What You Need To Know About Rel Nofollow Links, Google & The Law

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QUOTE: “Is it okay to sell links as long as we use the nofollow attribute? The answer is yes. The fact is what Google cares about is whether a link that you sell flows PageRank and if it doesn’t flow PageRank. If it doesn’t affect search engines it’s none of our business at that point. Now if you are in Europe you might have some various laws that apply to you. If you’re in the United States the Federal Trade Commission wants you to disclose those links. If you have some sort of material connection to an endorser so you might want to think about having human readable disclosure as well like this is a paid link or this is a sold link or something like that but Google’s policy is within search rankings if you’re selling links it’s your obligation to make sure that that link doesn’t affect search engines.” MATT CUTTS, Google

Table of Contents

What Is Rel Nofollow?

QUOTE: “Rel NoFollow is an elemental microformat, one of several microformat open standards. By adding rel="nofollow" to a hyperlink, a page indicates that the destination of that hyperlink should not be afforded any additional weight or ranking by user agents which perform link analysis upon web pages (e.g. search engines). Typical use cases include links created by 3rd party commenters on blogs, or links the author wishes to point to, but avoid endorsing.” Microformats.org

When it comes to search engines like Google, a link from one site to another site is a ‘vote’ for the website that has the link pointing to it (an example of a link that passes Pagerank).

Links help Google rank documents on the web in its SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), and as such, have long been abused by link builders. I used to be one of these types of link builders (pre-2012 when released the Google Penguin algorithm update).

QUOTE: “Nofollow links definitely don’t pass PageRank. Over the years, I’ve seen a few corner cases where a nofollow link did pass anchortext, normally due to bugs in indexing that we then fixed. The essential thing you need to know is that nofollow links don’t help sites rank higher in Google’s search results.” Matt Cutts, Google 2009

Search engines like Google, ask that you adequately provide machine-readable disclosure and add the ‘Re=Nofollow’ attribute to ANY paid links on your site or any paid links you BUY that point TO your site.

This ensures the link will not count as a vote or recommendation for another page nor will it pass Pagerank nor any other ranking signal.

Failure to add the Rel=Nofollow attribute to paid links places your site in a ‘link scheme‘ and eventually harms the reputation of your site, as far as Google’s algorithms are concerned.

Using the HTML attribute on an external (outbound) link tells Google you don’t vouch for this other web page enough to help it’s search rankings.

The attribute also effectively ‘insulates’ your website against any loss of ‘reputation’, as Google calls it.

Example “Nofollow” Link Code

Rel=nofollow is an attribute you add to a hyperlink on a webpage:

<a href="https://www.hobo-web.co.uk/" rel="nofollow">Hobo</a>

I keep updated a list of the best SEO tools for beginners to use and if you use the Google Chrome browser, you can use a free plugin to highlight nofollow links on a page.

Google Wants Rel=Nofollow on Paid Links

QUOTE: “If money changed hands in order for a link to be placed on a website then it should not flow PageRank, in essence, it shouldn’t affect search engines rankings …. we’ve taken action on this sort of thing you know for years and years and we’re going to keep taking strong action” Matt Cutts, Google 2013

Google wants all non-editorial links marked-up with the attribute rel=nofollow to prevent these type of links passing Pagerank and influencing SERPs.

This includes:

  • paid links
  • press releases
  • advertorials
  • affiliate links and
  • native advertising

This is to separate such links from naturally earned backlinks – the type of links Google aims to reward in 2018:

Arguments

The controversial (for SEO) Rel=nofollow attribute has been around since 2005 and is here to stay. Paid links without the attribute are VERY RISKY to search engine rankings for your website in 2018. Of course, with the attribute, the organic search engine value of paid links is effectively neutralised.

There are a lot of people who argue about using the attribute; when to use it, where to use it, if it can be used to sculpt link equity, how it affects Google PR and even exactly how Google deals with a nofollowed link.

There’s been observations and arguments ad nauseam that “nofollow links pass PR” or “that you can sculpt internal PageRank” or that Google’s advice is misleading or inaccurate. Note: I think Google tells us a lot in 2018 about what will negatively impact the performance of your site in Google – it’s all there in webmaster videos, webmaster guidelines and the manual search evaluator quality rater guidelines.

As there often is, there has been confusion when it comes to how Google treats nofollow links.

I think nofollow is as Google says – effectively a non-link when it comes to ranking your site. At least – it is meant to be.

In most cases, you can expect links with ‘rel=nofollow’ won’t influence your search rankings in a positive or negative way.

