Backlinks are a big deal in the world of SEO.
Most backlinks pass authority, causing Google to evaluate your site as being more trustworthy. And of course, more trustworthy sites are more likely to rank higher in search results.
But what about nofollow links?
What are nofollow links, exactly, and are they important for your SEO strategy?
Table of Contents
Nofollow Links: The Basics
By default, Google bots crawl the web on a constant basis, following links and using them to determine how PageRank is passed. This is also an opportunity to evaluate “bad” backlinks and penalize the sites they point to.
As you might suspect, a nofollow link prevents Google from following the link as usual. Nofollow links are established with a rel=”nofollow” HTML tag, which instructs Google to ignore the link. In the backend code of your site, this is the only distinguishing feature of a nofollow link.
When live, a nofollow link is indistinguishable from a standard link. It looks the same, it can be clicked the same way, and there’s no immediate clue to a user that the link is nofollow.
Why is this important?
For starters, most search optimizers are heavily focused on improving their authority with PageRank. They employ link building strategies to establish more links to earn more authority and eventually rank higher. Because nofollow links don’t pass PageRank, they can’t help your rankings directly. Note the importance of the word “directly” here.
Google has verified this directly: “Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text across these links. Essentially, using nofollow causes us to drop the target links from our overall graph of the web.”
Why Do Nofollow Links Exist?
You may be wondering why nofollow links exist, and why they’re used by various websites, if they’re not so different from standard links.
Originally, nofollow links were conceived as an idea to fight back against link spam. In the early days of SEO, practitioners would take any opportunity they could to build a link back to their website. They would spam blog comments, issue meaningless press releases, and post actively on forums to get more links to their site.
The nofollow tag allowed blog owners and other webmasters to fight back against this tendency by making certain types of links nofollow by default. They could also issue the nofollow tag to reduce the impact of a link they deemed questionable in the body of a guest post.
This is useful for nearly everyone involved. The blog gets to preserve its reputation by ensuring it isn’t used for spammy backlinks. Google gets to fight link spam and calculate better search engine results. Web users encounter less spam. And webmasters are incentivized to find better linking tactics.
Nofollow links are also recommended for use with paid links.
Generally speaking, Google frowns upon paid links. But this is mostly because paid links are considered to be a form of ranking manipulation. If you use a nofollow link, there can be no direct ranking manipulation, since nofollow links don’t pass authority.
You can even find a reference to this in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. It states, “Make a reasonable effort to ensure that advertisement links on your pages do not affect search engine rankings.” It then recommends using a nofollow tag for this purpose.
How to Tell If a Link Is Nofollow
You can apply nofollow tags to links on your own site, but how can you tell if a link on an external site is nofollow?
Sometimes, publishers and external sites will inform you directly about their nofollow policies.
But it’s much more reliable to simply check your backlinks yourself.
Right click anywhere on the page you’re inspecting and click “View Page Source” or simply click CTRL + U. The code might look somewhat incomprehensible to you if you’re not used to it. But don’t worry. Use CTRL + F to find the link you’re looking for, and see if it has a rel=”nofollow” tag.
The Non-SEO Value of a Nofollow Link
When people hear that a nofollow link doesn’t pass PageRank, they immediately get turned off. After all, isn’t the whole point of link building to earn PageRank and rank up?
Yes, for the most part. But it’s important to understand that nofollow links have a lot of value that has nothing to do with SEO.
- Referral traffic. This is the big one, so it deserves to be mentioned first. Nofollow links have the power to generate referral traffic to your site. When someone clicks on a link in a blog post they’re reading, they don’t care whether Google is using it to pass PageRank or not. All they care about is reading the content on the other side. Depending on the publisher, the context of the link, and other variables, you may be able to generate thousands of new visitors this way.
- Brand visibility. Simply including the link, with a named reference to your brand, is enough to increase your brand visibility and raise brand awareness. This is especially powerful as you build your reputation as an author and reach bigger audiences through bigger publishers.
- Increased attention for your content. Referral links also serve to promote your content. In some cases, just mentioning your content (such as calling out statistics in original research you conducted) can serve your brand well. Otherwise, the traffic you generate for the content will make it more popular. In some cases, a single nofollow link can help make a piece of powerful content go viral.
The Value of Nofollow Links for SEO
No PageRank, no SEO benefit, right?
In fact, in addition to all their non-SEO related benefits, nofollow links can have significant value for your SEO strategy.
Importantly, Google says this about nofollow links: “In general, we don’t follow them.”
If this is the case, it implies that Google occasionally does follow nofollow links.
