The Nofollow Link Debate – A Brief Synopsis for SEO

In 2005, Google introduced a “nofollow” method for changing the way search engines view links leading in and out of websites. Before the “nofollow” tag, all hyperlinks from your site to other sites “leaked” pagerank – which is, to put it very simply, a measure of how much authority your site has. This translates directly into how often your site is found by search engines like Google, and as every SEO nerd knows, Google love = visibility, and visibility = business. Regular hyperlinks pass along the pagerank your website has built up by dividing that rank proportionally between themselves. Think of it like inviting friends over for cookies. If you have 3 friends over for cookies and you made 9 cookies, those three friends will eat three cookies each. However, if you invite 9 friends over, each will only take one cookie. But the end result is the same: they took your cookies.

This led to a number of problems as link building between sites became more sophisticated, so the “nofollow” link was introduced. Up until 2008, nofollow told search engines not to give certain links any pagerank “juice”. Sites could now hoarde their pagerank by plugging up all outbound links with nofollow tags. Read: no cookies for you.

Implementing nofollow tags in this way has been fairly SOP for most SEO-savvy companies since 2005, and lots of sites have been guarding pagerank carefully. Outbound links have become so heavily guarded with nofollow tags that sites have begun purchasing regular “follow” links from other sites just to get a little of that pagerank Google love. Most sites today use nofollow links to hoarde pagerank away from unaffiliated sites, instead channeling pagerank through internal links to other site pages or affiliated sites.

Now, according to a recent blogpost by Google guru Matt Cutts, Google has changed the rules for links again. Kind of like the way a parent might change house rules to force his or her children to share, Google’s new nofollow policy encourages sites to loosen their grip on pagerank. New Google nofollow rules make it so that pagerank passes from your site through ALL outbound links, both follow and nofollow. Don’t mistake – nofollow links still don’t get any pagerank passed on, but they don’t keep your site from losing that pagerank either. To use SEO “wizz” Tim Grice’s example:

If a site has a pagerank of 10 with 3 regular “follow” links to internal site pages and 1 “nofollow” link to an external site, pagerank is divided between the 4 links – not between the 3 follow links, as was the case before Google’s new rules. Each link is allocated 2.5 pagerank points, although the 1 nofollow link doesn’t get to keep it. The other three internal links are awarded 2.5 in pagerank, but the nofollow link’s remaining 2.5 points go nowhere. Maybe the cookie monster ate them.

This has large implications for pagerank “sculpting” between internal pages. Before, you could have as many outbound links as you wanted without giving away any pagerank to outside sites by using nofollow tags. Now, nofollow tags only protect your site from being affiliated to sites you nofollow link to. This is very useful in SEO to protect your site from being affiliated with sites Google judges to be up to no good. However, the nofollow tag is no longer a universal cork to plug up all the ways your pagerank can leak out.

Matt Cutts has many recommendations on ways to implement this new rule in pagerank sculpting, but his general message is not to scatter nofollow tags everywhere. Sites build authority in Google’s eyes by linking to other well-reputed websites, and using follow tags can be just as targeted a strategy as using nofollow tags.

For more on how to use nofollow tags to sculpt pagerank, see what Matt Cutts has to say – or check out Tim Grice’s bite-sized version.