Anastasia Osypenko
Aug 30, 2021 | 16 min read

In a multifaceted universe of links, there are several technical nuances that are invisible to the user but make a huge difference in how the link is perceived by search engines. Those nuances are link attribute values placed in the page code inside the link tag <a>. By default, links are followed by search crawlers and pass the link juice to the pages they refer to, but when the nofollow attribute value is specified, this default behavior doesn’t apply.

So, what does it mean to nofollow a link and when should you do so? In this post, we’ll explain the SEO value followed and nofollowed links bring, what other link attribute values are out there, and how to build a safe backlink profile with regard to link tag specifications. 

What is a dofollow link?

What might be called a dofollow link, or followed link, is, in fact, just a regular link. It’s being called so in the context of the nofollow value only, to emphasize that the link is not subject to any specific SEO instructions and should live up to regular expectations, i.e. pass link juice and authority to the referred sources. 

To clear this up, let’s have a look at how a link looks like in the code:

<a href="yourlink.com">what your link is about</a>
<a rel="nofollow" href="yourlink.com">what your link is about</a>

Here,

  • <a> is a link tag that contains the link itself, its anchor text, and all instructions meant for it
  • href is a link attribute that specifies the URL
  • rel is a link attribute that characterizes the relationship between the source page and the linked page
  • nofollow is a value of the rel attribute that tells search engines not to follow the link

The first example is a followed, regular link, and the second example is a nofollowed link. As you can see, there’s no such thing as rel=”dofollow” in the code because it’s the default behavior that goes without specifying. 

It all means that with no additional attribute values included in the code, links work as the web intended: they are authority signals that increase the importance of the web pages they cite. Throwing back to the early days of search, Google was the first search engine to assign a key role to links: with the PageRank algorithm introduction in 1998, Google started treating citations as votes that pass weight on web pages, making the most cited ones the most reliable and high-ranking. The algorithm has changed, as well as the way SEOs approach link acquisition, but the main thing about links remains the same: getting high-quality external sources to link out to you will increase your rankings.

How do dofollow backlinks help rankings?

When we talk about link value for rankings, we usually mean backlinks, the links you get for your website from external sources. Search engines have lots of ranking factors (we know that Google has more than 200), and high-quality backlinks are in the top-2 major factors together with content. A Backlinko 2020 study revealed that pages ranking first in Google had 3.8 times more backlinks than pages ranking in the top 2-9. 

The number of received links matter but they impact rankings in a more nuanced way than just by their quantity. Evaluating backlinks, search engines consider the following:

  • Organic link building. Search engines give recommendations on building natural backlinks instead of buying them. If detected, participation in link schemes (reciprocal exchange or excessive buying) will lead to penalties. 
  • Authority of the external source. The more trustworthy a web page is, the more value it will pass on to the pages it cites. In turn, backlinks from spammy sources will have a negative impact.
  • Diversity of referring domains. Having stable link building relationships with a certain domain is good, but the more domains refer to you the better. 
  • Relevancy. The link should be relevant to the context it’s inserted into and its anchor text should reflect what the linked source is about. 
  • Link placement. The most helpful for SEO are those links that are naturally placed in content, especially within the first 200 words. If links are hidden from users, they might lead to penalties from search engines. 
  • Freshness. Just like with content freshness, newly placed backlinks hold a higher value than old ones. 

All the aforementioned matters when the link is followed and doesn’t give any additional instructions to search engines. But what happens when a link contains nofollow or other attribute values?

What is a nofollow link?

Sometimes, websites don’t want to endorse linked sources, and the nofollow attribute value tells search engines that a referred web page isn’t necessarily what you intend to give credit to. Now, it works as a hint and not a directive and is also different from some new values designed for sponsored and user-generated content. But let’s get to the details step by step.

The evolution of nofollow and other rel attribute values

Nofollow was introduced in 2005 by Google as a response to the surge of comment spam: website owners would leave links to their own sites in the comment sections on external websites or forums and get higher rankings regardless of the relevance of the comment and the overall quality of their pages. Bing and Yahoo also supported the idea and started treating the values of the rel attribute similarly. 

From 2005, nofollow functioned as a directive and search engines would absolutely not crawl nofollowed links. It stopped some manipulations but didn’t solve all the problems with different types of links and levels of trust placed on them. 

