Technical SEO

Reasons to Avoid Nofollow Link Attributes

Google introduced the nofollow link attribute in 2005 as a way for websites to control PageRank flow from one URL to the next. With nofollow in place, websites could block the spread of link equity from user-generated content such as comments or paid posts.

The attribute informed Google to ignore the link when calculating the target page’s organic rankings. Here’s an example:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>privacy</a>

Other search engines slowly adopted the attribute. Then, in 2019, Google announced it would treat nofollow links as “hints” rather than “commands,” although it would honor the nofollow meta tag.

In short, Google could ignore the nofollow attribute for assigning link equity. Yet many sites continue to deploy it, hoping to control equity flow to key pages.

What follows are common mistakes when implementing nofollow links.

Common Nofollow Mistakes

PageRank “sculpting” is a dated and oft-debated tactic of controlling the flow of link equity on a site. The idea was to nofollow links to internal policy pages — privacy policy, conditions of use, more — and thus “preserve” the link equity to pages with organic ranking potential.

But in 2009, Matt Cutts, then an engineer at Google, explained the fallacy of sculpting:

If you have $10 in authority to spend on those ten links, and you block five of them, the other five aren’t going to get $2 each. They’re still getting $1. It’s just that the other $5 you thought you were saving is now going to waste.

So PageRank sculpting didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t now. A better approach is to ensure search engines can access all corners of your site. But if blocking search bots’ access to certain internal pages is a priority, use the robots.txt exclusion protocol, which is definitive.

Nofollow links to social media sites. Another common practice is nofollowing links to social media channels. That’s a bigger mistake than sculpting. It can harm a site by preventing its social media pages from ranking for its brand name.

Ranking for your brand’s official entities controls more organic search results. The best way to do that is by sending link equity to those entities, such as social channels. Nofollowing those links sends misleading signals to Google, unsure if the social pages are yours.

Nofollow links to external editorial pages. Sites have become reluctant to link to any external page owing to Google’s efforts against low-quality and paid links.

Nowadays many respected articles have no external links, even to entities such as related brands or channels. If they do exist, links are often nofollowed regardless of the quality.

Such a practice may hurt rankings, not help. Having no trustworthy citations could imply weaker content. Google would see no citations if it honors nofollow attributes on external links.

Links to quality editorial content inform Google’s algorithm of your site’s trust and value. Never nofollow those links — help Google see them.

When to Use Nofollows

I typically use nofollow attributes in just two link cases: user-generated and affiliate or sponsored.

For both of those, Google now has newer, more specific attributes: “ugc” and “sponsored,” although nofollow remains acceptable, per Google.

Otherwise, I see no reason to use the nofollow attributes. Search Console does not identify inbound or outbound nofollows. Use third-party tools such as Ahrefs or Semrush to find them.

Ann Smarty
Ann Smarty
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