follow vs no follow links

If you work in the digital marketing space, you know that on-site optimization isn’t the only area of SEO on which to focus.

Off-site SEO is just as important when you’re on a quest to improve site rankings.

And, of course, link-building is a key component of off-site SEO.

Building backlinks to your client’s site can drive traffic and improve how their site is perceived by search engines.

But as you might already realize, not all backlinks are created equal.

One of the main considerations to keep in mind when building backlinks is whether the backlink in question is a follow or no-follow link.

Knowing the difference between a follow link vs no follow link can make a big difference for your SEO.

While both types of links are necessary for any backlink profile, determining what makes a good backlink for any given opportunity can set you (and your clients) up for success.

With that in mind, let’s talk about dofollow vs nofollow links, how they’re used, and what to consider when your white label SEO agency performs link outreach.

What is a Do Follow Link?

A follow or do-follow link is essentially the backlink default. It contains the basic URL structure you’d expect and allows “link juice” to be passed from one site to another.

The average web visitor won’t know whether a link is follow or no-follow. You need to examine the HTML of a page to determine its designation.

When you look in the source code of a page, you’d expect a follow link to look like this:

If you’re including an internal link to another webpage on your site or you add a link to cite an external resource, you’d probably want to include this as a do-follow link.

On many websites, follow links are considered to be standard. You may have to perform an extra action to stop crawlers from following the link and “counting” it.

Do-follow links ensure that the site receiving that link will also receive an endorsement, of sorts, from the domain that publishes said link. When your site gets a thumbs up from another reputable website, your site will be perceived as more valuable by search engines.

When a link looks this way, it tells Google crawlers that the site being linked is viewed as worthy of an endorsement. Google keeps track of these links; the more follow links a site has, the more reputable its perception (in most cases, at least).

What is a No Follow Link?

A follow link contains no extra modifications to its structure. In contrast, a no-follow link features additional information that lets crawlers know the source might not be worthy of endorsement.

Again, this information isn’t visible on the surface. When you dig into the source code of a page, you’ll see that a no-follow link will look something like this:

Spot the difference? That extra rel=“nofollow” is the piece of code that tells search engines not to follow the link.

When a link isn’t followed, it means that the link juice from one site won’t be passed onto the other. In other words, it won’t count as an endorsement of the site being linked.

Why and How Are Follow Vs No Follow Links Used?

Those explanations are fairly straightforward. But why do we need to differentiate between follow vs no follow links at all?

Google originally introduced the no-follow attribution in the early 2000s to help bloggers and other site owners fight back against comment spam.

Prior to this code release, the default inclusion of do-follow links was abused in web forums and comment sections. Because all links were automatically followed by crawlers, low-quality websites received endorsements they didn’t necessarily deserve.

And because backlinks play a substantial role in determining domain rating and authority, these do-follow links helped those spammy websites receive better rankings in SERPs. That wasn’t fair to good site owners and delivered less valuable results to web users looking for information.

Now, publishers have the option to specify a link as no-follow. This controls how much link juice can be passed from one site to another and lowers the ability to receive do-follow links without oversight.

As Google explained in 2005:

In this example, no-follow links are viewed as the new standard to de-incentivize folks from resorting to comment spam.

Many content management systems (CMS) will override all links to be no-follow by default for this reason. If a commenter can’t get a do-follow link out of the deal, they’re more likely to discontinue this outdated practice.

However, that’s not the only scenario in which no-follow links are used. No-follow links can also be included by the publisher of a website as a way to communicate to Google that a backlink isn’t being included organically.

For instance, paid links are supposed to be categorized as no-follow. Actually, there’s an even newer designation that site owners are encouraged to use – the rel=“sponsored” attribute.

In either case, these additional attributions tell search engines that the link may be included as a result of a predetermined relationship between the publisher and the site owner of the link or that the link shouldn't be used to improve the page rank of the receiving site.

A no-follow tag doesn’t always mean that the other site owner has a negative opinion of your page. It’s simply a way to neutralize the link and say, “I’m providing a link to this site for a reason, but I don’t want to officially endorse it.”

In the case of a sponsored link, the attribution says, “I’m including this link because I’m being compensated for it, so I cannot endorse it without bias.”

