Nofollow links for SEO - how they work, history, features, comparison with dofollow, sponsored and ugc links

By Oleg Tolochko, published on 2023-10-14
Nofollow links for SEO - how they work, history, features, comparison with dofollow, sponsored and ugc links

Introduction

It's no secret that links serve as the foundation of a website's SEO promotion - raising its authority for search engines and helping to improve its visibility.

However, not all links are the same. You've probably come across the terms "dofollow" and "nofollow" when diving into the world of SEO. What are these and why is it important to understand the difference between these two terms? Let's embark on a journey to uncover the secrets behind these links.

History of link building in SEO

Remember the good old days when the internet was in its infancy? In the early days, websites were collected into directories, which were very difficult and confusing to search. Links, on the other hand, served only their basic purpose of directing the user to a new page.

The Power of Backlinks

In the late 1990s, Google introduced the PageRank algorithm, which revolutionized the world of online search.

They began using links as the primary metric for judging the relevance of a website. Think of it like high school popularity, when every link to your site was akin to voting for prom king or queen.

The rise of spammy links

But where there's light, there's shadow. The value placed on links has led to the rise of spammy, low-quality backlinking techniques. Remember those sites that had nothing but lists of links? Google had to qualitatively rework its ranking algorithm, introduce new quality factors like thematicity and authority, and filters for spamming and buying links.

One of the ways to protect your site from sanctions for link spam was the attribute rel="nofollow", which the site owner could mark outgoing links to other sites to which he has nothing to do. It was very relevant, for example, for comments left by users. This innovation received the characteristic nickname "condom for links".

What is a "dofollow" link?

Imagine a friend recommends an investment book to you. You would probably consider reading it, right? That said, if your friend is poor and stupid - you probably won't pay attention to this recommendation. But if he or she has made money on car and country house investments over the last couple years - you'll probably read the book that very night. This is exactly how a "dofollow" link works for websites.

At its core, it's a regular hyperlink - an a tag with the href attribute of the HTML language. From an SEO perspective, it transfers "link weight" or SEO value from one page to another. Technically, it has no special tags telling search engines what to do.

How search engines perceive them

Search engines, especially Google, view these links as proof of a site's authority. Going back to the friend and book example - imagine that one book was recommended to you by 2 friends and the second book was recommended to you by 10 people. Which one will you read first? The correct answer is the one with more total authority of the people who recommended it. Think about it, maybe these 2 friends are Ilon Musk and Bill Gates.

Search engines perceive links in the same way - it's not just quantity that matters, but quality as well. They follow these links, index the content they find and use it to influence search rankings. The thematic relevance of the referring page also matters.

So what's the threat

Just as a bad book recommendation can ruin your opinion of a friend's taste, spammy "dofollow" links can damage your site's reputation. While they do offer SEO benefits, it's important to make sure they come from reputable sources.

What is a "nofollow" link?

Again, we'll use the book analogy. Have you ever had a friend mention a book but haven't read it themselves and can't give an accurate recommendation? That's roughly how a "nofollow" link works.

Back in 2005, Google introduced the "nofollow" attribute as a way to combat spammy links. It was a way for webmasters to say, "I link to this, but I don't endorse it." In 2019, the guidelines have been updated - the main difference being that nofollow has become a recommendation rather than a 100% instruction to disregard a link.

Technical Jargon

A nofollow link has a rel attribute with the value "nofollow". In simple terms, it's a way of telling search engines not to pass PageRank to the page the link leads to.

Search Engines and "nofollow" links

While these links do not increase PageRank, they are not invisible to search engines. They still register, but they just don't convey the desired SEO value. You can track this in Search Engine Console - for example in Google Search Console nofollow links are very often included in the external links report.

The 'sponsored' and 'ugc' attributes

As the Internet has evolved, the intricacies of link building have changed. Two new tags 'sponsored' and 'ugc' have entered the arena. But what do they mean?

Google introduced them to give webmasters more options for determining the nature of links. The "Sponsored" tags are for ads or sponsored content, while "ugc" is for user-generated content, such as forum posts or comments.

Both of these attributes function similarly to "nofollow" in that they do not convey PageRank. Rather, they serve more for visibility. Think of them like sub-genres in a bookstore: they offer more specificity about the content.

They don't offer any specific impact on link performance, but you should take care of proper markup whenever possible - who knows what will happen next.

Why 'nofollow' is important for SEO

You may be wondering: if 'nofollow' links don't have SEO value, why use them? It's like scooping water out of a broken boat - you don't seem to be drowning, but it doesn't fix the situation.

For search engines, "dofollow" links act as an endorsement, while "nofollow" links are neutral. It is not about negative value, but simply the lack of positive endorsement.

"Dofollow" links can increase a site's authority and ranking, while "nofollow" links have no influence in this area. However, there are a few important factors that tell us that nofollow links should be used too:

  • Nofollow is a recommendation, not an instruction;
  • Nofollow links can bring traffic
  • Many popular sites only provide nofollow links
  • It is important to have a natural link profile.

