What Are Nofollow Links? A “Hint”?

Google introduced the nofollow attribute for a reason: to combat link spam. However, today, Google treats the nofollow attribute as a “hint”.

June 27, 2024
Written by
Nate Matherson
Reviewed by
Charles Purdy

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Designating a link as a nofollow link hints to Google that the link should not pass PageRank or link equity to the URL that’s being linked to. But the word “hint” is important to note.

Since the very early days of Google’s search engine, PageRank has played an important role in determining how webpages appear in Google’s organic search results.

Google uses backlinks to determine which webpages are helpful. In short, if you hyperlink to another website from your website, Google sees this as a vote of confidence that the webpage you’re linking to is likely a good source of information on a given topic.

Backlinks pass PageRank from page to page. The more backlinks that a webpage has pointing to it, the more PageRank — or page authority — that page has, and the more important it will seem to Google.

But by 2005, search engine marketers realized that they could pretty easily manipulate the performance of their webpages by building large amounts of low-quality backlinks to them. In an effort to combat this (specifically to combat comment spam), Google released the nofollow attribute.

Nofollow links are hyperlinks that include the nofollow attribute or, in other words, rel="nofollow" in the HTML code. For example:

<a href="https://google.com/" rel="nofollow">Google</a>

By adding this attribute to a hyperlink, you are telling Google not to follow the link and that they shouldn’t crawl it.

If you apply the nofollow attribute on an external hyperlink from your webpage, you’re telling Google that you want to link to a webpage but aren’t endorsing it and don’t want PageRank to pass to it. 

If you’ve received a nofollow backlink, the website linking to you has told Google that they aren’t endorsing your page and that they don’t want to pass PageRank to you.

Nofollow vs. Dofollow Links

You’ll hear a lot about dofollow backlinks. A dofollow backlink is simply a backlink that does not contain the rel="nofollow" attribute.

Here Is an Example of a Nofollow Hyperlink:

<a href="https://google.com/" rel="nofollow">Google</a>

Here Is an Example of a Dofollow Hyperlink:

<a href="https://google.com/">Google</a>

In other words, a dofollow link is simply a normal hyperlink. You don’t need to add an attribute to the hyperlink in order for it to be considered dofollow.

Dofollow links are very different from nofollow links. Importantly, dofollow links will communicate to Google that the webpage you’re hyperlinking to is a good source of information and that you’d like to pass PageRank, or link equity, to it.

Do Nofollow Links Help SEO?

This is a difficult question to answer. And the answer has changed over the years.

The textbook answer would be no: nofollow backlinks do not help with SEO. But there are important nuances to consider. 

In 2019, on Google Search Central, Google issued updated guidance on using nofollow attributes:

Google notes that when the nofollow attribute was originally released, it did not consider or follow any hyperlinks marked as nofollow. However, today, Google treats the nofollow attribute as a “hint” — in other words, Google is maintaining some flexibility in terms of how to treat a hyperlink with a nofollow attribute.

Google goes on to say that nofollow links can provide valuable information that can improve search. Google’s Gary Illyes stressed that Google was missing important context by not following hyperlinks with nofollow tags. And that Google “can provide better search results” now that they take nofollow links into consideration. Hmmm.

My understanding is that, ultimately, Google’s algorithms decide whether to ignore or assign a nofollow attribute. In theory, if you receive a backlink that contains the nofollow attribute, Google may still decide to pay attention to it and follow it.

And this makes sense. These days, there are many websites on the internet that make all outgoing links nofollow by default. For example, Forbes does this to all its outgoing links:

That isn’t helpful for Google’s algorithms. And Google is aware of this. 

On the Optimize podcast, I asked Andrew Holland about this, and he responded, “What I suspect happens is Google has the right to ignore the nofollow attributes and do what it likes with the links.” said Holland.

He went on to say, “From a data perspective, I can absolutely, 100%, tell you categorically that nofollow links in certain publications and certain websites matter and have incredible, almost near instant effect.”

Conversely, if you’re buying backlinks to your website and those backlinks don’t include the nofollow attribute, Google is smart enough to see through the spam and apply its own reasoning.

In short, I think you can make a strong argument that nofollow backlinks from certain websites or publications can have a positive impact on organic search performance. In theory, Google has the power and ability to decide to follow a link regardless of the nofollow attribute. 

And at a minimum, these nofollow backlinks could have a very positive indirect influence on search engine rankings. For example, if you receive a significant amount of referral traffic from a nofollow link, that would send a positive signal to Google that your webpage is important. (Google has gotten a lot better at understanding off-page signals — for example, traffic.)

Also, it’s worth noting that if you’re actively trying to build backlinks to your website, you want to build a natural-looking link profile, which would very likely include nofollow links.

How to Check for Nofollow Links

Checking to see whether a backlink is nofollow is pretty straightforward. At Positional, we recently got a backlink, and I noticed that it contained the nofollow attribute.

