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Do Nofollow links help SEO?

We build a lot of links for our clients at DTC. It’s one of our specialties. In the last 5 years we’ve built over 10,000 links. Out of those, around 10% were Nofollow links.

Why do we even bother building Nofollow links if they supposedly don’t pass any link equity? In this post, we’ll share what we’ve learned.

But first, let’s start with the basics.

What is a Nofollow?

The Nofollow tag was introduced by Google in 2005 as a way to reduce web spam. A Nofollow (rel=”nofollow”) is a tag you can add to links on your site. The tag tells Google and other search engines not to pass any link equity to the page(s) being linked to.

A common use for the Nofollow tag is on user generated content like blog comments and forum links. Also, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. all use Nofollow tags on links that people add to their posts.

What does the Nofollow tag look like?

All one has to do is simply insert the “rel=”nofollow”” tag into the link html as pictured below. There are also many plugins that can automatically insert these for you.

Why use a Nofollow tag?

Google says to use Nofollow tags on things like sponsored links or user generated content (UGC) on websites. The tags ensure Google doesn’t penalize your web page for linking out to unsavory websites. Spammers will always try to find ways to link back to their own websites in order to try and game Google’s algorithm.

Due to the nature of sponsored links and user generated content, it makes sense that Google would NOT want to attach link value them. Sponsored links are ads, so they shouldn’t help organic rankings. That would be pay-to-play. it would mean the highest bidder gets the highest rankings which would be bad for Google’s “best search engine” reputation.

User Generated Content spam would be impossible to manage. Spammers can dynamically add hundreds of thousands of posts to Social sites with a multitude of links back to their website…these platforms would get heavily abused.

How to check for Nofollow links

Two ways:

  1. You can use a tool such as the Moz bar to highlight all Nofollow links on a page a certain color. This makes it easy to see what is nofollow and what is not.

OR

  1. You can view the source of the page you’re on (Ctrl + U) and then find the anchor text for the link you’re searching for. Once you find it, look for the “rel=nofollow” tag next to the link.

*side note: A link on a page that does not have the Nofollow tag is sometimes called a “Dofollow link”. It’s a way of specifying that a link is NOT Nofollowed. Yes, that’s right, doing absolutely nothing to the link makes it a Dofollow link.

Two kinds of Nofollow links

What we have figured out over time after hundreds of link building campaigns is that not all Nofollows seem to work the same way. Let’s say you get a Nofollow link from a site like Twitter, or a Nofollow link from a site like Forbes…what’s the difference?

They are both high authority (DA 90+) websites. Both are well known and get a ton of traffic. However there is one big difference.

Forbes is editorially driven.

Editorially driven means that there are writers and editors who are publishing content. Google wants to index ALL editorially driven content and links because this makes their search results more complete.

User generated content on the other hand is created by anyone and everyone. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow users to post links and anyone can go to those sites and post all the content and links they want. This can obviously get manipulated.

Nofollow as a default

Sometimes Nofollow links are added to all the links on an entire website or an entire section of a website due to a blanket policy to stop link manipulation – with not much regard for links passing SEO value to other websites.

For example, publications like Forbes, Inc.com and Entrepreneur started using Nofollow links on all outbound links on articles written by contributing journalists. Why? Because their contributors were offering articles and/or links in exchange for money. These publications had no way to deal with the issue of policing all of their contributing guest writers.

Another example, Wikipedia Nofollow’s all of its external links. Why? Because Wikipedia is a platform that allows anybody to add content and links to a page about a specific topic. It became impossible for Wikipedia to manage all of the people trying to spam wikipedia with links.

The blanket usage of Nofollow on ALL outbound links on these sites is overkill. It’s like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. The Nofollow tag wasn’t meant to be applied to an entire website when it was first introduced.

This fly is toast

So, let’s zoom out and think about this….These are giant websites that are very authoritative on the web. They have large amounts of daily readers, and they link out to a lot of relevant websites with well written, respected content. Can you see how omitting ALL links that these sites link to could start to create a problem for Google? These sites are too important to not count their links.

Enter Nofollow as a hint in 2019

In September of 2019, Google announced “Nofollow as a hint”. This change reinterpreted the way Nofollow tags work. Prior to the change, Google would ignore the Nofollowed links for indexing purposes. Now, they’re looking at other factors and taking the Nofollow as a hint, meaning Nofollow is no longer a directive…meaning if they think the content is valuable, they’re going to crawl it, and index it, and show it in the search results.

Of course, this is all speculation. We can argue all day about whether or not Google does count those links, but regardless, there are a few important benefits to nofollow links that go beyond pure link equity.

Natural link profile

Google can and will penalize websites that have unnatural link profiles. They do it all the time. They can penalize your entire website or just certain pages of your website for certain keywords. If all your links are Dofollow – that looks unnatural. Having a mix of Nofollow links and Dofollow links is what occurs naturally on the web.

Branding

Having your name and/or logo mentioned in the media is essentially what PR firms do for their clients. There is inherent business value in “getting your name out there”. The more familiar people are with your brand, the more likely they are to buy from you.

Unlinked brand mentions

An unlinked brand mention is a mention of your brand name or website on a website that does not link back to your website. These mentions of your brand can sometimes count just as much as a link itself. Google associates “brand signals” like your brand name, website, address, etc. with your website and has started giving those brand signals more weight in their algorithm.

Google Analyst Gary Illyes mentioned this in his keynote at Brighton SEO in September 2017:

“If you publish high-quality content that is highly cited on the internet — and I’m not talking about just links, but also mentions on social networks and people talking about your branding, crap like that. Then you are doing great.”

One last piece of evidence. There is a Google patent that actually describes the unlinked mentions.

Nofollow links are not all worthless and they can have a good impact on your rankings. Especially if the links are from highly popular, editorially driven websites. Of course, given a choice, I would go for the “Dofollow” link everytime!