Friends Don’t Let Friends Use NoFollow

This is an old, old issue, but one that keeps cropping up. People keep using nofollow. Why? Please, tell me why?

The nofollow tag is bad, bad, bad for SEO campaigns.

The only time you should use it? If you’re selling links or doing something that could be interpreted as selling links, and want to avoid getting banned.

The Story

I’m not going to cover the entire tragic tale of the nofollow attribute.

The short version: Google introduced this thing called the link rel=nofollow tag. They implied that the tag would keep authority (PageRank) on the linking page instead of passing it via the link, thereby making stuff like comment spam ineffective. About a year later, though, Matt Cutts told the world that nofollow does not ‘keep’ authority on the linking page.

That caused all sorts of hysteria in the SEO community. SEOs were using nofollow to ‘sculpt’ PageRank on their sites. A typical SEO might add the rel=nofollow attribute to 50% of the links on a page, in hopes of sending 50% more PageRank to the other pages. Instead, they were actually lighting their websites on fire. In the bad-metaphorical way.

The Nerdy Explanation

Basically, nofollow now ‘burns’ PageRank. Here’s the explanation from the Google Man Himself, Matt Cutts:

Q: Does this mean “PageRank sculpting” (trying to change how PageRank flows within your site using e.g. nofollow) is a bad idea?

Matt Cutts: I wouldn’t recommend it, because it isn’t the most effective way to utilize your PageRank. In general, I would let PageRank flow freely within your site. The notion of “PageRank sculpting” has always been a second- or third-order recommendation for us. I would recommend the first-order things to pay attention to are 1) making great content that will attract links in the first place, and 2) choosing a site architecture that makes your site usable/crawlable for humans and search engines alike.

For example, it makes a much bigger difference to make sure that people (and bots) can reach the pages on your site by clicking links than it ever did to sculpt PageRank. If you run an e-commerce site, another example of good site architecture would be putting products front-and-center on your website vs. burying them deep within your site so that visitors and search engines have to click on many links to get to your products.

There may be a miniscule number of pages (such as links to a shopping cart or to a login page) that I might add nofollow on, just because those pages are different for every user and they aren’t that helpful to show up in search engines. But in general, I wouldn’t recommend PageRank sculpting.

The short version: Using nofollow, even in comments, will reduce the effective PageRank of the linking page.

NoFollow doesn’t preserve PageRank. It burns it. Bzzzzt.

The Muggle Explanation

This is the better explanation for us mere mortals:

  • Every page on the web has votes. PageRank records those votes, in part, by tracking links. Links = votes.
  • Many other things provide votes, too, but links are really, really important.
  • If you ‘nofollow’ a link, it doesn’t preserve the vote. It just shreds it. Here’s an example:

In this first example, site A’s home page has 4 votes. It links to 4 pages—3 pages on site A, and 1 on site B. None of the links have ‘nofollow’, so it passes all its votes.

Links without nofollows - 4 votes available, 4 votes cast
Links without nofollows – 4 votes available, 4 votes cast


In the second example, some smarty pants decides to try to hoard PageRank by nofollowing the link to site B. But all that happens is site A spends the PageRank anyway, but passes nothing. The PageRank of subpages on site A doesn’t go up. That 1 vote is just gone.

4 votes available, 3 cast, 1 burne
4 votes available, 3 cast, 1 burne


Doing this internally is even worse, because you’re burning PageRank and costing votes to your own site.

What To Do Instead Of Using No-Follow

If you really want to do PageRank sculpting — meaning you’ve already been cranking out great content, have your site delivering pages in 5 seconds or less, and generally have your SEO house in order, then here are a few ideas:

  • Have decent navigation on your site. Every single department in the company doesn’t need a link. You don’t need to have fly-out and drop-down menus on every page. This isn’t just an SEO thing. Usability studies increasingly show that drop down navigation causes confusion in site visitors. See the next bullet for an alternative.
  • Go hub-and-spoke. Instead of providing links to every sub-category on every page of your site, provide links to major categories. Then provide links to relevant sub-categories from within the major category.
  • Consolidate links. Don’t have two links where one will do. For example, put your privacy policy and terms of use on a single page called ‘Legal’, and link to that, instead. That means fewer links per page.
  • Fix broken links. Fix busted internal and external links. That will avoid any PageRank leaks.

The Long & Short Of It

Friends don’t let friends use nofollow. Like rel=canonical, it’s a bit of HTML created by search engines, for search engines. It serves no other purpose. Unlike rel=canonical, using rel=nofollow can do real damage to your SEO efforts.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is Chief Marketing Curmudgeon and President at Portent, Inc, a firm he started in 1995. Portent is a full-service internet marketing company whose services include SEO, SEM and strategic consulting.

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  • Serge Doubinski

    “Unlike rel=canonical, using rel=nofollow can do real damage to your SEO efforts”.. I would say there has been plenty of information of usefulness of the canonical tag especially while trying to avoid duplicate content, which can have much larger negative impact on SEO.

  • Tim Soulo

    Hey Ian, does that mean I can add your blog to my “dofollow blogs” list? :)
    Just kidding :)

  • Alireza Sefati

    Sorry I kinda disagree with this article. You should not generalize because there are special case where nofollows are on internal pages work.

    I did an internal nofollow on an ecommerce site blocking the robots from going through some pages including the duplicated content pages and my rankings and SEO traffic improved. However you really need to know what you are doing. I guess many novice SEOs just don’t know it as well.

  • OTM

    Uhm…didn’t Matt Cutts just say to continue using nofollow in the live webinar he did yesterday?
    I believe he said it should be based on trust.

  • aleefe

    Thanks for pointing this out. I see more and more sights using no follow for social media links. Is this not correct? According to your piece, I would think this is not beneficial for SEO. Right? Thanks for the information.

  • sachin sharma

    Totally confusing………

    I am totally disagree with “Canonical” description……… here

  • Simon Vincent

    I think Matt is saying don’t use nofollow for internal linking on your site, which obviously is a bad thing. Using nofollow on outbound links does keep the pagerank within your site.

  • Joe Vlcek

    Where did Matt say not to use nofollow? Did you even read what he said? “I wouldn’t recommend it, because it ISN’T THE MOST EFFECTIVE way to utilize your PageRank…… The notion of ‘PageRank sculpting’ has always been a SECOND- OR THIRD-ORDER RECOMMENDATION recommendation for us.”

    He seems to be recommending it, but says not to focus on it. Most people who are inexperienced could hurt their sites and that is why he recommends to let the PR flow freely. I recommend using no-follow on certain external links and on internal links that you would never want in the search engines. This way PR can be sculpted a little.

    I am not sure where you got your information or your charts about “burning” pr. I have seen no evidence of that. I have actually seen evidence suggesting the opposite.


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