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Nofollow Backlinks: The Complete Guide For Site Owners And Link Builders

In this post, you will learn about one of the most misunderstood factors in SEO: nofollow backlinks.

For link builders, are they useful in SEO? If not, then what’s the point of building them?

For site owners, how can you apply them to prevent your website from penalties?

I’ll answer these questions (and debunk some of them) below.

Prelude: Backlinks as ranking signals

But to fully understand how this link type influences your site’s SEO , we must take a few steps back and look at backlinks from an SEO perspective.

Backlinks are arguably the most influential rank factor in SEO.

The more authoritative backlinks you build for your site, the higher it will rank on organic search!

Based on the latest findings of Brian Dean over at Backlinko, the site with the highest Ahrefs Domain Rating (the aggregator score of a site’s link quality) has the highest correlation to SERP position.

ahrefs domain rating correlates with higher first page google rankings

A year ago, Eric Enge of Stone Temple conducted a study in collaboration with Moz regarding links as a ranking factor.

quadratic mean spearman correlation moz da and moz pa vs total links

The long and short of this rather in-depth study? Yes, links still matter.

You can even go years back for case studies that attest to backlinks as a pivotal factor in organic rankings.

But, obviously, link building is easier said than done. There are lots of variables that can affect your link acquisition campaign.

For one, the success of your link building boils down to PageRank.

PageRank is, in layman’s term, a vote of confidence from one site to another.

And that vote bears more weight if the site has authority.

Authority, in this case, is measured using different variables like traffic, SEO, and such.

Therefore, a link from a site like CNN, for example, will help your site more compared to thousands of links from obscure news outlets.

Now, for the link to pass PageRank to your site, it must have a dofollow attribute.

Here’s how a link looks like in HTML:

<a href=”http://example.com”>Text here</a>

The dofollow attribute is built in to the regular structure of an HTML link tag.

If the site is authoritative based on various factors, then you can siphon some of its authority from its backlink pointing to your site.

By building enough backlinks to your site from trustworthy websites relevant to your niche, you can rank higher on SERPs and generate more traffic as a result!

However, link building got a little bit more complicated with the entry of nofollow links.

What are nofollow backlinks?

These are links from websites pointing to yours with rel=”nofollow.”

This is how a nofollow backlink looks like when you check its HTML:

<a href=”http://example.com” rel=”nofollow“>

[nofollow link example]

What this means in SEO is the links do not pass PageRank.

Not only does Google not crawl and index the link, but it also doesn’t consider your anchor text into account.

That’s how nofollow links work in a nutshell. However, things get more complicated depending on how people interpret them.

Let’s say the site owner wanted to implement the attribute on their website. This allows them to prevent Google from crawling spammy backlinks on their site.

At the same time, site owners can apply nofollow links sitewide. This means that all links pointing away from the site is tagged as nofollow.

There are reasons why some do this on their sites, and we’ll get to them soon. But it’s not the best way to work nofollow links on a site.

In the case of link builders, they may find themselves on the short end of the stick when site owners decide to nofollow their backlinks.

This means that they lose the PageRank from that site. And, as a result, they can expect for your rankings to drop.

These are just some hypothetical situations that show the butterfly effect of nofollow links in SEO.

At this point,

How to identify nofollowed links

Knowing which sites publish outbound links using rel=”nofollow” allows link builders to identify these sites and prioritize their campaign accordingly.

To do this, right-click on the page and select “View page code.” You should be able to see this option regardless of what browser you use.

view page source

Click on it and enable the search function (Control + F for Windows users). Enter “nofollow” to see which links are no follow.

nofollow from page source

If all of the links pointing to a page from another site have this attribute, then the site is not passing PageRank to these pages.

If there are only a handful or links with this attribute, the site owner is most likely using link attributes to great effect (more on this later).

Now, for the fastest way to know if a link has a nofollow attribute, right-click on the link and select “Inspect.”

inspect link

A window will appear below the page to show you the attributes of the links.

rel nofollow from chromedev

However, the easiest way to identify nofollow links is by installing a Chrome extension or Firefox add-on that will find these for you.

For instance, install the NoFollow extension, go to a page, and then click on the icon from your browser to identify the links for you.

nofollow chrome extension

Do nofollowed links help SEO?

Nofollow links go both ways in SEO.

