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What Are Nofollow, Dofollow, UGC, Or Sponsored Links? Why Do Backlinks Matter for Search Rankings?

Every day my inbox is inundated with spamming SEO companies begging to place links in my content. It’s an endless stream of requests, and it irritates me. Here’s how the email usually goes…

Dear Martech Zone,

I noticed that you wrote this amazing article on [keyword]. We wrote a detailed article on this as well. I think it would make a great addition to your article. Please let me know if you’re able to reference our article with a link.

Susan James

First, they always write the article as if they’re trying to assist me and improve my content when I know exactly what they’re trying to do… place a backlink. While search engines properly index your pages based on the content, those pages will rank by the number of relevant, high-quality sites that link to them.

What is a Nofollow Link? Dofollow Link?

A Nofollow link is used within the anchor tag HTML to tell the search engine to ignore the link when passing any authority through it. This is what it looks like in the raw HTML:

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

Now, as the search engine crawler crawls my page, indexes my content, and determines the backlinks to provide authority back to sources… it ignores the nofollow links. However, if I had linked to the destination page within my written content, those anchor tags do not have the nofollow attribute. Those are called Dofollow links. By default, every link passes ranking authority unless the rel attribute is added, and the quality of the link is determined.

Interestingly enough, nofollow links are often still displayed in Google Search Console. Here’s why:

So Dofollow Links Anywhere Help My Ranking?

When the ability to manipulate ranking through backlinking was discovered, a billion-dollar industry started overnight to aid clients in moving their way up the ranks. SEO companies automated and built out link farms and stepped on the gas to manipulate the search engines. Of course, Google noticed… and it all came crashing down.

Google improved its algorithms to monitor the rank of sites that accumulated backlinks with relevant, authoritative domains. So, no… adding links just anywhere won’t help you. Garnering backlinks on highly relevant and authoritative sites will help you. Quite the opposite, link spamming will likely hurt your ability to rank since Google’s intelligence can also distinguish manipulation and penalize you.

Does The Link Text Matter?

When people submit articles to me, they often use overly obvious keywords within their anchor text. I don’t believe Google’s algorithms are so elementary that the text within your link are the only keywords that matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google analyzed the contextual content around the link. I don’t think you need to be so obvious with your links. Whenever in doubt, I recommend my clients to do what’s best for the reader. I use buttons when I want people to see and click an outbound link.

And don’t forget that the anchor tag offers both text and a title for your link. Titles are an accessibility attribute to help screenreaders describe the link to their users. However, most browsers display them as well. SEO gurus disagree about whether putting title text can help your ranking for the keywords used. Either way, I think it’s a great practice and adds a little pizazz when someone mouses over your link and a tip is presented.

<a href="" title="Tailored SEO Classes For Companies">Douglas Karr</a>

What About Sponsored Links?

Here’s another email I receive daily. I do answer these… asking the person if they’re asking me to put my reputation at risk, get fined by the government, and get delisted from the search engines. It’s a ridiculous request. So, sometimes I respond and tell them I’d be glad to do it… it will just cost them $18,942,324.13 per backlink. I’m still waiting on someone to wire the money.

Dear Martech Zone,

I noticed that you wrote this amazing article on [keyword]. We would like to pay you to place a link in your article to point to our article [here]. How much would it cost to pay for the dofollow link?

Susan James

This is annoying because it’s requesting me to do a few things:

  1. Violating Google’s Terms of Service – they are asking me to disguise my paid link to Google’s crawlers:

Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. 

Google Link Schemes
  1. Violating Federal Regulations – they are asking me to violate FTC endorsement guidelines.

If there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed. 

FTC Endorsement Guide
  1. Violating My Readers’ Trust – they are asking me to lie to my audience! An audience that I worked for 15 years to build a following with and gain trust with. It’s unconscionable. It’s also precisely why you’ll see me disclose every relationship – whether it’s an affiliate link or a friend in the business.

Google used to ask that sponsored links use the nofollow attribute. However, they’ve now modified that and have a new sponsored attribute for paid links:

Mark links that are advertisements or paid placements (commonly called paid links) with the sponsored value.

Google, Qualify Outbound Links

Those links are structured as follows:

<a href="" rel="sponsored">I pay for links</a>

Why Don’t Backlinkers Just Write Comments?

When PageRank was first discussed and blogs moved onto the scene, commenting was common. Not only was it the central place to have a discussion (before Facebook and Twitter), but it also passed rank when you filled out your author details and included a link in your comments. Comment spam was born (and is still a problem nowadays). It didn’t take long before content management systems and comment systems instituted Nofollow links on comment author profiles and comments.

Google has started supporting a different attribute for this, rel="ugc". UGC is an acronym for User-Generated Content.

<a href="" rel="ugc">Comment Person</a>

You can also use combinations of the attributes. In WordPress, for example, a comment looks like this:

<a href="" rel="external nofollow ugc">Comment Person</a>

External is another attribute that lets crawlers know that the link is going to an external site.

Should You Do Backlink Outreach To Get More Dofollow Links?

This is honestly a huge point of contention for me. The spammy emails I provided above are truly irritating, and I can’t stand them. I firmly believe that you need to earn links, not ask for them. My good friend Tom Brodbeck aptly named this linkearning. I backlink to thousands of sites and articles from my site… because they earned the link.

That said, I don’t have any problem with a business reaching out to me and asking if they can write an article of value to my audience. And it’s not uncommon that there’s a dofollow link within that article. I reject many pieces because the people submitting provide a horrible article with an unmistakable backlink. But I publish many more fantastic articles, and the link the author used would be of value to my readers.

I don’t do outreach… and I have almost 110,000 links back to Martech Zone. That’s a testament to the quality of the articles I allow on this site. Spend your time publishing remarkable content… and backlinks will follow.

Other Rel Attributes

Here is a bulleted list of some common rel attribute values used in HTML anchor tags (links):

  • nofollow: Instructs search engines not to follow the link and not to pass any ranking influence from the linking page to the linked page.
  • noopener: Prevents the new page opened by the link from accessing the window.opener property of the parent page, enhancing security.
  • noreferrer: Prevents the browser from sending the Referer header to the new page when it is opened, enhancing user privacy.
  • external: Indicates that the linked page is hosted on a different domain from the current page.
  • me: Indicates that the same person or entity controls the linked page as the current page.
  • next: Indicates that the linked page is the next page in a sequence.
  • prev or previous: Indicates that the linked page is the previous page in a sequence.
  • canonical: Specifies the preferred version of a web page for search engines when multiple versions of the page exist (used in the context of SEO).
  • alternate: Specifies an alternate version of the current page, such as a translated version or a different media type (e.g., RSS feeds).
  • pingback: Indicates that the link is a pingback URL used in the context of the WordPress pingback mechanism.
  • tag: Indicates that the link is a tag link used in the context of WordPress or other content management systems.

It’s important to note that some rel attribute values, like nofollow, noopener, and noreferrer, have specific functional implications and are widely recognized by search engines and browsers. Others, like external, canonical, alternate, etc., are used in specific contexts, often related to SEO, content management systems (CMS), or custom implementations.

Additionally, the rel attribute allows for space-separated values, so multiple values can be combined to convey multiple relationships between the linked page and the current page. However, the functional behavior of these combined values may depend on how specific systems or applications interpret them.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is the founder of the Martech Zone and CEO of DK New Media. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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