Follow vs. Nofollow Links: What’s the Deal?

Building backlinks is one part art and one part science. This article tackles some of the science...enjoy.

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Last updated on December 12, 2023

Not all backlinks are created equal. Are you following me?

I hope so. Because follow (also called “dofollow”) links pass all that lovely link juice to your website. And boost your rankings as a result.

But what about nofollow links? Why do they even exist?

We’re going to get into all of that in this guide to follow vs. nofollow backlinks.

One quick thing:
If you think you’ve already got this figured out — you’re pretty confident all you need or want is Dofollow links — I’m going to surprise you in this article.

Keep reading to learn more.
Follow vs. Nofollow Links_ What’s the Deal?

What Are Do-Follow Links?

DoFollow links are just regular links. When you’re talking about backlinks (which I love to do), you’re just talking about a simple link on another website that points to your website.

What do I mean by “regular” links? I mean there’s no special note in the HTML code about the link. It’s just the simplest type of link, which looks like this in HTML:

<a href=””>Example anchor text</a>

That’s just a link with anchor text. When it’s on the live page, it looks like this:

Link Building for Beginners

(See what I did there? – I just added a link with anchor text that accurately describes the page it’s pointing to.)

What Are Nofollow Links?

While dofollow links are just regular links, nofollow links are links with a little something extra.

More specifically, they’re links with an added “link attribute.”

The link attribute, as Google sees it, is “nofollow.” That tells Google not to transfer authority from the origination site to the destination site.

That also means that Google (likely) won’t transfer the influence of that link’s anchor text from the origination site to the destination site.

This points back to the days of PageRank. That was a foundational (and now deprecated, though not dead) Google algorithm that assigned a rank based on authority to every webpage.

Links were a primary influencing factor in determining a page’s PageRank. Each link would pass some PageRank based on a few determining factors …

Unless it was a nofollow link. Then it wasn’t supposed to pass that authority.

“No juice for you!”

That nofollow attribute is just a way to tell Google that you don’t endorse the website you’re linking to. In other words, you don’t vouch for their authority, accuracy, etc.

You’re just linking to them — not recommending that they rank better in search engine results (necessarily).

We already talked about what a follow link looks like. Now, let’s look at the HTML for a nofollow link:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Example anchor text</a>

The part you should notice is different is the rel=”nofollow” bit. That’s the nofollow link attribute.

Remember: You don’t notice that you’re looking at nofollow links because you’re not a search engine bot, so you’re not reading the HTML code. And that’s where the nofollow attribute lives.

It’s invisible on the front end of the webpage you’re reading. The code for that nofollow link we described above displays exactly the same as the follow link in our earlier example:

Google Chrome Store: NoFollow Extension

Add this NoFollow extension to your Chrome browser to put a dotted red box around all NoFollow links, like this:

Other Types of Nofollow Links

There’s actually more than one type of nofollow link. It gets kind of tricky because the other types we discuss below are not technically nofollow links — they lack the rel=”nofollow” link attribute.

But the main idea is the same: They don’t pass link juice from the linking site to your site.

Again, “No juice for you!” lol

Google announced these two other types of nofollow links in 2019:

  • Sponsored links
  • User-generated content links

Let’s take a closer look:

Sponsored Links

You know how Google doesn’t like it when people pay for links? They created a great way to give yourself away by introducing the sponsored link attribute.

This link attribute — which looks like rel=”sponsored” — tells Google that the link in question is part of some sort of purchase, sponsorship or similar compensation-involving arrangement.

It also doesn’t pass any link juice from one site to another.

Here’s what it looks like in HTML:

<a href=”” rel=”sponsored”>Example anchor text</a>

Same deal as regular nofollow links: On the front end, the link looks completely normal.

User-Generated Content Links

User-generated content (UGC) is content the users of a website generate themselves. Perhaps the best example of UGC right now is Reddit.

Everything on Reddit is a forum. And the content there is created by individual users. If you were going to link to a Reddit post on your website, it’d be a good idea to use the UGC link attribute.

This just tells Google that the content you’re linking to is generated by users. That CAN signal lower quality, less vetting and similar issues, which is why I assume Google wants people to use this link attribute.

