Back in 1995 when the idea for Google (or project ‘Backrub’ as it was referred to at the time) was first coming together, founders and Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin couldn’t have known what an impact their idea for using links to map the most trusted and authoritative websites would have.
Google was not (and still isn’t) the only company attempting to index and rank the worlds search results but the reason they became the go-to search engine (and have generated countless billions in profits as a result) is relatively simple, because they have consistently returned the best results in an easy to use and intuitive format. One of the main reasons they can do this is because they grasped early on how to most effectively use the links pointing to a website to determine its quality and where to rank it in their own search results.
Many innovative solutions and ranking factors have come along the way but there is no doubt that the way links are used by Google to determine quality and trust helps retain their status as market leaders even to this day.
Despite links forming the foundations of the modern search result pages and huge businesses being built off the back off them, some powerful websites and organisations (e.g. Forbes, Entrepreneur and Inc are some of the bigger examples) are moving towards setting all external links to nofollow. What some of these websites may not realise is the detrimental effects this can have for not only those providing them with valuable data, research and content, but their own organic performance also.
There are a few common misconceptions and/or reasons that could lead website owners, journalists and organisations to think that setting all external links to nofollow could be a good idea. For example, given Google’s at times harsh, extreme and public responses to examples of link spam, some websites might be concerned that they will be strongly affiliated with all the websites they externally link to.
Perhaps Google’s own documentation towards the nofollow attribute (or lack therefore) is causing some websites to think that they need to set all external links to nofollow to reduce the risk of receiving a penalty.
In other cases, organisations have become aware of widespread link selling which is carried out by some of their journalists/contributors and deem it necessary to set all links to nofollow to reduce the amount of people doing this.
Screenshot of an offer found on a popular freelancing website selling guest posts on Forbes.com
You don’t have to look far before coming across an offer like the above. For those wanting to take advantage of such offers, I’d urge you to reconsider. Once you take into account the cost of just one link and the limited effect such posts can have and compare them to the results of a genuine white hat PR campaign, they immediately lose any appeal.
Some journalists and/or organisations have claimed that old web development issues mean they cannot add follow links in articles. Likely, the websites were developed (or re-designed) at a time when it was widely believed that adding follow links in articles would be detrimental to SEO efforts and has not been updated to reflect advancements in the understanding of how Google ranks websites. Others claim that they don’t want to come across as too promotional.
Of course, there is always the SEO industry itself pushing people to make drastic changes with hopes to dramatically increase organic traffic or reverse a penalty/drop in performance. You will sometimes see self-proclaimed SEO experts/gurus or forum members encouraging others to nofollow external links to:
- Preserve link juice (even though setting a link to nofollow does not in fact preserve link juice the way many think it does) to rank higher.
- Avoid associating your website with low-quality websites and/or reduce the risk of receiving a penalty.
- Remove the need to actively monitor who is being linked to in content published on a website.
- Reduce the number of contributors and/or journalists selling link opportunities.
- Or because there is no perceived ranking benefit to externally linking to others (which it has been proven is also not the case).
Answer left on Moz.com, a popular SEO blog and forum.
Many in house SEO teams at large news organisations have made it company policy not to include follow links in articles and even forbid external links altogether as demonstrated in emails we received from journalists when trying to find out why they would not credit editorially-rich research pieces which had taken many hours to put together with a link.
A response from one journalist working for the publisher of over 100 popular websites and news publications.
A post by Glen Allsopp on Detailed.com even claims to have uncovered a way in which some of the biggest sites around are using external nofollow links to secure powerful follow ones from those they are linking out to. Under Google’s webmaster guidelines, this could easily be considered a link scheme.
The reality is that nofollow links do serve a purpose and when used properly, they can be a useful and powerful tool in any SEOs toolkit. For example, if you want to offer genuine advertising opportunities on your website which might involve linking out to a website, this would be considered a paid link and it would be in everyone’s best interest to set it to nofollow.
When large organisations make it a rule to nofollow all external links however, they may not realise what this could be suggesting about their website and content and the negative effects it could be having on their SEO results.
An (earned) nofollow link to Reboot in an Entrepreneur.com article.
If we take one of the examples an organisation might give for setting all external links to nofollow, so as not to affiliate your website with low-quality ones for example, it becomes clear that this decision can say a lot more about a website and the quality of their content than one would initally think. This would suggest that you are comfortable sending your users to potentially harmful or low-quality sites but simply don’t want Google to know you are doing so/take this into account when determining where to rank your site. This would also suggest that you were not comfortable standing behind the quality of your content and the sources used to create it. Overall, this could easily be a poor user experience and negatively affect your rankings.
The same goes for large organisations where contributors are selling links. A default nofollow response suggests your content is not being actively reviewed and monitored and that not all your contributors (and the content that they publish) are of a high quality for the benefit of users.
Maybe you set all your external links to nofollow to preserve link juice and to improve your sites organic performance. Some may be surprised to hear that this could be interpreted as attempting to manipulate the search results and could even have a negative effect on your rankings.
Given the nature of Google’s algorithms, it can be incredibly difficult to test, prove or completely explain any ideas. Fortunately, the use of external links has always been a hot topic and is something which has been addressed by Google on a few different occasions.
In a recent Google Webmaster hangout, Google’s own John Mueller was asked:
“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.”
To which Mueller responded:
“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 nofollow 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 nofollow.”
So, not only has Google themselves confirmed that setting all external links to nofollow is not a good idea but a Reboot experiment even found that external links could be seen as a positive ranking signal as suggested by Mueller.
This graph demonstrates that websites with external links to authority sources rank higher than ones without.
For those considering setting or who already have set all external links in their content to nofollow, you would be wise to reconsider. The evidence makes it clear that this is not a good idea. It clearly shows that external follow links to the right resources can benefit both users and your SEO performance.
The SERPs were built on the idea of sharing knowledge, resources and connecting people with that which they are searching for. The link ecosystem is an important one and success should be found by ensuring that the content being published is of the highest quality, useful for the reader and that it cites the most authoritative, relevant and deserving websites which not only helps search engine spiders and algorithms, but readers too.