Nofollow links are not useless: Earning them Is central to good SEO

With major publishers like Inc., Forbes and The Huffington Post placing the rel=”nofollow” tag on their external links, the sky is once again falling. Or not. In fact, I’ve always believed that earning nofollow links was an important part of any SEO strategy built to last.

The reality of the situation is that nofollow links are good for your SEO, full stop. Whether your evidence comes from case studies, personal experience or correlative data, the answer is the same.

We can debate about whether nofollow links have any direct impact on rankings until the cows come home, but in the end, it just doesn’t matter that much. What matters is that, if you are earning nofollow links on high-profile platforms, you are earning brand exposure, referral traffic and various off-site signals that do help your rankings in the search results.

I have witnessed the effect myself far too often to conclude otherwise, and anybody who has been in this industry long enough knows that you shouldn’t decide to pursue — or decline to pursue — a link based upon whether or not a link is nofollowed.

Let me present the evidence, and then I’ll explain how you can make the most of link building by incorporating nofollow links in the appropriate way.

Nofollow links can definitely help SEO: The evidence

I feel comfortable saying that nofollow links definitely help your SEO, although most of the benefits are probably indirect. The exposure associated with a high-profile nofollow link is well worth the effort and contributes positively to your visibility in search results, as well as sending direct referral traffic and improving brand reach. It also appears to be almost indisputable that nofollow links help pages get indexed.

It’s more speculative to say that nofollow links can, in some cases, directly improve your rankings, and I won’t commit to a statement that strong. What I can say is that search engines reserve the right to ignore the nofollow tag, and I suspect that they do for some links they view as editorially placed and trustworthy.

Remember that Google’s own answer is that “In general, we don’t follow them.” (Emphasis mine.) This seems to imply that, while they usually don’t follow them, they sometimes do.

Perhaps more importantly, if your link-building strategy places importance on whether or not a link is nofollowed, then you are using the wrong link-building strategy. Google guidelines have been clear on this for a very long time. If you’re doing something just for the SEO value, it’s probably a violation of the Google guidelines.

Your link-building strategies should be focused on building exposure that leads to organic SEO signals. That is where the real value is.

But let’s not talk about platitudes. Let’s talk about evidence.

Case studies

Consider this case study by TekNicks. Between January of 2014 and May of 2015, they helped a client earn 99 links. Of those, only 11 were followed. The remaining 88 links were all nofollowed links — 89 percent of the total.

But during that period, the client saw 288 percent growth in their organic search traffic. At the end of the period, the client ranked in their top position for their main keyword, which TekNicks claims is “very competitive,” and which receives 2,000 monthly searches.

At the end of this period, they additionally ranked for an even more competitive keyword, with 8,100 monthly searches. For the period, organic traffic grew from 1,700 sessions a month to 6,500 sessions.

But, perhaps equally importantly, one of the nofollow links they earned sent 3,922 referrals between January and October of 2014.

And TekNicks isn’t the only agency to experience something like this. Fractl has three excellent examples of nofollow links working wonders for clients, demonstrating the power of media exposure.

They developed an infographic called “Your Face as an Alcoholic” for client, which quickly hit the front page after they shared it with the Daily Mail in 2014. The resulting exposure led to coverage in 900 media stories, including The Huffington Post and the New York Daily News.

Only 30 percent of those newly-earned links were dofollow, and they earned over 14,000 shares on social media.

In a second example, Fractl placed a story for a client on Yahoo Travel, exposing how expensive hotels often have more germs than cheaper hotels. This featured article led to coverage in 700 stories, a third of which contained dofollow links, as well as 23,000 social shares.

Finally, one Fractl client saw a 271 percent increase in organic search traffic resulting from an exclusive, but nofollowed, link on BuzzFeed.

In a more controlled test, Eli Schwartz of SurveyMonkey demonstrated that, at a minimum, nofollow links definitely help pages get indexed.

After SurveyMonkey moved its blog from the subdomain to their root domain, Eli ran a few tests on the old subdomain URLs. He modded the 404 page, including a link to a page with bogus anchor text. Google crawled the 404 page and indexed the test page in under 48 hours, after it was included in a newly published item. The resulting link even carried the anchor text.

Running the same test again with a link to a different page, he tried using a nofollow link instead. As you can probably guess, Google indexed the URL, even though the hyperlink was nofollowed. He did notice, however, that the anchor text didn’t carry over.

How Google treats nofollowed links

Nofollowed links are also typically accompanied by brand mentions. According to a Google Patent, brand mentions may be considered “implied links.” In other words, if a brand gets mentioned online, this may be treated in a similar manner to an actual link. While we don’t know for sure, a brand mention along with a nofollow link may also help the search engines in understanding the semantic link between a brand mention and the website it refers to, since brand mentions are less clear due to their less explicit nature.

