What Are Nofollow Links (+ Should You Care About Them For SEO?)

Adam Steele
Dec 14, 2022
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Every day, rivers of link juice flow between websites, influencing search engine rankings, blessing some websites with the top spot and relegating others to the dreaded second page of Google, or worse.

More links should lead to more link juice flowing your way, which should increase your chances of landing in that coveted top position. But we know there are all kinds of other factors that impact how helpful any given link will be, and one of these is the nofollow tag.

Nofollow links are links that have been tagged nofollow, indicating to Google that link juice shouldn’t be passed through the link.

Let’s get into what exactly these links are, why they exist, and how to make the most of them.

What Are Nofollow Links?

Back in 2005, Google introduced a new HTML tag that could be applied to outbound links to indicate that the link shouldn’t be taken into account by their algorithm when determining search rankings.

The rel=”nofollow” tag was built thanks to one problem that was plaguing the internet, particularly search engines, at the time: comment spam. You might remember this kind of spam if you spent any time online in the early to mid 2000s:

Image Source: The Wine Rambler

In an attempt to get a ton of links and artificially boost their rankings in search results, website owners would post vast amounts of comments on blogs that didn’t provide much, if any, value, but did for a time pass link juice from the popular blog to their site.

In fact, the more popular the blog, the more susceptible it was to these annoying comments.

For a while, this approach actually worked, which didn’t just make comment sections less enjoyable for regular website visitors but all bumped up low-quality websites to the top of Google search results at the expense of far better websites that weren’t practicing this link-building technique.

Along came the nofollow tag, rendering all blog and forum comments nofollow links. The link would still be visible and clickable by regular users, but there was no more SEO benefit to be gained from these links.

As a result, you thankfully don’t see as much blog and forum comment spam these days.

Since then, nofollow has evolved into an important part of Google’s algorithm. Let’s get into what the relationship between nofollow links and SEO is.

Nofollow Links and SEO

When Google’s crawlers make their way across the internet, every time they encounter a link, they “crawl” it. Through this activity, they interpret positive ranking signals when a quality website with high domain authority links to another site. They judge that if the high-DA site linked to another site, it must also be of high quality and trustworthy.

Nofollow links tell Google’s bots not the take into account any ranking signals when they crawl a link. They will still follow it in order to get a sense of what the content on the linked page is and to index it if it hasn’t been indexed, but they won’t pass link juice from one site to the other.

From an SEO perspective, this means you generally want dofollow links that do pass page authority, since these are the links that Google’s bots can use to influence your rankings in search results.

However, there are plenty of instances where nofollow links are the norm. These include:

  • Blog comments, for the reasons we just discussed
  • Links in forums and other user-generated content
  • Links in many press releases
  • Links from many popular sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Quora, and Medium
  • Links in social media posts

These links would be too easy to abuse otherwise, so having them all be nofollow levels the playing field.

Paid links and the nofollow tag

In addition to the links that are already nofollow by default, Google provides instruction that any paid link should have the nofollow (or the similar rel=“sponsored”) attribute applied. That’s because Google aims to take into account only natural, organic links that can be considered true indications of the quality of your content, rather than your ability to pay for links

Failing to apply nofollow or sponsored tags to paid links can get you in trouble if Google has reason to believe that money or other free perks exchanged hands for a link, so it’s a good idea to use these links.

Interestingly, Google themselves confirm that ever since 2019, the nofollow tag has been interpreted as a hint rather than a directive. In other words, Google may still pass page authority through a nofollow link!

There is even some data to support that this is the case:

Image Source: Ahrefs

Ahrefs evaluated over 44,000 search engine results pages (SERPs) and found that the correlation between the number of dofollow links and page ranking was a bit weaker than the correlation between the total number of backlinks, including nofollow links, and page ranking.

This suggests that nofollow links may, in fact, pass some page authority. Google likely has a more complicated algorithm that determines which nofollow links should have some influence and which shouldn’t.

Whatever their assessment is, we can assure you that blog comments are still firmly nofollow.

Benefits Of Nofollow Links

As much as it would be nice for every link you manage to get to pass as much link juice as possible, there are actually benefits to nofollow links, and it would be pretty frustrating if this tag suddenly didn’t exist.

Makes it harder to spam

The existence of nofollow links, including those automatically applied to certain types of links, makes it much harder for people to use spammy techniques to get their websites to the top of Google’s SERPs. If the internet already feels spammy new, imagine it if nofollow links weren’t around to prevent people from going wild posting links anywhere they could.

Content wins

Since nofollow or sponsored attributes have to be added to any kind of sponsored or bought content, the best way to get lots of highly valuable organic links is by creating fantastic, original content that people want to read and share.

This means that a bit of creativity and hard work can still have a chance to win in the face of larger competitors. If everyone could just buy as many links as they could afford, it would be very difficult for high-quality, smaller websites with fewer resources to climb the SERPs.

You can still get some link juice

As opaque as Google may be about some of the specifics of their algorithm, even they admit that nofollow is a hint. This means that even paid links on fantastic websites in your niche may potentially give you an SEO boost.

Referral traffic

Nofollow links are still clickable by users, so a well-placed nofollow link on a large website with lots of traffic could result in plenty of referral traffic for you through the link. If it’s in an evergreen piece of content, you might even enjoy traffic for a long time to come.

More dofollow links can result

A nofollow link on a popular website or blog might be posted in other blogs with dofollow links. Let’s say you create an awesome infographic illustrating some important data in your niche. You might get it placed on a large blog with a paid nofollow link, but if the infographic is unique and useful, many who come across it in that blog might repost it in their own content with a dofollow link.

They are part of a natural backlink profile

Any winning backlink profile will have a wide variety of different types of links. As the Ahrefs study above illustrates, websites that rank at the top of SERPs for relevant keywords have as many as 30% nofollow links in their profile.

Some degree of link building is expected of any successful business today, and Google knows this. The nofollow link enables you to gain visibility in lots of places, without compromising your reputation with Google.

Nofollow Links Best Practices

Whether you’re placing links on your website or building links on other sites, keep these practices in mind to stay within Google’s webmaster guidelines.

Check if they are automatically created

Most website builders will automatically apply the nofollow attribute to links in comments, footers, and other sections that are prone to spam. Make sure this is the case with your website. If not, you may need to get a web developer to help you apply these tags, or install a plugin that gives you the option.

Apply nofollow to paid links

Don’t be afraid that you’re wasting your efforts by building some nofollow links: they’re clearly a normal part of the internet, and it’s evident that Google doesn’t discount all of them altogether. Conversely, failing to have the attribute applied when it should be can hurt your SEO rankings and even get you deindexed, which is definitely not worth the effort.

Summary

Nofollow links may be a bit of a double-edged sword since they can limit the amount of link juice flowing to your website. However, they generally make the internet a less spammy and more honest place and ensure that search results better reflect content that people actually want to find.

Loganix can help you build quality links on high-authority websites, develop content that people will actually want to link to, and develop an SEO plan that drives real results. Let us help you get to the top of the SERPs the reliable way.

Written by Adam Steele on December 14, 2022

COO and Product Director at Loganix. Recovering SEO, now focused on the understanding how Loganix can make the work-lives of SEO and agency folks more enjoyable, and profitable. Writing from beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.