While most marketers understand how building a solid backlink portfolio works in tandem with creating high-quality content to drive organic traffic, there’s some confusion about why dofollow links matter and the difference between follow vs. no follow links.
To add fuel to the fire of confusion, Google has made some announcements in recent years that appear to blur the lines of distinction between these two different kinds of links.
But I’ll cover all that backlink history in just a bit.
For now, let’s take a closer look at no follow links vs. dofollow links and how to use each one intentionally in your overall SEO strategy.
Here’s what you need to know about each type of link and how they will (or won’t) pass equity to, through, and from the pages on your website.
Backlinks: What They Are
Before going into what is do follow and no follow links, let’s start with an overview of what backlinks are and how they fit into your SEO strategy.
Links to your website from reputable sites with content relevant to your business can lift your position in search rankings. Simply put, a backlink functions like an endorsement of the quality of your content.
When another website links to yours, it tells Google that your site is a credible source of information in your topic niche. The more relevant backlinks you have, the greater your topical authority and the more trust Google has in the quality of information you’re sharing.
All this to say, backlinks figure significantly into where you land in search engine result pages (SERPs).
Find answers to all your questions about “what is a backlink,” or learn more about what makes a quality backlink.
On the flip side of the quality coin, if you’re racking up backlinks from disreputable websites that offer questionable value to searchers, that can harm your rankings.
Learn how to find and fix bad links to your site.
DoFollow vs. NoFollow Links: What’s the Difference?
To understand the difference between follow vs. no follow backlinks, let’s start by pulling back the curtain to look at the HTML code for each.
This is an example of a dofollow link:
Note: The “rel” attribute defines the relationship between the linking page and the destination page. It helps to remember that “rel” is short for “relationship.”
This is also an example of a dofollow link:
In the absence of a specific “rel” attribute, the link relationship defaults to “follow.” Below is an example of a nofollow link:
There are other “rel” attributes used for backlinks that I’ll tell you about later in this article.
For a quick and easy way to identify follow vs. no follow links on a page, download the Detect Nofollow Chrome extension. Once you’ve installed the extension, you’ll be able to see the nofollow links on every page you visit.
On the screenshot below, you’ll see how Detect Nofollow works. When the extension is enabled, all the nofollow links on any web page you visit are highlighted with a red outline.
Now that you know what different links look like, let’s talk about what they mean to search engine crawlers.
What is a DoFollow Link?
Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a “dofollow” link, although the term is popularly used to refer to a link that doesn’t have a “nofollow” relationship attribute ascribed to it.
By default, Google will follow a backlink that doesn’t indicate that it shouldn’t be followed. Some site owners will use “rel=dofollow” to indicate that Google should follow a link, which isn’t wrong, but having no rel attribute at all (as in example #2 above) will accomplish the same thing.
A do follow link indicates to Google that it should include a backlink when it factors the authority of your content for ranking in search results. Dofollow links pass link equity from the referring domain to yours.
Click here to learn more about link equity (also known as “link juice”).
The more reputable the do follow links to your pages are, the more authority Google attributes to the content there. When you earn dofollow links from websites that are both reputable and share topical relevance with your business, they’ll have a favorable impact on where your page appears in SERPs, which can translate to more exposure for your primary keywords.
In short, follow links can improve your organic footprint.
What is a NoFollow Link?
The no follow link attribute essentially severs the relationship between the page it’s on and the page it links to. Google doesn’t pass authority across nofollow links. Because no equity passes between the referring page and the referenced page in this case, no follow links have no direct impact on search ranking.
What About NoFollow Links SEO?
If nofollow links don’t directly impact ranking signals, are they entirely without value for SEO?
Not at all.
Although dofollow links are more likely to improve your organic search ranking, nofollow links have value in these three ways:
- Nofollow links drive traffic to your website. If you earn a no follow link from a relevant and reputable site, the people who choose to click on that link still arrive on one of your pages, interested in the content you offer. Referral traffic can drive highly qualified leads to your website, regardless of whether they come from dofollow or nofollow backlinks.
- Nofollow links can result in residual dofollow links. If a content writer happens upon a nofollow link to your site during their research, they’re likely to pick it up and add it as a dofollow link from their content.
- Google might actually be paying attention to nofollow links. (More on this below.)
Although you might not build nofollow links into your link-building strategy, they still have value. A nofollow link is better than no link at all.
Why Does the NoFollow Link Attribute Exist?
Google introduced the nofollow link attribute in 2005 to address spam links from user-generated content. Linking to low-quality sites can impact your domain authority, so Google offered up the nofollow link as a way for site owners to protect themselves from shady link builders taking advantage of forums and comments to link back to their own sites.
The introduction of the nofollow link opened the door to Google requiring site owners to identify paid or sponsored links. Now, if Google suspects a site is selling backlink opportunities without properly labeling them as nofollow, it’s likely to issue a penalty for violating its Search Essentials.
But, the internet has evolved since Google introduced nofollow links in 2005, so, in an effort to keep up, Google announced the introduction of two new link attributes:
- rel=”ugc” for user-generated content
- rel=”sponsored” for paid or sponsored links.
