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The rel=nofollow debate: Let’s Try and Get To Grips With It

This post has come due to a request from one of my readers at amp3pr.com. There is a lot of confusion about; when to use the nofollow attribute and when not to use it? Can it hurt your site? Will it enhance your SEO efforts or better optimise your site for Google?

These are all questions that are still flying around. To be fair there is only one person who can put an end to the debate and that is the big G, however I will try and add some clarity as well as adding a little of my own opinion, based on experience.

The History

Google brought in the rel=nofollow attribute back in 2005 when comment spamming was reaching ridiculous levels (yes we have the spammers to thank again). The name “nofollow” suggests it is telling the search spiders to simply not follow the links, however what it is really saying is “do not use this link to pass PageRank” or to “not increase the value of the site the link points to”.

When it first arrived on the scene it seemed an excellent way to control comments and all other user generated content where the webmaster has very little control.

Google still do advocate using this attribute when you have “paid links on your site” however webmasters are using it on every single outbound link to prevent the leak of “PageRank” (which I personally believe is ridiculous and I’ll explain why later).

PageRank

OK, I have mentioned the main reason for the over use of the “nofollow” comes down to the fallacy that you can leak PageRank, but first let’s understand how PageRank works.(If you didn’t know already)

Let’s start with the Google Definition.

“PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. We have always taken a pragmatic approach to help improve search quality and create useful products, and our technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance.”

So in simple terms, PageRank is determined by the quality and quantity of votes (links) a particular page has pointing to it. Can we lose this PageRank? Do links out reduce the value of our links in? In my opinion NO

Understanding the Flow of PageRank

I am not going to go into the complex algorithmic equations that dictate how PageRank is calculated, what I want to do in really simple terms is allow you to understand what can hurt your PageRank and what is just a load of rubbish :)

Example One

Below is a simple example of a basic (small) link structure. The numbers represent the amount of PageRank passed, but don’t get hung up on how this is worked out, worry more about how it can be damaged.

So the aim here is to try and increase or maintain the amount of PageRank we have on our homepage.

Note: Each internal page is linked to from the homepage and each internal page links back to the homepage, therefore the homepage can pass and receive PageRank from internal or “sub” pages.

The important aspect that really needs clearing up here is this:-

No amount of outbound links from the “Home” page are going to reduce the 3.31 PageRank it HAS. Outbound links do not effect the page they are sent from (unless suspected as a link farm) however outbound links do have an effect on the amount of PageRank and link juice a page can PASS.

I hope I explained that well enough.

So (using the above image) if the homepage had 10 outbound links instead of 3. The amount of PageRank passed to those internal pages would be less as it is split between 10 pages now, not 3.

Can Outbound Links That Are Followed Really Hurt Then?

YES, they can. This is why it is good practice to use the nofollow but to use it wisely. Let me explain first the effect it can have.

Remember above I said the homepage (PageRank 3.31) was capable of passing PageRank to internal pages and was also capable of receiving PageRank from internal pages.

So the more outbound links you have on the homepage, the less PageRank will flow to the internal pages, therefore it is only natural that the internal pages will pass less back to the home page? Again using the above diagram;

- The homepage has a PageRank of 3.31

- This PageRank is calculated not only on the external links pointing to the homepage but also the internal pages that point to it.

- If the homepage has to share it’s juice between 7 more pages on top of the 3 it already has, it is only natural that less link juice will be passed to each page.

- Therefore any internal pages will have a lower PageRank and will pass a smaller amount back to the homepage.

- The end result is that the homepage decreases in PageRank as it has lost some of the link flow.

Does that make sense?

I hope so if anyone has any questions please feel free to contact me.

Let’s recap before moving on

  • The nofollow was introduced to control outbound links
  • People use it to stop the flow of PageRank
  • Most believe that outbound links directly effect the PageRank of a page

Should We Use It or Not

Are you confused yet?

When it comes to using the nofollow attribute or not there is mixed feelings. As I mentioned earlier Google do recommend using it along side paid links, however many believe over use of it can raise search engine alarm bells. There is no concrete proof of this, there are stories of sites both increasing and decreasing in PageRank after optimising outbound links.

What I am going to try and do for you is give you a list of occasions when I would personally use the nofollow.

