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Understanding the nofollow link attribute

A graphic with a search icon and a representation of the google search results, with author Mark Williams-Cook's name and image on the left-hand side

“Want some high DA dofollow links?” This solicitation is often sent to site owners (typically via email or social media) and gives the impression that obtaining backlinks is as easy as paying for them.


But, to truly understand what you might be getting into and the risks involved, you must first get to know link attributes and how they work. Although invisible to normal website visitors, “nofollow” (and, sometimes, “dofollow”) are terms you’ll hear frequently in SEO circles.


This article will explore:



What is the nofollow link attribute?


The nofollow link attribute is a way to describe your relationship with the page you are linking to, usually to show that you are not editorially endorsing that page.


To do this, a rel attribute is added within your <a> tag:


  • Example link without a nofollow attribute:

<p>I enjoy building <a href=”https://wix.com”>Wix websites</a>.</p> 

  • Example link using a nofollow attribute:

<p>I enjoy building <a rel=”nofollow” href=”https://wix.com”>Wix websites</a>.</p>

Links with the nofollow attribute are usually referred to as “nofollow links.”


Why do we use nofollow links?

Since its introduction in 1997, Google’s PageRank algorithm (which is still used to this day), has been an important factor in how websites are ranked. The basis of using links as “votes” is why backlinks are still required to rank in the most competitive sectors.


Since links have such a profound impact on how websites rank, Google has published very specific link guidelines describing how it wants websites to use them. It’s worth getting intimately familiar with these guidelines, but the overarching principle is: do not buy or sell links for ranking purposes. This includes:


  • Exchanging money for links (or posts that contain links)

  • Exchanging goods or services for links

  • Sending someone a product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link

Breaking Google’s search guidelines puts you at risk of a ranking penalty that can suppress your search visibility until a successful reconsideration request has been completed, which can take months!


Types of nofollow links and when to use them


There are three main “rel” attributes that tell Google about the relationship between your site and the page you’re linking to. These attributes can be used on their own or combined by simply separating them with a space or comma.


Note: It is absolutely fine to use rel=“nofollow” on any of the examples below (instead of the sponsored or UGC attributes). Google has simply stated it prefers that site owners be explicit about the type of link, likely to allow the company to better train its detection algorithms.


Sponsored links: rel=“sponsored”

If you wish to sell links on your website (like you might if you were displaying ads), you need to mark those links with a rel attribute so Google can exclude them from passing PageRank (also commonly referred to as “link equity”).


<p>Visit our <a rel=”sponsored” href=”https://wix.com”>sponsor Wix</a>.</p>

Adding a rel=“sponsored” attribute (as in the example above) to a link has the same effect as adding rel=“nofollow,” but you are helping Google by more specifically identifying the nature of the link.


User-generated content: rel=“ugc”

The nofollow attribute was originally designed to tackle links within user-generated content (which often includes link spam in comments, forum threads, etc.), as some SEOs took to commenting simply for the purpose of gaining a backlink.


<p>Comment left by:<a rel=”ugc” href=”https://withcandour.co.uk”>Mark Williams-Cook</a>.</p>

The practice of identifying these links still continues wherever users can add links. Consequently, most content management systems will automatically apply the rel=“ugc” attribute (as shown above) to comment sections and forms.


The catch-all option: rel=“nofollow”

You can also use the rel=“nofollow” attribute (shown below) on links to any page that you don’t want to “endorse” or be associated with.


<p>You can see the article on <a rel=”nofollow” href=”https://www.dailymail.co.uk”>this site I don’t trust very much</a>.</p> 

This is a very common and overused tactic by many newspapers and online publications, who will simply “blanket” nofollow all external links from their website to avoid any risk of a Google penalty. This is not the recommended approach for editorial links; a good question to ask yourself is, “If I can’t endorse it or trust it’s good, why am I linking to it?”


How to add link attributes on your Wix site



The link attribute field within the Wix editor, showing options for the nofollow and sponsored link attributes.

Ticking the “Tell Google to ignore this link” box within your link properties will add a rel=“nofollow” attribute to the link.


You also have the option (highlighted in red) to “Mark as a sponsored link,” which adds the rel=“sponsored” attribute to the link.


As Google’s guidelines specify, you can apply both “nofollow” and “sponsored,” or each individually—they have the same effect for your website.


Does Google count nofollow links?


