Last Tuesday Google single-handedly removed an important feature from the web. And that by means of small little attribute, rel=nofollow.
(To my few non-geeky readers: As you know, sometimes small changes can have an unfavourable effect on great things. This is such a case, and the great thing is the Web as a participatory world)
Google, like most other search engines, uses the collective intelligence of the web in determining what is important and what is isn't. This was beautifully democratic, as many forms of participation on the web allowed everyone to express an opinion, that was not only visible to the direct reader but also counted towards a statistical total. Every vote counted. From now on, you need to have a blog to make your voice count, and your opinion only counts if expressed on that very blog, not somewhere else. Not even the collective wisdom of the mighty Wikipedia editors counts anymore, as their links' weight as votes has been removed, too.
And all this permanently, as many others put in mere hours of consideration about the consequences before collectively jumping into the party. And Robert Scoble thinks that this kind of decision making should happen more often! I really hope not, this is just an example of the gorilla in the market planting a standard while ignoring the sensible community which would have loved to put its energy and collective intelligence behind this - and repeatedly asked for this!
Apparently, at least Dave Winer was invited to put in a weekend shift on this. Hey, Dave, you know better: You immediately complain - and rightly so - when some people at an invitation-only conference cook up possible standards, because you fear that the process is not open enough. Now we have a quicky solution, that is half-baken, ignores the consequences and doesn't even fulfill its goal. The open dialogues you champion would have yielded a better solution.
When the partying half of the blogosphere gets sobers about this, we'll all come to realise what dimensions of the web have been removed. Votes are now restricted to whoever decides the contents of brochureware and other official websites, people with the technical means to be their own webmasters and bloggers. And then only to the opinions expressed in their own living room.
At least, they could have called it rel=usergenerated. Semantic, and with the potential of creating a search engine that emphasizes personal opinions (I'm sure some smart chap will at some point use nofollow as useful meta information per se). I'm sure just a few weeks of public request for comments would have surfaced many such details. But that kind of open participation seems to have been lost long ago in the Google DNA :-(
And unfortunately it won't stop comment spam, not in the next few years, for simple economic reasons. Nor will it remove it's effects on the search engines, although it will dampen it. Ben Hammersley points out why this will probably increase comment spam, at least until the search engine industry moves to something else than Pagerank.
Oh, and linking without giving linkjuice was simple before. For example, use Google's own redirecting service. And this is based on a very old standard (robots.txt), will surely work and survice any future re-interpretation of the real meaning of nofollow.
I tried to outline some possible solutions a while back. I don't think any of them would have survived a good community process, but the main point to take away from that post, is that someone who crawls the whole web can rather easily detect comment spam anyway, globally and with great coverage and thus remove its effect. And to remove the cause, Google et al would have to speak very publicly about that measure, not some attribute that will never be implemented everywhere.
I'm sorry, I'm sounding a bit sour today. I have to disclose that I work for a Google competitor, but I write this primarily as a netizen, alas one with some technical background in the matter.
This is as much the story about the possible futures of the Web as it is testament to the power Google has accumulated.
Dear Google, I appreciate the thought, and I'm sure you meant it in every good intention, but the outcome is evil.
Update: As one could expect, this has already been done quite a while ago (found in Jeremy's comments). A pity, that it didn't get more adoption so far. I'll leave the rest of the post here, but it's pretty redundant to the original.
Dave Winer describes a solution to the problem of growing number of subscribe buttons for all the different aggregators. Jeremy Zawodny suggest a local helper application. I think that for aggregators and tools sitting on the local machine, the problem is sufficiently solved by the feed:// protocol, although its penetration is very low. I fear that requiring a local helper application reverses some key advantages of the web-based aggregators, i.e. the unproblematic deployment, even in controlled environments and to some degree their portability.
I'd like to suggest a simplified version of Dave's suggestion: Similar to his case, link only to one server, roughly in the same way the myYahoo button works. This server is run by an independent entity, so all the provisions of Dave apply here, too. After clicking on the link the server displays a collection of all those subscribe buttons re-linked with the original feed, but also remembers which one was clicked. The next time the user subscribes to a feed, he is either automatically redirected to the appropriate subscribe link or at least, that last selection is the default selection at the top.
Participating aggregators could quickly pass their users through this server (preferably through a redirect) after registration, so that the server learns that this user has an account on this aggregator, giving him an appropriate hint on the next subscription. Alternatively, the server could directly ask if the user wanted this aggregator as the default aggregator directly after the registration.
Of course, the whole story with the buttons is also a branding issue; not only carrying the Yahoo name over many more sites, but vice-versa using the Yahoo name as a recognition point ("Ah yes, I have this. I know how this works"). So if anything, this new solution should be able to either use the orange XML button or the name RSS as a basis of the button design.
Also, Dave's suggestion has a more powerful goal, possibly centralizing the whole management of subscriptions.