Directories and Widgets

Most of us have reciprocal links to directories of some sort, especially blogs. You can see a few of mine in my side bar. There are also certain widgets that we buy or place on our pages that have outbound links within
them. In my personal opinion there is no point in following them and Yes this includes your feedburner link (sorry feedburner as much as I love you, you hardly need help from me to increase your PageRank)

Suspect Sites

We all like outing unethical or let’s say questionable sites. We all should also know the importance of staying within a sound neighbourhood, therefore try to severe your association with suspect sites without simply not linking to it and warning your readers.

I also like to use it when linking to competition ;)

SOME Internal Pages

The internal pages of your site that aren’t really important should also have the nofollow implemented. Matt Cutts and many others recommend this practice.

Privacy Policy, Contact, Registration and Login pages are the main ones to focus on. I personally like to “FOLLOW” links to About and FAQ pages as they are usually filled with rich keyword content.

Apart from the above 3 I see no real reason not to follow any other links.

WARNING: Please don’t run off and implement nofollow on your site in MASS, this is sure to raise alarm bells. Do it in stages and that way you are keeping things safe.

I am sure there will be those of you with differing opinions and feel free to add anything in the comments.

I hope everyone now understands the nofollow debate a little better.

There is another debate which I may touch on another time which states “a nofollow link does not pass PageRank but MAY pass relevancy”…..hmmmm

Interesting stuff

Until next time

Tim

Line Break

Author: Tim (254 Articles)

is the owner and editor of SEO wizz and has been involved in the search engine marketing industry for over 9 years. He has worked with multiple businesses across many verticals, creating and implementing search marketing strategies for companies in the UK, US and across Europe. Tim is also the Director of Search at Branded3, a Digital Marketing & SEO Agency based in the UK.

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{ 21 comments }

steven April 29, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Hi Tim, What a great article! You covered some key points that helped me understand the nofollow attribute much more.

I do have the impression that my home page may have too many outbound links, i.e., mostly to other blogs. Do all those outbound links actually dissipate my home page ranking? Thanks. Steve D
http://stevedeerfield.com

Tim Grice April 29, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Hi Steve

The outbound links don’t take anything away from your homepage they simply reduce the amount of PageRank it passes to other/ maybe more important links.

This reduction includes PR passed to your internal pages, these internal pages usually flow right back into your home page. If they are getting less PR then so is your homepage.

So it can effect it indirectly. Look at all the outgoing links on your page, which are more important, which deserve PR to be passed. Then cut off all the ones that don’t.

Hope this helps

Tim

David April 29, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Great to hear a different point of view from the “help, the juice is running out of my bucket” point of view I’ve been reading.

Your approach seems more relaxed.

I don’t like the idea of guarding my precious my juice against all comers – it makes for too much tension and feels wrong to not pass the goodness around a bit.

But I need to know I am not drowning myself for the sake of keeping others afloat.

I ran a Wordpress blog (the dot com variety) at http://photographworks.wordpress.com without a thought in the world about whether the outbound links were do-follow or no-follow, and when I paid attention to the blog, it had a page rank of 5 (my memory may be faulty and it may have been 4).

The point is it was a Wordpress blog like the .org flavor one I’m running now at http://www.quillcardsblog.com and I think no-follow is the default position for Wordpress blogs.

Certainly that is the case for comments, as I can see when I look at ‘view source’.

But I can’t tell whether the links in the sidebar are no-follow – how would I tell?

And I’ve looked at the sidebar widgets to feedburner etc, and I can’t tell whether they are no-follow. There doesn’t seem to be anything that has no-follow or do-follow.

How would I tell which they are?

I am looking into Wordpress plug-ins that would allow me to turn no-follow off or on on a case by case basis.

There are a lot of ‘follow’ plug ins so the topic must be a hot one.

Tim Grice April 29, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Hi David,

I know most wordpress blogs are automatically no follow on comments as is blogger, typepad and most of the main blogging platforms.

If a link is nofollow it will have the relevant attribute in the link code “rel=nofollow”

If a link does not have the attribute it will be followed, unless your using robots.txt.

I had a quick look at your site, all side bar links are follow, you menu bar is also follow.

When thinking about whether to follow or not, just think does the page I am linking to deserve or need the flow of PR, if so let flow :)

Dion Roy April 30, 2009 at 9:29 am

Hey Thanks for the Backlink :) and the answer! That was quick service!

Ive begun implementing a few “no follows” into our (external) blogs, so that theres only 1-2 outgoing links on each of them pointing back to us.

