether or not I should create a YouTube channel for my women’s boot review site. It would be fun to make no matter what, but of course it would be nice to get better PageRank as well.