As a site owner, you want to know what the best practices are in implementing nofollow on your site. And if there are, how should you roll them out?

For link builders, it’s widely believed that nofollow links don’t help your site’s SEO.

Not only is this statement false, but you will later see examples of websites that used the nofollow attribute to grow their site’s organic rankings.

It’s all about learning how to use them correctly for your site, which I will discuss with you below:

For site owners? Yes

Most site owners believe that the use of nofollowed links is to prevent outbound links from getting PageRank back to their sites.

It makes total sense because they put years of hard work building their site only for some spammer to get a backlink they didn’t earn.

There’s truth to the statement above, but there’s another reason why no follow links exist.

According to Webmaster Trends Analyst on Google John Mueller during one of their Google Webmaster Central hangouts in 2019, the purpose of nofollow is to help Google understand which links to sites that the owner solicits.

The search engine frowns upon websites involved in link schemes with the purpose of manipulating search algorithms in their favor. And for site owners to wash their hands from these practices, they must use nofollow judiciously.

So, if somebody wants sponsored or paid links on their website, for instance, the site must use nofollow on them.

But if they organically link to a page from another site – in the words of Mueller – “that you want to stand for,” they should leave it as a dofollow link.

Doing so helps site owners from potential issues down the line such as dropped rankings after an algorithm update.

More importantly, it shows the kind of website it is. Search engines like Google get a better idea of a site through the kinds of links that pass PageRank to and to the ones that don’t.

Keeping these things in mind, below are ways that site owners great benefit from using nofollow links on their stie.

Limit comment spam

This backlink type began in 2005 as part of Google’s plan to put a stop on comment spam.

Back in the day, building backlinks via blog comments is good enough to put your site on top of search engines.

However, this came at the expense of having comments that push the discussion. Instead, blogs were bombarded by comments containing gibberish that has a link to its website.

spammy backlinks

By enforcing the nofollow rule on blog comments, Google forced people to abandon ship and partake in a different link scheme instead.

And because of this, most website platforms like WordPress automatically have rel=”nofollow” on all links in the comment section.

While the attribute didn’t truly stop people from spamming the comment section of websites, it nonetheless render this tactic of theirs ineffectiveness for SEO purposes.

Nonetheless, you can filter comments to catch spam and only see comments from people who genuinely want to engage with your.

If you use a commenting platform like Disqus, it automatically filters out the spammy comments so you can focus on engage with your audience.

disqus view on comment spam

Also, for WordPress users, there are plugins like Akismet that does the same thing. Install and activate them so they can do the dirty and grimy work for you.

akismet

Now, there are ways to disable nofollow from comments.

Some do this to incentivize people who want to further the discussion about your blog post by rewarding them with a backlink to their site.

However, you will need to manually sift through the comments to ensure that the links are pointing to high-quality sites if you don’t want Google to penalize your site.

At the same time, this opens up a can of worms in the form of spammy comments, which you don’t want to deal with as they usually come in droves.

The myth of sitewide nofollow links

The nofollow link gave website owners more control on how they treat outbound links, much to the detriment of link builders.

Some websites like Forbes and Entrepreneur implemented nofollow on all outbound links with the idea of preventing link authority from seeping out of their websites.

To their credit, crafty link builders gamify authority websites like theirs to grow their link profile.

Therefore, instead of sifting through each outbound link on their pages, assuming that they have thousands of published content already, they just use the nofollow tag.

So, you should automatically set the no follow link tag on all outbound links on your site, right?

Not really.

From the same Google Webmaster Central hangout video, Mueller said that using the nofollow tag on all outbound has no bearing in your site’s SEO.

In fact, doing so could work against your site!

For Mueller, using the no follow link tag on links pointing to other sites removes yourself from the web ecosystem.

Because you don’t endorse a website by way of using dofollow links, you contain yourself in your own bubble, whereas other websites allow for the organic passing of PageRank from one to another.

And, as mentioned, using the no follow function on all links show to Google that you don’t stand by them. As a result, you make it more difficult for Google to read your site based on your links.

Therefore, if you want Google to rank your website properly, then you need to let PageRank pass from your site to others. And the same goes for your backlinks to pass link juice to yours.

Organize your links for better crawlability

In 2019, Google made changes that will influence how publishers treat nofollow links.

