This article was originally written by the brilliant Adam White on the SEMrush Blog. We loved it so much, we felt it was helpful for our audience to read as well.
Chances are when you hear the term “nofollow” and “SEO” used in the same sentence you cringe a little.
Nofollow links are detested by SEOs as much as an IRS employee is at tax time.
It is simply unfair. But there is hope for the resurgence of the nofollow link. Read on, see what we discovered in our study about nofollow, anchor text, and rankings, and I promise you will look at nofollow links in a totally different light.
Nofollow’s Unfair Bad Reputation
Back in 2005 the search engines got together and created the nofollow attribute to help fight comment link spam.
Shortly thereafter Google recommended to all website owners that they use it anytime they had a paid (sponsored) link ad. In other words, this was your way of telling Google that you were paying for links.
This allowed Google to differentiate between paid links and natural links. It protected many website owners when later Google updates hit because so many people were building unnatural anchor text profiles with their backlinks.
If you were honest with Google and marked your paid links with a nofollow attribute, those links didn’t count against you. What followed after is almost all SEO’s jumped to the conclusion that any link with a nofollow attribute was worthless in SEO.
Buying and selling of links took a big hit, and most people doing SEO avoided nofollow links like the plague.
And it has basically remained that way ever since.
The Case For Nofollow Links
One of the biggest ranking factors for Google is brand trust.
In other words, they need to trust your brand before they will allow you to rank at the top of their search results. This is mostly accomplished by your homepage SEO, or in other words the backlink profile of your homepage.
But one of the key metrics Google uses to establish if your website is a trustworthy brand is whether or not you have any nofollow links.
Think about it for a second.
A nofollow link sends a message to Google that you are paying for the link because it is an ad.
Advertising is the lifeblood of business.
If you are a real brand then wouldn’t Google expect you to be advertising.
In fact, what you are really doing when you get a nofollow link is you are telling Google, “Hey, we are doing business, and this is our ad copy.
Now Google can look at the anchor text and see how it is relevant to your actual website and give you credit for the anchor text, without the risk of being tagged with an unnatural backlink profile.
The point I am trying to make is it seems as though Google expects to see nofollow links in your backlink profile, and if there are none, that potentially raises a red flag for an unnatural profile.
Proof That Nofollow Links Are Good
As we have built the software for SEOJet, we have done a ton of backlink research. We looked at #1 ranked sites in every niche, category, and industry and they all showed something very interesting about nofollow links.
Did you know that #1 ranked web pages on Google have an average of about 20%-40% nofollow links pointing to that page.
Sometimes it is even higher. 3 out of 10 links are nofollow links.
Think about that.
The link attribute that was supposed to totally kill all SEO effects, shows up a third of the time in #1 ranked sites.
Let’s look at a few examples of pages that rank #1 and what percentage of nofollow links each has pointing to that page. Note: I’m looking at just the page that is ranking specifically and not the site as a whole.
- #1 ranked site: https://www.gotchseo.com/backlinks/
- Percentage of nofollow links: 28%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 30%
Keyword: “mortgage payment calculator”
- #1 ranked site: http://www.bankrate.com/calculators/mortgages/mortgage-payment-calculator.aspx
- Percentage of nofollow links: 31%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 12%
Keyword: “diet pills”
- #1 ranked site: http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/weight-loss-prescription-weight-loss-medicine
- Percentage of nofollow links: 21%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 14%
Keyword: “online degrees”
- #1 ranked site: http://www.guidetoonlineschools.com/degrees
- Percentage of nofollow links: 25%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 16%
Keyword: “best fidget spinners”
- #1 ranked site: http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-fidget-spinners/
- Percentage of nofollow links: 23%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 21%
Keyword: “internet business”
- #1 ranked site: https://www.thebalance.com/top-internet-business-ideas-you-can-start-today-1794709
- Percentage of nofollow links on #1 ranked page: 31%
- Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 17%
Now keep in mind that not every #1 ranked site is this high. There are many that are under 20% but as we look at more and more #1 ranked sites, this is a common theme that we keep seeing.
Obviously, this test or this data is not the end all be all of SEO. We’re just looking at who Google has deemed worthy to rank #1 and then we examine their backlink profile.
So the question becomes, are these sites ranked #1 because they have nofollow links and Google expects that as part of a natural backlink profile? Or is it that nofollow links actually carry SEO value?
Either way, it seems to be in your best interest to have nofollow links pointing to pages you care about.
Nofollow Case Study
Since I don’t target key phrases on my homepage, I decided to test the effect an exact match nofollow sitewide link would have on my rankings.
I wanted to rank for the phrase “backlink software.” It is not a huge term but it describes exactly what SEOJet is and I was stuck in the high 20’s for the phrase.
So I went to an SEO blog that ranked really well for many SEO related terms. I got a nofollow sidebar link with the anchor “backlink software”.
Within a week I ranked #1 for the phrase “backlink software”. I would have been shocked at this result, but the truth is I had done the exact same thing before.
All I did was buy one nofollow sitewide link on relevant sites using the exact match anchor and I ranked #1.
I had no other links pointing to my homepage with that key phrase.
I do think that the relevance of the site I was advertising on had an impact on how it affected my rankings. But the results don’t lie. A Nofollow sitewide link in that instance seemed to have real SEO value.
Now I do think there are other factors at play, for example, I have built a ton of brand trust with Google with branded anchors that point to my homepage. I am not sure how well this would work with a brand new website although I haven’t tested it on a new site.
I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions based on one case study, but there is enough evidence to make this a point of future testing. If there is actual SEO value from a nofollow link, how can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
I remember back in the old days of SEO when sitewide links were all the rage. They held some serious SEO juice. In recent years most SEO’s don’t bother with them.
Armed with this new data, as part of my SEO strategy I would actively seek out extremely relevant websites where you can purchase a sitewide link and tag it with the nofollow attribute.
Additionally, I would make sure the anchor text of that link was an exact match keyword I was trying to rank for. By adding the nofollow attribute, you don’t have to worry about search engine penalties so you can be as aggressive as you want with the anchor text.
Give that a shot and see if your rankings jump for the keywords you are targeting in the nofollow sitewide links.
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