Nofollow is sponsorship disclosure to Google, in code, so Googlebot can deal with it appropriately.

When it comes to paid advertising and sponsorship to endorse products, it is law in many countries you must disclose any paid advertising relationship anyway.

For instance, in the US:

QUOTE: “The FTC is only concerned about endorsements that are made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser. For example, an endorsement would be covered by the FTC Act if an advertiser – or someone working for an advertiser – pays you or gives you something of value to mention a product. If you receive free products or other perks with the expectation that you’ll promote or discuss the advertiser’s products in your blog, you’re covered. Bloggers who are part of network marketing programs, where they sign up to receive free product samples in exchange for writing about them, also are covered.FTC

and in the UK

QUOTE: “Users want to know when they’re viewing sponsored content. Also, there are laws in some countries that make disclosure of sponsorship mandatory. A disclosure can appear anywhere in the post; however, the most useful placement is at the top in case users don’t read the entire post.” Google
Read more at – iabuk.net

and

QUOTE: “Links that pass PageRank in exchange for goods or services are against Google guidelines on link schemes.” Google

In my case, I use affiliate links on as few pages as possible on this blog.

User-Generated Forum & Blog Comment Links

If you have a commenting system (like Drupal, Joomla or WordPress) that allows for search engine friendly links (commonly called dofollow links) from your blog or site, you will probably, eventually be the target of lots of spam, be complicated in tiered link schemes and potentially fall foul of Google’s webmaster guidelines on using the attribute in certain situations.

QUOTE: “”Nofollow” provides a way for Webmasters to tell search engines “Don’t follow links on this page” or “Don’t follow this specific link.“”

How Does Google Treat Nofollowed Links?

We are told Google ignores links with the attribute on them, which allows you to link to a site and not share your website reputation with the recipient of your link. On the whole – this seems to the case.

QUOTE: “In general, we don’t follow them. This means that Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text across these links. Essentially, using nofollow causes us to drop the target links from our overall graph of the web. However, the target pages may still appear in our index if other sites link to them without using nofollow, or if the URLs are submitted to Google in a Sitemap. Also, it’s important to note that other search engines may handle nofollow in slightly different ways.” Google

What are Google’s policies and some specific examples of nofollow usage?

Google presents us with some cases when to consider using the attribute on OUTBOUND links:

  • QUOTE: “Untrusted content: If you can’t or don’t want to vouch for the content of pages you link to from your site — for example, untrusted user comments or guestbook entries — you should nofollow those links. This can discourage spammers from targeting your site, and will help keep your site from inadvertently passing PageRank to bad neighborhoods on the web. In particular, comment spammers may decide not to target a specific content management system or blog service if they can see that untrusted links in that service are nofollowed. If you want to recognize and reward trustworthy contributors, you could decide to automatically or manually remove the nofollow attribute on links posted by members or users who have consistently made high-quality contributions over time.
  • QUOTE: “Paid links: A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. In order to prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users, we urge Webmasters use nofollow on such links. Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word “Advertisement“).”

Google is serious about this stuff. If you let your website become a free for all links farm – a link scheme –  Google will not trust the links from your website (at least). You need to decide if you care about such things, but as I said at the outset of this article, TRUST is very important if thinking about SEO.

Should I Use Nofollow on Internal Links (PageRank Sculpting)?

NO.

QUOTE: “I’d recommend not using nofollow for kind of PageRank sculpting within a website because it probably doesn’t do what you think it does” John Mueller, Google 2017

This was actually said by Matt Cutts too about 10 years ago (although even in 2018, I see pages with nofollow on internal links).

QUOTE: “Q: Does this mean “PageRank sculpting” (trying to change how PageRank flows within your site using e.g. nofollow) is a bad idea? A: I wouldn’t recommend it, because it isn’t the most effective way to utilize your PageRank. In general, I would let PageRank flow freely within your site. The notion of “PageRank sculpting” has always been a second- or third-order recommendation for us. I would recommend the first-order things to pay attention to are 1) making great content that will attract links in the first place, and 2) choosing a site architecture that makes your site usable/crawlable for humans and search engines alike.

