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Debunking the Nofollow Myth

It’s a controversial question amongst SEO professionals: Do Nofollow links improve search rankings?

Conventionally, “powerful” links are associated with the use of a Dofollow tag. Nofollow links have typically not received much appreciation, due to the predominant perception that they are ‘ignored’ by Google. Increasing evidence confirms that this thinking needs to change. Link building success is not contingent on whether there is a Nofollow tag or not, but rather on your efforts to boost overall traffic. These efforts can be driven by different strategies: whether it be capturing the attention of influencers, tactfully mentioning your brand name on authoritative pages, or republishing your work on well-known platforms. And guess what? All feature one common ingredient: the simple, humble and under-appreciated Nofollow tag. Here are 5 key reasons why you should use it.

For a beginner’s guide on the difference between Dofollow and Nofollow links, please read our recent article – Dofollow vs. Nofollow Links: What’s the Difference?

Propelling your SEO

To begin with, Google has never definitively said that Nofollow tags don’t contribute towards search rankings. Remember the statement on their own support page: “In general, we don’t follow them”. This indicates that while Nofollow links are generally ignored, sometimes they aren’t. And bear in mind, Google reserves their right to be indifferent to the Nofollow tag, and this seems to be dependent on whether they are authoritative and editorially placed. After all, as the arbitrator of relevant user information, Google needs to be mindful of not giving deserved SERP attention just because a Nofollow tag was used. Google is well aware that website owners often add Nofollow tags to all their outbound links to maintain their SEO strength (to the non-ranking detriment of the other site). It’s a clear attempt to game search rankings, and Google therefore takes steps to mitigate this problem.

Regardless of whether outbound links have a Nofollow tag, Google still knows that a website is being referenced. So the actual extent to which Nofollow links stopper increases in domain authority is doubtful. In fact, many online case studies back this argument, illustrating instead, a clear correlation between usage of Nofollow and a rise in rankings. It’s obvious that Nofollow links are far more powerful in SEO enhancement than people think.

Increased traffic from first and second-tier links

If numerous case studies and correlative data is anything to go by, Nofollow links are an integral component of a strong and sustainable SEO strategy. Included on the right, high-traffic websites, there is a ripple-on effect resulting in increased search rankings – even for social media links.

Picture the exposure if an influencer editorially places your Nofollow link on their page. Your direct referral traffic will skyrocket, your search visibility will increase and the span of your brand reach will widen. Compare this to a Dofollow link from a lesser-known website with much lower domain authority. Yes, it’s a guarantee that Google will pass ranking, but it probably won’t elevate you to the top of a SERP, let alone the first page. And statistics show that 75% of searchers never scroll past the first page of results.

First-tier and second-tier links explained.
Image credit: TechTage

Further breaking down the traffic benefits of Nofollow, we must consider second-tier backlinks. An article from Forbes is an authoritative source of information and will likely be linked to. If the Forbes article contains your backlink, then that link is considered first-tier when viewed on the Forbes page, and second-tier if the Forbes page (which contains your link) is linked to by another page. It’s the trickle-down effect of link juice. In this way, while Nofollow links provide less direct SEO propulsion, they can generate a huge amount of traffic through piggy-backing on the shareability of more well-known domains. Imagine if a Forbes’ article with your Nofollow link goes viral. Everyone who would’ve seen the article would have seen your link, cueing massive visibility and potential traffic for your site.

Influencer marketing and social signalling

As Joshua Unseth explains, a link originating as Nofollow may very well eventuate into one or more Dofollow links if lots of website share the Nofollow source. This is particularly common for social media links and Google’s recognition of social signals to determine how active, popular and therefore current, your website is. This is natural, the more you share your content, the more traction it will gain within Facebook or Instagram’s ecosystem. And the more noteworthy it is, the more likely your SEO will be boosted through follow-on sharing by your followers. This effect, for product awareness, is huge. After all, 70% of millennial consumers care that products are recommended by a friend.

Whilst social media links are almost always Nofollowed, an especially appreciating user may decide to add your link to their external website, and this may be Dofollow. If this user is an influencer, then better yet, their audience is now your link’s audience. In today’s market, trust matters, and searchers are much more likely to purchase a product off a recommendation from an influencer rather than an SERP. Thus the consequent waterfall of ‘references to’ and ‘mentions of’ your brand name are invaluable, regardless of the ‘Do-’ or ‘No-’ follow root. Remember, Google values authenticity, and won’t elevate your SERP presence unless you have the social signals to justify it. As shown below by Neil Patel, there is an indisputable correlation between top SERP results and the activeness of these websites on social media.

The importance of social signaling.
Image credit: Neil Patel

Nofollow links create authority across other (non-Google-related) metrics

As mentioned before, whilst in theory a Nofollow link turns the ‘link juice’ tap off, in practice Google will monitor the positioning and frequency of Nofollow links, particularly when the hosting site is reputable. Ranking benefits will flow through if these signals, or ‘metrics’, are strong. Metrics like Alexa rank, Page and Domain Authority don’t influence directly how search engines prioritise your site on SERPs. They do, however, influence whether directories, listing services, clients and advertising agencies decide to do business with you. And the crucial point is that in calculating these metrics, the number of your Nofollow backlinks is factored into account.

Thus if your site has a high Domain Authority or Alexa Rank, numerous benefits will follow. You have ground to make a strong sales pitch to host content on your own domain. This is valuable in forging industry credibility and future avenues of partnership. Impressive metrics will also get you listed in directories where your business can be discovered by potential customers. Think of the last time you searched for a good restaurant to take your partner to, did you use a cultural directory like TimeOut or a search engine? Or think of the last time you booked accommodation for your overseas trip, would you rather rely on Google or the top ten list from your favourite travel blogger? With many directories existing for users to obtain more discerning recommendations, having enough Nofollow links is a crucial step in getting listed in them.

A natural Dofollow:Nofollow ratio wins the trust of Google

With all the fuss about SEO strategy and SERP ranking, it would be a major setback if Google decided to penalise your site and PageRank score. This often happens due to suspicion that you’re trying to game the system. The key red flag that Google looks out for? Having too many Dofollow backlinks.

It’s incredibly important to have a natural Dofollow:Nofollow inbound link ratio. This is important to prevent suspected link manipulation by Google. Therefore, incorporating a healthy dose of Nofollow backlinks into your link building strategy assures Google that you’re not up to no good, and furthers the ultimate purpose of increasing visibility and traffic.

Final Thoughts

Dofollow links are exciting, there’s no argument against that. But instead of waiting to receive one from a popular and respected website, building a steady portfolio of Nofollow backlinks is just as important. These create less obvious avenues of traffic and are crucial pipelines in establishing a network of authority. Conversation and social signals don’t go unnoticed – they are detected by Google and translated into SEO benefits. In the end, the objective of digital marketing is increasing visibility and awareness of your brand. This will happen when content appears at the right place and at the right time, regardless of whether it’s “Do-” or “No-” follow.

Garry Ho

Garry Ho is a Link Building Researcher at Reputio. He's passionate about the science behind SEO, particularly the relationship between link building and data analytics. Garry is based in Sydney and would love to chat if you're ever visiting down under!

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