There is a lot going on in SEO at the moment.
That’s because SEO is about more than one thing. It’s a puzzle with hundreds of different pieces you need to fit together. If you want traffic — and customers — from search engines, you need to work out what all those pieces are, and how they work together to get results.
Nofollow links are one crucial piece of this puzzle. And they’re a piece that is often neglected or misunderstood.
In this guide, we’ll be sharing everything you need to know about nofollow links, including:
Let’s get stuck in:
Why were nofollow links created?
To understand why nofollow links are so important, we first need to consider the history of them and why they were created.
In the early days of search engines, all links were equal. This means any links back to your website would have counted towards your search engine rankings.
While this sounds like a good thing, it was easy for people to exploit this system. In those days, some SEO strategies consisted of nothing more than acquiring as many links back to a website as possible.
And it didn’t always matter how they got them.
This resulted in people using what we now call “black hat techniques” to score more points and get them further up the rankings. These techniques consisted of taking as many shortcuts as possible.
People would buy their links and use spammy or automated link building processes, such as comment spam, to boost their rankings.
Why were these techniques a problem for search engines?
For Google — and their competitors — the searcher is everything.
Searchers need the search engines to answer their queries to a satisfactory level, or they will simply use a different engine.
The search engine’s business model depends on this customer-focused approach.
Black hat link building strategies were a problem for searchers, because it meant low-quality websites were achieving high search result rankings. This affected the integrity of the search results, and risked Google’s entire business.
What did they do about it?
In 2005, Google introduced nofollow links to help them combat comment spam. Comment spam involved representatives of one website posting their links in the comments sections of other sites to gain an SEO advantage.
Of course, these links were not organic, so Google decided to stop counting them. In fact, in time, Google began to apply penalties to sites using this links in an underhand manner.
Spammy links like these no longer had “zero” SEO value, they had become detrimental to SEO altogether.
Since then, the nofollow link attribute has emerged, and it’s now used to protect any links that may go against search engine guidelines and policies.
By using the nofollow link to tell Google when to ignore a link when calculating its rankings, it will prevent you from being penalized if your link building practices fall outside what’s permitted by search engines (e.g., if you have paid for a link).
It is important to remember that there are many situations in which inserting a link into a comment page, or paying for a link, is a useful and acceptable thing to do.
The nofollow tag means you can still do this without worrying about a penalty from Google.
What’s the difference between nofollow and dofollow links?
To clarify, the difference between a nofollow link and a dofollow link is the way it is treated by the search engine.
Google (and other search engines) will use dofollow links to:
- Establish how many inbound links you have and determine how this should affect your PageRank.
- Create a map of your website internally, which is used to display your pages in search results.
Traditionally, search engines ignore nofollow links completely. Any links marked as nofollow wouldn’t count towards your page rank and would not be crawled by search engines on your website.
However, this is set to change slightly in 2020, as Google has announced an update that will impact the way nofollow links are processed. We’ll talk more about this later on.
Do nofollow links provide any SEO benefits?
Many people believe nofollow links don’t have any benefits and are, therefore, a waste of time.
But we’re here to challenge this misconception.
Contrary to popular belief, nofollow links are an essential part of any SEO strategy. Here’s why:
They raise awareness of your brand
A link is about more than just its contribution to your search engine rankings.
Getting more inbound links to your website means you get more eyes on your business. And that’s always a good thing, right?
SEO is an excellent tool for raising awareness of your brand. But building that awareness in other ways can help you get to the top of those search results faster.
They can help you gain dofollow links further down the line.
One reason building awareness is an integral part of any SEO strategy is that it can help build future dofollow links.
Think about it:
The more eyes you get on your content, the more likely people will be to link to it organically. And it’s these organic, authentic links that can really help you get onto that all-important first page.
They build trust with Google.
Search engine algorithms are configured to work out which websites are the most trustworthy.
This is one of the most crucial ranking factors.
Search engines want to ensure only the best content, from the most reliable sources, appears at the top of the search engine results.
Using nofollow links helps build trust in your brand.
For starters, using nofollow links demonstrates you are adhering to the search engine’s rules. Using nofollow links to show, for example, links you have paid for demonstrates transparency and lets Google know you are a brand they (and their users) can trust.
They also build trust by showing you’re a genuine business.
When you pay for links, you’re buying advertising.
Search engines have never indicated they don’t want people to pay for advertising — just that they need to know when links have been bought, and when they have been acquired naturally.
We need to stop thinking about nofollow links as a penalty. Instead, you should think of them as a way to avoid a penalty — as a way to communicate with Google.
Use them to demonstrate the type of business you’re operating — a brand people can trust.
What are the changes happening to nofollow links in 2020?
In addition to the SEO benefits listed above, some changes are happening in 2020 that make nofollow links even more important.
Until now, the search engine algorithms have ignored all nofollow links when calculating PageRank.
This is about to change.
