Why Sites Shouldn’t Put Nofollow on their Outbound Links

I’ve wanted to blog about this for a while now, but was never quite sure what to say and how to say it. But after being directly affected by it twice recently, I decided “enough is enough”

From what I can see, more and more publishers are seemingly applying rel="nofollow" on their outbound links, meaning that they do not pass on SEO value to the sites that they are linking to. Econsultancy famously implemented nofollow on its guest blog posts back in 2014, worried that they’d fall out of Google’s good graces if they were to leave things unchecked – despite having “very, very strict guidelines” on what content they accept. The measure is still in place today.

More recently, other sites seem to have followed suit. A client of mine got a link on WalesOnline (owned by Trinity Mirror) thanks to help from their PR agency – it was initially dofollow, but some time in the last few months, all of WalesOnline’s outbound links have become nofollow. I also recently responded to a HARO request on behalf of my own business, which was published on Social Media Today… only to find out that it, too, was nofollow.

SMT nofollow example screenshot

The argument for nofollow

rel="nofollow" was introduced about ten years ago as a measure intended to counteract link spam. It’s mostly used in places where people can easily add links themselves, such as via blog comments, forum threads, social media sites and on Wikipedia. It’s also encouraged in places where money changes hands – e.g. if you’re advertising on a website, the website should consider adding nofollow to the link.

All of that is fair enough. The general understanding is that nofollow should be used for easily-acquired and paid-for links, but when we’re talking about instances where someone has ‘earned’ a link, well… there is no need to use nofollow.

In fact, Google’s own dedicated page on the subject gives three main examples for the use of nofollow:

  1. Untrusted content – giving blog comment spam as an example
  2. Paid links – such as on adverts
  3. Crawl prioritisation – giving ‘register here’ or ‘sign in’ type links as examples

So why are Econsultancy, WalesOnline and Social Media Today applying it to the outbound links on their respective sites that don’t fit that criteria? Are they genuinely suggesting that they don’t trust any of the content that they link to? Or is it an attempt to prioritise search engine spider crawling internally, to the extreme? There was indeed a brief spate a few years ago when SEOs would try ‘PageRank sculpting’ using nofollow, but Google shot that down pretty quickly (assuming that’s to be believed, of course)…

Why you shouldn’t do it (beyond the obvious reasons)

Beyond the above examples of nofollow use – which coincide with what Google themselves believe to be the ‘true’ and intended use of nofollow – it’s difficult to give a real reason why you should nofollow other types of outbound links. Here are a few reasons why I think that it shouldn’t be done:

As a spam protection measure, it’s overkill

Econsultancy’s argument that they were concerned about enduring Google’s wrath seems fair enough on the surface, but… why is that? They run a great site with great content that’s produced by great contributors. In my opinion they weren’t doing anything wrong in the first place – therefore the use of nofollow on outbound links is simply overkill.

If you’re running a website but being very careful what you publish then it seems unlikely to me that you’re suddenly going to get in trouble with Google just because you’re linking out to places.

Another factor in their decision might have been the fact that they were likely inundated by requests from guest bloggers of low quality – this move would have instantly put off those types, giving their editor inbox a bit of a rest. …But at what cost? While I’m sure that many of their contributors were happy to continue as normal, I wonder if some contributors soon stopped blogging for them and/or other people who were considering it simply didn’t bother in the end…?

I don’t mean to nitpick, but Econsultancy should be more concerned about their internal linking strategy – in this post, 6 of the 7 links in the body of the post go to other Econsultancy articles. That’s not a massive number, but when you combine that with the fact that they nofollow their contributors’ links, it seems like they’re being very – dare I say it – ‘selfish’ with their current implemention, not properly crediting their contributors while happily boosting their own site’s SEO from within…

Speaking of which…

You’re not truly helping the people who are helping you

Econsultancy are having content produced for them by other people for free, which they in turn profit from through advertising as well as through their training courses, events, etc. The least that they could do is to fairly credit their contributors with a bit of an SEO boost – to ‘return the favour’ as it were. It’s not like they’d be going out of their way doing so, as dofollow (non-nofollow) is the norm – in fact they’re going out of their way not to, by putting this measure in place.

Social Media Today is the same. The article that I contributed to (via HARO) is pieced together from the responses of yours truly and four others – none of whom have been credited from an SEO perspective. We’ve basically provided that content for free for SMT to use, with little effort on their part (aside from putting together the HARO request, collating the responses and putting it into a publishable format).

You could argue that at least we got a link and a mention. It’s true that SEO isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of online promotion and just being able to say to people “hey, I was featured in an SMT article doncha know…” holds an element of prestige all on its own if I’m talking to social media consultants, but aren’t I deserving of the SEO benefit as well? I’m sorry but in my eyes saying “at least I got some benefit” isn’t good enough.

People won’t want to help you (again)

Put simply, now that I know that SMT apply nofollow on their outbound links, if I see another HARO request for them then I’m going to be reluctant to respond to it – it’s as simple as that. Is it worth taking the time to respond to that HARO query when I know that it’s not going to help my SEO, when I could use the time in another way instead, a way that where I can promote my business and help its SEO? By going ahead with outbound nofollow, they’re shooting themselves in the foot a bit. The same applies to those who don’t link out at all.

If too many people do it, search engines may struggle to understand what is and isn’t trustworthy

Let’s look at the bigger picture for a second. Google’s vision of nofollow is that it’s only used in certain places, where it’s important to do so. If all websites implement nofollow then we’ll be back where we started (if not worse)! Search engines may become confused in understanding what should and shouldn’t be followed, what should and shouldn’t be credited.

The problem with more and more publishers implementing nofollow in these ways is that unfortunately more and more may consider following suit and doing the same. And that won’t be good for anyone. I just hope that fewer people will implement the change, not more.

Who knows… Google may penalise you for it(!)

As mentioned near the beginning of this post, Google gives its own suggestions and direction of proper nofollow use. I do wonder if continued nofollow ‘abuse’ may open publishers up to penalities for incorrect usage of the tag. How ironic it’d be if Econsultancy – who implemented nofollow to escape getting a penalty – get a penalty in this way instead… I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It goes without saying that the more sites that follow suit, the more chance that Google might decide to look into this.

Don’t be a nofo mofo

Eagle-eyed readers (or perhaps those with SEO toolbars) might have noticed that I’ve manually nofollowed the links to Econsultancy, WalesOnline and Social Media Today – in order to help prove my point. Because heck… why should I give them an SEO boost when they’re unwilling to do so to others? I feel like a bit of a troll doing so, which says it all really – it’s just not a good thing to do. It’s not the right thing to do. Don’t be like me, or them – don’t be a nofo mofo.

[Image credits – no entry sign: Himbeerdoni]

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About Steve Morgan

CIM-qualified Online Marketing & SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Consultant with over 9 years of online marketing experience: 4 years' agency experience; around 6 months' experience working in-house for a national household name in the insurance industry; now freelancing full-time.