That may sound like a conspiracy theory, but there’s some real evidence to support this.
For example, Adam White recently posted about an experiment he conducted on SEMRush. He used exclusively nofollow links, optimized with keyword-dense anchor text, to promote a page of his website. That page went from being rank 19 for the target keyword to rank 1—within a week.
There are also many experiments and anecdotes confirming that Google follows nofollow links to index pages.
It appears, on the surface, that nofollow links may have a measurable, direct impact on your rankings—especially if optimized with the right anchor text.
But that’s not all.
Nofollow links also have the awesome side effect of bringing more attention to the content of your site. Even if Google isn’t passing PageRank via this link, there are people discovering your content through it. With a popular publisher, you might create a stream of traffic in the tens of thousands (or more), introducing hundreds to thousands of content creators to your work.
Once they discover your work through that nofollow link, content creators will be much more likely to build links to you directly—standard links this time.
In this sense, a single nofollow link can lead you to earn dozens of standard links, or even more. You can think of it as a promotional tool in this way.
You also need to consider the fact that nofollow links are a natural part of the internet, and therefore, they’re part of a balanced, natural backlink profile. If you don’t have any nofollow backlinks in your backlink profile, it’s going to look suspicious, and in extreme cases, it may even lead to a penalty.
It’s hard to estimate the correct number of nofollow backlinks to be part of your backlink profile, but something like 5-20 percent nofollow links is reasonable to expect.
Nofollow vs. Noindex Tags
Though similar in name and form, the “noindex” tag is very different than the “nofollow” tag.
With a noindex tag in place, Google will not add the marked page of your website to its search index. In other words, a page marked with “noindex” will never show up in Google searches.
By contrast, the “nofollow” tag on a link will prevent Google from passing authority with the link, but will still allow the page in question to be indexed.
Use the noindex tag only if you want to block Google from indexing and displaying a page of your site.
Should You Mark Links on Your Site as Nofollow?
What about the links you build on your own site? Should you be marking them as nofollow?
There are a few important considerations here.
First, if you’re using WordPress or a similar popular blogging platform, you should know that some of your outgoing links may be marked as nofollow by default. For example, most of the time, links in blog comments will be marked as nofollow without requiring your intervention.
Second, remember that Google recommends that webmasters mark all paid links and advertisements as nofollow. If you’re part of an affiliate link program, or if you’re otherwise hosting paid links, it’s important to include the nofollow tag for those links.
Otherwise, you may be interested in using a mix of nofollow and standard links, especially if you’re running a website that has a lot of outgoing links (e.g., you’re running a blog that features a lot of guest authors). This will make your outgoing link profile look far more natural. It should also prevent the possibility of being penalized for hosting spammy links.
If you don’t have many outgoing links and you’re using no paid links, you probably don’t have to worry about this much.
Tips for Using Nofollow Links
We’ll close out with some important tips on how to use nofollow backlinks as part of your link building strategy.
- Don’t be afraid of nofollow links. It’s true that standard links are going to pass PageRank and increase your chances of ranking higher in search engines more than nofollow links. However, that doesn’t mean nofollow links are useless. Nofollow links have the power to increase your rankings, too, and even if they didn’t, they would still be valuable for increasing your brand visibility and generating referral traffic. Don’t be reluctant to use their power.
- Be aware that some links are nofollow by default. Despite your best efforts, some of your links are going to be nofollow by default. For example, any links you build in blog comments, forums, or certain types of press releases will likely be marked as nofollow—even if your publisher didn’t do so directly. Again, this isn’t a bad thing.
- Use nofollow links to promote your best content. One of the best ways to use nofollow links is to increase traffic and generate more attention for your best onsite content. Once people start discovering your original research, or your best writing, they’ll generate tons of traffic to it, and possibly build standard links of their own. Think of this as an aspect of your promotional strategy.
- Lean into nofollow links from top publishers. Arguably, the best benefit of nofollow links is their ability to generate referral traffic. And the best way to generate referral traffic is through a publisher that gets a lot of traffic on its own. Try to work with the best, most authoritative, most heavily trafficked publishers you can when earning nofollow links.
- Make sure at least some of your backlink profile is nofollow. If you want to scale your link building strategy effectively, you need to make sure you have a balanced, natural backlink profile. That means at least some of your links should be nofollow. If you’re following best practices for content management and SEO, you should end up with the right balance of nofollow links naturally. Otherwise, you can tinker with the balance yourself.
- Always use nofollow tags for paid links. This tip is more about outgoing links, but it’s important to follow. If you host paid links or advertisements on your site, make sure they’re nofollow links.
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