Nofollow links have been with us since 2005 when Google instituted the tag to combat spam in blogs. Since that time, Google has advised the designation be used in things like advetorials, widgets, guest posts and infographics. The rule of thumb being if this is not genuinely editorial in nature (i.e. the website owner wouldn’t have placed the link on their own accord) then it should be nofollow. So what exactly is the value of a nofollow link in web marketing?

Its always good to go straight to the horse’s mouth (sorry Matt — really not referring to you as a horse) when it comes to how Google evaluates things. Matt Cutts has clearly said on several occasions that links tagged with the nofollow attribute don’t pass link juice. Obviously, this makes sense since the purpose of the tag is to tell that Wile E Googlebot to put on the breaks when it sees that link. So, in effect, doesn’t that make nofollow links basically worthless?

Matt makes a really good point that nofollow links do have worth since they bring users to your site. You know, the real end goal of any web marketing campaign. He brought up the case where you are participating in a forum and providing helpful responses that sparks users to follow your profile link to find out more about you. His parting comment was, “don’t forget to think about users in addition to search engines.” This is key to seeing the value in nofollow links.

Imagine a world where search engines didn’t exist. No one was chasing page rank. No one was building comment spam bots to game the engines. How would you get people to visit your website? Obviously, offline promotions would be critical. Building your brand through key partnerships, sponsoring a charity organization and billboard advertising might be a few ways you’d get the word out. Probably most powerful would be the word of mouth from your customers. If you went above and beyond to surpass their needs, they are going to talk you up as the best thing since sliced bread to their friends, family and business colleagues. I have a friend who builds up her piano teaching business strictly through referrals.

This mentality is especially helpful when evaluating nofollow link opportunities. You are sharing your expertise on a subject by answering a user’s question, they and others with similar questions will want to soak up additional tidbits of your wisdom. Once you’ve established value, you have a potential customer knocking on your inbox. Think of nofollow links as vehicles to recruit customers rather than pushing your pages up within organic search rankings.

Wikipedia is a great example of this. All reference links within the walls of Wikipedia are tagged as nofollow. Back in January of 2007, Wikipedia took this step to combat webspam by making all external links nofollow. Wiki page editors everywhere threw an Endor-esque party at the announcement though others vehemently argued Wikipedia was neglecting a considerable amount of really valuable resource links by taking this drastic step. The nofollow policy ultimately prevailed.

If you publish news-oriented articles on your site, it makes sense to see if you can add to the discussion on Wikipedia. If an item hasn’t been covered, write up a concise summary sentence or two then post your link as the reference in the format they’ve requested. Be honest with yourself, and ask if this topic adds value to the discussion. Also does the linking article provide a probing account of the subject matter, rivaling something you’d see on CNN. If you answer no to either of those questions, don’t waste your time. A moderator will yank that link reference out pronto or more likely find a more authoritative source to reference.

So where is the value to you? In being the first to post that news, you begin to build your brand equity as an authoritative source within your subject realm. Also numerous sites scrape Wikipedia, so that influence spreads beyond Sorry most, if not all, of these scrapers retain those nofollow attributes. You will see traffic come through those reference links to the article in question. Probably best of all, lots of high profile news organizations consult Wikipedia for their stories. Your link could find its way into a major news piece. It won’t happen all that often, but I’ve seen it occur on numerous occasions. Consider it a nice bonus.

Quora and Yahoo Answers are also great resources for nofollow links. Tons of people are actively searching for answers on everything from fantasy football sleeper picks to good summer reading recommendations. If you can be the Oracle to their Neo, most people will be very grateful for your help. If one person had that question, you can rest assured others will have that splinter in their mind as well. I regularly see traffic coming through Yahoo Answers posts I answered years ago. In many cases, your answer simply whetted the reader’s appetite, and they follow through that link to explore the topic in greater detail. Yahoo Answers even has a nice feature where you can save search result queries so you can be emailed daily when new topics are asked in your area of expertise.

Matt Cutts covered commenting on nofollow blogs above. If you can find a good community or three you can actively participate in, raising the level of discussion, people will notice and want to find out more you’ve written or even see if you can help them out with a particular problem. For some problems, money is no object when it comes to finding the right person.

So the SEO folks out there are probably saying great, but how does this apply to me? A normal backlink profile contains a percentage of nofollow links. The numbers vary, but I would say 10-15% is probably a reasonable benchmark number to target. This will vary by industry. If a site has zero or very few nofollow links, that link profile could get tagged as suspect by Google’s algorithm.

Some web marketing experts question the conventional wisdom if nofollow links truly pass no PageRank. The thinking goes that if you have a link from a highly authoritative, curated site like Wikipedia, why wouldn’t Google want to follow that valuable gem of information? The algorithm is definitely smart enough to grant exceptions to the rule. There definitely could be something to that logic. I don’t know if anyone has done a comprehensive study on this phenomenon, but this could be a great project for some industrious web marketer out there (hint, hint).

So am I telling you to go out and paint the web with nofollow links? Of course not. They should be just another tool in your web marketing strategy. The outlets that employ them tend to be more authoritative in nature so you are trying to add spice to the conversation. Look at nofollow links as traffic drivers to your site and a great branding tool.

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