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The difference between dofollow and nofollow links

It’s a question that comes up in #seo chat time and time again. To follow, or not to follow? I’ve discussed the importance of links when it comes to getting your website ranking. But it is equally important to get the links right, otherwise, you risk peeing off the G (my pet name for the mighty Google)…

As with most technicalities in the world of search, Google has some pretty specific guidelines on the differences between the two link types.

In today’s post, we discuss the variation, the purpose of each link type and how to leverage BOTH types of links to benefit your business and online marketing strategy 🤓

The technical difference: it’s all in the code

It’s all in the code. Let’s just start right at the beginning, and first explain exactly what the technical difference between the two link types are. A dofollow link is just a regular hyperlink. It’s a link from one webpage to another.

A nofollow link, however, is where a special rel=”nofollow” tag is added to the code of that hyperlink. You can’t tell the difference between the two just by looking at the webpage. You have to select the link, right click, click on ‘inspect’ and have a look at the code yourself. Google’s ‘bots, however, can tell the links apart right away.

The nofollow attribute was first created in 2005. It’s purpose? To help fight comment link spam. But not long after the creation, Google started to recommend to all website owners that they should use the nofollow attribute on paid links on their sites.

This was to help Google differentiate between paid and natural links and, in their words “prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users.”

Like advertising standards across the board – such as a paid feature in a magazine that’s marked ‘sponsored’ – it’s good to know that Google makes this differentiation. In effect, a nofollow link sends a message to Google that you are paying for the link and it’s an advert.

Let’s look at the data of #1 ranking pages

When building a website and positioning yourself as an authority in your field of expertise, links are important. Actually, that’s an understatement. They’re a massively a big deal. Organic link building is the process whereby you build relationships, network with like-minded individuals online and earn links through amazing content. The more links your website gets, the more likely you are to rank for important search terms for your business.

Read more about Fishpool’s approach to organic link building here.

But what sort of a balance should we be aiming for? If 80% of the links on your site are nofollow, then this won’t bode well with Google. As that’s, in effect, saying you bought the vast majority of them!

Let’s have a look at some data assessing the percentage of dofollow vs nofollow links on some of Google’s top ranking sites. In the below examples of pages that rank number one for key search terms, I’ve broken down what percentage of nofollow links each page has pointing to that page. Note: I’m looking at just the page that is ranking specifically and not the site as a whole.

Keyword: “backlinks”

#1 ranked site: www.gotchseo.com/backlinks
Percentage of nofollow links: 28%
Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 30%

Keyword: “mortgage payment calculator”

#1 ranked site: www.bankrate.com/calculators/mortgages/mortgage-payment-calculator
Percentage of nofollow links: 31%
Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 12%

Keyword: “diet pills”

#1 ranked sitewww.webmd.com/diet/obesity/weight-loss-prescription-weight-loss-medicine
Percentage of nofollow links: 21%
Percentage of nofollow links for entire site: 14%

It would appear that number one ranked web pages on Google have an average of 20%-30% nofollow links pointing to that page. So if around 3 out of 10 links are nofollow links on top ranking pages, what can we learn from this?

It’s all about balance: the twenty-five percent rule

As the data shows, an average of 25% seems to be a safe place for the number of nofollow links to stick to. Anything above that could be risky. So, stick to this as a general rule when embarking on your link building strategy.

Focussing your efforts on creating great quality, shareable content teamed with a social media strategy is likely to earn you more natural, dofollow links anyway. But don’t discard nofollow links as unhelpful. Below outlines the key benefits of both:

The standoff: nofollow vs. dofollow and the key benefits to users:

key benefitdofollownofollow
Adheres to Google’s guidelines if the link was paid for noyes
Can pass traffic to the site it links toyesyes
Can be highly contextual, i.e. enhance reader experienceyesyes
Protects your site from spam comments noyes
Passes ‘domain authority’ to the linked site yesno


On the flip side, dofollow links can’t distinguish sponsored content or offer sites protection from spam comments.Looking at the table above, we can see clearly that nofollow links give us everything a regular link can give us, with the exception of passing domain authority.

It’s not all about passing authority

Yeah, domain authority is a big deal, but it’s not the be all and end off of great SEO. Both link types can pass traffic. And let’s not forget, the sheer power of great quality traffic.

A couple of years back, Forbes introduced a blanket nofollow policy on all links from its site to other sources. A bit extreme? Well, this tactic is not advisable for smaller sites looking to build up their own authority and contextual linking, by linking out to great, credible sources.

But for Forbes -a huge site with a mammoth daily readership- it’s a bit different. If a link in one of their articles is well placed, then the traffic potential is phenomenal. Focussed, well-targeted traffic is what your site needs to succeed, not just authority from dofollow links.

Key takeaways in the nofollow vs. dofollow debate

So, if linking is done correctly, it’s so much more than just passing domain ‘authority’. Ranking factors such as time spent on a page are more important now than ever, so a well placed nofollow link that passes quality traffic to your site, will be a great boost for its SEO.

As we’re in times where quality content and a great user experience are at the forefront of SEO, focus your time and energy on these elements first.

When we appreciate the value of both links and their unique benefits, we can clarify how powerful they are when used together. And, when used correctly. So follow the 25% rule, create content that people want to read and share and you won’t go far wrong.

Want to read more about how to create great content in 2018? Read Rachel’s full content guide with five actionable tips.