Nofollow Links vs. ‘Follow’ Links: All You Need to Know

Vlado Pavlik

Jun 07, 20236 min read
nofollow / follow link

A nofollow link contains the nofollow (rel="nofollow") attribute. 

The nofollow attribute tells search engines not to pass link equity (sometimes referred to as “link juice”) through the link. It means the linking website does not want to pass authority to the linked page. 

Google introduced the nofollow attribute (also called nofollow tag) in 2005 to prevent link manipulation. Namely, comment spam. When a search engine bot sees a nofollow tag, it simply ignores the link for search ranking purposes.

Note: Nofollow links are links with the “nofollow” value in their “rel” attribute. So technically, neither “nofollow attribute” nor “nofollow tag” are correct terms. However, the terms are commonly used and understood, so we’ll use them interchangeably throughout this post.

Here’s what the HTML code of a standard link to Apple’s homepage would look like:

<a href="">Apple</a>

This link would pass link equity to Apple’s homepage. 

And here’s the same link with a nofollow tag:

<a href="" rel="nofollow">Apple</a>

The nofollow tag in this link would help ensure that search engines would not count it as a signal for ranking. In other words, it should not influence Apple’s search engine rankings.

Note: Although there is no “follow” or “dofollow” tag, the term “follow link” or “dofollow link” is often used to distinguish between nofollow links and links that pass link equity. We discuss this issue later in this post.

In 2019, Google introduced two new rel attribute values that do not pass link equity:

  • rel="sponsored": Used for sponsored links
  • rel="ugc": (UGC = user-generated content) Used for links created by users, such as links in comments or forum posts

The nofollow value can be used as a substitute for both rel="sponsored" and rel="ugc". 

Note: When using the general term “nofollow links” in this article, that includes links that don’t pass link equity (rel="nofollow", rel="sponsored", and rel="ugc") unless stated otherwise.

The "noreferrer" and "noopener" rel values also exist. However, neither has an impact on SEO. They are related to analytics and security.

To see whether a specific link has a nofollow tag, check the page source code. 

Hover over the link, right-click, and choose “Inspect.” (This item can have different names in different browsers.)

“Inspect” the page source code

If you see the word “nofollow” within the rel attribute, it means the link is nofollowed. 

example of rel=“nofollow noopener” in source code

If you want to see the split between follow and nofollow backlinks to your site (or a competitor’s site), try Semrush’s Backlink Analytics tool.

Just enter the domain you want to analyze and hit “Analyze.”

Backlink Analytics tool

Then, go to the “Backlinks” tab.

“Backlinks” tab

Here, in the “Link Attributes” section, you’ll get a detailed breakdown of the attributes of the links pointing to the analyzed domain. 

“Link Attributes” section

Moreover, you can use filters to see specific backlinks with a certain attribute. 

For example, if you want to see only active sponsored backlinks for a domain, you’ll select “Active” and “Sponsored” parameters.

“Active” and “Sponsored” parameters selection

The tool will list all the backlinks that fulfill these criteria. 

list of all the filtered backlinks

This can be useful, for example, when inspecting the digital PR activities of your competitors. 

Nofollow Best Practices

When to Use Nofollow

Here are the most common use cases for nofollow links: 

  • Linking to a page you don’t want to endorse. If you don’t want to be associated with the linked page (e.g., you need to link to a gambling website but don’t want to “endorse” it), use rel="nofollow".
  • Sponsored/paid links. If the link is sponsored or purchased in any way, use rel="sponsored". This applies to both inbound and outbound links. 
  • Affiliate links. Similarly, for affiliate links pointing to or from your website, use rel="sponsored".
  • User-generated content. For links created by users on your website, such as links in comments or forum discussions, use rel="ugc".

Note: A single link can have more than one value. So a link with rel="nofollow sponsored" is technically correct. 

To learn more, check out Google’s detailed guidelines for when and how to use nofollow links.