Pagerank sculpting was a hot topic many years ago, and then changed the way they handled it:

QUOTE: “When we added a help page to our documentation about nofollow, we said “a solid information architecture — intuitive navigation, user- and search-engine-friendly URLs, and so on — is likely to be a far more productive use of resources than focusing on crawl prioritization via nofollowed links.” In a recent webmaster video, I said “a better, more effective form of PageRank sculpting is choosing (for example) which things to link to from your home page.” At Google I/O, during a site review session I said it even more explicitly: “My short answer is no. In general, whenever you’re linking around within your site: don’t use nofollow. Just go ahead and link to whatever stuff.” But at SMX Advanced 2009, someone asked the question directly and it seemed like a good opportunity to clarify this point. Again, it’s not something that most site owners need to know or worry about, but I wanted to let the power-SEOs know..” Matt Cutts, Google 2009

Questions arise if you start thinking about it too much – I know I did – before Google changed the way it handled nofollow:

  1. Should you nofollow unimportant internal pages or nofollow external links in an effort to consolidate the Pagerank you have already accrued?
  2. Or should you spend your time getting other quality links pointing to your site to increase the PR you have to start off with (how you get Pagerank).

The long-term best impact strategy here is simply to earn more Google Pagerank in the first place than PageRank sculpt with rel=nofollow links.

You can certainly control PR on a granular level (page by page in this case) – that is, which page gets available real PR form another page on your site. It’s easy to follow, that some SEO professionals think, if that’s the case, you can sculpt Pagerank, and channel page rank to important pages in a site.

For instance – the theory was that by adding the attribute to (for instance) internal links to your contact page, or disclaimer, or privacy policy page would send more PageRank to more important pages on your site.

I’d long fell out of love with PR sculpting internal pages using the attribute after testing the theory. The results were not worth it for me on the sites I worked on (some are quite large) –  a few years back I posted this about PR sculpting:

QUOTE: “I’ve been playing about with rel=’nofollow’ on this site for 4 months, and in all honesty, in future, I won’t be relying on nofollow to sculpt unimportant pages out of any possible link graph, just optimising those pages better, or leaving them out altogether, like I used to do in 1999. It can be a useful tool in a site redevelopment, but from here on in, I’ll be keeping nofollow for bad neighbourhoods and, pending further testing, on top level blog pages.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo

In June 2008 I also posted this about Nofollow and PR Sculpting:

QUOTE: “I tested it, and as far as I am concerned, on a 300 page site at least, any visible benefit is microscopic.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo

In theory, PR sculpting sounded cool, but was in practice, very disappointing. Some people think it works, of course, even to this day.

Notes

I should point out you do not use rel=”nofollow” to prevent the indexing of a page – merely to control which pages any particular page shares it’slink equitywith, if you are Googlebot anyway.

When it came to first link priority on a page for Google it appeared at that time that the first link you nofollow on a page *might* also nofollow any other link to the same URL on that page.

Should I Nofollow EVERY Outbound Link On My Site?

NO!

How does Google treat sites where all external links are no-follow? Matt Cutts posted this video:

And he’s right. One of my clients was linking out to real and trusted sites from pages on his site and added rel=nofollow to the links because he thought this was helping his site. This is unnecessary.

There’s no reason to put the attribute on editorially approved links.

in my experience, if you write a blog post and use the attribute on all links on your blog for no other reason than to conserve Pagerank, or even think linking out to irrelevant sites will hurt your site, you’re misinformed at best.

Google doesn’t penalise you for linking to irrelevant sites if both pages in question are relevant to each other.

Use nofollow only if you don’t want to vouch for the page you’re linking to, for fear of losing reputation.

I often surmise Google might be taking in the quality or accuracy of your outbound links in some minor way to measure the strength of your trust, so don’t miss out because you are effectively not linking to anybody.

Also, consider, the link you make might be the link that helps another REAL site get traffic from Google and satisfy Google’s users – that’s not a bad thing for anybody.

I have little reason for the attribute these days outside of user-generated comments and affiliate links. I don’t use it to sculpt Pagerank, and I don’t use it in any arena where editorial moderation is in play.

I only use it for sites that don’t deserve the link to be search engine friendly and in 99% of the cases, if I don’t have any reason to trust a site, I won’t make the link a link at all.

Pet hate – websites where every outbound link is nofollow.

Can Nofollow Links Pointing To My Site Hurt MY SITE?

No

Should I add rel=”nofollow” to links that are included with my widget or infographics?

PROBABLY!

NOTE – You do not need to employ the attribute to mark all links on a page as ‘untrusted’.

You can also use robots meta tags or X-Robots-Tag HTTP header to control how Google treats ALL the links on a page.

You can still block actual pages using robot txt (or X robots or meta tags) or block outbound links via redirect scripts if you are worried about losing trust and reputation in Google.

What Is Nofollow - When and where should publishers use it?

Infographic – Search Engine Land.


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