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Paying for Nofollow Links in Directories

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Is it worth paying for links to your website from directories like the Better Business Bureau or the local Chamber of Commerce?

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This question was recently raised in a thread at the Local Search Forum and an earlier version of this post was written in response to that thread.

One of the questions posed was specifically, “Why are the links nofollow and what is the benefit if any of continuing to pay an annual fee for a nofollow link?”. Basically, is this some sort of scam with no benefit to the webmaster, i.e., a waste of money?

To understand why such links are nofollow, you need to understand the history of directories and links.

In the early days of the internet, directories popped up as a way of screening out good sites or useful sites for crap sites. There were some good ones back then and you had to provide useful and accurate information or a useful service to be included. And people actually used those directories to find information on the net because they provided something older search engines didn’t: an evaluative component. Sites in the directory could be assumed to be better than sites not in the directory, all things being equal… except of course that all things were not equal because the process of scouring the net and screening sites using human editors could not possibly keep pace with the number of new websites being added every week or month.

Then Google happened, one might argue the first search engine that had real value in ranking sites for value to the searcher the way the directories used to. Suddenly links pointing to your site and then to specific pages on your site had real value to webmasters.

And that link value meant there was money to be made, first by directly selling links and secondly by organizing the links in directories again. But this time with a difference…

There was a booming business in link directories a few years back. There were literally hundreds and thousands of link directories. The vast majority of the directories now were paid links and the vast majority of those were strictly based on profit, not merit of the website. There was little or no quality control or comparative evaluation of sites. If you as a webmaster were willing to pay money, you got a listing and a (dofollow) link (there were no nofollow links back then). And if you were willing to pay more money you got a featured link on a page with fewer links that therefore higher Page Rank. And life was good for a lot of people…

But not for Google. Google’s ranking depended on the integrity of sites linking to other sites because the targets of the links were worth visiting – they provided real value for the searcher. Obviously, Google could not tolerate people artificially inflating the value of their websites by buying and selling links; it corrupted their whole system and threatened to undercut and devalue their search service.

Moreover, the sole purpose of directories was now to increase Page Rank of the site/page being listed. Even previously honorable directories like DMOZ became corrupted as “bribery” of the DMOZ editors became more and more common: You couldn’t buy a link in DMOZ but you could certainly buy a DMOZ editor.

So the hammer came down. First the blatant buying and selling of links was penalized, both through manual penalties and through algorithmic changes. And of course next on the list were the directories, which were devalued across the board.

This made sense. Back in the day of the original directories which were very selective and evaluative, people actually used those directories to find information. One of the reasons for this was that search engines in those days weren’t very efficient so the directories served a purpose. Google changed all that. With their increasingly vast network of computers and databases, they were faster and more efficient and far more inclusive in indexing the internet. If you were seeking information or a service, you didn’t need a directory and in any case the directories were no longer sorting out the good sites from the bad site.

The first step for Google was to devalue and deindex directories that were non-selective, i.e., where the sole criterion for a listing was paying a fee, usually an annual fee so you were dropped if you didn’t pay the renewal fee at the end of the year. That knocked out some of the more blatant abuses but not enough. So the next step was the nofollow attribute for directories: Those sites and directories that nofollowed their links remained in business and visible in Google’s index. Those that didn’t were deindexed.

So what remained were a much smaller number of directories that at least at one time had some prestige, like the Better Business Bureau (whether or not it still has that reputation or deserves that reputation). It seems to me that many of them have been sullied by the same practices that Google once used to weed out the pay-per-link directories they ran out of business but some at least required that sites and business meet some criteria beyond simply paying a fee. But they were required to make their links nofollow or their listing would be valueless to the webmaster in terms of Page Rank and search ranking.

And that’s where you are today. If there is value in being associated with the BBB, in terms of prestige and reputation, then by all means pay the annual fee. As Tim Colling says, your business may benefit from a BBB listing for that reason. I suspect that for some consumers and some industries and professions, websites that can include a BBB or Chamber of Commerce badge and that can state that their businesses are members of the BBB still carries some weight, deservedly so or not.

But that’s the only reason you should be doing it. Understand that you won’t increase your search rankings with that listing, local or organic, but that doesn’t mean it might not have some value to your business.

It might be especially beneficial to local small businesses and especially in smaller towns.


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