The rel nofollow tag and page rank sculpting

April 19, 2011 / Search Engine Optimization, WordPress / By Kathy Alice

Updated: May 25, 2012
I see a lot of outdated information about the rel nofollow tag. Particularly a lot of advice to use it in page rank sculpting. That might have been useful at one point, but it hasn’t been for over a year now.

What is the nofollow tag?

The nofollow tag is a tag you can add to a href link to tell Google not to pass page rank to the link. It is typically used for comments on a blog (to discourage comment spam) and for sponsored links. By adding this tag to your href HTML code you are telling Google, I’m not sure I trust this site and I don’t want to pass my link juice over to it.

Here’s an example.

<a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>

Google expects you to use the nofollow tag on any links that you are being paid for.

Page rank sculpting

SEOs used the nofollow tag to “sculpt” page rank on websites. To understand this, remember that page rank flows down from the home page to the pages that the home page links to. So if you have five links on your home page, then 1/5th of the page rank assigned to the home page flows to each of the pages, and then that 1/5th is then divided out among the links on that sub page. So what if you have a link that shows up on every single page (Iike a “contact us” in the footer) and you are not particularly interested in having that page rank? You rather have other pages get the link juice. So enterprising SEOs used the nofollow tag to keep the page rank from flowing down to these “unimportant” pages (from the SEO perspective) and have it flow to the other pages instead.

This was really handy with pages with links in the footer. Footer links are sitewide links plus they are one click away from the home page so they get lots of link juice. But having “terms of use” legalese page in the Google index with strong ranking signals is not at all helpful for SEO. So nofollow was handy for those situations. Now webmasters have to obfuscate the link with javascript to achieve the same goal.

Rel nofollow hasn’t worked for page rank sculpting since 2009, when Matt Cutts announced a change on how Google treats rel=nofollow. Essentially the nofollow still prevents page rank from flowing through, but the other followed links no longer gain the extra page rank. So the page rank doesn’t flow through, but it is not reallocated to the followed links and is essentially wasted.

So when you see WordPress SEO guides advising you to add nofollow tags to various links in your theme, keep in mind this might be outdated advice.

There has been a lot of speculation on how Google is treating the nofollow links. The debate continues on this and also on page rank sculpting. Here are my take aways.

  1. While most blogs have comment links nofollowed, doing some blog commenting is not a waste of time, Google notices the engagement and seems to reward it.
  2. This is another topic really, but it still makes sense to noindex certain aggregate pages (for example archive paegs in WordPress), however I wouldn’t put a nofollow meta tag as well. I would use noindex, follow.
  3. You can still try nofollowing certain links on your blog (such as the ‘read more’ link) but I haven’t noticed the big bloggers doing it. Your time is better spent improving the navigation and engagement on your blog or website.

About the Author Kathy Alice

Kathy Alice Brown is a SEO expert specializing in Technical SEO and Content. In her spare time she loves to get outside.

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