Hopefully this will get our PageRank back up. We were a PR4 just a few months ago, and recentky we are a PR2, however our SERPs are better than ever!

We have added a lot more pages to the site, and Im guessing that’s why our PR dropped a bit as well.

Just goes to show, for now, PR really doesnt have all that much to do with SEO. Still I can’t help but want to get back to at least a PR3 just for aesthetics on my google toolbar.

Thanks again and Ill be reading all of your posts. They have been concise and useful without pages of filler.

Something you might want to consider for this post, is that (I think) Flash outgoing links count as well, but don’t use the same coding as regular text links.

We use a mix of both on our site.

Keep em comin!

- Dion

Tim Grice April 30, 2009 at 11:43 am

Hi Dion,

I have read a lot about nofollow recently some good and others not so good, so after your previous comment I thought I might as well put my ideas forward.

PageRank does play a part in serps but in my opinion it is small in comparison to the importance of relevance. If you pagerank has dropped you might want to first consider checking your external links to

A- See if they are active

and

B- Ensure they are carrying the same PageRank.

I’ll have a think on the flash idea, Google does definitely follow them as I can see some of mine in webmaster tools, although how exactly I’m not sure.

Watch this space :)

Kai April 30, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I wouldn’t put nofollow on competitors’ links. I look at people in related niche as friends. Can’t succeed without other fellow bloggers :)

Tim Grice April 30, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Hi Kai,

When it comes to blogging it’s a slightly different ball game and like you say we all need a little “peg up”.

However if I had a local van hire company and for whatever reason needed to link to a main competitor, there is no way I would be trying to help them out with passing on some link juice.

I guess it depends on the proximity of your product or service. I kind of wrote it half heartedly anyway :)

Kai May 1, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Tim,

I always write in terms of blogging because I’m always blogging! You are right when it comes to a real website like a site for a moving company.

Marjorie May 8, 2009 at 11:21 am

This answers several questions I had just today – very helpful! Interesting what you say about not using nofollows with fellow bloggers – I think that’s the kind of community-based thinking which really drives positive social networking. I would be curious to hear what you would say about companies requesting inbound links from other companies, sites and blogs…do you have a “best practice” for requesting inbound links you recommend?

Tim Grice May 8, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Hi Marjorie,

When it comes to requesting inbound links you have to be sure the person you are emailing will find your site useful. If not it can be a huge waste of time firing out emails (in my experience. If you are going to send a letter

- Keep it brief and to the point

- Show that you have at least read some of the content on that site and comment on it

I get at least 10 – 15 link exchange requests a week and to be honest most I don’t reply to as they are offering me a link back from an overloaded directory.

If your going to ask for a link exchange make sure you are offering them a quality link back.

I know it’s said a lot but the best way to get links is to publish quality content and then push it out into cyber space. This can be hard to when your site is new but will reap benefits in time.

Don’t under estimate the power of article marketing, directories, blog submissions and Press Releases I have seen many a site rank using the above as their sole link campaign.

Thanks for your comments :)

Bob Lewis June 3, 2009 at 7:35 pm

I am becoming more than a little tired of the completely one-sided views being expressed across the web about the (expanded) use of “nofollow” beyond its original remit. I too am against the blatantly stupid or “across the board” usage of it for NO reason also. However …

Practically EVERY one of the articles I’ve read recently about this is so introverted and blinkered it’s unreal. Fortunately this one did at least accede to the existence of something else.

Hello! Earth to brain … Newsflash! Blogs are NOT the only sites on the web OR where nofollow might or might not be used legitimately. As has been said above by Tim Grice already, what about when a link is going to a competitor’s site (or elsewhere) from a commercial web site. Or to a business partner’s site. Or … another example: redirect links to affiliate product sites.

Let’s say I am promoting a particular affiliate product and in order to protect MY investment in traffic generation (HOWEVER that may have been achieved) I naturally want to cloak, as effectively as possible, MY link to that product offering. Now if product owners would only write their affiliate handling PROPERLY (some do) then there would be NO need for most of the convoluted cloaking that occurs, but there would STILL be a need for the “nofollow”. Why? ….