In 2019, Google changed their perspective on nofollowed links, making nofollow a hint and introducing some new attribute values. It means that even if the link is nofollowed, it still can be crawled and included in the ranking process. The new values, rel=”sponsored” is meant for paid partner links and rel=”ugc” is supposed to be used with links left by users. They can be used separately or in combination with rel=”nofollow”:

<a href="yourlink.com/" rel="sponsored">what your link is about</a>
<a href="yourlink.com/" rel="nofollow sponsored">what your link is about</a>

How to know if the link is nofollowed?

What happens in the rel attribute stays in the page code—it’s not visible to users. But you can easily check if any link has any attribute values. There are several ways to do that:

  • By viewing the code in the Chrome browser. By right-clicking on the link and choosing Inspect, you’ll see the page code with the link code highlighted. If it doesn’t have the rel attribute, it means it’s a regular, followed link. If it contains this attribute, look at the attribute value:
Finding the nofollow attribute value in the code
  • By using browser extensions. A bunch of extensions highlight either dofollow or nofollow external citations on a page. 

With the NoFollow extension in Chrome (it’s also available for Firefox), nofollowed links are highlighted in red, while others aren’t marked in any way. Here’s how it looks like: 

Nofollowed links highlighted by a plugin

And here’s how followed links are highlighted by External Followed Link Highlighter:

Followed links highlighted by a plugin

Some more complex extensions not just highlight the linked sources but generate a report with backlink and domain parameters. For example, you can filter followed/nofollowed links using SEOquake:

Link values in the SEOquake plugin
  • By using an SEO tool. This method is not for checking citations on any given page but for checking all backlinks of your website or another domain. SE Ranking’s Backlink Monitor allows you to track your backlink profile and review major link parameters, including whether they are followed. 

In the Backlinks section of the tool, the Type column indicates whether a backlink comes from text or image, as well as whether it’s followed. 

Link attribute values in SE Ranking's Backlink Monitor

You can also view the distribution of followed and nofollowed backlinks and filter the table by this value:

Filtering nofollow links in SE Ranking's Backlink Monitor

Now as we’ve outlined the differences between the rel attribute values, let’s discuss if nofollowed links have any SEO value and why it’s important to check if a backlink is followed.

Are nofollow links helpful for SEO?

Websites aim to get as many followed backlinks as possible, and it totally makes sense. But it’s also worth it to receive nofollow links as they can increase your traffic, brand awareness, rankings, and further link building opportunities.

We asked Bibi Raven, a link building professional and founder at Bibibuzz, to share her opinion on the value of nofollow links:

Some of my clients appreciate no-follow links, which is great as it opens up more options for amazing link prospects. 

Personally, I would not turn down a contextual link from a relevant, strong page that’s targeting your audience. It’s just common sense.

Even if Google values it less to rank, it has a big chance of bringing you high-quality referral traffic. Which is why we’re doing SEO in the first place, to get the right eyeballs on your products or services, right?

My perspective is that a mix of various types of links looks natural and won’t show up as a suspicious pattern in the long-term. Spread the gain, spread the risk!

Nofollow backlinks can improve your SEO in the following ways:

  • They do directly impact rankings. Since Google treats nofollow as a hint, it can follow the nofollowed link and include it in ranking calculations. A recent study by Ahrefs revealed that the higher Google ranking’s correlation with a bigger number of backlinks is a bit stronger than the correlation with a larger number of dofollow backlinks. It means that some nofollowed links are treated as positive ranking signals, even more so than some followed links. It’s safe to say that links from authoritative sources, regardless of their attribute values, do good for your website.

NB! There’s much less information on how Google alternatives perceive the rel attribute values, and we can assume that nofollowed links might have even a greater value if you’re targeting other search engines. They often indicate the importance of relevant and helpful backlinks with no regard to whether they are followed. For instance, Bing recommends getting “quality links […] from a website Bing knows already and trusts,” and DuckDuckGo claims that “links from high-quality sites […] are the best way to get good rankings.”

  • They drive traffic and increase awareness. Links placed on popular sources will definitely receive clicks from visitors. If the linked source seems interesting and helpful to the context, users will visit it and possibly even navigate to other website pages. 
  • They help build a natural backlink profile. The dofollow-only backlink profile will raise suspicion in search engines because it might seem that all links are paid and agreed on instead of being earned by the quality of content itself. 
  • They give opportunities to get dofollow backlinks. The more links a website gets in general, the more it’s recognized by users and SEOs. When you grow your backlink profile with nofollow links, your chances of getting followed ones increase. 

Can nofollow links hurt your website?