Whether “co-citation” of this form helps traditional search results, it’s certainly clear that citations help local search. In one example, local SEO Phil Frost explains how including citations (with name, address and phone number) in a press release helped a client move from position 20 to position 1 in local search results for their primary keyword. In this case, despite the links being no-followed, the citations clearly helped their client rank.

Case studies by Search Engine Land and Moz, in addition to more recent case studies that come out on a fairly routine basis, demonstrate that it is still possible to improve rankings using press release distribution. While we generally avoid this tactic unless it’s also used with the primary goal of generating press, it continues to be popular even though the majority of press release distribution sites now contain nofollowed links. That press releases still help with SEO is a testament to the value of nofollow links in this context, whether direct or indirect.

Correlative analysis of observational ranking data conducted by Ahrefs also suggests that a relatively even split between dofollow and nofollow links may help rankings. While correlative studies have their flaws, primarily because they can’t establish a cause and effect relationship, it would be a mistake to ignore them.

Likewise, Moz’s analysis of ranking factors finds a 0.32 correlation between the number of nofollow links pointing to a page and rankings. This is nearly identical to the correlation between the number of external domains linking to a page and its rankings, which sits just 0.02 higher, at 0.34.

One can rightfully argue that these correlation studies could just be showing us that successful pages are more likely to get linked to, and thus are more likely to receive nofollowed links. This is a reasonable objection, but it applies equally to followed links, and, with such a small difference in correlations, it does make one wonder if nofollowed links could actually contribute directly to rankings.

Regardless of whether or not this is the case, the case studies above demonstrate definitively that, directly or indirectly, nofollow links can have a dramatic positive impact on search engine rankings. My personal experience with nofollow links leads me to the same conclusions.

How to maximize the SEO value of nofollow links

1. Remember: The anchor text is meaningless for keyword rankings

Whether or not nofollow links can directly improve your rankings, it’s clear that the anchor text is most likely ignored entirely.

If you are earning nofollow links with SEO in mind, anchor text should be the last thing on your mind, or more accurately, you shouldn’t be thinking much about keywords when it comes to anchor text.

The primary value of the link is in getting people to visit your site directly, and that means the purpose of the anchor text is to get people to click through and see more. That means the anchor text should pique the reader’s curiosity as much as possible, promise them something in a clear and non-deceptive way or address objections the user might have to clicking the link.

2. Focus on an audience of influencers

Other than receiving direct clicks from your target audience, the main thing you want a nofollow link to accomplish is to earn additional followed links from trusted influencers.

Earning those links means producing content that appeals to journalists, thought leaders, microcelebrities and others who have large audiences of their own.

This means that your content should be going the extra mile, since influencers are generally the most voracious infovores in your industry. They know almost everything, and they aren’t easy to surprise.

How do you catch these people’s attention with your content? There are two primary methods:

  • Focus on novelty.
  • Focus on being comprehensive.

These can be subdivided into far more categories, but these are the primary things to focus on.

Focusing on novelty means providing influencers with things they’ve never seen before. The best examples of this type of content include:

  • orginal research, such as surveys, experiments, or studies
  • interactive tools like web apps
  • “investigative journalism”-style work that provides insider information
  • exclusive interviews
  • news
  • event coverage
  • proprietary information

Focusing on being comprehensive includes things like:

  • ultimate guides
  • white papers
  • how-to videos
  • e-books
  • courses
  • “30-Day Challenges”
  • introductions and primers
  • glossaries and dictionaries

In short, say something new, or distill something big.

If you do this, and then get your resource published on a major platform, it doesn’t matter whether or not your link is followed or nofollowed. What is important is how the exposure will lead to coverage in the press, on social networks, on blogs and magazines and so on.

By making influencers your audience, you maximize your reach and SEO impact.

3. Use the opportunity to mention your brand

As I mentioned above, Google patents suggest that a simple mention of your brand can help improve your visibility in the search results. Such brand mentions may be treated as “implied links” and, if so, likely carry similar authority metrics, so that a mention in a more authoritative media platform results in a stronger rankings boost.

Whether Google has actually put this patent to use and found that it helped their rankings algorithm is unclear, but brand mentions are valuable for obvious reasons, and can indirectly benefit your SEO as well.

Brand mentions lead to increased searches for your brand name, which in turn can help your rankings in a virtuous feedback cycle.

While you shouldn’t name-drop shamelessly, don’t skip the chance to promote your brand when you place a nofollow link on an authoritative platform.

4. Leverage social media

Failure to pursue nofollow links can hurt your SEO performance in many ways, but one of the worst consequences is the tendency to avoid techniques that involve (typically nofollowed) social media.

Google has explicitly stated many times that there are no special ranking factors developed for social networks.

Since Google evidently doesn’t use “likes” and “retweets” as ranking factors, and since links on social platforms are nofollowed, some in the SEO industry ask, “Why bother?”

