SEO for Blogs: Using Nofollow Links Won’t Help Your SERP Rank (and Might Hurt It)

My Google Juice All Mine

We hear a lot of interesting ideas from bloggers about what helps score a high SERP (search engine results page) rank and what doesn’t. Some ideas for getting listed high on Google are accurate, but many are not. Some bloggers, for example, prefer to make all outbound links nofollow, so as to preserve PageRank, and therefore boost SERP rank. This weird little superstition got it’s start with an over-simplified reading of what the rel=nofollow attribute actually does, and how PageRank works. Here’s why being greedy about your Google juice is a bad idea.

1. PageRank is Just One of 200+ Ranking Factors

Popular and simple to understand, PageRank is the Google-begetting big idea that Sergei Brin and Larry Page published in an academic paper while at Stanford in 1998. (PageRank is actually named after Larry, and not webpages, oddly enough.)

Google’s search algorithm has grown so dramatically over the years that as early as 2000 (13 whole years ago), PageRank’s importance in the search aglorithm was already greatly diminished. Today, no one outside of a few select Googlers really knows how important it is. Anymore, Google only updates it quarterly or so, and has publicly played down it’s relative importance again and again. But people don’t seem to listen and they amass links anyway, like they’re Spanish doubloons.

Just yesterday, in fact, I was investigating a blogger’s SEO profile and found that he had 2,179 incoming links to his site, but a PageRank of zero. Zero. You have to fail pretty hard to have a PR that low with so many links. Sporting an Alexa rank of 5.2 million, his site isn’t even sniffing at real traffic. His attempts to game PageRank probably helped to kill his site’s viability for making any money from advertising.

While helpful as a very general assessment of a webpage’s relative importance online, if you’re focused on PageRank, you’re only seeing a teeny tiny part of the SEO picture, and if you focus too hard on it, your efforts can backfire.

He’d be much further ahead if he just focused on building a better blog, instead.

2. Nofollow was Never Meant to Preserve Your PR, Anyway

Ever heard of PageRank sculpting? It’s the practice of trying to send more Google juice (PageRank) to your more important pages. Generally speaking, this is what on-site SEO is about. However, like any good idea taken too far, obsessive sculpting makes your site look bad to Google.

Going on the assumption that your Google juice is finite, and that you should avoid “leaking it” to the wrong pages in your site or to other websites, you ought to be able to carefully manage Google juice flow and gain an advantage in search. But like PageRank, Google doesn’t want you telling it what to think, thank you very much. Besides, the amount of PageRank passed from one page to the next has a decay factor that keeps you from losing it by linking out. More on that later.

Nofollow links were meant to provide webmasters more granular control over which items search bots should crawl. This from Google’s Webmaster Tools:

What are Google’s policies and some specific examples of nofollow usage?

Here are some cases in which you might want to consider using nofollow:

  • Untrusted content: If you can’t or don’t want to vouch for the content of pages you link to from your site — for example, untrusted user comments or guestbook entries — you should nofollow those links. This can discourage spammers from targeting your site, and will help keep your site from inadvertently passing PageRank to bad neighborhoods on the web. In particular,comment spammers may decide not to target a specific content management system or blog service if they can see that untrusted links in that service are nofollowed. If you want to recognize and reward trustworthy contributors, you could decide to automatically or manually remove the nofollow attribute on links posted by members or users who have consistently made high-quality contributions over time.
  • Paid links: A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. In order to prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users, we urge webmasters use nofollow on such links. Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word “Advertisement”). More information on Google’s stance on paid links.
  • Crawl prioritization: Search engine robots can’t sign in or register as a member on your forum, so there’s no reason to invite Googlebot to follow “register here” or “sign in” links. Using nofollow on these links enables Googlebot to crawl other pages you’d prefer to see in Google’s index. However, a solid information architecture — intuitive navigation, user- and search-engine-friendly URLs, and so on — is likely to be a far more productive use of resources than focusing on crawl prioritization via nofollowed links.

See there? Google isn’t telling you that you ought to make links nofollow and that’ll help you. They simply provided a way to ensure that your links don’t get abused by spammers, that you don’t abuse the purpose of links by getting paid for them AND passing link juice, and to help you tell search engines about which administrative portions of your site aren’t worth crawling. And note that the last sentence downplays the relative value of nofollow vs. other on-site tactics.

3. Using too Many Nofollow Links can Actually Hurt You

Let’s be clear: There is no Google penalty for keeping all your links nofollow. It’s actually a very unpopular thing to do (well under 1% of all links online carry the nofollow attribute). However, Matt Cutts wishes that even Wikipedia would exercise a more nuanced approach to their blanket nofollow policy. Why?

Nofollow links limit the knowledge graph.

That reason alone should be enough to make you think twice before choosing to nofollow a link. Remember, dofollow is the default, because Google is in the business of growing the knowledge graph. There is no tag for dofollow. As a site owner who is attempting to add value to the internet and provide worthwhile user experiences, you must have a very good reason for blocking the knowledge graph as it passes through your site.

Sites that don’t link out (or don’t look like they do because they nofollow every link), are much less likely to show as many positive ranking signals as their competitors that are trying to rank for the same terms in the same niche.

PageRank is not a zero sum game with winners and losers– it only becomes so when you treat it that way. Meaning: You’ll lose. Google wants to rank useful pages, which often includes ones that include outbound links. Again, according to Matt Cutts,

In the same way that Google trusts sites less when they link to spammy sites or bad neighborhoods, parts of our system encourage links to good sites.

In other words, some of Google’s 200 other ranking signals incorporate your willingness to link effectively and engage with other useful sites. Less popular sites can actually gain credibility by sharing more links.

4. Keeping (or Losing) All Your PageRank is Logically Impossible

Even if PageRank mattered as much as so many people think it does, you don’t lose PR with every outbound link, and you can’t keep it all to yourself by using nofollow. If that were the case, no high PR sites could have lots of outbound links because they’d lose all their PageRank, and cease being high PR sites! That doesn’t happen, and nofollow links are rare.

If nofollow links imparted a competitive advantage, since they were introduced in 2005, someone would have gained that advantage by now, and we would see sites that rank high in the SERPs using more nofollow than sites which don’t. But we don’t.

So stop obsessing about your link juice and work on publishing more and better content. As you know, guest content is a great way to do that.

Mike is Co-founder and CMO of Content BLVD, a marketplace where product companies and YouTubers meet to get more products into more videos. He's written for, been quoted in, and kicked out of many fine establishments.

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Posted in Blogging and SEO

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