A Brief History of the “No-Follow”
Link spam has been around for about as long as Google has been using links as a ranking signal. In the early days of Google, black hat SEOs would use blog comments to pass high PR links back to their sites. Then in 2005, Google introduced the “NoFollow” attribute. Any link tagged with a “NoFollow” would be essentially invisible to search engines. The link was still active, but the attribute would make it so the link juice didn’t flow from one site to another.
After Google’s Penguin update in April of 2012, the “NoFollow” was also used to protect sites that were linking to sites in bad neighborhoods. Google’s crackdown on link spam created a sense of paranoia in the SEO industry and some webmasters started adding “NoFollow” attributes to ALL outgoing links.
Although most SEOs are familiar with the origin of the “NoFollow” attribute, there is still a lot of confusion as to when it should and shouldn’t be used. In this post, I’m going to outline some examples of when a “NoFollow” is necessary and some instances where it is not. In addition to these recommendations, you can also check out Google’s linking and “NoFollow” guidelines.
Necessary. It’s tough to control comment spam. But if you mark all comment links as “NoFollow” then you prevent link juice from flowing to other sites and don’t risk getting penalized by Google for questionable linking practices.
Necessary. There’s nothing wrong with selling ad space on your site. However, if your ads contain a link that is followed, then you’re at risk of being penalized by Google. Additionally, Google requests that sites include machine-readable disclosure text, as to not mislead consumers.
Necessary. To clarify, user-generated content (UGC) does not mean guest posts or any other type of content that is moderated. In this case, UGC refers to content that users can contribute freely, without permission. Aside from comments, UGC could be product and support forums, community pages and user profiles.
Necessary. Matt Cutts has said on several occasions that all links within embeddable widgets and infographics should contain a “NoFollow” attribute. The problem with embedded links is that they can be misleading since the person embedding the content may not be aware that it contains a link.
Not necessary. Editorial links are links that you use to support the content on your site. Since editorial links provide value to you content and you intentionally linked to their site, it’s usually a fair practice to make them followed links. After all, if the site is questionable, you shouldn’t be linking to it.
Not necessary. This one is up for debate. According to Google, if you’re asking for a link with the intent of a rankings benefit, than the link should be a “NoFollow.” However, if you’re guest posting because you’re an authority in your industry or if you’re an official contributor, you probably deserve a followed link.
Not necessary. An internal link is a link between two pages on your website. As Matt Cutts has said in the past, you want link value to flow freely between pages on your site, so in most cases adding a “NoFollow” for internal links doesn’t make much sense.
Sometimes necessary. This is one of those “it depends” scenarios. If the sitewide links are internal (i.e. footer navigation links), there is no need for a “NoFollow.” However, if there are external links on multiple pages of your site, you may want to add a “NoFollow” just to be safe.
“NoFollow” Links Still Hold Value
Although they may not pass direct link juice to your site, “NoFollow” links can still be valuable. There’s a lot more to links than just the SEO benefits. Links can help send referral traffic, build awareness, increase your organic reach and even be a great source for lead generation. Also, Keep in mind that “NoFollow” is a recommendation for Google – whether or not they comply is up to them. In some cases, they could still count some of these links – which could be good news or bad news, depending on how ethical your link building practices are.
For instance, I can’t imagine “NoFollow” links from highly reputable sites, like Wikipedia, having zero impact on your site. The rankings benefits may not be direct, but if Google and other search engines see a high volume of high authority, “NoFollow” links pointing to your site, I would bet that there are some residual benefits there.