Google’s Stance on No-Follow Outbound Links

Google’s stance on no-follow outbound links is clear and concise. Google’s updated guidance on no-follow outbound links indicates a shift in how these links are interpreted. While originally used to combat spam and unendorsed content, no-follow links are now treated as hints rather than directives by Google’s algorithms. This change reflects Google’s advanced understanding of link context, impacting SEO strategies and link-building practices.

Many blogs and websites use no-follow links when writing about outside sources. It’s been common practice to do so among publishers, as it allows them to remain impartial and “safe” from showing preference for one source over another. This practice has long been believed to be the most acceptable way to avoid being seen as showing preferential treatment or providing “link juice” to sites with whom publishers may have a relationship. Another common belief is that sites will be dinged in Google rankings if they use do-follow links. Recently, though, comments from Google’s own John Mueller have made it seem that past thinking may be incorrect. Let’s take a look at this new information.

About No-Follow Outbound Links

First, let’s examine what no-follow links are. No-follow outbound links are ones with a rel = “nofollow” HTML tag used for them. This particular tag lets search engines know they should ignore or bypass that link. It’s long been thought that these links don’t affect search rankings because they don’t pass PageRank.

No-Follow Vs. Do-Follow Links

This may cause you to wonder what the difference is between no-follow and do-follow links, along with why they might even matter. Readers can’t tell a difference between the two tags when browsing a site. A no-follow link can be clicked on, copied and pasted like any other link and will perform in the same way. Common thought, however, was that do-follow links help increase search engine rankings, while no-follow links do not.

Only do-follow outbound links count in Google’s algorithm. No-follow links don’t count; they don’t pass  PageRank. If the link doesn’t affect PageRank, it won’t contribute to raising rankings in Google’s search engine algorithm. The long-standing rule in link building has been to try to obtain do-follow links as frequently as possible across the web. In an attempt to seem impartial, many publishers such as bloggers or news sites often choose to use no-follow links. They don’t want to appear to be giving favor to any outside sources, particularly in cases where sponsorship or payment for service may be involved.

Why No-Follow Links Were Created

The original creator of no-follow links is Google, and the purpose was to cut down on blog comment spam. You see, spammers jumped on the bandwagon when they saw the ever-increasing popularity of blogs. They would often leave unrelated comments on blog posts with a link to their site with the intention of gaining link juice from the action. These spammers were soon starting to rank highly, pushing legitimate sites with useful content aside in the rankings. So, in 2005, Google made the no-follow tag part of their algorithm. Other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo also started using the practice.

No-Follow and Paid Links

Google Webmaster Guidelines do state that all paid links should be no-follow. They don’t want advertisements to receive increased PageRank. This makes sense, as paid content isn’t occurring naturally. Therefore, it shouldn’t be rewarded with higher rankings. Google wants backlinks to be earned, not paid for. If Google catches paid advertisements or other content with links that are do-follow, they’re apt to penalize those sites. Any attempt to manipulate PageRank is considered to be a link scheme.

Google’s New Stance

In a recent Google Webmaster Central hangout, Google’s John Mueller made some statements indicating that no-follow links may not be beneficial or necessary for some sites to use. Specifically, he was talking about sites that use all no-follow links, not just the ones that choose no-follow for paid content.

The question that prompted Mueller’s response was this:

“What do you think about the practice of some big publishers tagging all outgoing links with rel=nofollow?

From what I know, the reasoning behind this is that with follow links you would leak link juice and then rank worse.”

In his response, Mueller indicated that this belief is “definitely wrong.” He said that using no-follow on all outgoing links could even cause problems for a site, as these links appeared by Google to be unnatural.

Here’s what he had to say:

“So that’s definitely wrong. It’s definitely not the case that if you use normal links on your website that you would rank any worse than if you put no-follow on all outgoing links.

I suspect it’s even, on the contrary, that if you have normal linking on your page then you would probably rank a little bit better over time — essentially because we can see that you’re part of the normal web ecosystem.

So it’s definitely not the case that you have any kind of ranking advantage by marking all outgoing links as no-follow.”

Why Sites Use No-Follow for All Outbound Links

In additional remarks, Mueller made note of the fact that some sites use no-follow tags on all of their outbound links. He believes they do this to err on the side of caution because they’re not sure who to vouch for. Therefore, they decide to use no-follow for everything in an attempt to remain impartial. However, it’s Mueller’s belief that this is not the way to go. By doing so, it seems to indicate these publishers don’t stand behind what they write.

He states:

“I understand not knowing which links you can trust. But essentially, if you’re a news publisher, you should trust what you’re writing about.

Or you should be able to understand which part of the content that you write about is actual content that you want to have indexed — that you want to stand for.

If these are things that you want to stand for, then make sure you have normal links on there.”

As you can see, Google’s John Mueller seems quite clear in the fact that news sites and other publishers may want to discontinue the practice of using no-follow outbound links everything in the future. There doesn’t seem to be a benefit to doing so, and it could actually hurt their rankings. That’s not to say that some links, such as paid advertising, shouldn’t be attributed as no-follow. Use your best judgment when making such determinations.

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