Instead of using rel=”nofollow” as a catch-all attribute on links that website owners don’t want Google to crawl and index, Google created two additional link attributes to help search spiders understand the web better.

The rel=sponsored tag informs the spiders that the link is a sponsored content. This is ideally used on links paid for by advertisers.

The rel=ugc tag is used to help Google identify user-generated content. User reviews and comments on your website, to name a few, should be tagged with this.

google nofollow ugc sponsored

Source: Moz

So, how does this change the game for nofollow links?

Going back to when the nofollow link tag was instituted, Google did not crawl or index links with this tag.

However, the search engine softened its stance over the years, saying that no follow links may be used as a ranking signal.

Obviously, this rule does not apply to all websites. However, it explains why some sites enjoyed a lift in organic rankings following the effective use of nofollow links.

And on March 1, 2020, nofollow links may be used not only as a ranking signal, but can also be crawled and indexed.

Theoretically, this also means that people should use the appropriate tags to label their links to benefit from this change.

However, the change is still in its early stages, so there are no documented benefits to implementing the tags on websites.

That’s why SEO experts remain resistant in replacing nofollow with rel=ugc and rel=sponsored on hundreds and thousands of outbound links in their site.

In the meantime, some are already hard at work taking advantage of the tags to help Google better understand their links.

Using the WordPress plugin, CM On Demand Search and Replace, you can change the tags of affiliate links from rel=”nofollow” to rel=”sponsored.”

To learn using the plugin and replacing your link attributes, read this Ezoic post.

SEO tools like Ahrefs now allows you to spot rel=”ugc” and rel=”sponsored links” in a site in their most recent update:

ugc sponsored links using ahrefs

This way, you can spy on the outbound link activities of competitors and see how they use the attributes to organize their links.

Time will tell if changing the links to their appropriate tags will yield positive results. But if you have to resources and manpower to get it, there’s no harm in trying.

For link builders? Yes!

Despite the fact that nofollow links don’t send link juice to your site, they nonetheless serve a purpose in your SEO strategy.

In other words, you shouldn’t avoid building nofollow links if the opportunity presents itself!

Below are different ways that you can leverage the nofollow attribute to your advantage.

Develop a more organic link profile

Let’s stop beating around the bush:

Dofollow backlinks are preferable when building your link profile.

However, having a link profile with 100% dofollow links looks unnatural and suspicious to search spiders.

The most plausible explanation for this is the website sought out to exclusively build dofollow links to his site, most likely from PBN websites.

And because this is a form of manipulation on the website’ part, there is a distinct possibility that it may incur a manual penalty as a result.

Again, the priority for link building to increase your rankings is to find opportunities for a dofollow link.

But if the opportunity for nofollow links present themselves, then you’d be foolish enough not to take it!

From here, you might be thinking of the best nofollow-to-dofollow ratio on your site.

But before we even start with that, I’d like to burst the bubble by saying there is no golden ratio.

By enforcing a ratio for the types of backlinks on your site, people will be more cautious and strategic with their link building approach.

This defeats the purpose of having do follow links in the first place!

If so, a site will probably pass up dofollow links because it must build nofollow links first to maintain the ratio balance. Typing that out makes the idea even more ridiculous.

What search engines want is for websites to link naturally with each others.

And so, you have to build links that make sense for your site, which opportunity comes first.

Generate referral traffic

With this type of backlink, you can still drive referral traffic to your website.

Say you have a nofollow link from an article published in a high-traffic site.

If the article links to one of your articles as a resource guide, then some of the readers may click on the link to learn more about the topic.

And while you’d think that your site may not jump up organic rankings, studies say otherwise.

An SEO software, cognitiveSEO wrote and published a post about Google Images that was shared on Reddit.

Luckily, it caught steam and attracted lots of traffic over a period.

reddit traffic spike for cognitiveseo

Despite the fact that all links published on Reddit have rel=”nofollow” tags, cognitiveSEO not only saw a spike in referral traffic, but they also enjoyed a huge spike in organic ranking for a keyword with high search volume:

cognitive seo huge spike in keyword ranking

This is a veritable example that shows the value of nofollow links from an SEO standpoint. With a bit of luck, you can strike a match from platforms like Reddit and blow your site up with traffic.

And with traffic, there’s a good chance that your SERP positions for your keywords will bump up as well!

However, let’s be realistic with this approach by looking back at some of its images.

