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Are No Follow Links Any Good for SEO



Old habits die hard.


The standard belief among the SEO community for a long time was that “nofollow” links did not have any value for SEO, and for a long time that was correct. It was believed that the only value from nofollow links would be from the visibility and traffic they might generate. But is it time to rethink that belief?


The Evolution of Nofollow


Nofollow links were established in the first iteration of the link relationship attribute (AKA “rel” tags) back in 2005. They were created such that webmasters could indicate to search engines what the purpose of any given link was. This was done primarily to fight link spam, which was pervasive at the time. At the time, Google and other search engines treated nofollow tags as a hard and fast rule. If there was a nofollow tag, not only would they not provide any SEO benefit to the linked site or page, but they wouldn’t even index the link! Over time, however, website moderation technologies caught up with most link spam efforts, and link spam is much less pervasive than it used to be, especially on high-quality sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and many popular forums and Q&A sites. Additionally, search engines are far more powerful and are able to discern context and identify spam or low quality content and links much better without needing to rely on rel tags. Google and other search engines could therefore obtain better data not by treating link relationship attributes as a rule, but rather as a guideline.


Google announced this evolution of the nofollow attribute in a blog post in September 2019, in which they outright stated that they would begin treating nofollow tags as a “hint” rather than a rule. The post states: “Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn't be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”


In other words, Google just admitted that nofollow links do carry weight for SEO purposes! This was a profound transformation for SEO and link builders, meaning that link builders could again include sites with nofollow tags in their link building plans. Sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Quora, and others are back on the menu, so long as your efforts can get past any moderation those sites have.


Getting Links Past Moderation … and Indexed by Search Engines


This isn’t rocket science and SEO professionals need to do what is logical with regards to posting content on third party sites. Only post links in places that are relevant to the content being linked to. Keep the use of links to a minimum, and ensure your use of links is natural. Provide additional context with your link - don’t only drop the link and expect that it won’t get moderated. Contribute meaningfully to whatever conversations you are participating in. Etc.


Think of link building on third-party sites like you would think of content marketing: you need to actually deliver value to the audience to be successful. However, the rewards can be great. A single nofollow backlink on a highly reputable site like Wikipedia or Reddit might be worth more than multiple guest posts on a less reputable site. It can be worth putting in the time and effort, as shown in this case study on using nofollow backlinks for SEO from the life science marketing agency BioBM.


Starting in August 2023, BioBM had primarily used Quora, Reddit, and the scientific community site ResearchGate to conduct link-building activities for one of their clients. Over a span of 8 months, they were able to improve their average rank for tracked terms by 8.5 positions, improve their median rank from 14 to 7, and increase the percentage of terms in the top 3 from 21% to almost 40%. This demonstrates the power that nofollow links can have for SEO, despite what the name of the attribute suggests!


Summary


Backlinking remains an important part of any SEO strategy. While most reputable sites still use nofollow tags to discourage link spam, Google and other search engines no longer follow nofollow strictly, making those sites potentially valuable sources for link building. To make the best of these opportunities:


  1. Search them for contextually relevant opportunities

  2. Find places where you can contribute to the conversations

  3. Link to content which adds value for the readers

  4. Write and link naturally, and don’t be spammy


Follow these guidelines and you’ll improve your SEO efforts while unlocking many valuable link building opportunities.


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