Google’s spokesperson John Mueller has confirmed during a Webmaster Central Hangout that there is no benefit to publications using the nofollow attribute on outbound links.

This means that publications who apply the nofollow tag – including many of the red top and national newspapers – needn’t be doing so as not only is there no benefit to doing so, there’s also a potential missed opportunity if they do. Here, we’ll explore what that means for link builders, PRs and webmasters/the press.

What is a ‘nofollow’?

Nofollow is the attribute applied to any link where the publisher does not wish for that link to be counted as a ‘vote’ for the target website. In a world where links equal votes and more votes mean higher rankings, this is important in ensuring that any links being obtained in any way other than ‘naturally earned’ are not passing SEO value to their recipients.

This concept of ‘naturally earned’ is where we’ve seen publishers start to become a bit unstuck in recent years. Because it is well known that including a hyperlink from your site to someone else’s passing ‘link value’ (sometimes called ‘link juice’) to the target site, many have, mistakenly, assumed that passing of value means that value is being ‘leaked’ out of the linking site and passed to the target site.

The ‘naturally earned’ concept also causes issue when its definition is called into question – so, for many people (myself included), ‘natural earning’ is anything from creating a great piece of content that is then linked to, right through to putting together PR campaigns that are newsworthy and then get covered in the press. However, there are some who believe that techniques like this are actually unnatural, and will therefore apply the ‘nofollow’ attribute any time they are linking out.

When should a nofollow be used?

The reality is that the nofollow attribute is to be used only in cases where the linked-to content:

  • Has been paid for (e.g. an advert)
  • Is untrusted (but seriously, who’s linking to untrustworthy content? Uh, user experience issues!)
  • Is affecting crawl efficiency (e.g. when there are so many outbound links that Google spends all its time crawling those and not enough crawling the site – but again, who’s doing this??!)

Here are the official guidelines from Google.

When should a nofollow not be used?

Based on Google’s own guidelines, the nofollow attribute is not necessary unless the above conditions are met. Which means that, logically, the majority of links should be followed and therefore passing value to their recipients.

How does this affect link builders / PRs?

The effect of this on those of us working in a link building capacity should, in theory, be that we are able to earn links more frequently.

It’s commonly understood that there are publications that exist that will usually not link out without the nofollow attribute – such as newspapers – but, based on the reiteration of the guidelines by Mueller, hopefully the SEO managers for those publications will be revising their policy and giving us those lovely lovely links.

Now that’s not to say that this is going to make link acquisition easier – in fact, far from it. With Mueller’s recommendation comes this very fair point:

“I understand not knowing which links you can trust. But essentially, if you’re a news publisher, you should trust what you’re writing about. Or you should be able to understand which part of the content that you write about is actual content that you want to have indexed–that you want to stand for. If these are things that you want to stand for then make sure you have normal links on there.”

Source: Search Engine Journal

What this means is that journalists should be willing to credit their sources. What it also means is that we as PRs must be confident that a journalist will be happy to essentially put their name to our content by producing only the quality of content that warrants press coverage (not that we’d ever do this but, you know, just in case you were thinking of boshing out a low quality survey or some tenuous data for a link, you’ll need to be aware that journos will likely be checking their sources much more closely in order to credit them with the link they deserve).

How does this affect webmasters / journalists?

The effect of this on those managing content for a website, such as a webmaster or journalist, should be that they are more willing to link out without use of the nofollow attribute.

By this token, it means publishers of content will likely be double checking their sources to ensure they are reputation and worthy of being credited. Just as you wouldn’t, as a journalist, use some random comment from an anonymous source as the basis for a story, nor will you utilise content without, in theory, checking its creds and its authorship.

Tips to help you become the ‘credible source’

This concept of a ‘credible source‘ is something we’ve been talking about for some time here at Impression. The idea is that we work with our clients to understand the topics that they want to talk about (using frameworks like the Circles of Focus) and ensure that they are building credibility in those areas so that they are a valid source of that information when it comes to pitching into the press. The basic premise is that you shouldn’t be pitching to talk about something that you a) have no credibility in yourself right now or b) have no reason to build credibility in this area by utilising other credible data or expertise (e.g. partnering with an expert or using government data).

There are various ways you can improve your own credibility as a business online:

  1. Invest in SEO; the idea of EAT (expertise, authority and trust) is super prevalent at the moment due to recent updates, but it’s not a new idea – you should be the expert authority in your topic, and creating on-site content to a high quality is one way to prove this
  2. Build your profile without thinking ‘links’; this is where we’re talking more traditional PR thinking… those things which build your profile without necessarily gaining you new links, such as award entries or hosting events, do still help to improve your credibility
  3. Create ‘trust signals’; whether this is gaining a new qualification for your business, investing in research, building a new tool or simply having reviews of your work on site, all of these things help to show that you are the credible source of information for your specific topic

Credibility is, for me, the biggest thing businesses will need to focus on in order to stand a chance of achieving followed links from the press in particular. Be sure to focus your campaigns on things you know about and should be talking about, so journalists / publishers can see that linking to you makes sense, for them and their readers.

Laura Hampton

Head of Digital PR

Head of Digital PR at @impressiontalk specialising in user-centred SEO, digital PR, content marketing and digital strategy. My team won the Best Use of PR in an SEO Campaign award at the European Search Awards 2019. In my spare time, I jump out of planes.

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