Instead, Google will begin to view these nofollow links as “hints” when calculating PageRank. This means they may contribute to SEO, or — as is current practice — they may be ignored.
Although this is not a substantial change — and the majority of nofollow links are still expected not to count towards rankings — it’s still significant.
And it further backs up our view that nofollow links should be embraced, alongside dofollow links, by anyone serious about using SEO to bolster their digital marketing strategy.
To learn more watch this clip from John Mueller at Google.
What is Google’s approach to user-generated content (UGC) and sponsored tags?
The powers that be at Google launched a couple of other link attributes that run alongside the rel=”nofollow” tag.
As you may have guessed, the “sponsored” tag is for links that are paid for or published via sponsored content. UGC, on the other hand, is for links within content generated by users.
This might include forum posts, posts in a comment section, or invitational guest posts.
Traditionally, the nofollow tag has been used in all of the above cases. In fact, Google has said that there is no benefit to be achieved by using the new tags.
However, if this is the case, why would Google go to the trouble of launching these tags at all? It appears that Google is not giving us all the facts.
Writing for Moz, Cyrus Shepard recently published the results of a test involving the UGC tag.
Let’s take a look at some of the parameters of his test:
- The user-generated content in question would come from the comments section on a page on the Moz website. Moz is already a high-ranking website, but, as always, there is room for improvement.
- Moz has traditionally added the rel=”nofollow” tag to all the links posted in its comment sections. The idea of the test is to alter this to rel=”ugc” and to gauge the results.
- Cyrus used DistilledODN to measure the results, not Google’s own Analytics. This enabled more precise insight from split testing.
- The aim of the test is to examine how the site hosting the links is affected, not how the sites that the links are pointing to are affected.
The test was launched and the results… well, the results were disappointing.
No major SEO boosts were reported, and the prediction generated by DistilledODN found that traffic would either grow by 9,300 visits each month or fall by 26,000.
This is not a very useful prediction, and the test results were declared “null.”
The results of the test. Image via Moz
So, it seems Google was telling the truth when they said there was nothing to be gained, SEO-wise, by deploying the new attributes.
But, hold on a minute. Why introduce these new elements at all?
It feels like Google has a plan for these attributes, and that they may well become significant parts of the SEO strategy going forward.
Watch this space.
Why is it important to consider using nofollow links on your own website?
Given the impending changes to the way search engines use nofollow links, this is a topical question.
Historically, people have used the nofollow attribute to tell search engines not to index a particular page.
In other words, they have used it to let search engines know which of their website’s pages they don’t want to appear on the search engine results page (SERP).
This isn’t best practice, and it’s never been the most effective way to do things (as we will discuss further down the page).
But now — given that Google won’t always ignore a nofollow link completely — it’s unlikely it will work 100% of the time.
This means nofollow links shouldn’t be used, at the page level, to prevent a page being indexed by the search engines.
So why is it still important to consider using nofollow links on your website?
This is a fundamental question.
And, unlike most questions related to SEO, the answer is actually pretty simple.
As we have already mentioned:
Nofollow links build trust with the search engines.
When they’re used appropriately, in the manner they were intended to be used, nofollow links let Google know whether or not they should consider the link when deciding on Page Rankings.
Using these links demonstrates you’re adhering to Google’s link policies — playing by the rules.
And this is why you should consider using them on your website, when appropriate.
This leads us to the next question..
What’s the difference between nofollow and noindex?
Although this guide is about nofollow links, before we go we’d like to touch upon another essential SEO code relevant to this post:
The noindex attribute.
As we mentioned earlier in the post, people have been using nofollow links to signal to a search engine when they’d like to prevent a page from appearing in search engine results pages.
This has never been the ‘right’ way to do things — but up until recently, it worked.
However, given the impending changes to nofollow links in Google’s algorithms, this technique is likely to become less efficient.
So, if you’ve been using the nofollow attribute in this way, what should you be doing differently?
This is where the noindex attribute comes in.
Noindex differs from nofollow in that its intended use is to signal to search engine crawlers when they should ignore a page.
The noindex tag is used on a page level — inside the page header — using the following code:
Going forward, if you want Google to ignore one of your pages when indexing your website, this is the code you should use — not the nofollow attribute.
Bringing it all together: what does this mean for your website?
Now you’ve reached the end of the guide, we hope you have a better understanding of nofollow links — and how they can help your website.
In short, nofollow links are nothing to fear.
If you have inbound nofollow links, they are still valuable. They still contribute to SEO — just in a different way to traditional, dofollow links.
But they also help you build trust with Google, and show that you are keen to play by the rules, which will help you avoid penalties.
The best approach to SEO is always to play by the rules. In this sense, using a nofollow link correctly will always benefit your website more than using a dofollow link that is against search engine policies, and carries the risk of penalties.
Do you have any questions about anything we’ve covered here?
Leave a comment below and we’ll do what we can to help.