Google wants all do-follow backlinks to be earned, rather than being manipulated or paid for. In a perfect world, all follow links would be naturally obtained and with no element of trade, outreach, spamming, or compensation.

Do-follow links can often be found in:

  • Spotlights, features, or interviews
  • Industry round-ups
  • Highly relevant guest blogs
  • News publications
  • Partner or vendor website copy
  • Educational resources

While no-follow links are frequently featured on:

  • Social media
  • User-generated content (UGC) websites
  • Blogs (including comment sections)
  • Web forums
  • Video sharing platforms
  • Certain high-profile sites

To check the attribution for an existing link, just look at the source code! But if you're wondering about the status of a link before it's placed, the chart below can be used as a cheat sheet if you're wondering whether a link is likely to be follow or no-follow.

Keep in mind that there are always exceptions. There’s no hard and fast rule for when a follow link vs no follow link should be or will be used.

Some websites have CMS overrides or policies pertaining to the kinds of backlinks they’re willing to provide. Others will make that determination on a case-by-case basis.

What you probably care about more is whether it’s worthwhile to build no-follow links and what makes a good backlink for your SEO strategy.

Which is Better: Dofollow Vs Nofollow Links

You now know what is a do follow link and what is a no follow link. But while follow links are usually viewed as more valuable, that doesn’t mean no-follow links are worthless.

When organic do-follow links originate from reputable, relevant websites, they’re undeniably good for your SEO. Those links act as a seal of approval from sites Google already trusts. The site being linked will be recognized for its virtue – simply because another site says it’s worth recognizing.

Most experts agree that no-follow links don’t help boost your page rank. (That said, Google has been a bit vague about whether its bots avoid following these links with 100% consistency.)

However, no-follow links can have an indirect impact on SEO. They actually serve a few important purposes:

  1. They can still drive traffic to the website
  2. They will diversify your backlink profile
  3. They may allow you to avoid Google penalties

Let's break these purposes down.

No Follow Links Drive Traffic

Although Google bots won’t typically follow these links, human visitors will! If the site providing the no-follow link has a lot of organic traffic and the content is highly relevant to your shared audience, these links can increase your brand awareness and potential conversions.

No Follow Links Diversify Backlink Profiles

While you might assume that a site with all do-follow links pointing to it will have better SEO results, Google knows there can be too much of a good thing. Having too many follow links can make a backlink profile look suspicious; Google might assume you’ve paid for links, which can hurt your marketing efforts.

Strong backlink profiles contain a good number of no-follow links, as well as a variety of anchor text. A diverse strategy is really your best protection.

No Follow Links Can Prevent Penalties

Speaking of protection, opting for no-follow links can keep you safe from Google penalties. If your site is reported for buying links or if a sponsored link isn’t disclosed, you might face some consequences. If you’re given a manual penalty from Google, you’ll have a tougher time competing in SERPs. It’s better to avoid that situation entirely!

All that being said, getting a do-follow link from a high-DR website in your niche is going to be better for your SEO than getting a no-follow link from a less reputable publisher.

In contrast, getting a no-follow link from a site like HuffPost may actually be a better option than a do-follow link from a relatively new website.

Although do-follow links are viewed as more desirable, that doesn’t mean that they’re always better. That’s true most of the time, but there are other factors that matter just as much.

When evaluating link-building opportunities, you’ll want to consider:

  • Your existing backlink profile
  • The domain rating and/or authority of the site
  • The vertical, industry, or audience of the site
  • The content surrounding the link
  • The anchor text of the link AND
  • The attribution of the link (follow vs. no follow vs. sponsored)

When you weigh all of these factors together, you can determine whether the link opportunity is the right choice for you.

To Follow Or Not To Follow? A Final Word

In the SEO world, there’s a lot of focus on do-follow links. But in determining what makes a good backlink, you need to evaluate the more detailed merits of follow vs no follow links.

Generally speaking, do-follow links from websites with high domain ratings and substantial traffic will always win out. But just because a link is do-follow doesn’t mean it’s better.

In the same vein, no-follow links are necessary for a healthy backlink profile. But they won’t directly help your SEO in the same way that follow links will.

Ultimately, you need both do-follow and no-follow links. And as long as you’re smart about how you acquire those links (and you work with the right white label SEO company when you outsource SEO for your clients!), link attribution won’t always be the be-all and end-all.