How Does Google Really Treat Nofollow Links?

Last week Loren Baker asked the search engines how they treat links with the rel=”nofollow” attribute added to them. MSN didn’t respond and Ask said they don’t support nofollow and so treat those links the same as any other. Yahoo responded by saying they do follow the link and will index the page on the other side, but the link won’t pass any juice to the page being linked to. Google claimed they don’t follow the link at all and thus won’t index the page on the other side assuming no other links (internal or external) point to the page. But is that how Google really treats nofollow links?

I have a hard time believing Google’s claims. When I check links in Webmaster Tools I can tell you that they show backlinks to pages where the only inbound link has rel=”nofollow” applied. If Googlebot didn’t follow that link how could they show it as a backlink?

Today Neil Patel asked do nofollow links count and pointed to a post Ben Fisher wrote which was supposed to offer proof that Google ranked pages based on the anchor text coming from nofollow links alone. Jeremy Luebke showed how the proof was false in the comments to Neil’s post, but I still wonder.

Quadzilla followed up on Neil’s post with some ideas on what Google can do to verify nofollow links.

Because Google has so much market penetration with Analytics and the Google Toolbar, they can look at a link and verify it’s integrity (to some extent) by how many users actually click the link.

Now I have no way of knowing if Google is verifying links in that manner, but it’s an interesting idea, especially given Google’s move toward personalization.

At the moment my sense, albeit without any proof, is the same as what Halfdeck said in a comment on Neil’s post.

Nofollow leaks anchor text…
…The effect is probably minor but still, nofollow doesn’t block anchor text completely.

I’m curious if anyone has experimented with nofollow links and wanted to share their results. Maybe I’ll set up a simple experiment and see what I can find.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

34 comments

  1. There are nofollow links showing in Google Webmaster Tools for my site. Some of them have always been nofollow ( a comment to this site would be an example, I’m guessing ) while others seem like they’re grandfathered in. Wikipedia has articles on different photographic lenses, and a fan of my pictues listed my site under a lens as “sample imagery.” ( It’s an honor that someone out there thinks my photos represent the full potential in an expensive landscape lens. ) Several months later this became a nofollow link. I don’t know if that’s treated differently from a link that’s always been nofollow?

    I haven’t done any experimenting with these types of links; I really don’t do any link building. When I shoot a good photo I show it off to everyone who’ll look, and some of the articles seem “viral.” I’m finally starting to reach the point where photography is all I really need to do to keep traffic flowing to my site. These are just the observations I’ve had a chance to make.

    I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Google follows ( but doesn’t pass on “link juice” from ) nofollow links. It would be in their best interest to at least evaluate the content on the web. Nofollow isn’t about keeping URLs in the dark, it’s about blocking the one reason too many people make them.

  2. “When I check links in Webmaster Tools I can tell you that they show backlinks”

    Steven, in his post “Google provides backlinks for site owners”, Matt Cutts specifically states:

    “Do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight. I’m going to say that again: Do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight. Sometime in the next year, someone will say “But I saw an insert-link-fad-here backlink show up in Google’s backlink tool, so it must count. Right?” And then I’ll point them back here, where I say do not assume just because you see a backlink that it’s carrying weight. :)”

  3. Forrest I would imagine if a link later gets the nofollow added then once Google discovers the nofollow they start treating it as they would had it been there from the beginning. Just a guess on my part, but it seems reasonable.

    Thanks Halfdeck. I remember seeing Matt say that and I agree just because you see a backlink doesn’t mean it’s useful in any way. But according to what they told Loren Baker they don’t even follow the link and I wonder how they could know the link is a backlink if they didn’t at least follow it.

    What you said in your comment on Neil’s post is what my gut is telling me is most likely right. That they do follow the link in spite of what they say and that perhaps a little bit of that anchor text does get carried over to the page.

  4. I have said earlier that I have put a site at 50 for ‘yuri’ just by commenting on blogs (around 400). That being said, the WP blog did have Yuri as post author, but the positions were shifting with time, which leads to my more or less incorrect conclusion that it was due to the amount of nofollowed links with ‘Yuri’ as anchor text.