Another type of UGC that might warrant a UGC link would be comments on a website. Basically, anything the user can submit and instantly see on the live website could be UGC.

If you’re running a business website or any site that doesn’t have forums on it, you really don’t want UGC links pointing at your content.

For one thing, they’re inaccurate. Your content shouldn’t be user-generated.

But the other thing: These are just like nofollow links. They don’t pass any authority (ranking power) to your site.

The UGC link attribute is simply rel=”ugc” — and it looks like this in full HTML:

<a href=”” rel=”ugc”>Example anchor text</a>

And — you can probably guess this by now — the UGC link attribute is invisible to users on the front end. These look just like normal links and are meant solely to help Google understand the links better.

Do You Want Sponsored or UGC Links?

It’s probably safe to say that sponsored and UGC links — like nofollow links in general — aren’t going to hurt your SEO performance.

But they’re much less likely than follow links to help. In fact, it’s likely that sponsored links, in particular, are the LEAST likely to help with SEO of all link types.

(That’s because Google doesn’t see value in links that were clearly paid for. And sponsored links give that away right off the bat.)

So, no. You probably don’t really want sponsored or UGC backlinks.

But if you see some popping up in your backlink profile, it’s probably not a big deal.

Is Noindex the Same as Nofollow?

You can use nofollow links on your own website. Many people use them when linking out to other websites.

That’s fine. But please: Do NOT use nofollow links to try to keep Google from indexing a page.

That’s not what they’re meant for.

Lost? Here’s the basic idea:

If you have a page on your website that you don’t want to appear in Google, you add it to your robots.txt file or add the noindex meta tag to the page itself.

(I won’t bore you with all the technical details there; just know that robots.txt is a text file that tells Google which URLs on your site it can access. And the noindex meta tag just tells Google not to index the page it’s on.)

But some people think using links with nofollow attributes or adding the nofollow attribute to the page header.

That might work in some cases, but it’s just a trick — a glitch, even. And it doesn’t keep Google from crawling and indexing the page in some other way, such as through your sitemap or a link on someone else’s website to the page in question.

Should You Avoid Nofollow Links?

Absolutely not. You shouldn’t avoid nofollow links.

That would be pointless.

Still, I’ve seen so-called experienced SEOs doing this or telling their clients that they should do this.

The bottom line:

Actively avoiding nofollow links is a waste of time and effort. And it’s risky.

Here’s more information about why exactly that is:

Part of a Natural Backlink Profile

You’ve probably heard that Google can penalize you if your backlink profile looks unnatural. That’s true.

But what does a natural backlink profile look like? It’s definitely going to include some nofollow links.

Lots of major websites use nofollow links exclusively to link to other websites. Lots of pre-built website templates automatically mark outbound links as nofollow.

It would be weird if you somehow managed to avoid nofollow links altogether. Believe me: Google will notice that eventually.

I get it — you want those sweet follow links to boost your rankings. But you have to have balance with some nofollow links.

Otherwise, your backlink profile will look unnatural. And if Google sees that, you might end up with a manual action.

Should You Actively Pursue Nofollow Links?

Does that mean you need to go after nofollow links? Possibly even invest part of your backlink budget in getting them?

Probably not. Why? Because your site should pick up nofollow links naturally.

Here’s the thing: Nofollow links are easier to get than follow links (in most cases).

That’s because most website owners know the value of dofollow backlinks. So they put up barriers to getting them, such as a fee you have to pay.

Many other websites may want to link to yours for various reasons. And when they do, they’re likely to use a nofollow link.

Of course, if you notice that you have no nofollow links, it couldn’t hurt to go after a handful just to keep your backlink profile looking natural.

And there’s one more exception:

If you find an opportunity to get a nofollow link from a website with insane traffic, high DA and other great metrics, take it.

It’s definitely not going to hurt you. And it very likely will help you.

Nofollow and the Disavow Tool

I’ve gotten this question several times throughout my SEO career:

Should I disavow nofollow links?

No. Not BECAUSE they’re nofollow links.

