Use of nofollow in internal and external links

Merche Martínez

Written by Merche Martínez

What is the nofollow link attribute?

The nofollow link attribute prevents the flow of popularity juice from the origin page of the link to the target page. This means that the page receiving the link does not benefit whatsoever from the popularity or credibility of the origin page. The attribute came to be in 2005, as a result of the increasing spam of negative links in blog comments. It allows us to indicate search engines that they should not follow the link carrying this attribute.

Syntax: <a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Anchor text</a>

The #NoFollow ⛔ link attribute prevents the target page receiving the link from benefitting from the popularity or credibility of the link origin page ❌Click To Tweet

Internal links

Our website’s internal links are those, which point to the different internal pages. For example, we can navigate from the home page to any of the pages contained inside the main menu, and access the different sections, categories, products, etc.

Use of internal links for a correct SEO architecture

One of the most important factors for a website’s SEO is the definition of the information architecture, where we define how the user is going to navigate by the content available on the website, in order to provide them with a satisfactory user experience. In this post you can read on the application of SEO strategies on the information architecture for online shops.

Recommendations regarding the use of nofollow in internal links

Here’s something Matt Cutts, Google’s anti-spam department ex director:

I wouldn’t use nofollow, because I think that does more harm that good.

Matt Cutts

And the video explaining how nofollow works in internal links.

To sum it up:

  • Work on a good SEO information architecture, so that internal links benefit the most relevant pages.
  • Use your resources to generate relevant content for the user.
  • Avoid use of nofollow in links included inside the header and the footer.
  • We can use nofollow in links pointing to private area management pages of our website, namely where we log into the admin panel. Googlebot won’t be able to access them, or sign up, so these pages aren’t supposed to be part of Google’s index.
  • In the case of e-commerce sites, we can use nofollow in links taking us to the shopping basket.

Bad nofollow use in internal links: link sculpting

Link sculpting is a technique consisting in using nofollow links to distribute the popularity juice in a controlled manner throughout the internal links of the website.

#LinkSculpting is a technique consisting in using #NoFollow to distribute in a controlled manner the popularity juice throughout the internal links of the website 💋💄Click To Tweet

Before 2009, there was this belief that PageRank was distributed equally among the internal links, so the use of the nofollow attribute helped to improve the visibility of the rest of the linked pages. This was never confirmed by Google. In fact, due to the incorrect use of this practice, in June 2009 Matt Cutts explained that the use of nofollow in internal links is not taken into account for PageRank, meaning it does not benefit the rest of the links.

PageRank calculation

Currently, the nofollow attribute in internal links can be used to prevent search engines from entering irrelevant pages or sections of the website. This way, we prevent these pages/sections from being indexed, whenever they don’t receive links from other domains. If the goal is to prevent the indexing of some pages or sections, we must use the meta robots.

The nofollow attribute does not prevent a page from being indexed.

Currently, the nofollow attribute in internal links can be used to prevent search engines from entering irrelevant pages or sections of the website 🚫Click To Tweet

If we abuse this technique, what can happen is that the real architecture of the website stored by Google will be different to the real architecture, which is why using the nofollow attribute for this purpose is against Google’s quality guidelines.

Outbound links from our website

Occasionally, we need to include links to other websites. A poor use of these links can result in a Google penalty. Below are the cases where it’s recommended to include the nofollow attribute in our outbound links:

  • Link exchange: before the Penguin update, all links were valid, so it was a common occurrence to run into reciprocal links between websites. This is not a recommendable practice, but in the case where these links are used for visibility, they should carry the nofollow attribute.
  • Paid links: one way to monetise the website is with the inclusion of advertisements. These links aren’t natural, so they should carry the nofollow attribute.
  • Links to poor quality websites, such as directories: we must evaluate whether these links provide value to the user. If they do not, they should not be included.
  • Links inserted in widgets appearing in various places.

Outbound links, which are considered to be correct are those, which provide value to the user. These are links providing additional information. For example, if we have a page with data on how to get to an event, it will make sense to place a link pointing to the railway company, the metro, or the airport. Here’s another example: if we are talking about an online tool, it would make sense to include a link leading to its website.

Inbound links to our website

These are external links leading to our website from other domains. These external links define the popularity profile, which is one of the three key aspects of search engine optimisation.

Google Penguin

To control external links, in April 2012 Google launched an algorithm update called Google Penguin, which focussed on neutralising the attempts of manipulating the popularity of a website. Since then, this algorithm has been continuously updated.

The goal is to legitimise the inbound links of a website, penalising its rankings if it uses artificial means to increase the links it receives and uses optimised anchor texts to purposefully improve rankings.

Recommendations for using nofollow in inbound links

Links, which are under the suspicion of being unnatural are those, for which we recommend adding the nofollow attribute:

  • Links, the anchor text of which includes keywords: clearly optimised links for the improvement of rankings.
  • Links included in link farms or directories: those, which come from websites with a high amount of outbound links.
  • Sitewide links: these links appear in common areas of the website, replicating throughout all or most pages, for example in the header, footer or lateral column.
  • Links included on websites without being thematically related: these can be lists of links, comments in forums, poor quality links, or pages, the content of which is not relevant to our website. In these cases, it is clear that these links are unnatural.
  • Link brokers: purchased low-quality links, they can come from blogging networks.
  • Links hidden in the code: not visible to the user, but visible to the search engines.
  • Use of automatic programs or services to create links pointing to your website.

If we detect this type of links directing to our website, we must consider whether they can contribute with a better visibility or attract our target audience. In this case, the recommendation is to include the nofollow attribute. If that’s not possible, then we should consider the possibility of removing these links altogether.

It’s not always possible to contact a site’s webmaster directly, to request them to make a change in these links. In this scenario, Google puts the Disavow Links Tool at our disposal, which allows us to disavow this type of links.

Recommended practices for inbound external links

The overall recommendation is to build a natural popularity profile. To be able to do this, below are some good practices on how to manage inbound links:

  • Context coherent with our website: the link should be included inside a page, the subject of which is in tune with the page it is linking.
  • Variety of anchor texts: if a large number of links include keywords, it can look suspicious.
  • Authoritative domains: receiving links from authoritative websites is a plus. Especially if they are domains with .edu, .org, .gov extensions.
  • Sustained and gradual creation rhythm: inbound links should evolve progressively. If many links pointing to our website suddenly appear in just a few days, it will look suspicious.
  • Variety of domains contributing links: it is better to receive less links from a varied list of domains, than having many links coming from just a few domains.

Now that you know how to use the nofollow attribute correctly, I invite you to read our post how to improve your internal links for better SEO.


Merche Martínez
Autor: Merche Martínez
SEO consultant at the Human Level online marketing agency. She's an expert in search engine optimization at both national and international levels. She's also a certified Google AdWords user.

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