The distinction between “nofollow” and “do follow” links has often been a central point of discussion in terms of content creation. Indeed, it has affected search engine optimization (SEO) strategies since Google’s introduction of the nofollow tag dates back to 2005. It now affects digital marketing and backlink strategies in various ways, as well as crawling and indexing since March 2020. With its significance in mind, let us explore the subject of nofollow links vs. follow links in appropriate depth.
As briefly highlighted above, Google introduced the “nofollow” tag in 2005 to tackle spam and black hat tactics. In contrast, follow or dofollow is most often the default state of links, which continues to be the case today.
The practical difference between the two hinges on PageRank, a weighed point system Google uses to determine page authority. As Google tracks the quality of links that point to a website, it transfers authority to linked content. Essentially, “nofollow” tells Google that the website that contains the link does not endorse the link in question, preventing undue “link juice” transfers, as SEO marketers colloquially refer to the phenomenon. SEO agencies, SEO articles, and even the leading online SEO training courses all stress this in no uncertain terms.
NoFollow links vs Follow links: how they look
While most content management systems (CMS) like WordPress provide such tag options, identifying them in the HTML code is simple.
A do follow link looks like this:
<a href=”https://example.com”>example anchor text</a>
Instead, a nofollow link will look like this:
<a href=”https://example.com” rel=”nofollow”>example anchor text</a>
The stark difference lies in the rel=” nofollow” tag before the link’s anchor text. If you need to manually tag a nofollow or identify nofollow links in other pages’ content, that’s the key to do so.
Finally, as of September 2019, there are 2 new tags along the same conceptual grounds as nofollow. Those are sponsored links and user-generated content (UGC) links. The tags for these attributes look like this:
- Sponsored: <a href=”https://example.com” rel=”sponsored”>example anchor text</a>
- UGC: <a href=”https://example.com” rel=”ugc”>example anchor text</a>
Incidentally, Google does suggest using the nofollow tag if the above attributes don’t apply. However, the subject of nofollow links vs. follow links often hinges on just the dichotomy between the two “main” states.
NoFollow links vs. Follow links: ranking
As outlined above, the practical distinction between the two lies in rankings. Indeed, SEO audits will frequently focus on the nofollow tag to evaluate backlink health. The two affect a page’s ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs) in contrasting ways.
Through PageRank, linked websites will acquire “link juice” from authoritative websites through (do)follow links. In turn, this will at times affect page authority (PA) and domain authority (DA), which frequently affects SEO.
To address this, the nofollow tag prevents this transfer and potential penalties to the linking websites. It bears repeating that the nofollow tag’s introduction aimed to tackle black hat SEO strategies such as spam. Thus, the nofollow tag allows websites to state to Google that they disavow the links in question without deleting them.
NoFollow links vs. Follow links: indexing and crawling
Similarly, nofollow affects indexing and crawling. Search Engine Journal reported that Google’s March 2020 update would treat it as a “hint”, citing Google’s own announcement. However, this is still a far less valuable distinction to make.
Instead, crawling and indexing will continue to depend on robots.txt and complementary strategies. Nofollow may indeed prevent a page from being crawled through a link, but it won’t prevent crawling by other means. Instead, using noindex tags to avoid the indexing of your own pages can have this result.
- Specific page HTML header section: <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow”>
- X-robots-tag HTTP header: X-Robots-Tag: noindex
Of course, nofollow tags may still complement noindex tags and robots.txt blocks. Google itself stated that “pages blocked in robots.txt won’t be crawled, but still might be indexed if linked to by another page.”
The value of nofollow links
Having highlighted their fundamental differences, we must make a final point. Nofollow links may discourage digital marketers, but they still belong in healthy backlink strategies that yield digital growth. Consider the following factors:
Nofollow links still get traffic and thus generate inbound traffic and brand exposure.
- Trust building
Nofollow links are still visible to audiences, helping build trust through exposure.
- A healthy backlink profile
Having many (do)follow links and few to no nofollow links may appear unnatural. In turn, this may raise suspicions and incur penalties by Google.
To summarize, nofollow and follow links are substantially different and have distinct effects on SEO and SERP rankings. However, both generate traffic, and a balance of both helps build healthy backlink profiles.