In 2019, almost 15 years after the rel=“nofollow” was introduced, Google made an important announcement that it would change how it processes nofollow attributes on links as of March 2020.


Google stated that nofollow links:


01. May be used as a “hint” for crawling or indexing

02. May be used as a “hint” for ranking


The move was largely seen as an algorithmic way to handle publications that Google trusted and wanted to use within its link graph, but were taking a blanket approach to adding the nofollow attribute to all external links.


This means that nofollow links from trusted websites may still contribute to improved rankings.

Is it possible to tell which nofollow links Google is counting?

There is no objective, data-led way to prove which nofollow links Google may be counting. It is worth exercising common sense to simply ask, “Is this website trustworthy and relevant?” If so, there should be benefits to having links from this site, whether you get a direct ranking benefit or not!


Should I bother building “nofollow” links?

Remember, one of Google’s core principles is that you should not try to manipulate PageRank with external links.


Your aim is to convince websites to editorially place links on their site to yours, based on the strength of your content and outreach, because it adds value (not simply for the potential ranking gain). Sites that rank well and produce great content will naturally attract a proportion of nofollow links which may pass value.


If you actively avoid links that are nofollow, you are not only potentially missing out on improved rankings (if Google chooses to pass PageRank over those links), but you may also be making your backlink profile “stand out” as manipulative (due to the lack of nofollow links) and, thus, may be more likely to receive a penalty.


What is a “dofollow” link?

There is technically no such thing as a “dofollow” link—this is simply the terminology used to describe a link that does not have a nofollow attribute (suggesting that the link therefore passes PageRank).


It is worth being wary of anybody using this term, as it is commonly used when trying to sell links from link farms, private blog networks, mass guest posting, and other techniques that are against Google’s Search Essentials (formerly known as the Webmaster Guidelines).


And, remember, just because a link does not have a nofollow attribute does not make it a good or valuable link to have. Useful links are the ones from authoritative websites that are relevant to your niche or industry, regardless of the attributes applied to them.


Are nofollow links crawled?


Yes, Google may decide to crawl nofollow links. Despite the somewhat confusing names, Google is known to crawl nofollow links and use them for discovery.


This means if a page only has links with the nofollow attribute, while it may not rank well, it may still get indexed. Whether or not it gets crawled or indexed depends on whether Google treats the nofollow attribute as a “hint” or follows it as a directive.


Should I use nofollow links internally?


Google has stated the nofollow attribute may be used as hints for crawling and indexing, and John Mueller from Google has said:


“It’s not 100% defined but the plan is to make it so that you don’t have to make any changes, so that we will continue to use these internal nofollow links as a sign that you’re telling us these pages are not as interesting: Google doesn’t need to crawl them [and] they don’t need to be used for ranking, for indexing.”

There is no specified downside to using nofollow on internal links to give Google further hints about which pages may not be important.


It is common to see many websites automatically apply the nofollow attribute on links to:


  • Login pages

  • Register pages

  • Cart/checkout pages


As with any optimization, you must balance the implementation cost versus the expected benefit.


How can I easily see which links have the nofollow attribute?


Instead of inspecting the source of a page, there are Chrome extensions available, such as NoFollow, which can automatically highlight links on a page for you that have the nofollow attribute by adding a red border to them (as shown below).


Screenshot of the Expedia.com homepage, with red boxes around several search options (“stays,” “flights,” “cars,” “packages,” “things to do,”) to denote that the links have a nofollow attribute.

This can be a useful tool to see how other websites that are ranking well implement the nofollow attribute.


Noindex pages and nofollow


Lastly, it is worth mentioning that if you block a page from indexing with “noindex,” Google has confirmed that all links on this page will “eventually” be treated as “nofollow.”


This still applies even if the page has specified “noindex, follow,” and the page will essentially be treated as “noindex, nofollow.”


Nofollow doesn’t mean no value


Understanding nofollow attributes and knowing when to apply them can help site owners stay on the right side of Google’s policies. And, when you’re earning backlinks, being able to identify which links are valuable (even if they don’t pass PageRank) can help you bring in traffic and get closer to your business goals, which is the entire point of SEO.


 

Mark Williams-Cook

Mark has over 20 years of SEO experience and is co-owner of search agency Candour, the founder of AlsoAsked, and runs a pet category eCommerce business. Outside of speaking at conferences, Mark has trained over 3,000 SEOs with his Udemy course. Twitter | Linkedin


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