While the traffic volume is mighty impressive (20,000 hits in a day is nothing to scoff at), the quality of traffic isn’t.

very low session duration

Aside from only staying for nine seconds on average, visitors had a 96% bounce rate in the site.

Therefore, the engagement from Reddit didn’t carry over to the site. And since the engagement isn’t on the site, its organic rankings dipped eventually.

Also, striking it rich with Reddit is a crapshoot at best.

I’d like to believe cognitiveSEO got lucky with their blog post on Reddit. Getting lots of upvotes on the platform, which is the way to bring your submission up to the front page of a subreddit and increase its visiblity, is more than difficult.

So, implementing the method above is sadly not replicable and scalable. There are various forces that may work against your favor even if you do everything by the book.

Frequently asked questions

Some readers may need more clarity regarding the subject of the nofollow link. Hence, below are some of the more common questions people ask about it.

Also, consider this as a recap of what we already discussed above but answered in a clearer and more concise manner.

What are dofollow and nofollow links?

Both are types of links that determine whether or not PageRank will pass from one site to another.

Dofollow links have the rel=dofollow link attribute while nofollow links have the re=nofollow tag. The former allows PageRank to flow, which helps increase a site’s organic rankings, while the latter does not,

As a result, people are more inclined to build dofollow links than nofollow. However, Google may still crawl and index no follow links, if not consider them as ranking signals to a certain extent.

When should you use rel nofollow?

Site owners like yourself must append the rel=”nofollow” tag on links that point to spammy, low-quality, and/or irrelevant websites.

Basically, you’re letting Google know that you don’t endorse these links and that search engines shouldn’t count them against you.

Does Google crawl nofollow links?

When nofollow links were first launched, they were neither crawled nor indexed by spiders. However, Google softened its stance against these links with the introduction of the additional attributes. It now says that the search engine may crawl and index them.

Should I nofollow affiliate links?

According to Google’s John Mueller, you should nofollow affiliate links. Better yet, append rel=sponsored on them instead.

Since you earn a commission for every successful transaction coming from your affiliate links, they are essentially paid links at this point. And because Google considers paid links as a link scheme, better be safe and implement the most appropriate attribute for them.

Can nofollow links hurt you?

According to Matt Cutts, nofollow links do not have a negative effect on your site.

The only time that they can affect your site is if you have spammy nofollow links from a site. Google could manually penalize your site as a result.

Final words

For site owners, it’s clear where they should stand on nofollowed links.

All Google wants for webmasters in relation to this link type is accountability.

If you’re going to link out to pages from other sites, you have to ask the question that John Mueller posed regarding nofollow tags:

“Do I stand by it (the page)?”

If you feel that the page you’re linking out to helps increase the value of your page, then it’s best if you leave the link as dofollow.

For sponsored links or those that don’t contribute to your site’s bottom line, use nofollow links on them.

For link builders, the case of nofollowed links is more nuanced than one would initially think.

The long and short answer on whether it can truly help with your SEO is:

it depends meme

 

I’d like to show you an example on how nofollow inbound links can help raise your site’s rankings for your target keyword.

Adam White, founder of backlink management tool SEOJet, did an interesting case study on his website.

He bought a sitewide nofollow backlink from a relatively popular SEO blog.

From a conventional SEO sense, there are two things working against Adam in this study. The first is the nofollow attribute which we already discussion above.

The second one is the link that appear sitewide. This type of link appears on all pages of the site, most commonly on the sidebar or footer sections.

It’s a previous link building tactic that lost most of its power once Google started tweaking its algorithm for the better.

However, Adam saw a drastic increase in ranking from the 37th position to the top spot within two months!

serp preview seojet

There’s a lot to consider here such as the quality of both sites (where the link is placed and the site the link is pointing to), its link profile, and others.

Therefore, you can’t simply look at this and make a sweeping generalization about the power that no follow links hold.

However, there’s a lesson to be learned in this study and the others mentioned above.

Much has been said about the no follow link but not a lot knows how it actually works.

It’s all boils down to testing and see if something works or not.

In the case of nofollow inbound links, search engines like Google may crawl and index them or even treat them as a ranking signal.

These reasons should encourage people to build nofollowed links contrary to popular opinion.

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Craig Campbell

I am a Glasgow based SEO expert who has been doing SEO for 18 years.

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