At the same time, Google announced that all link relation attributes would be considered “hints” about whether and how to evaluate links rather than hard and fast rules.
Here’s what the search giant had to say about the change…
Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”Google Search Central
Acquiring DoFollow Links: Pros & Cons
Creating a strategy to acquire high-quality follow links legitimately is a standard part of optimizing your website for search. Extending the effort to place topically relevant links on well-respected websites can help your content climb in SERPs.
So, what are the pros and cons of investing in a backlinking strategy to acquire dofollow links?
- Growing your backlink portfolio with high-quality links can boost your SEO ranking.
- More links (regardless of rel attribute) will attract more traffic to your website.
- Quality dofollow links from reputable websites can improve your website’s topical authority and credibility.
- Dofollow link placement on high-volume, high-quality websites with topical authority in your space can be very competitive.
- Building dofollow backlinks is a resource-heavy endeavor. It takes time to do it right.
- Low-quality dofollow links can impact your site’s trustworthiness and result in ranking penalties, or worse, a manual penalty from Google.
Acquiring NoFollow Links: Pros and Cons
As I mentioned before, even though a no follow link doesn’t directly contribute to your SEO ranking, there are some advantages to having them.
- No follow links can be easier to acquire from high-authority websites.
- Even with a nofollow attribute, these links still generate leads and increase brand awareness.
- Nofollow links can be picked up by content creators and generate dofollow links from other websites.
- Nofollow links occur naturally on the internet. Therefore, having a balance of nofollow and dofollow links makes your link portfolio appear more natural to Google. If you have zero nofollow links to your website, that might raise a red flag about your backlinking practices.
- According to Google, nofollow links are just a “hint” and might indirectly impact ranking signals, even if they don’t carry the weight of a first-party endorsement.
- A no follow link has no direct impact on your SEO ranking.
Follow vs. No Follow: Which To Use For External Links?
While I’ve centered this conversation around what it means to acquire follow vs no follow backlinks from referring websites, let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about which you might want to use to guide visitors on your website to external resources.
There’s no right and wrong way to include backlinks on your site. There’s a time and place to use both dofollow and nofollow links within your content.
Let’s look at the different scenarios where you might want to use each type of link.
Linking Off Your Site With NoFollow Links
1. When You Don’t Want to Endorse a Site
Remember, a link is like an endorsement. Maybe you don’t want to lend your endorsement to a particular website.
If for any reason, you link to another website that you don’t completely trust, you might employ a no follow link so that Google doesn’t associate your website with the one you’re referring to.
2. Sponsored Links
Although Google frowns upon the practice of buying or selling backlinks, it does acknowledge the value of sponsored links.
If you’re placing sponsored links on your website, it’s a best practice to use either the rel=”nofollow” or rel=”sponsored” attribute.
3. Affiliate Linking
Affiliate links are treated in much the same way as sponsored links because they’re a form of link monetization.
While Google doesn’t explicitly say that affiliate links must use the no follow tag, it’s considered best practice across the industry to make them nofollow.
Or, you might choose to use the “sponsored” link attribute.
4. User-Generated Content
If a user can insert a link onto your website, such as in a forum or through the comments section of a blog, these should automatically be designated as no follow links.
This tag tells Google that a third-party user has generated the content in question.
Using UGC or nofollow links in site comments is best to deter spammers from targeting your blog for black hat SEO purposes.
External Linking With DoFollow
When you’re linking to other websites from your own, there are several scenarios where you might consider using a do follow link.
1. The link adds value for readers.
When you link to another website as a valuable resource for your readers, it’s good digital citizenship to “endorse” that trustworthy site with a dofollow link.
2. The website is authoritative.
If you’ve crafted an article that cites data sources to back up your points, linking out to those sources with dofollow links signals to Google that you’re offering well-researched and high-quality content. In this sense, you’re leaning on the authority of your sources to lend credibility to your content.
Useful links to scientific papers and government websites should always be dofollow since you want to be associated with these trustworthy experts.
3. The link destination offers accurate information.
In the same vein as using follow links when a website is considered helpful for readers, you should be using the same attribute whenever you link to a site with accurate, legitimate information.
Again, it’s all about signaling to Google the caliber of the sites you associate your domain with.
Backlinking: Quality Over Quantity
Before Google introduced no follow links in 2005, the number of backlinks to your website mattered more than their quality. That scenario led to significant abuse among disreputable SEOs. They used bots and spam engines for gaming the system and artificially pushing their content to the top of search rankings.
As with many of its innovations, Google’s introduction of the nofollow link attribute was meant to short-circuit spammy link-building activities. As a result, dofollow links from high-quality websites have become much more valuable because they’ve been earned more often than not.
What Does It All Mean?
To earn high-quality backlinks, you need high-quality, search-optimized content that people can find and other websites want to be associated with.
To learn more about how an SEO agency can help your great content and high-quality backlinks work hand-in-hand to grow your organic footprint, reach out to get a free SEO consultation.