Search engines look at links as potential votes for the Web pages they point to. Some website owners have spent countless hours (and dollars) trying to improve their placement in search results, using link building as a primary method.
In the early 2000s, blog commenting was playing a major role in most link building campaigns. By 2005, spammers took over and started abusing blogs and forums with spam comments that served no purpose other than gaining a link back to the commenter’s website. Worse, they started automating their spam and spewing out thousands of spam comments to beleaguer poor bloggers and forum owners.
That’s when Google decided to team up with Bing, Yahoo and MSN to develop a plan to address that problem. What they came up with is now known as the “nofollow attribute.”
What is Nofollow?
The nofollow attribute is a tag that bloggers, webmasters and Web publishers can add to individual links to tell search engines not to count the link as a vote. Without this tag, all links are “dofollow” links. Search engines will consider the pages they link to as trusted, high quality sites that obtained the link without compensation.
Nofollow started out as a deterrent that was supposed to eliminate the amount of worthless comments on the Web. Back in 2005, when Google first discussed it on the Official Google Blog, they mentioned blog comments specifically saying:
“… we’ve been testing a new tag that blocks it. From now on, when Google sees the attribute (rel=”nofollow”) on hyperlinks, those links won’t get any credit when we rank websites in our search results. This isn’t a negative vote for the site where the comment was posted; it’s just a way to make sure that spammers get no benefit from abusing public areas like blog comments, trackbacks, and referrer lists.”
Sadly, nofollow never solved the comment spam problem. Large sites like Small Business Trends still get thousands of spam comments per day. Luckily the vast majority are filtered out through technology like Akismet.
Still, the nofollow attribute stayed with us.
Over the past nine years it evolved into something much broader. Now the “nofollow attribute” is used widely for different situations on many different parts of websites, not just the comments area. We’ll show you situations for when to use nofollow in just a moment.
The Nofollow Tag is Written Like This: rel=”nofollow”
Below is an example of how you would use the tag. Adding the nofollow tag is a fairly easy way to let search engines know the site you’re linking to should not receive credit for the link.
Remember, you don’t just type the “rel=”nofollow” tag anywhere in your sentence. You have to insert it into the HTML code for a link. That means, you have to be able to get to the HTML code for a link.
For example, in self-hosted WordPress sites, you can see the HTML code for a link by using the Text editor screen (rather than the Visual editor). The Text Editor screen is where you can type in the nofollow attribute manually.
See a screenshot of a WordPress Text Editor screen below, to understand how this works:
When to Use Nofollow
So, you probably want to know when you should use nofollow.
Using nofollow is mostly a choice, although in some cases you will definitely want to choose to use it to protect your site from a potential penalty from Google. Sometimes it’s easy to know when to use the nofollow tag. Other times it is downright difficult. Sometimes it comes down to a judgment call. Search engine policies on this issue can cause confusion among site owners. So we’re going to clarify things for you, with some best practices and examples of how others use nofollow.
You might think you should manually add the nofollow tag to the comments on your blog, since that’s what it was developed for, right? Well, actually, you don’t have to worry much about that. Google says it does take some measures to ensure that worthless comments aren’t helpful to spammers.
Besides, most blog software — such as WordPress, Typepad and Blogger — already adds the nofollow tag. It’s the standard way their software is programmed. As long as you don’t change the standard code, the comment links have nofollow in them automatically.
Of course, you should still take steps to moderate and remove any spam comments, as they destroy the credibility of your site pages. Spam comments make it look like you don’t care about your website. After all, would you let someone come in and trash your home or office, and not bother to clean up the mess?
It’s pretty clear that search engines want you to add the nofollow tag to all paid links. A paid link is when someone or some company pays you to link to their website. However, sometimes what constitutes paid is not clear.
For example, if you sell advertising space on your website — that is a paid link. Since you wouldn’t have placed the link from the advertiser without getting paid, you should add the nofollow tag. (Or use an ad serving program like DFP for Small Business, that doesn’t use a direct link but redirects the link through it.)
In other circumstances, a paid link could be anything from receiving a review product or a cold beer for the link. In these situations, Google likes to measure intent as this video shows:
Since intent can be difficult for an algorithm to measure, always refer to the FTC’s guidelines on these matters. Under the FTC guidelines you may also be required to actively disclose a paid relationship — not just include a nofollow attribute in the link.
If you place affiliate links to products or services on your website, you might also wonder whether you should use the nofollow attribute. This is another case where Google claims to handle things on its own, without you needing to add a nofollow link. Matt Cutts of Google says:
“If the affiliate network is large enough, then we know about it and we can handle it.”
Since there is no clear definition of what “large enough” means, some people use the nofollow tag on affiliate links just to be safe. And once again, FTC guidelines may require disclosing the nature of the link beyond the nofollow attribute.
Linking to other pages on your own site can give a boost to your site’s SEO (search engine optimization). Adding the nofollow tag to links back to your own pages may defeat the purpose from an SEO perspective.
Google’s Matt Cutts in 2013 more or less recommended that you not use nofollow on internal links.
SEO professionals disagree about the benefits and pitfalls of using nofollow for internal links. So you should probably not use nofollow when linking within your site — unless you know enough to understand what you’re doing and why.
Reference Links to Third Party Sites
Linking to another site is common for Web publishers. It is natural because readers may want to refer to another source. You’re helping readers by pointing out another helpful reference for them. So, it’s a great way to add to the quality of your content.
Examples of reference links are the external links to other websites, in the article you are reading right now. They are there to provide additional information you might want to explore as a reader.
When linking to a page, remember that any link without rel=”nofollow” counts as a vote for that page.
If you’re linking to a page, chances are you believe the page deserves the vote. There are some cases though, where you might link to a page to show readers a ‘bad example’ of something. This might be the perfect scenario for using the nofollow tag.
Got a Different Situation?
It would be impossible here to cover all the likely places where you might need to use or not use the nofollow tag. Everyone has different circumstances but remember, if it is not a page you trust to provide value to the reader or it involves any kind of payment, then most likely — it deserves a nofollow.
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