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

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Disclosure: “This article is personal opinion of research based on my experience of almost 20 years. There is no third party advertising on this page or monetised links of any sort. External links to third party sites are moderated by meDisclaimer.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo

Table of Contents

Nofollow is “still functioning the same since it was implemented

QUOTE: “Nofollow has not changed. It is still functioning the same since it was implemented.” Nathan Johns, Google (SMX 2018)

I think Nathan means since they last changed it in 2009, not when it was implemented in 2005. I go into this below in my notes.

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 (before 2012 when Google 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, when you link out from your site. Google classifies paid or other-wise non-disclosed monetised links ‘unnatural links’.

You can get a Google penalty or manual action for unnatural links.

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 in the traditional sense. Who knows if Google cares about actual users who visit your site via a genuine editorial nofollow link? They might.

Nofollow is machine identifiable sponsorship disclosure to Googlebot so Google 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, 2011 (Read more at about the UK advertising standards 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.

Is It Okay To Sell Links As Long As We Use The Nofollow Attribute?

QUOTE: “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

Should I Use Nofollow On User-Generated Content Links?

QUOTE: “The best-known use for nofollow is blog comment spam, but the mechanism is completely general. Nofollow is recommended anywhere that links can’t be vouched for. ” Matt Cutts, Google 2006

YES.

I was one of those guys spamming comments way back in the day, although I tried to be sensible about it (on the whole). I even let my own blog get spammed for a long time. Sometimes that was me as well!

QUOTE: “If an off-domain link is made by an anonymous or unauthenticated user, I’d use nofollow on that link. Once a user has done a certain number of posts/edits, or has been around for long enough to build up trust, then those nofollows could be removed and the links could be trusted. Anytime you have a user that you’d trust, there’s no need to use nofollow links.” Matt Cutts, Google 2006

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 may not trust the links from your website (at least) and could take action on your site through algorithmic action or manual action.

You need to decide if you care about such things like Google ‘trusting’ your website or your google seo ranking.

How To Find Nofollow On External Links On A Website

You should have rel=nofollow on affiliate links, sponsored links and user generated content links that all point to external third-party sites.

SEMRush finds and highlights nofollow links to external links across your website. In the example above, the rel=nofollow attribute was removed from many external sites as they were erroneously implemented in the first place. I link out naturally when the link is editorial, and reserve nofollow, in general for affiliate links and user-generated content.

Simply set up a site-audit using the SEMRush Audit Tool and the tool will automatically highlight any external nofollow links (and a lot more, naturally).

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 from 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.

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’s Pagerank.

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.

Google changed the way it flowed PR through nofollowed links ten years ago, making Pagerank sculpting redundant:

QUOTE: “So what happens when you have a page with “ten PageRank points” and ten outgoing links, and five of those links are nofollowed? Let’s leave aside the decay factor to focus on the core part of the question. Originally, the five links without nofollow would have flowed two points of PageRank each (in essence, the nofollowed links didn’t count toward the denominator when dividing PageRank by the outdegree of the page). More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows so that the five links without nofollow would flow one point of PageRank each.” Matt Cutts, Google 2009

When you add ‘rel nofollow’ to internal links you spread less Pagerank around your own site.

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.“Matt Cutts, Google 2009

and

QUOTE: “So today at SMX Advanced, sculpting was being discussed, and then Matt Cutts dropped a bomb shell that it no longer works to help flow more PageRank to the unblocked pages. Again — and being really simplistic here — if you have $10 in authority to spend on those ten links, and you block 5 of them, the other 5 aren’t going to get $2 each. They’re still getting $1. It’s just that the other $5 you thought you were saving is now going to waste.” Moz, 2009

So – it is fairly unequivocal. The Pagerank you think you are sculpting around your site is actually “evaporating” (a quote from Matt Cutts at SMX 2009) and you want MORE PageRank in your site not less of it.

However, and here’s where some confusion comes in, even in 2018.