  5. If you use google’s sitemaps/webmaster control panel then you’re probably getting indexed because of that, and not because of links. Spammers don’t use google’s webmaster control panel, most of them code their own tracking system using a log analyzer combined with javascript.

  6. True about using Google sitemaps. If they know about a page that way it should get indexed. It’s no guarantee of ranking, though I doubt Google gives much beyond a small weight (if any) to nofollow links in spite of what they say. Just a hunch and for the moment I can’t offer proof of any kind.

    Probably not the best idea for a spammer to use Google’s Webmaster Tools. Good point.

    • True, but originally that’s not what they said they did. (at least I don’t think they did? It has been a couple of years since I wrote this post :) )

      I believe they originally claimed to ignore the link completely. My point was they obviously were keeping track of the link regardless of what value they gave to the link.

      Of course Google has changed what they say and do with nofollow quite a few times since it’s inception.

  7. The fact that your blog post is still being read a few years later is a solid accomplishment. I stumbled upon it through a google search and the information has been helpful. Thank you

  8. Well this post is from 2007 and still its showing up in top place in google. But I want to know how google treats rel nofollow links now (in 2009). Could you do some research on that and let your blog readers like me know? I will come back to this post again to read your comments. Hope to find some update in about a months time. GREAT POST!

    • Thanks. I think for the most part rel=”nofollow” works the same way it always has. It’s meant to tell a search engine not to count the link as a vote for the page being linked to.

      For a time PageRank sculpting using nofollow was the tactic du jour for many SEOs. Then Google came out saying it no longer worked and hadn’t for awhile.

      Yesterday SEOmoz posted that PR sculpting with nofollow still works.

      I didn’t have any plans to write another post on the subject, but perhaps I’ll do a little research and see what I find.

      Thanks for the suggestion.

  9. Listen up everybody – dont be so naive in thinking Google does not pay any attention to the nofollow, of course it does. It may no show the majority of them up like say Yahoo but when it downloads your webpages to its computers it reads the whole page and every link on them regardless if its got a nofollow. It just doesnt stop and disregard it because there’s this word infront of the hyperlink, or if there is a follow it then doesnt just shoot of the page and goto the other site. These massive computers read the page in its entirety and every other page flying around out there. It then proceeds to calculate all this data and every single in and out link from the WWW and mathematically produces results starting with the highest scoring sites and works is way down to the lowest. This would be totally silly and disastrous in terms of the efficiency of its power house search results if it did not gather all links. Getting information out of Google is like getting blood from a stone probably harder infact, and why? Simply because every webmaster would know how to manipulate there PR and serps. You would end up with crappy sites topping page 1 of the results. Google lets the odd flimsy comment out to guide you all in the correct way that they see in managing and operating sites better for the end user. Blogging and article sites play an enormous role for webmasters in there advertising strategies and over half of these sites have the nofollow. Believe me when i say, Google may not publicly acknowledge them in showing you and me but thats just a peice of programming in the computers but they are there and have been taken into account. Do they hold the weight of a follow link? No they dont!

  10. From my experience google treats no follow links as really no follow. Although they might sometimes show up on web master tools after a month or two it’s gone, but I think no follow or not just link ahead. Even if google doesn’t find it probably someone who needs it might stumble upon and read it.

  11. I think nofollow links from some sites do help as googlebot passes through the site more often and therefore gets you faster indexing. They may count somewhat if the topic of both pages are the same.

    • Google definitely follows the link in the sense of indexing the page on the other side. The question of how nofollow links influence ranking is probably still up for debate. According to Google the links shouldn’t have any effect, but it seems to me that they do have some value.

  12. I think Google will continue to claim that it doesn’t count to try and curb comment spam. But I also have my second thoughts about it.

    As a webmaster, I think even nofollow links have value as long as they bring traffic (regardless of Pagerank impact). And I think they will continue to bring traffic if the comments are relevant and aligned with the site’s theme.

    • And the idea that the bring traffic is the main reason nofollow never stopped spam on blog comments.

      I’ll still comment on blogs regardless of how the link is treated. It’s the actual comment you leave and who reads it that’s important.