Speaking of nofollow backlinks, Google’s reaction has been the same since 2013: they can’t hurt your website unless you’re involved in spammy link exchanges. You should be concerned about getting backlinks from high-quality sources and regularly monitor if spammy websites link out to you. For example, you can add your backlinks to SE Ranking’s Backlink Monitor and filter them by the Domain Trust score that indicates how authoritative a referring domain is:

Filtering backlinks by the referring domain's authority

If the score is low or unknown, there’s no anchor text, and the server response code is different from 200, then you probably should remove those links. It’s true to both followed and nofollowed backlinks. To remove potentially harmful backlinks, you’ll have to contact referring websites or collect a full list and submit it with Google or other search engines you’re targeting.

The best ratio of dofollow and nofollow backlinks

It’s been observed that the top Alexa Rank websites have a mix close to 25% of nofollow and 75% of dofollow backlinks, so followed ones should definitely dominate your backlink profile. However, there’s no universal answer to the best nofollow/dofollow ratio, just make sure that you earn diverse links from different domains, all authoritative and relevant to your web pages. 

With all abovementioned benefits in mind, you should work on receiving both followed and nofollowed backlinks. But how to treat the nofollow value in the context of your outbound links—those that you place on your web pages referring to other sources?

We reached out to Alex Wright, Head of Search at Clicky Media, to share some thoughts on a combination of dofollow and nofollow in your backlink profile.

I don’t think there is a perfect ratio of nofollow/follow backlinks. Ultimately, your link profile should look natural, and having a good mix of both is a big part of that. I know that a lot of people pay really close attention to the ratios (and do so on a SERP by SERP basis), this can be useful and give you an idea of what might look natural in the context of the SERPs, but honestly I’d just focus on building quality, relevant links and you’ll probably find that your profile is natural as a result.

When should you nofollow external links?

The nofollow value serves for those situations when you don’t want to associate your site with the linked sources and validate their authority. However, when you refer to a web page in your content, it means that you found it interesting and potentially helpful for your visitors, so there are no reasons not to endorse that source. We elaborate on this a bit more in our post on external linking

It’s important to use UGC for links in comments and sponsored for affiliate or other paid links instead of nofollow or in combination with it. Most popular CMSs set UGC in the comment section by default so you don’t have to do it manually every time someone leaves an unsolicited link. With the sponsored value, you’ll have to monitor it in regard to each particular link.

Alex Wright shared his perspective on nofollowing external links:

If you feel that you have to nofollow a link, then you have to ask why you put it there in the first place. If it’s a useful link, then don’t add a nofollow, and if it’s not useful, then why add it at all?

When should you nofollow internal links?

With internal links, it doesn’t make sense to use the nofollow value. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting the link juice and signalling search engines that you don’t necessarily trust your own pages. If you don’t want certain pages to be included in the index—login pages, social sharing buttons, filters, etc.—you can block crawling with the help of robots.txt or set the noindex directive in the robots meta tag. You can also hide some internal links that are unimportant for rankings by using JavaScript tricks or the HTML button element

Make sure that all the internal links eligible for ranking are followed. In SE Ranking’s Website Audit, you can access and download a full list of your URLs filtered by dofollow/nofollow values or other parameters. Go to the Found Links section and review if any of the important links aren’t marked with nofollow.

Checking internal link values in SE Ranking's Website Audit

Nofollowed internal links can damage your site’s search visibility, especially if these are the links to important pages and you want them to rank in the SERPs. 

How to add the nofollow attribute value?

For each link on your website that you want to be nofollowed, you can manually edit the page code and add rel=”nofollow”. Or, you can install a plugin for your CMS that automatically offers a nofollow checkbox for each inserted link. For instance, the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress opens a menu with three options for each link, including marking it with nofollow or sponsored:

Nofollow value in the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress

Other plugins with similar functionality include External Links, All in One SEO, Ultimate Nofollow, Rank Math SEO.

The wrap-up

By default, any link is followed by search engines so that it can be crawled, indexed, and incorporated into ranking calculations as a signal of the linked source’s authority. Sometimes, websites indicate that they don’t necessarily endorse the linked page, and that’s when the nofollow value of the rel attribute is put to action. Google understands nofollow as a hint and we don’t know much about how other search engines treat this value, which means that nofollowed backlinks can still be discovered and impact rankings. 

The major recommendations on the rel attribute values include:

  • Build a natural backlink profile with the majority of followed backlinks but also a fair share of nofollowed ones.
  • When it comes to external linking, make sure to use UGC and sponsored when appropriate and don’t mark the citations you use and trust as nofollow
  • Finally, with internal linking, monitor that all important URLs are followed.
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