It’s important to identify the origins of the ‘no follow’ HTML variable. Come 2005, Google produced the variable rel=nofollow, which directly affected a website’s status within Google’s PageRank system.
PageRank surveys how many inbound links a particular website receives and subsequently grants preference to sites with a higher volume of links, within Google’s search results – thereby displaying the most popular, well trafficked websites to their users. PageRank is only one factor of Google’s ranking algorithm.
How should we understand the no-follow attribute?
First, let’s look at links from Google’s point of view. When site A links to site B, what site A is saying is “hey, I trust this site and you should definitely check it out”. In other words, it’s a recommendation from a webmaster to Google that this site is legit. These links contribute to Google’s PageRank algorithm and the more links a site receives, the higher its PageRank. (This of course also depends on a multitude of factors such as the PageRank of the site containing the link, the number of outbound links on the page, etc, but let’s keep it simple for now.)
This is where the no-follow subject comes in. When looking at a search engine’s point of view, a link can be categorized into two – do-follow or no-follow.
Any links with a no-follow tag applied to it will not contribute any PageRank to the referenced site. By default, links without such a tag are termed as do-follow links.
Why do people use the no-follow tag?
The primary function of this HTML filter is to help reduce the volume of spam found across the web. No frequent internet user will be unfamiliar with the sight of a irrelevent comment on a video, or reply to a blog containing a suspect link – this is a form of link spamming, intended to direct more traffic to a particular website.
However, there is an element of injustice inherent in the no-follow function. Many legitimate outgoing links to genuine websites or blogs will fall victim to the uniform dismissal of the no-follow function; almost like a form of online stigmatisation.
A no-follow link has just as much power to direct traffic to your website as a ‘do’ follow link, even if it has less chance to appear in Google’s search criteria or pass link juice. Additionally many outlets, such as Wikipedia, retain the power to remove the no-follow function from a particular link, usually based upon the user’s respectability or trust. This is a very subjective area, though, and it does not apply to all no-follow websites.
Are no-follow links useless for my SEO?
Strictly speaking, they aren’t. No-follow links may not contribute to your overall PageRank, but it helps keep your link profile diverse. In this vicious new era of SEO where Google is spitting out major overhauls to its search engine algorithm every few months, link diversity is key and having a healthy mix of both would be ideal to avoid any future penalties.
They also give your website additional traffic from people clicking through such links. For example, referenced sites on Wikipedia may have the no-follow attribute added to them, but these sites enjoy over a hundred extra visitors a day because of direct click-through traffic.
Well… are they dangerous?
A lot of web masters believe that having too many no-follow links is a bad idea because this indicates that your site doesn’t have a lot of trust. While this may not be entirely true, it is always healthy to have a good ratio of do-follow to no-follow links.
So, what about the benefits of a do-follow link?
We’ve established that no follow links help to ‘police’ the internet, and keep spamming and useless traffic to a minimum.
In many ways, the no follow function in an HTML link can be regarded as an indicator of validity or credence. A popular misconception is that if Google’s algorithm doesn’t hold the link in high enough esteem for its PageRank system, then it must be worthless. The flip-side of this statement can be argued to be true, though.
A ‘do-follow’ link (one that will meet Google’s PageRank criteria) is a tag of authenticity: for example, if a populist news website were to link to your website, or something similar. Naturally, this would generate a substantial amount of traffic, not only due to it featuring in Google’s search results, but also as a natural awareness factor – the bigger/louder the voice calling your name, the more people will notice.
The unfortunate truth of the illustrious do-follow link is that there is no secret method to grabbing the focus of a credible website. Almost like a contemporary form of natural selection; only the most informative, useful and accurate of websites will gain attention from respected sources.
This being said, it is important to recognize the power of both classes of links. A healthy website will have an influx of both no follow and do follow links, balancing the voice of the regular internet user (writing from platforms such as WordPress) with that of the elite (someone writing from an accredited platform, recognized by Google). In essence, all traffic is good traffic.
Cutts, M. (2009) Use rel=”nofollow” For Specific Links. Available: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/96569?hl=en [accessed June 9th 2014].
Posselt, L. What Is a No-Follow Link?. Available: http://cmsteachings.com/what-nofollow-link [accessed June 9th 2014].
Sullivan, D. (2007). What Is Google PageRank? A Guide for Searchers & Webmasters. Available: http://searchengineland.com/what-is-google-pagerank-a-guide-for-searchers-webmasters-11068 [accessed June 9th 2014].
Wikipedia. (Last edited May 2014). Nofollow. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nofollow [accessed June 9th 2014].