What is a nofollow link?

The nofollow tag was originally created to deter spam comments from making an impact on comment sections of blogs, advertisements, paid links, and more.  

What Is a Nofollow Link Tag and When Do You Use It?

Links are a key ranking factor for search engines. SEO relies partly on having content that earns links. However, not all links pass value and authority signals. Some black hat link building tactics drove the need for a way webmasters and site editors could show that they didn't approve of links, didn't have editorial control, or otherwise didn't want links on their sites passing "link juice" — hence, the nofollow tag. 

Nofollowed links are links that have the HTML rel attribute that tells a web crawler to not follow that specific link. Essentially, this means that the site or document it links to is not (fully) endorsed. Nofollow tags haven't always been a part of SEO. In fact, the nofollow tag was created in 2005 to help Google find a better way to prevent comment spam

Spam comments became increasingly popular along with the rise of blogs. Spammers would leave links pointing back to their site in the comment section of another blog, starting a trend that would eventually spin out of control. This doesn’t sound like it would be a big deal but, actually caused a variety of issues — one being that the spammer’s sites would start to rank well. 

Example of a Nofollow Link

So how does the link change? A nofollow tag is written in HTML format and goes from this: 

Visit my <a href="http://www.examplewebsite.com/">Example link text</a> site.

To this: 

Visit my <a href="http://www.examplewebsite.com/” rel="nofollow">Example link text</a> site.

The “Rel” Attribute and Nofollow

Adding the “rel” attribute (short for relationship) allows you to qualify your outbound links to Google. Links marked with these rel attributes typically won’t be followed. However, the linked pages may still be found in different ways, such as sitemaps or links from other sites, and thus they may still be crawled. 

These attributes are used only in <a> elements. The effects of the nofollow attribute can also be achieved by editing your robots meta tag. If you need to prevent Google from following a link to a page on your own site, use the robots.txt Disallow rule.

When to Use the Nofollow Link Tag

Nofollow links aren’t just for blogs. In fact, it’s encouraged to use the rel=”nofollow” attribute anywhere that users can add their own comments. This includes:

  • Advertisements and Sponsored Links;
  • Embeds;
  • Guestbooks;
  • Links in Comments/Forums/User Generated Content;
  • Links in Press Releases;
  • Paid Links;
  • Refer Lists;
  • Trackbacks;
  • Visitor Stats.
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Alternatives to the Nofollow Link Tag

There has been misunderstanding and misinformation about the nofollow tag from the beginning. Many sites will mark all outbound links as nofollow, site editors will nofollow business links, blog owners will only “follow” your link if you pay, and some sites even nofollow internal links to their own content. This is why it’s important people are aware of the risks that the nofollow attribute is supposed to mitigate, and when they should or should not use it. 

To help clear up any misunderstandings, a new set of tags was launched in 2019 — User Generated Content (UGC) and Sponsored Link. These tags now exist as an alternative to the nofollow tag. UGC can be applied to links in comments, or across whole sites like Reddit and Quora to show how the content is not subject to editorial control, and should not be considered as a normal link in passing authority or signaling relevance.

How to Check if a Link is Nofollowed

Anyone can check to see if a link is nofollowed. 

  • Step One: Use your mouse and right-click anywhere on the webpage (that is not a link to bring up the context menu. 
  • Step Two: Once the context menu pops up, click on “View Page Source.”
  • Step Three: After selecting “View Page Source” do a page search by holding Ctrl + F (or CMD + F) to pop up a search bar, typically, in the right-hand corner of the screen. 
  • Step Four: In the search bar type “nofollow” this will then pull up all of the times “nofollow” is mentioned in the page source. 

Luckily, there are free tools and browser extensions that can be downloaded that will check for these links automatically. Here are a few to choose from:

Do Nofollowed Links Help With SEO?

Backlinks are essential to ranking pages and domains in organic search. However, if a link building campaign yields some nofollowed links, it can be hard to know if they have a beneficial impact, or a neutral one. It depends on who you ask. Some say they aren’t beneficial at all. At least they don’t have a negative impact — any organic backlink profile will naturally include at least some nofollowed links. However, although nofollow links may have a diluted impact, they can still be used to support SEO: 

  • Gain Control Over the Indexing and Crawling of Your Own Website: The nofollow attribute will help to ensure that the search engines prioritize your site’s relevant content. 
  • Purchasing Advertisements/Links to Your Website: Adding a nofollow tag allows you to purchase links on other websites you feel will bring in quality traffic for your site, all while preventing the risk of being penalized by other search engines for doing so. 
  • Still Link to Competitors Without Supporting Them: Obviously it may not be the best idea to link to direct competitors in terms of what they do. However, you may need to link to competitors that are outranking you in terms of SEO. By including the nofollow link it will allow you to link to your competitors without technically supporting them. 

“Did you know that number 1 ranked web pages on Google have an average of about 20%-40% nofollow links pointing to that page? Sometimes it is even higher. 3 out of 10 links are nofollow links. Think about that. The link attribute that was supposed to totally kill all SEO effects, shows up a third of the time in number 1 ranked sites,” says Adam White in an article about nofollow links actually being good for SEO

Nofollow Link vs Follow Link

By default, links are followed. There is no “follow” tag that needs to be added for links to be crawled or to pass authority. Adding rel=”nofollow” to a link will signal to search engines that you don’t want them to actually crawl the link, and they generally will pass no link authority to the website you link to. Any link without the rel=”nofollow” tag will be crawled and indexed as usual.