SEO Basics: What is a Nofollow Link?

SEO Basics is the eCreative IM blog column written for SEO beginners just learning the basics of search engine optimization. You can find all our SEO Basics articles by browsing the SEO Basics Archive or find the specific tips you’re looking for in our SEO Tips & Guides page.

Nofollow links were introduced back in 2005, originally as a way to combat comment spam on blogs. As anyone with a blog knows, comment spam is alive and well. However since that introduction the purpose of the nofollow link attribute has changed to become a way of identifying paid links and untrustworthy links, and ensuring that your site does not gain SEO benefit from nofollow backlinks.

In short, a Nofollow link tells search engine bots not to follow the link. The link passes on no SEO value — it essentially exists only for people, and not for search engines.

Some of the common places you’ll see nofollow links is in any kind of paid link (if a paid link doesn’t have the rel=nofollow attribute, Google could punish your site) and comments on blogs and forums, where the site doesn’t necessarily trust any link that any random person might post (the idea here being to discourage link spam).

A nofollow link attribute appears in your HTML code as: <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Link</a>  Note that most blog or forum software has user comment links assigned the nofollow attribute by default.

How Google Really Treats a Nofollow Backlink

Despite the fact that the original idea was that search engines would effectively ignore nofollow links, Google’s bot does, in fact, often follow those links and use it to find other pages on the internet.

However, Google has been firm and adamant that those links do not pass on PageRank, do not count as a backlink with any weight, and do not help your SEO in any way. This has been called into question from time to time, especially because nofollow links sometimes do show up in Google’s Webmaster Tools as a backlink. Google’s Matt Cutts was pretty clear on this behavior:

Do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight. I’m going to say that again: Do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight. Sometime in the next year, someone will say “But I saw an insert-link-fad-here backlink show up in Google’s backlink tool, so it must count. Right?” And then I’ll point them back here, where I say do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight.

There has been no truly persuasive scientific evidence that Google is wrong in their statement that nofollow backlinks have no SEO weight. There is some anecdotal evidence that there might be some minor amount of weight to nofollow links, or that it might happen in some circumstances, but no one has demonstrated any reproduceable evidence that nofollow links are at all valuable to SEO.

Nofollow Links and Link Sculpting

At one point after Google first started using the nofollow link attribute SEO professionals started using it internally on sites to control how much PageRank was passed to various links. This benefit was written out of the Google algorithm years ago. You cannot use the nofollow attribute to control how PageRank is passed through links any longer.

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