The following case study was submitted by Rebuild Group, Detroit, and was written by Mike Brichta, website optimization analyst at the marketing firm.
The Traditional View of Followed vs. No-follow Links
Ever since Google gave webmasters the ability to apply a nofollow tag to links on their site, it has been largely understood that a nofollow link would be of less SEO value to a site than a followed link.
Google sees followed links as being a vote of confidence from the webmaster of the site towards the site they are linking to. Nofollow links, on the other hand, are not necessarily endorsed by the webmaster, so Google is less likely to see this type of link as an indicator of an authoritative site.
So while it doesn’t hurt your website to have backlinks that are nofollow, they don’t necessarily help either.
The initial purpose of implementing nofollow links was to deter people from engaging in spammy practices in order to obtain more backlinks to their site, especially when it came to posting in the comment sections of blogs.
Based on this understanding of nofollow links, it would seem like the best approach to link building would be to focus mainly on acquiring followed links rather than nofollow links. However, it has been over 10 years since Google first began recognizing nofollow tags, and more recently there has been some discussion as to whether or not these two types of links still differ greatly in the amount of value they can offer. So we set out to determine just how valuable nofollow links are compared to followed links.
In order to get an idea of how these two types of links stack up, we set aside two 90 day periods where we exclusively built backlinks on either followed links or nofollow links. We made sure that each of the links were of a similar domain authority and that a similar number of both followed and nofollow links were obtained.
During the first 90 days, we exclusively built followed links. We acquired a total of six links with an average domain authority of 71. We then took a measure of how well our site had performed in this timeframe.
In the next 90 days that followed, we switched gears and pursued only nofollow links. We gained a total of five links with average domain authority of 66. We then compiled the same benchmark data as before to serve as a comparison.
Comparing both of these sets of data to the performance of the site from the 90 days prior to the start of the case study, it was clear that both of the 90 day periods during the case study showed a near all-around improvement. The click-through rate did decrease, however this was no surprise as it is normal to see such a drop when impressions increase as much as they did. The low number of impressions prior to the case study was due to the site being newly launched.
When comparing the two link building periods, the period of building nofollow links showed a clear improvement in every way measured.
- Clicks increased 45%
- Impressions increased 8%
- The click-through rate increased despite the increase in impressions
Despite this marked difference, we wouldn’t go so far as to say that nofollow links are now superior. At no point did the purpose of nofollow links suggest that they would be of more value than regular followed links, and there has since been no reasoning or evidence to indicate that this has changed. The degree to which our metrics improved was likely a consequence of some onsite optimizations that were also made during this time. The improvement could have also been influenced by the followed links that had been gained during the previous period.
We can, however, infer that nofollow links should not be ignored outright, and that they are still a valuable part of a healthy link profile. Google may grow suspicious of SEO strategies that are targeting only followed links, which is why having a healthy mix of nofollow links is still a good idea as long as they are from authoritative sites.
Recently, more SEOs have been suggesting that nofollow links are not to be entirely looked down upon any longer. In an article from Electric Dialogue published this past February, several SEO experts are asked the question of whether or not nofollow links are valuable. Here is what Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO had to say:
“They’re still valuable because a lot of dumb webmasters started abusing the nofollow attribute, meaning Google has started to ignore it more & more over the years and has started to treat it more like a regular link. I also know a few spammers who really don’t care if the links they’re getting are nofollow, because they’re still linking great with them.”
The main takeaway is that both followed and nofollow links can be of value to the site, but this still does not mean that you should go after every single link regardless. You still need to be smart about only acquiring links from authoritative sites that you trust. However, you should not become overly concerned about whether or not these links are followed.