If to Hamlet the dilemma was “to be or not to be”, to us mere mortals and even more mere Web operators of every kind the issue is definitely different: what do follow and nofollow links actually mean? Which is the difference between these two factors and what kind of impact they generate on a site as inbound and outbound connections? Today we jump right into one of the most central topics for every Web activity, one of the basis to any onpage and (maybe mainly) offpage operation, such as the building of a strong backlink profile.
Follow and nofollow Links, their importance to Google
Here is a premise: links to other resources, such as internal connections to one’s personal site, are one of the Internet’s founding characteristics; not casually we talk about Net or Web, meaning a correlated structure, where every thread leads to the next. Therefore, the whole idea to completely delete links from every site really is ludicrous, other than ironical, given the fact that this would bring life to individual entities with a life of their own that, consequently, would only offer the user a limited content and a partial experience.
Instead, Internet’s nature requires whenever mentioning in a page contents covered on other sites to insert a link useful to the user willing to deepen the subject, as whenever resuming a theme already covered on one’s personal blog it is required to redirect to the specific article with an internal link. Basically, the choice is the visitor’s, who is immediately being called to choose if following or not a link towards an (hopefully) useful resource, in line with the info he is looking for. It is obvious that when the connection is performed through an external link we take charge of the responsability towards both Google Crawlers and the user, because we are (or we should be) aware of the reliability of the resources we are redirecting them to.
Correlation between backlinks and ranking
Alongside this “structural” kind of importance, there is another factor that makes links fundamental: among various ranking factors used by Google and other search engines there precisely are these hypertext references, that have been used to determine a web document’s reliability and authority and, consequently, ranking it on SERPs. And here we come to the “dofollow links vs. nofollow links” issue, that is rooted in the SEO’s past and (basically) origins: for many years Google based its judgement of Web sites and pages (and by implication the whole functioning of search results) on the work of an algorithm called PageRank, that used to establish the “popularity” of the web pages by (mostly) analyzing the number of backlinks pointing to it from other web sites.
Basically, there was a close correlation between the number of received backlinks and page ranking, without any kind of evaluation about the type or quality of this reference. It was the dawn of a web marketing strategy of some sort, when the so-called Link Farm used to dominate, sites that really were true and proper “farms” of contents and links, often in the form of mere gatherers and generators of links. Essentially, the conveyed message was that all it took to climb rankings was to hoard links.
The creation of Nofollow rel for links
Then everything changed with the following Google’s updates, that decided to send a precise message to webmasters and whoever else works on the Web: say bye to quantity for good, rather focus on quality. The direct effect was the “creation” of the No Follow attribute for some links, a variable on webmasters’ disposal so to signal the search engine “not to follow” the connection, but mostly the adoption of stricter guidelines for backlink analysis, up until reaching the current situation where, as we know, in order to assess the acquisition of benefits and popularity algorithms are not only able to evaluate the authority of a site offering another one a link, but also the thematic correlation and other lesser known factors.
In practical terms, the nofollow (or no follow, we can found both occurrencies in the Net) is a value assigned to the link’s rel attribute, that on HTML language appears with the following string <a href=”http://example.com” rel=”nofollow”>Sample Site</a>: nothing changes for the user/visitor, because the link still is clickable and do leads on a different page, but a lot changes for the sites. Inside Google’s Search Console guide it is in fact stated that whoever chooses this option explicitly indicates to search engine bots not to follow the specific link, that consequently does not gain any authority (or, at least, not in the same amount of a dofollow link).
Nofollow rel’s utility
In particular, this attribute should be assigned to sold or purchased links, as well as specific connections clarified inside the guide itself: quickly, we would like to quote those unreliable or out of a site’s direct control contents, user generated contents (as a more immediate example, link within comments that nowadays even CMS like WordPress consider as default nofollow), links that could result as useless to Google’s crawlers (meaning those login or private pages, that could only stand out as a waste of resources to bots).
What do we need dofollow links for
At the exact opposite of all this stands the “dofollow” (or simply follow), that in reality is not an “existing” attribute and more of a standard setting for external links (in fact, there is no special string within the HTML code to distinct this typology); basically, every site that did not clearly indicate a nofollow inside its hypertextual references is actually signaling Google bots that its external links are to follow. Theorically speaking, dofollow links invite crawlers to follow, indeed, the connection, as judged useful both for the user and search engines, and that is therefore obvious that receiving this kind of reference represents for a site an opportunity to reinforce a content’s ranking, given the fact that they are actually transfering value and a quality feedback towards the linked site. Therefore, in an offpage SEO strategy, it takes to carefully evaluate the link popularity, thinking not only (and not anymore) about hoarding references from other sites, but also and most of all to receive quality inbound links relevant to the linked resource.
Follow and nofollow links, what to choose for our own site?
Summing it up, then, what do dofollow links and nofollow links mean and how should one act in regards of his own site? As we said, if everyone should “sterilize” their outbound links we would face isolated and fragmented sites, that would not offer a useful service to the user nor to search engines, that take advantage of the quality and quantity (as well) of the references to sort out their SERPs. However, this fairly simple concept clashes with some theories and “urban legends” more or less bizarre anyone can read online, like the fear to stumble into Google’s penalties if we own too much outbound links on a site or to lose “link juice” keeping dofollow links.
As a matter of fact, according to the latest SEO considerations it is claimed that Google still takes into account, even if in a less relevant way, nofollow links for a site’s assessment, as long as the external reference comes from fair level and kindred themed web sites.
When to use nofollow links
In the end, we can safely say that for whoever owns or manages a site:
Adding a nofollow rel means to say to search engine creawlers not to follow the link during their scans.
To always use the nofollow goes in some ways against the Web’s principles.
We can set the nofollow – if not on default – on comments left by readers and other contents that can be “manipulated”.
It is also possible to choose this attribute to avoid the transmission of “power” and authority of our own site to another linked site, that we nonetheless consider useful to the reader.
Moreover, the value should be also entered for an affiliation link, paid link (even an advertising one, both on text and images), links to/towards press releases, links to/towards guestposts, links towards articles that have minimum topic relevance with the page’s target and then again links within widgets, links towards unreliable contents and links towards pages that only include forms.
The value of received nofollow links
For whoever instead receives a nofollow link:
The attribute still has an impact on influencing a site’s ranking.
A link still is a connection: said about the littlest value to Google, receiving a reference still leads to our personal site spreading and, virtually, even to a wider sharing of the content through users.
It anyway allows to gain immediate direct traffic.
It is a signal of authority for the site, especially if it comes from an already strong and influent site. The ideal case to mention is the Wikipedia one, that by its own policy setted the nofollow attribute to every outbound link (as well as Youtube, to name another big): to appear on a mention of the most famous virtual encyclopedia, in fact, represent a high value (not only symbolic) for one’s personal site.