When NOT to Use Nofollow

In the past, the nofollow attribute was often used outside of its primary purpose to influence how link equity passes from your page. For example, if you wanted to pass more link equity to your own pages through internal links, you nofollowed all the external links.

This technique (called PageRank sculpting) doesn’t work anymore. Because Google changed the way it calculates nofollow links for PageRank. 

However, some still think of the nofollow attribute in this way—and some bad practices prevail. 

Here are two common examples of how not to use nofollow:

  • Nofollow for all external links. You shouldn’t use the nofollow tag for all links pointing out from your pages. It doesn’t help your website (and may even hurt it). 
  • Nofollow for internal links. You shouldn’t use nofollow for internal links. If you don’t want a certain page to be crawled or indexed, there are better ways to achieve it, such as robots meta tags.

If you are unsure whether you’re using nofollow correctly on your site, the Semrush Site Audit tool can help.

Create a free account (no credit card needed) and set up your first crawl. (If you’re not sure how, follow this step-by-step setup guide.)

Once the audit is complete, head to the “Internal Linking” thematic report. 

where to find “Internal Linking” thematic report

On the right side, you’ll see a list of all the possible issues related to internal linking.

In the “Warnings” section, look for “Nofollow attributes in outgoing internal links.” 

where to find “Nofollow attributes in outgoing internal links”

If the tool has detected issues, you can click the link with the number of issues.

This will guide you to a complete list of pages where nofollow internal links were detected.

a complete list of pages with nofollow internal links

Go through the list and remove the nofollow attributes. Unless you have a compelling reason to keep the links nofollow. Which is not common. 

Secondly, review all your external links with the nofollow attribute. 

Just look for the “Nofollow attributes in outgoing external links” issue in the “Notices” section.

“Notices” section

Again, go through the links and reconsider the usage of nofollow attributes unless truly necessary. 

Nofollow links (including rel="sponsored" and rel="ugc" links) do not pass link equity. Which means they will not improve your PageRank and are not used by Google for ranking purposes.

That’s why many people believe that nofollow links have no SEO value. However, there can still be some benefits to having nofollow backlinks. 

Here are just a few:

  • Traffic. Some sites, such as Forbes, only use nofollow attributes for external links. But it’s still good to get a backlink from them because it will drive traffic to your site.
  • Exposure. Getting mentioned on quality sites is great for brand awareness. And that can lead to more natural “follow” backlinks from other sites. 
  • Backlink profile diversity. This is important, especially if you’re actively building links. Getting too many “follow” links may appear unnatural. Nofollow links diversify your link profile.

Also, in 2020, Google changed how it treats nofollow links. It no longer completely ignores them but can use them as a hint for crawling and indexing purposes.

This includes noticing “how the words within links describe content they point at” to help Google “better understand unnatural linking patterns.”

Although it doesn’t mean nofollow links suddenly started to play an important role in SEO, we know Google pays some attention to them. 

Note: If you want to learn more about this topic, read our nofollow links & SEO case study. 

The terms “follow link” and “dofollow link” are often used to say that the link passes link equity. They simply refer to standard links as opposed to links with nofollow, sponsored, or UGC parameters.

However, this needs to be clear: There is no such thing as “follow” or “dofollow” link attribute. 

So even if you see a link with rel="dofollow" in it ( it’s not as uncommon as you might think), the attribute is unnecessary and doesn’t influence the link.

Next Steps

Now that you know the difference between nofollow and “follow” links, you may want to dive deeper into how links impact SEO and how to get the best backlinks for your website.
Here are some useful resources:

If you want to start building links right away, make sure to try our Backlink Gap tool. With a free account, you can make up to 10 searches per day to discover your competitors’ best backlinks to replicate. 

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Author Photo
Vlado has over 8 years of experience in SEO, content strategy, and inbound marketing. He’s the former Head of Content at Mangools, and the owner of several websites. He enjoys explaining complex SEO topics in an easy-to-understand way.
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