  13. Thanks for posting about this. I found this article through Google after finding several “nofollow” links on Google Webmaster Tools.

    I find it very hard to believe that Google doesn’t take these links into consideration at all. However, even if Google doesn’t, “nofollow” links can still be very important, as humans don’t care what kind or rel attribute a link has :)

    • Thanks Benny. Do keep in mind that this is an old post and seo changes quickly.

      I think now most people are aware that Google might still follow a link that’s been marked rel=”nofollow” though they shouldn’t be passing any PR or link juice through it.

      I’ve seen things over the years that make me think they do pass some juice, but I’ve always seen some things that would say no juice flows through the links.

  14. When I saw your page title I was very interested and I definitely wanted to read it. I’ve heard the “nofollow links get acknowledged but don’t count towards the juice” before but there is no telling if Google or Yahoo modify their algorithms in the future. If they recognize an almost exclusive showing of DoFollow backlinks they could penalize you in the future. Just a thought.

    • Keep in mind this is a pretty old post. Links with nofollow applied aren’t supposed to pass any value (at least where Google is concerned), however I think they’ve acknowledged following them and many think some small amount of link value is probably passed.

  15. I’ve also seen those nofollow links show up in webmaster tools, but more interestingly, I’ve seen Google ranks for some keywords jump up a bit after getting a Wikipedia link.

    Now these are just anecdotal reports — there could have been a bunch of other factors, including the boost in traffic from people clicking those Wikipedia links — but anecdotally there seems to be some slight correlation between Wiki nofollow and additional authority.

    • I do think nofollow links pass a little more link weight than Google claims they do. With the Wikipedia link it could also be other people seeing the page and subsequently providing a link that isn’t no-followed.

  16. Hi there. Webmasters tools shows me nofollow links, and I’ve optimized a page for a keyword, and made several nofollow links with proper anchor tex, link title, and it seems to me that those links pass some value to the particular web page. Obviously when dealing with high competition keywords, nofollow links won’t be effective enough.
    Steven said that noF links pass more link weight than Google claims. I agree with that. I think that noF links can add a lot to the link popularity which isn’t about page rank but about page reputation.

    • Keep in mind this post is about 4 years old now. I do think no-follow links have a greater effect than search engines say, but they probably don’t have much effect.

      Of course regardless of whether or not a no-follow is applied to a link, the link can provide a lot of benefit if people actually click on it. I wouldn’t pass on a link just because it’s been no-followed.

    • Google says they don’t. The whole point of adding rel=”nofollow” to a link is so that link doesn’t pass PageRank. Many people will tell you that they think nofollow links can help web pages rank better, but the word from Google is they don’t help.

        • Most sites don’t use nofollow. Most site owners probably never heard of it. The sites that use it a lot are usually those that have been spammed over and over for links and grew tired of it.

          There are lots of ways to still get links. I think the best way is to create content people want to link to and then give that content a push to let others know it exists.

          That push might be tweeting the post or simply leaving buttons for others to tweet or like or submit to their favorite site.

          The push could even be commenting on blogs. If you take the time to write a comment that adds to the post, people will click your link.

          You can write guest posts for other sites, network with people who later link to you.

          There are still all sorts of ways to get links though most of them start by creating content worth linking to.

  17. although i am new to blogging and SEO and recently read somewhere that google doesnt count no follow link as backlink,i became upset as it is very difficult to find do follow links over web, after reading your article i dont think google doesnt consider no follow , instead reserves some weigh’s for such links. i am confused

    • Google says that links with nofollow added won’t pass PageRank so in theory they won’t help your pages rank. However many will tell you that nofollow links can help pages rank.

      As far as getting links from pages that don’t add nofollow to their links, it comes down to first creating content that people want to link to. You shouldn’t have to spend time looking for dofollow links. Create good content and promote that content and links should come on their own.

  18. When I saw your page title I was very interested and I definitely wanted to read it. I’ve heard the “nofollow links get acknowledged but don’t count towards the juice” before but there is no telling if Google or Yahoo modify their algorithms in the future. If they recognize an almost exclusive showing of DoFollow backlinks they could penalize you in the future. Just a thought.

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