Google does say this in their general guidelines about nofollow:

QUOTE: ” Crawl prioritization: Search engine robots can’t sign in or register as a member on your forum, so there’s no reason to invite Googlebot to follow “register here” or “sign in” links. Using nofollow on these links enables Googlebot to crawl other pages you’d prefer to see in Google’s index. However, 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.“Google Webmaster Guidelines, 2018

However, I very much doubt “crawl prioritisation” is something 99% of Webmasters need to be concerned about at all.

The simple answer is to NOT apply rel=nofollow to ordinary HTML internal links on your website.

There is some recent discussion about Pagerank Sculpting and nofollow at Web Marketing School.

How To Find Rel=Nofollow On Internal Links On A Website

Screenshot: SEMrush Dashboard; Find internal links on your website that have the rel nofollow attribute. Ensure unnecessary nofollow links are removed.

SEMRush finds and highlights nofollow links on internal links across your website so that you can check if they should be removed. In the example above, the rel=nofollow attribute was removed from every internal link as they were erroneously implemented in the first place.

Simply set up a site-audit using the SEMRush Audit Tool and the tool will automatically highlight any internal nofollow links (and a lot more, naturally).

Should I Nofollow EVERY Outbound Link On My Site?

NO.

QUOTE: “parts of our system encourage links to good sites.” Matt Cutts, Google 2009

How does Google treat sites where all external links are no-follow?

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 OR if your site is made with “user generated content“.

I proceed thinking that Google might be taking in the quality or accuracy of your outbound links in some minor way to measure your reputation, 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.

Should I Apply Nofollow To My External Social Media Profile Links Like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin?

QUOTE: “DYK that after 18 years we’re still using* PageRank (and 100s of other signals) in ranking? Gary Illyes from Google – 2018

NO.

Why would you after reading the above. Don’t you want your social media profiles to rank in Google and be associated with your website? The nofollow attribute (we were told) ‘evaporates’ the Pagerank your page has to ‘donate’ to other pages on the web and passes no potentially positive ‘signals’ along to the other page.

Your website derives no benefit from applying nofollow to social media profile links, and if you do apply the rel=nofollow attribute to such links, neither do your social media profiles.

Whatever you do is going to have a minuscule effect on your own website rankings, but linking naturally could help your social media profiles tremendously.

Keep nofollow for paid links, user-generated content and sites you do not trust for some reason.

Can Nofollow Links Pointing To My Site Hurt MY SITE?

QUOTE: “No, typically nofollow links cannot hurt your site.” Matt Cutts, 2013

No.

Unless you are spamming people silly and annoy the Google Web Spam team.

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

QUOTE: “I would recommend putting a nofollow especially on widgets ” Matt Cutts, Google 2013

Should you apply nofollow to widgets? It is recommended.

NOTE – You can also use robots meta tags or X-Robots-Tag HTTP header to control how Google treats ALL the links on a page if you decide you really need that in certain situations:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Tue, 25 May 2018 21:42:43 GMT
(…)
X-Robots-Tag: googlebot: nofollow
(…)

You can also 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 and wish to avoid the nofollow attribute entirely.

Should you apply nofollow to infographics? “Consider” it..

QUOTE: “Depending on the scale of the stuff that you’re doing with infographics you might consider putting a rel nofollow on infographic links as well the value of those things might be branding they might be to drive traffic they might be to sort of let people know that your site or your service exists but you know I wouldn’t expect a link from a widget to necessarily carry the same weight as an editorial link” Matt Cutts, Google 2013

As an aside, here’s an infographic on “when and how to use” nofollow from Search Engine Land whose creator is now a Google spokesperson (who wrote about the issue of nofollow in 2009, to0).

This infographic is included without the nofollow attribute and included on this page because it is actually useful and I want to reward the creator of it – but that’s fair disclosure, isn’t it?:

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

Infographic – Search Engine Land.

Disclaimer

Disclaimer: “Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information I have provided is correct, It is not advice. I cannot accept any responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions. The author does not vouch for third party sites or any third party service. Visit third party sites at your own risk.  I am not directly partnered with Google or any other third party. This website uses cookies only for analytics and basic website functions. This article does not constitute legal advice. The author does not accept any liability that might arise from accessing the data presented on this site. Links to internal pages promote my own content and services.” Shaun Anderson, Hobo


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