The first step is to right-click on the hyperlink and then click on Inspect (we’re using Google’s Chrome browser in this example):

After you click on Inspect, Chrome will open Developer Tools on the right-hand side of your browser:

In the example above, the hyperlink clearly contains the nofollow attribute.

There are many backlink-tracking tools, including those from Ahrefs and Semrush. These tools monitor new incoming backlinks and automatically identify the ones that contain the nofollow attribute.

When to Use Nofollow Links

You’ll often want to apply the nofollow attribute on external hyperlinks. Here are a few places where you could consider applying the nofollow attribute:

When You Don’t Want to Pass PageRank

This is the textbook example: If you’re hyperlinking to a webpage that you don’t want to endorse or pass PageRank to, you should use the nofollow attribute.

There may be tactical reasons for this. For example, say that you’ve got a webpage on your site about the best SEO tools, and you want to hyperlink to source material on a competitor’s page about the best SEO tools. However, you don’t want that webpage to rank above yours in organic search, so you could apply the nofollow attribute to the link.

On Affiliate Links

If you’re using affiliate links to promote products and services on your website, you should use the rel="sponsored" attribute. This attribute is similar to the nofollow attribute but provides a little more context to Google.

But Google has said that using nofollow attributes on affiliate links is acceptable and that you don’t necessarily need to change them.

Sponsored or Paid Links

If you’re accepting sponsored content or paid links on your website, you’ll want to apply the rel="sponsored" attribute or the nofollow attribute.

Either approach is totally fine. If you fail to apply one of these attributes appropriately, you’ll be breaking Google’s link spam guidelines.

On User-Generated Content

As we mentioned previously, Google initially rolled out the nofollow attribute to solve for comment spam. If you’ve got a comments section enabled on your blog posts, for example, you’ll certainly want to add the nofollow attribute to any external links included in those comments. Otherwise, you’re going to open your website up for an incredible amount of spam.

Additionally, if you allow users to publish content on your website directly, you’ll want to nofollow outgoing links. Again, if you leave these links as dofollow, your website is going to be the target of spammers.

Google released the rel="ugc" attribute for hyperlinks within user-generated content (UGC). You could use this or the nofollow attribute, totally up to you!

When Not to Use Nofollow Links

My general recommendation is to use the nofollow attribute only when it’s warranted. Don’t add the nofollow attribute to every outbound hyperlink on your site.

You’ll often hear SEOs mention that they nofollow all outgoing backlinks or that they nofollow backlinks to specific competitors. At Positional, to my knowledge, we’ve actually never assigned the nofollow attribute to an external link point from our website. 

Given that we aren’t accepting sponsored content or UGC, there hasn’t been a need for us to implement the nofollow attribute. In general, we aren’t concerned with hyperlinking to other websites related to our industry. 

Our logic is simple. 

If we’ve decided to hyperlink, the webpage that we are linking to must be helpful. But that is an important distinction to make, and I think it would be fair to think critically about the websites you’re hyperlinking to or pointing your own website traffic to.

Do Not Use Nofollow on Internal Links

As a quick note, I advise not using the nofollow attribute on internal links. Instead, if you want to signal to Google that it shouldn’t crawl (follow) or index a webpage, you can do that with other directives such as the noindex tag or by using robots meta tags.

Some SEOs will argue that you want to shape page-authority on your website, or in other words, avoid internal linking to certain pages on your website in an effort to keep PageRank contained to the most important parts of your website. Therefore, with the nofollow attribute on an internal link, you could still direct users to another webpage on your website without shifting PageRank.

While this makes sense in theory, I would advise avoiding using the nofollow attribute on internal links, as this can lead to other indexing and performance challenges. That being said, Google’s John Mueller has said that you can use the nofollow attribute on internal links and that Google will treat them as a hint.

Final Thoughts

Google introduced the nofollow attribute for a reason: to combat link spam. However, at the time, Google’s algorithms and reasoning capabilities were not what they are today.

Whether you’ve recently received a nofollow backlink or recently added the nofollow attribute to a hyperlink pointing from your webpage, know that nofollow is just a hint. It is ultimately up to Google to decide how they want to interpret the hyperlinked URL, and it is likely that Google is still using nofollow links to better understand webpage context.

At a minimum, if you are hosting sponsored content, affiliate content, or UGC on your website, the best approach is to use the nofollow attribute or one of the other attributes, such as the sponsored or UGC attribute.

It’s worth mentioning that no hyperlinks were nofollowed within this piece of content. Everything that I’ve linked to within this piece of content is helpful for readers like you. And that is my bar.

Nate Matherson
Co-founder & CEO of Positional

Nate Matherson is the Co-founder & CEO of Positional. An experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he has founded multiple venture-backed companies and is a two-time Y Combinator Alum. Throughout Nate's career, he has built and scaled content marketing channels to hundreds of thousands of visitors per month for companies in both B2C (ex financial products, insurance) as well as B2B SaaS. Nate is also an active angel investor with investments in 45+ companies.

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