Follow links & no follow links: what's the difference?
Link building for SEO is a topic that I have covered in previous blog articles. The process of formulating a network of links to and from our website in the right way is an invaluable tool in our toolkit of SEO strategies and not to be underestimated.
You may have heard of the terms follow and no follow links. If so, it is important to understand what each one is and why knowing if a link is a follow or no follow link is significant.
Let's start at the beginning...
GOOGLE SEARCH BOTS
It was a sunny day at Google HQ. The boss was getting ready to send out his many search bots (or spiders... or Googlebots) across the interweb to find out all about the websites and pages that people might look for. The google bots packed their lunch into their backpacks with a flask of tea, tightened the laces on their walking boots and off they went, not knowing where their daily adventure would take them....
When Google sends out their bots to look at websites, the bots end up being taken down whichever rabbit hole they discover. If a bot lands on a website, it will look at all the of the pages on that web site and try to follow all the buttons and links too to see where they lead. As the Google bot goes, it keeps track of it's route on a little Googlebot sat nav so it knows where all the links go and gives lots of brownie points along the way. It will follow things like:
buttons that lead to internal pages like CONTACT US or BUY NOW
tabs in the menu in the header leading to other pages
social media icons that take it away from your website to social media sites
links within paragraphs and blogs that take it to other websites
other links that it may find...
It will only do this if that link is a follow or do follow link.
NO FOLLOW LINKS
Think of a follow link as a doorway. The doorway is open and is not monitored in any way. The Google bot is able to freely go through the door to the other side. What if that doorway was guarded at all times by a nofollow gatekeeper who checked all Google bots that go through the door and confiscate their little satnavs? The bot is only allowed their satnav when they return through the door. It's worth noting that the gatekeeper only picks on Google bots. Normal website visitors can click on these links and see what is on the other side. But then again, normal visitors aren't carrying little satnavs and taking notes.
The Google bot would think 'what's the point of following this link if I can't take notes along the way? The boss wouldn't be very happy! I'll give this link a miss and find somewhere else to go.
And that, my friends, is what happens when you try to explain about follow and nofollow links after dealing with a 3 year old with sleep regression and delivering a day long Zoom training session on how to put together an SEO strategy for a new business client...
Allow me a moment to drink from the coffee mug and bring myself back on track...
In a nutshell, when another website links through to our website, we get some link equity. This is sometimes called link juice. It's like a little bit of credibility saying that people should check out the page or website at the end of the link because it is useful or relevant or interesting. Basically, follow that link!
The same would happen if you link to another website from your website. You are advocating that website and so passing on a little bit of your link juice to that website.
Which is jolly decent of you. Credit where credit is due and all that.
THIS IS ALL ABOUT BACKLINKS, RIGHT?
Sort of, yes. Part of your link building strategy for your website should be to find high quality backlinks that lead to and advocate your website and the more of them, the better. High quality websites will have a higher domain trust than lower quality websites.
Domain trust is exactly as it sounds- how trusted is the domain in question. Whilst we do not know the ins and outs of Google's algorithms, we do know that Google allocates more link equity to links from websites with high domain trust than their lesser trusted counterparts.
Would we rather get a link from a market leading, industry specific website or from a mate's blog site who is singing your praises just because you're his mate?
BUT THERE IS A SLIGHT CATCH...
Each website only has one full glass of link juice. Whilst we can increase the size of our glass, we can only ever have ONE glass. So we need to consider this:
We find a great website with high domain trust and get a backlink from it that points to our website and no one else. Awesome! Bring on the link juice.!
We find a great website with high domain trust and get a backlink from it that points to our website. It also points to 100 other websites too though. Not so awesome... We still get some link juice but that link juice is 1/100th of the amount we get from scenario 1.
This is what happens when we get a listing on a directory like Yell or Yelp. Their domain has an amazing domain trust score but they link out to so many sites, the link juice is almost insignificant.
Still, it's better than getting backlinks from a website with a low domain trust score... We just need a thousand of them to make an impact.... lots of effort for the benefit. We need to work smarter than that and seek out those trusted domains who don't just throw out backlinks to all and sundry.
NOTE: whilst a website owner could consider making some outbound links from a page follow and some no follow, this does not equate to the follow links taking the juice share from the nofollow links. Google now measures this and ensures that an appropriate amount of link juice is allocated.
Consider professional bloggers or influencers. These guys might write about your product or services and offer a follow link accordingly. That would be one link from one page to your website from a site with decent domain trust. perfect. Make sure that it will be a follow link though! Professional bloggers don't always do this unless you pay good money for that all important link.
WHEN TO USE A NO FOLLOW LINK
The no follow link was introduced by Google in 2005 in an attempt to combat comment spam:
If you're a blogger (or a blog reader), you're painfully familiar with people who try to raise their own websites' search engine rankings by submitting linked blog comments like "Visit my discount pharmaceuticals site." This is called comment spam, we don't like it either, and 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.
This is why all comments left on Facebook and social media conversations will be no follow links.
WHEN TO USE FOLLOW OR NOFOLLOW LINKS
There are some standard reasons when a nofollow link is appropriate:
If someone paid for links. Buying links is a 'black hat' technique and is frowned upon by search engines like Google.
Comments in discussions and social media
Some forums can make links nofollow as per comments boxes
If you are not sure of the credibility of the website that you link to, add a nofollow link
You should use a follow link when:
You are advocating another website because you think it is worth seeing. Adding a nofollow link in this example is just plain mean. Come on, play the game!
If you have an agreement for reciprocal links with a partner and for a good reason
When you really don't have a valid reason to withhold link juice
Okay Adam, I get all that but surely if I just make sure that I make all outbound links nofollow then I'll keep all my link juice for myself, right?
OK, firstly, as previously mentioned, play the game. Secondly, outbound links can be a valuable addition to your overall SEO strategy. As Webfx covers in their findings, tests have shown that websites with external follow links showed up more favourably for visibility when compared with the same sites that targeted the same keywords but did not contain follow links. One reason for this could be that Google is able to build a bigger picture of what your site is about in relation to your outbound links to other high quality trusted sites.
So I'm playing the game and have checked out my backlinks - why are some of them nofollow links?
Again, this is about playing the game. If 100% of all links pointing at your website are follow links, then Google is going to suspect foul play via paid links. This could get you penalised. There will always be those who reference your website on social media or forums and initiate a number of no follow links to your website. That's just normal. So it stands to reason that Google will expect to see a certain percentage of your links as nofollow links.
It's also entirely likely that Google have worked some kind of allowance into their algorithm to mean nofollow links do give some benefit to the website being linked to anyway.
Follow and nofollow links both play their part in your backlink and link building strategy. Ensure that you focus on seeking high quality follow links from respectable websites and avoid techniques that may seem 'too good to be true' or that try to work the system too much. It is not worth getting penalised by Google for the sake of a few backlinks.
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