Well, for starters, as I mentioned above, Google’s own statements on nofollow suggest that they sometimes do count nofollowed links, even though in general they don’t. Moz’s correlation studies certainly find very strong correlations between social media activity and rankings. Could the nofollowed links from this social activity be counting toward rankings?

There’s no way to know for sure, but the correlation is meaningful either way.

What social media undoubtedly can do is earn you attention that leads indirectly to links. Viral activity on social networks inevitably leads to media coverage and followed links. Scrapers also replicate links from social media in other locations, often without the nofollow tag.

Social media platforms are perhaps the most effective way to amplify your content’s reach in the short term. In addition to sharing your content with your own audience, you can leverage other influencers by reaching out to personalities that are popular on social media. If you do so tactfully, you can reach much larger audiences. This activity inevitably leads to naturally earned links, as well as various other off-page activity that helps improve your rankings.

5. Republishing

Republishing your content on major platforms is a tactic that frequently results in nofollowed links, but if the platforms attract a large enough audience, this is well worth the effort. Since many bloggers and editors refer to major media platforms for their sources, if you can get republished on a major platform, you can earn editorial links from the writers who cite those platforms frequently.

While it’s true that some of these writers will cite the republished version, more vigilant writers will click the nofollowed link and cite your website as the original source, since links to primary sources are preferred by writers who take research seriously.

More speculatively, it’s possible that under some circumstances, Google will see the duplicate content and identify your original publication as the primary source, and as a result, transfer the search engine authority from the other duplicates to your original. I have witnessed effects that seem to imply this is happening, although it would be hasty to conclude with too much certainty that this is exactly what is going on.

Either way, it’s as clear as day that republishing content on more popular platforms expands your reach, puts your brand in front of more eyeballs and increases your likelihood of getting cited with a link by other writers.

6. Get obsessed with referral traffic

Too many in this industry are focused on building links without concerning themselves with whether or not those links actually send any referral traffic.

It’s been said many times but it can never be said enough: the most valuable links are the ones you earn organically and editorially — when people link to you without you reaching out or doing anything else to earn the link.

I’m not arguing that those are the only kinds of links you should be earning, but if you optimize your own “manual” link-building efforts in such a way that it generates the largest number of organic links, you are approaching link building the way you should be.

Few things more reliably produce organic links than sheer traffic. It’s probable that a certain percentage of your readership will always end up linking to you if you have enough readers. So if you can expand the number of people who see your content, you can expand the number of people who will link to you.

Oh, and referral traffic is valuable on its own, too. But you knew that already, right?

So, how do you go about earning nofollow links that send traffic?

I would argue that the primary thing to focus on is earning links that grow your traffic in a cumulative fashion. In other words, it’s not the link that sends you a thousand visits one day and zero the next that you really want to chase. It’s the link that sends 100 visits a day every day for the foreseeable future that you really want to get your hands on.

Here are some of the types of links that can help you accomplish that:

  • Quora. If you’ve ever answered a question on Quora, you’ve probably noticed that while the referral traffic numbers aren’t necessarily high for any given question, you tend to see traffic from Quora for a very long time after posting an answer. Build up a lot of these and you will start seeing cumulative growth in referral traffic.
  • Pinterest. While its traffic-driving power isn’t quite as strong as it was when it first made a splash, it is still an incredibly useful referral source that sends a lot of traffic when an image does really well.
  • Forums. I know they seem like a throwback from the 1990s, but forums are still incredibly popular, and if you use them in a similar fashion to Quora, they can send you long-term cumulative traffic, especially if the forum allows you to link to your site in your forum signature or elsewhere.
  • SlideShare. Presentations here can attract a very different type of audience and can be a constant source of traffic, especially if you are in the B2B sector.
  • Interviews. Interview an influencer, and they are likely to promote that interview on their own platforms. If they publish it on their site, the link can sometimes become evergreen and send a continuous drip of traffic.
  • Resource lists. These are especially popular on educational sites. Inclusion in somebody’s resource list is almost guaranteed to be an evergreen traffic source if their site has enough traffic.
  • YouTube. A YouTube video that does well with the algorithm becomes an evergreen source of brand mentions and traffic.
  • Podcasts. These can be a great source of long-term traffic for the same reasons as YouTube videos.

If you stop chasing the followed link and shift your obsession toward upping your referral traffic, you start to realize how unimportant the nofollow tag really is, both in terms of growing your overall traffic, and even in improving your authority with the search engines.

The myth that nofollow links are useless for SEO needs to die. A solid SEO strategy is not concerned with whether the manual links you place will directly impact your SEO. A thorough reading of the Google guidelines should, in fact, lead you to the conservative assumption that no link you place yourself counts toward rankings. The indirect effects are where the true value lies, and it is where you should be focusing the majority of your effort.

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