If nofollow (or an equally viable, simple & effective means) is not used, then the end destination (potentially) becomes directly visible in the search engines from their spidering of my site (if that’s where the redirection is occurring and clearly from my perspective that’s where I’d want it to be) thereby a) giving more kudos (PR, inbound links, whatever) to the product sales page/site with ZERO benefit to me but more importantly b) completely negating all my efforts (and expense) to drive traffic to “MY” landing page or link for the potential product sale. Err! WHY would ANYONE in their right mind wish to do that?

Now I realise that strictly speaking the robots.txt file should (perhaps) be used to exclude such links under such circumstances, but it is MUCH simpler, more accurate (fewer inadvertent ommissions from robots.txt) and a LOT cleaner from a code checking perspective to be able to see EXACTLY which links have been so excluded when scanning web site code for same. On top of all that Google (which conceived the idea, albeit for a somewhat different original purpose) recommends such usage. This is especially true when a site has many hundreds of links some “followable” and some not. Is anyone going to try to tell me that it is easier to do that in robots.txt – HOGWASH! It also does NOT make sense for “essential to be included for business purposes” but otherwise, static, generic content such as disclaimer text, policy documents and similar “legalese” to be spidered. No sense or value for Google, no sense or value to the site owner, no sense or value to the web browser (person, not IE or FF etc).

In the absence of anything better or more accurate, more easily implemented and more acceptable by the search engines, I for one say “Stuff you, nofollow haters. Take your pathetic religion somewhere else or provide us with a VIABLE alternative to the usage of nofollow before whinging about our (enforced) employment of it for totally reasonable & pragmatic purposes”.

Thanks & regards.
“rel=nofollow” (All vitriol & ranting above is aimed SOLELY at the “anti nofollow” brigade. If that’s you … tough!) 8)

Tim June 4, 2009 at 6:19 am

Thanks for your post Bob, I meant comment :)

I have used nofollow ever sincei it was introduced for various reasons. I do still think it should be used with precaution if your updating a large amoun of links on your site. It’s not unheard of a site being penalised for mass nofollow updates, unconfirmed by Google of course. Apart from that I pretty much agree with what you say, use the no follow on those sites that provide no real value to your content/product/service.

However the new debate is nofollow no longer works to channel PageRank http://www.seomoz.org/blog/google-maybe-changes-how-the-pagerank-algorithm-handles-nofollow, I wouldn’t hold your breath for some Google clarity:)

Anuj@WordPress Blog Loading Slow January 5, 2012 at 2:43 am

So, I’m a little confused as to which links I should tag nofollow. I have a new site and I have linked to a couple of sites including a couple of blogging sites, facebook, and twitter. I know you had said that I should link facebook as nofollow, but I want to be sure what other links I should tag nofollow.

Tim January 5, 2012 at 3:54 am

To be honest Anuj, it’s debatable these days as to whether no following anything is worthwhile.

I wouldn’t get hung up on it to be honest.

Carol May 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm

A really interesting and useful article. I just checked my website and everything – ! mean everything – internal, wp_admin stuff, categories, continue reading, dates, etc etc – are all do follow. The only no follow links I have are the external links that I control with the nofollowr plugin – very, very cool, but it only works for external links.

Do you know of a way to turn most of my do follow internal links to nofollow? There are a lot!

Carol May 14, 2012 at 12:00 am

I’ve found a really cool plugin for adding either follow or nofollow to all your external links – the nofollowr plugin by Josh Birch, but what to do about my internal links? I just checked my websites and everything – I mean everything, is follow.

Do I really have to go through every one (well most) and add nofollow to the code by hand? Isn’t there an easier way?

Tim May 14, 2012 at 12:27 am

Hi Carol,

These posts need updating slightly, I think the no follow is less of a worry these days, however I would make sure anything that could be perceived as ‘paid’ is nofollowed. If you use affiliate programs make sure these are too.

Carol May 14, 2012 at 2:17 am

Thanks Tim – maybe you think you should update the posts here – I wouldn’t know, but your explanation about Google Page rank and links/back-links finally explained it really well for me.

Stephen Nieuwelaar June 30, 2012 at 3:58 pm

That was without a doubt the best explanation I have found about noFollow! I didnt realise outbound links only affect the PR a page can give and not the actually pages PR.

John February 23, 2013 at 12:30 am

Tim
Just came across your post about nofollow. It’s a bit old but was quite helpful especially re the use of nofollow w for internal links from a homepage to another page on the same website.

One question: how has the Panda updates from last year affected (if at all) use of nofollow?

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