Ready to rank in search engine results pages already?
Your website should have more links than a cyclone fence.
Links establish your presence on the internet.
They quantify how known and trusted your site is, and determine how high you show up in the major search engine rankings—most importantly, Google’s.
It’s a little victory every time another site links to yours, but sometimes you might find traffic directed to your site by something called a "nofollow" link.
Links with the nofollow value in their rel attribute don't count toward PageRank calculations—they're literally telling search engines, "don't follow this link."
Conversely, a "dofollow" link does count toward page rankings.
At first glance, nofollow links might seem like a bit of a poison pill, but don't be too quick to dismiss the potential benefits of a nofollow link, or worse, get mad at whoever linked to you with one.
A nofollow link might not immediately push your site closer to the first page of Google's search results, but it will still be helpful to have.
Nofollow vs. Dofollow: What's the Difference?
To understand why nofollow links are still beneficial, it's helpful to look at how and why they were developed.
Anyone who was around for the early days of the blog boom probably remembers when spammers discovered blog comments and started filling them up with thinly-disguised ads that linked to poor quality websites.
To fight this, programmers at Google and Blogger came up with the rel=“nofollow" attribute, which keeps search engines from following those links. That innovation prevented would-be freeloading advertisers from diluting the reliability and trustworthiness of host sites.
As the blog economy grew, search engines began to face a similar problem. Paid links threatened to wield an oversized influence over page rankings. Search engines consequently suggested that nofollow links be used in these situations as well.
You can identify whether a page is using nofollow or dofollow links by right-clicking on a link, selecting "inspect element," and checking to see if the <a> tag contains rel=“nofollow".
You can also view the page source to see if there's a content=“nofollow" attribute in the <head> tag, which would make all links default to nofollow. Certain SEO tools can even give you an exact breakdown of which backlinks to your site are “nofollow” or “dofollow.”
Given their importance and search engine sanctioned status, there are solid reasons to appreciate legitimate nofollow links.
1. Traffic Is Traffic, Regardless of the Link Attribute
There are benefits to nofollow links that go beyond SEO, and one of the main ones is to direct traffic to your website.
The ultimate goal of link building is to create opportunities for people to discover your website, check it out, join your engaged audience and convert into sales.
From that perspective, it hardly matters what's in the rel attribute, as long as a link gets somebody to click on it and visit one of your pages.
Links lead to more links, which will boost your rankings, and an original nofollow link can be linked to on other sites as a dofollow link, especially if the original was posted on a high traffic site. Links lead to traffic, traffic leads to engagement, and engagement leads to profit. Isn't increasing your website's overall traffic the whole point of SEO, anyway?
Don't discount the tremendous potential value of referral traffic from a nofollow link on the right platform. A citation or external link from a Wikipedia article, for instance, is going to be a nofollow link, but think about how Wikipedia is often one of the highest search results and one of the first clicks for many people researching any given topic. That's a link that can generate a lot of interest in your site, even if it isn't directly producing link juice.
2. The Link Juice Must Flow
Speaking of link juice, don't automatically assume that nofollow links aren't doing anything to help create it for you. "Link juice" is the SEO term for the value conferred by one page linking to another—if you have a lot of authoritative sites linking to your site, you're getting a lot of link juice.
In theory, when you're looking at a nofollow link, the tap is turned off and no juice is getting through from the upstream site. Search engines are looking at that rel attribute and turning a blind eye.
In reality, search engines are a bit more complex than that.
The overall frequency and placement of nofollow links are factored into search engines’ overall page ranking calculations, especially when the host site is considered "authoritative."
However, as previously noted, the best way to squeeze link juice out of a nofollow is for it to generate traffic and lead to other sites linking you.
A good way to think about how nofollow links fit into the link juice metaphor is to think of them as creating pipelines and pathways, through which link juice from other websites will soon flow.
3. Google's Here, Try to Act Natural
Top search engines like Google occasionally penalize websites that are trying a little too blatantly in their attempts to game the system, for instance, by creating too many dofollow backlinks.
Mixing it up with nofollow backlinks gives less of an impression that a site is just creating backlinks for the SEO benefits.
With that in mind, judicious use of the nofollow value can help assure Google that you're not up to any shenanigans, and there’s no reason to penalize your PageRank score.
Meanwhile, all those backlinks are still doing what they do best—what links were always originally intended to do—getting more clicks and eyeballs to more pages on your website.
4. Authority Always Wins
Metrics, much like Domain and Page Authority, Alexa Rank, and other ways of measuring your website's potential, don't directly affect how Google and the other big search engines rank your site in their search result pages.
However, other listing services, directories and advertisers may find them highly useful when it comes to deciding whether or not to do business with you. Nofollow links are often counted along with the rest of your backlinks when these metrics are calculated.
So, having a lot of nofollow links can help you improve your website's authority and improve the metrics, which leads to more traffic and new business opportunities.
Additionally, a high Alexa Rank is always a strong sales point when it comes to selling backlinks or hosting content on your own website.
They also help in unquantifiable ways. The more people see your site linked, visit your pages and find quality content there, the more likely they are to continue visiting, share your links in their social circles and find reasons to engage, subscribe and stick around.
The people engaging with your content don't care if the links to your site are nofollow or dofollow—they aren't even checking. They just want quality content on a site they can trust.
Final Thoughts on Nofollow Links and SEO
Let's be honest. There's nothing more exciting than getting a prominent dofollow link from a hugely popular and respected website. It's the SEO dream.
But, while you're waiting for magic moments like that to come around, don't forget to think about how to nurture and encourage less obvious sources of traffic, like nofollow links.
For many SEO experts, a nofollow link from a reputable site is more valuable than a dofollow link from a low Domain Authority site.
So, nofollow links might not give an immediate bump to your PageRank, but by providing visibility and organic traffic, they can steer people to your website, encourage the kind of sharing and linking that will get you dofollows and link juice, help your site maintain a "natural" profile and boost your overall authority metrics.
None of that is anything to sneeze at!
So the next time you see a nofollow link to your site pop up somewhere, think about the potential benefits for your website!
Morgan Taylor directs SEO at Jolly Content. In addition to executing multi thousand-piece content campaigns for the premier comparison shopping website, and managing 200+ piece monthly retainers for several link builder clients, he enjoys playing with his toddler son in Pasadena, California.