What are ‘follow’ and ‘nofollow’ links and how do they impact your SEO?

We take a look at the difference between follow and nofollow links, their impact on SEO, as well as Google’s guidelines on the matter.

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Nofollow links have been around for 16 years and yet are still something of a grey area, a subject not many are confident about, and one we still get asked about regularly. Not only have the rules around them been tweaked over the years, but, being the enigma that it is, Google’s guidance on them has at times been ambiguous to say the least. We’ll take a look at what nofollow links are, how to identify them, and how they affect your SEO.

What is a nofollow link?

Nofollow links are simply hyperlinks that include a rel=”nofollow” tag. To the naked eye viewing the front end of a website, they look no different to followed links, but the additional tag tells the search engines not to follow this link; essentially the website linking out does not endorse it, and so it won’t officially* impact search rankings 

If you were to look at the code, a follow link looks like this:

<a href=“https://browsermedia.agency”>anchor text</a>

While a nofollow link would like this:

<a href=https://browsermedia.agency  rel = “nofollow”>anchor text</a>

*more on this later.

How can I tell if a link is nofollow?

If you’ve just earned a new link and you want to check whether it’s followed or not (*holds breath*), you can simply view the page source.

Right click the page you’re on, view the page source, find the link you’re looking for, and check the code to see if it includes rel=“nofollow”.

There are also various browser extensions you can use that flag up nofollow links. 

A brief history of nofollow links

Like many things in SEO, nofollow links were brought about because as an industry, we couldn’t behave ourselves.

Back in 2005, comment spam was rife. SEOs had caught on to the fact that adding links to their own or their clients’ sites within the comment sections on authoritative sites was a quick and easy way of getting good links and boosting search rankings. Google wasn’t keen, and so, treating us like the children we are, it effectively confiscated them, by introducing the nofollow attribute to stop people gaming the system. Nowadays, most CMSs, including WordPress, add the nofollow tag to comment links by default.

A few years later, Google clarified that all paid links should be nofollowed (although technically, that had already been the case before this video was published in 2013). Again, Google is trying to deter people from over optimisation and spammy techniques, instead rewarding earned links not paid links. Of course, before nofollow links, there was no clear way for Google to tell if a link had been paid for or not. This does, however, lead us to question how Google would actually know if you were lying if you didn’t include a nofollow tag in a paid for link, but that’s a debate for another day.

Nevertheless, the types of links that you’ll commonly see a nofollow link for are blog comments, forums, press releases, and social media links. Sites like Facebook or Twitter have some of the highest domain authorities in the world, so imagine if links from these platforms were followed. Chaos.

In addition, some websites, like Wikipedia and the Huffington Post, use the nofollow tag across all outbound links.

Some sites arguably also do so to protect their own domain authority, having a nofollow policy that is (potentially) less about being super cautious about best practice, and more about not wanting to pass on authority to other sites through link juice. 

What are Google’s current guidelines around follow and nofollow links?

In late September 2019, Google announced it was introducing two new link attributes that would offer a bit more detail on the type of link being tagged. The first was rel=“sponsored”, which, as you can probably guess, should be used to identify links that come from any kind of paid activity, whether that’s an ad, a paid blog post, or a sponsorship of some kind.

The other new addition was rel=”ugc”, to identify user generated content, including posts in forums and blog comments. Ideally, webmasters should use these two tags where possible, and resort to nofollow if a link doesn’t comfortably fit within the above guidelines.

It was also around this time that Google announced it would be treating the nofollow link attribute (as well as the incoming sponsored and UGC attributes) as “hints” rather than directives for ranking purposes, which brings us on to the big question.

Are nofollow links good for SEO?

You’d think, given that Google introduced the nofollow tag as a way to signal that these links don’t impact search rankings, that there wouldn’t be much to disagree about here, but it’s not as black and white as that.

First of all, Google’s official line on the matter was “in general, we don’t follow them.”

Which surely implies that in some situations they do follow them?! We don’t unfortunately have details on what those situations may be, but there’s been several studies and experiments over the years that suggest that while nofollow links don’t have as much impact on SEO as followed links, they do still have some impact.

I’d always welcome both types of links. Even if we take speculation over its direct impact into account, a nofollow link still has its value. You’re being associated with (hopefully) good quality, relevant sites, which all influence your overall link profile, and therefore how Google views you.

They can also drive traffic too, which after all, is the point of doing SEO – to make your site rank higher, to get more traffic. You could have a follow link on a mediocre site, or you could have a nofollow link on a really strong site, that drives traffic through to you, and ends in a conversion. I know which I’d rather have.

There’s also your overall ratio of follow to nofollow links to think about too. This varies wildly between sites, and like everything in SEO, is all about context, but it’s important to have some variation in follow and nofollow for your external links (there’s no reason for internal links to be nofollow).

The example above shows what feels like quite a healthy ratio. Again, it’s all about context, but I’d be concerned if a site had 100% (or close to) followed links, and if your ratio looks like this in reverse, and you’re struggling to rank, that may be why.

In general, I’d welcome both types of links with open arms, but if I’ve worked hard to earn a link, and it’s from a really great website, I’m going to be more excited if it’s a follow link than a nofollow link. 

Needless to say though, I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me links.

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