Regarding Google's position - as I wrote above, as of March 1, 2020 Google treats nofollow links as a recommendation - this means that sometimes a nofollow link can affect the ranking algorithm and page authority.

Google Developers, Nofollow Update
When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed. All the link attributes—sponsored, ugc, and nofollow—are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We'll use these hints—along with other signals—as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.

They also accurately write - that these links will no longer be ignored:

Google Developers, Nofollow Update
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... 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.

Webmasters have differing opinions on this - some think that nofollow links don't deserve attention. Someone on the contrary thinks that they are extremely useful and should be used.

I prefer to rely on facts. Let's think about what a link gives us? Three main factors - authority, traffic and search bot visits to the site.

Regarding authority - we can't say definitively which nofollow link will be taken into account by Google and which will not. To be fair, it should be noted that dofollow links may not be taken into account if they are determined by the algorithm as low-quality. Therefore, it is useless to argue about this factor - no one has an absolute understanding of how it works.

But about traffic - we can definitely say that a user will be able to go to our site using a nofollow link. The same can be said about search engine bots bypassing the site - we improve the speed of indexing and updating the site.

Based on this, we should definitely place nofollow links on authoritative resources with good traffic. But the use of spammy methods, such as commenting on old dead blogs, generating thousands of profiles and registration in low-quality directories - it is better to refuse.

Usage Strategy

Like a balanced diet, an effective SEO strategy requires a combination of both "dofollow" and "nofollow" links. But how do you find the right balance?

Are high-quality, authoritative sites linking to you? It will be very good if the link is "dofollow". It will increase the authority and position of your site. But it is quite difficult to get such links - usually guest posting strategy is used for this purpose. At the same time, "dofollow" links from low-quality non-thematic or spam resources is better to exclude - it can tell search engines that you are a spammer.

You should also use new special attributes. For example, affiliate and paid links should be labeled "sponsored", and comments or user questions "ugc".

Balance your link profile

It's important to realize that search engines have an understanding that links can be obtained naturally, or they can be bought, baited, or obtained through other black SEO methods.

Based on this, search engines evaluate the "naturalness" of your link profile - which sites link to you, at what rate new links appear, and how many of those links are nofollow. Roughly speaking, if in the first month of your site will get 100 dofollow links in 1 day - it can lead to the imposition of sanctions.

Therefore, it is important to keep a balance. No one knows the exact numbers, because we do not have data to the algorithms of search engines, but most often talk about the ratio of about 50-70% of "nofollow" links.

Common myths and misconceptions

In the realm of SEO, where change is as frequent as plot twists in a telenovela, misconceptions are not uncommon. Let's debunk some of the most common myths related to "dofollow" and "nofollow" links.

Do nofollow links have value?

Yes, they do. We've broken down that they match "dofollow" on 2 factors 100%, and in terms of authority transfer can be accounted for if Google deems it right.

Excessive use of "dofollow".

As I wrote above - "dofollow" links can be very useful, but in excess they can cause sanctions. Imagine drinking too much water; it's necessary, but even it can be harmful in excessive amounts. Similarly, an unnatural abundance of "dofollow" links can make search engines suspicious.

Using rel="dofollow"

Some sites specifically specify a dofollow value in the rel attribute so that Google will accurately consider the link. However, this makes no practical sense - Google simply doesn't know that such an attribute exists. All links that are not nofollow are dofollow by default.

How to check a link

Developer Tools in Browser

Almost every modern browser has built-in developer tools. By simply right-clicking and selecting 'Inspect' or 'Inspect Element', you can view the source code. To determine the type of link, look at the 'rel' attribute. If it is empty - the link is 'dofollow'. If not, look at the values.

Browser Extensions

There are many SEO tools such as:

These make it easy to differentiate between link types. Think of them as a GPS navigator in your link research journey.

Bookmarklets

For those not in the know, bookmarklets are bookmarks saved in the browser with a JavaScript script instead of a link that execute when clicked and add functionality to the browser. There are special bookmarks designed to highlight "nofollow" links, which makes research much easier.

Conclusion

So, what have we found out? Both "dofollow" and "nofollow" links are important areas of work in a complete SEO strategy. Like Yin and Yang, they balance and complement each other. It's not about picking one side, it's about understanding the strengths of each and utilizing them effectively.

Related Links

I've tried to compile all the information you need in the article, but I think you'll find it helpful to research primary sources for a deeper understanding. Here are a few recommended articles that will help you better understand nofollow:

Written by Oleg Tolochko
Owner, author and editor of the ITWebMind.com

Since 2021 I have been working on freelancing, mainly in the field of advertising, development and promotion of websites. I am interested in programming, in particular Python, PHP, JS to a greater extent for myself and automation of my projects. Also design, SEO, context and targeted advertising, productivity, various areas of management. I am fond of playing guitar, horses, snorkeling. Traveling in Asia at the moment. In this blog I collect my work experience for myself and others, as well as improve my skills in design, website development and promotion, copywriting.

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