But if they’re bad links in general, they’re probably worth adding to your disavow file.

What does a “bad” nofollow link look like? Just like any other potentially toxic link:

  • Spammy anchor text
  • No relevance to you
  • Terrible traffic and DA

Those are certainly worth disavowing. But leave your other nofollow links alone.

Are Nofollow Links Bad for SEO?

Most newbie SEOs assume that, because nofollow links don’t pass link juice, they’re not worth pursuing.

Some even take it a step further and try to avoid nofollow links altogether.

That’s silly. Nofollow links don’t hurt you. And they can really, really help you when it comes to SEO.

Let me illustrate that with a true story:

I was doing comprehensive SEO for a law firm not that long ago. That meant keyword research, content, on-page SEO, technical SEO and, of course, backlinks.

The problem: The needle was moving, but it was too slow.

The client was getting antsy. They wanted the SEO results I had promised.

They were in a super competitive market. And they were an awesome law firm.

But this happens in SEO sometimes: You just can’t move the needle, and you’re not sure why. That’s why you need to keep tinkering.

That’s what I did. The firm won a big case. They were really excited about it, and I commissioned a blog post about it.

Then, I went to Wikipedia. I found the article about the legal issue that the case my client had won involved.

I added information about the case. And a link to the blog post. That link was a nofollow link — all outbound links on Wikipedia are.

But guess what? The firm’s rankings shot up pretty much overnight. In no time flat, we hit page one for all kinds of valuable keywords.

Now, it’s possible something else contributed to their rankings skyrocketing. But I don’t think so. Ask any experienced SEO, and they’ll have a similar story to share.

Nofollow links are perfectly fine for SEO. In fact, sometimes they can really get things moving.

Remember: That nofollow attribute in each nofollow link is just a suggestion. It’s not a rule that Google has to follow.

How to Find Nofollow Links Pointing to Your Site

How can you check for nofollow backlinks pointing to your site? There are a few ways.

First, I’ll show you the easy way (which is the one you have to pay for). Then I’ll show you the harder (but free) way.

The Easy Way: An SEO Tool

SEO tools like Ahrefs and Semrush are purpose-built to help you track the backlinks pointing to your website (among other things).

They will cost you. But they make checking for nofollow links really easy.

Here’s how to do it in Semrush:

Enter your domain into the search bar. Then click Backlinks.

SEMRush domain overview
There, you’ll get a nice breakdown of some metrics related to the backlinks you have.

You’ll see a list of every backlink on the left side of the screen. Check the “Type” column to see whether each link is follow or nofollow.

You’ll also get a breakdown of your total follow vs. nofollow link numbers on the right side.

Here’s what it looks like:
backlink review in semrush

The Hard Way: Manual Checks

If you want to check for nofollow links on a particular page in a way that doesn’t cost money, this section is for you.

It’ll cost a little bit of your time. Especially if you need to check a bunch of pages. But still, it can be done.

Here’s how:

Go to the page you want to check for nofollow links. (This should be a page you see linking to your website — not a page on your own website.)

Right click somewhere on the page. And click View Page Source in the menu that appears next to your cursor.

That’s going to bring up the HTML code for the page you’re looking at.

Then, type Command/Control + F. (Command for Macs and Control for PCs.)

In the search bar that pops up, type “nofollow” (without the quotation marks).

That will highlight all of the nofollow link attributes on the page. Here’s what it looks like for the page in the image above:

As you can see, it’s doable. But it’s probably not scalable. That’s why many people invest in an SEO tool that can do it at scale.

But keep this in mind:

You really don’t have to worry about this at all if you partner with a reputable link builder. They will have all the tools already, and they’ll take care of balancing follow vs. nofollow links in your backlink profile.

Follow Links Are the Sure Bet, but Nofollow Links Still Matter

Building backlinks is one part art and one part science.

The science part is understanding that follow links pass link juice by default, while nofollow links don’t.

The art is seeing the bigger picture, which calls for nofollow links as part of a healthy, natural backlink profile.

You’ll need both to dominate the rankings.

Further reading: What Should I Pay for Link Building Services?

Learn more about our Link Building Service.

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