The Hidden Power of Nofollow Links
A few years ago, while I was still on the client side of things, I received an email from a blogger I was working with. As part of our fledgling link building program, my company had been sending out free products in exchange for a review and link to our site. Oldest trick in the book, right? However, the blogger’s email threw me off: she told me her policy was to nofollow links, and asked if this would be all right.
“Uh, sure,” I eloquently responded, having absolutely no idea what she was talking about, “just as long as there’s a link!” I then scrambled to look up just what in the heck a nofollow link was, and roughly five minutes later started cursing at my monitor. We’d just invested thirty bucks in a completely useless link!
While that may have been my viewpoint back then, my opinion on nofollow links has changed. Obviously, for those of us who are trying to earn links for our clients, receiving a nofollow link can feel like a slap in the face. But these links have hidden powers that make them just as important as followed ones.
Here’s why nofollow links are more powerful than you might think.
Links build awareness
A link has a few different connotations these days. It could mean, “this is an article that supports my viewpoint, and you might benefit by reading it, too.” It could mean, “I do a lot of shopping here, and I think you should look at their cute dresses.” Or it could simply mean, “I like cat videos!” But at its very core, a link is designed to create awareness of something on a different page.
When you’re out there trying to make people aware of your business, links are hugely important. SEO companies now offer link building services because businesses realize how important they are. So to that busy CEO who sees his or her website traffic dipping, and believes that links will give them a way to get back on top, a successful link building campaign is going to be really desirable.
That busy CEO is probably going to flip out if you say “well, we got 50 new links this month, and 40 of them were nofollow.” But it’s important that neither you nor the CEO (nor their marketing team) discredit the power of a nofollow link. Links still build awareness, as long as they are seen. They don’t have to be followed. They probably don’t even have to be clicked! They just have to be visible.
How many times a day do you see someone you follow tweet a link to an article with an interesting headline? Let’s say the article is really well written, and is on a site you don’t currently follow. So you add them to your feed reader. A week later, you think “oh, you know, that post I read is really relevant to this blog post I’m working on now!” So you link to it in your post. This accomplishes two things: one, it probably negates that original nofollow link from Twitter (more on that shortly), and two, it has made both you and your followers aware of that site.
Links lead to profit
A nofollow link can also directly lead to someone spending money on your company’s products or services. If you consistently create awareness and engage with people, those nofollow links may earn you way more than domain authority. Don’t believe me? Here’s the story of how I became a paying Buffer customer.
A few months ago, I saw a tweet with a link to this case study about how Buffer responded to being hacked. I had no idea what Buffer was, but it gave me an idea for a blog post. After I wrote my post, I followed Buffer on Twitter. I engaged with them a few times (for example, mentioning them after my post went up), and they engaged right back.
Over the next few weeks, I visited the Buffer blog when they tweeted links to new posts, learned about their company, and admired the heck out of their content marketing skills. I’d say it was at about the two month mark that I decided to actually give them a try. A month later, I upgraded to the Awesome plan and began using it daily to manage not only myaccounts, but also our agency’s accounts.
To recap, this is how it all went down:
- I became aware of Buffer through someone else’s Twitter link
- I followed Buffer on Twitter
- I engaged with their content
- I tried, subscribed, and ended up forking over $10 a month (well worth it!)
This was all because of a single nofollow link. Over the course of three months, my general awareness turned into lifetime value for Buffer. That one nofollow link directly led to profit.
You can make an equation out of this:
a + e = p
Awareness + engagement = profit. By becoming aware of Buffer, and having opportunities to engage regularly with them, I converted into a paying customer. This all happened because of social media, and all those links you see on social media are nofollow. (Who said there’s no ROI in Twitter?!)
Links lead to more links
A few years ago, Joshua Unseth wrote a post for YouMoz explaining how a single nofollow link earned him a second link that was followed, increased his traffic, and boosted his article to the top of the SERPs for a specific phrase. His post, titled “The Importance of nofollow Links,” has a really great conclusion that stresses the importance of even a single link:
To put it into context, of the people that came to the article as a direct or indirect result of the nofollow, ~1% made a comment on the article itself, and ~2% blogged about it – actually, if you count this article, then the results were blogged about by 3% of the visitors.
While I don’t think that these numbers would hold on a site with more viewers, I think that they represent the way in which content ends up going viral. In the end, ALL IT TAKES IS ONE LINK, and its follow status doesn’t seem to make a difference.
I couldn’t say it any better! What Joshua wrote still holds true today – and in fact may be even truer, considering how many of us use Twitter to amplify messages and blog posts we enjoy, or rely on a feed reader to provide us with interesting content that we want to share on our websites.
Here’s a real-life example of the potential power of a single nofollow link. Back in March, we published two maps showing the ISP landscape in the United States, and how the potential Comcast buyout of Time-Warner would affect it. The post was picked up by the Amazing_Maps Twitter account, which has more than 160,000 followers.
This was a nofollow link, obviously, as were the retweets that followed.
Two days later, we made it to the front page of the Huffington Post.
After HuffPo picked up the story, the maps spread to several other websites, most of which had followed links back to our blog post or homepage. But even if those links hadn’t been followed, we still would have created new awareness of WebpageFX, our blog, and the work we do.
Like Joshua said: it only takes one. One link can lead to many.
How to make the most of your nofollow links
“Okay, Nicole,” I can hear you skeptics saying, “I’m on board. nofollow links are powerful. Magical, even. But you don’t see any of my tweets getting picked up by HuffPo.”
Well, food for thought: we’ve published hundreds of blog posts, and only one of them led to a Twitter link (not ours) that led to HuffPo. Success on the Internet is all about being at the right place with the right content at the right time, and with all of the blogs, websites, and companies vying for attention, your chance at getting noticed is lower than low.
Here are some ways that you can make the most of your nofollow links, whether they’re on social media, someone’s blog, or elsewhere.
Motivate viewers to click your link. This might mean testing headlines, trying different tweets, or coming right out and saying, “look, if you click this, this cool thing will happen.” For example, Buffer found that one tweet earned a blog post 100% more clicks than another, just because they changed the language surrounding the link.
Increase your audience. Want more people to see, click, and act on your nofollow link? Get a bigger audience. This may be as simple as following industry figureheads who are likely to follow you back, directly asking for shares, or sharing your post multiple times. Try emailing people of authority and asking (nicely) for them to check out your content. If it’s really good, it may earn you a share.
Another trick: if you write blog posts or product content that references someone else, make sure they know about it. It may seem like you’re just trying to stroke their ego, but it works. If someone wrote a blog post about me, heck yeah I’d tweet the link out to everybody I knew! (Unless it was bad. Then I’d just cry.)
Ensure your link is relevant. This, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of a nofollow link. So many links on social media go unclicked simply because the content isn’t relevant to them. This one is hard to control, because it’s pretty difficult to know when your audience is going to be in the mood for your blog posts vs. photos of puppies, but you can still get ahead by thinking very carefully about what you share, when, and why.
Make sure your content is relevant, too. Okay, so your link got clicked. Great! But your bounce rate is at 99%. Not great. You can write the best headline in the world, but if the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is empty, nobody’s going to stick around. Avoid misleading headlines, unfulfilling content, or just plain marketing to the wrong people.
This is honestly the biggest flaw of the ISP map I linked above. Lots of people checked out the maps, and even visited our blog to see the rest of the study, but then they left. Probably 99% of our visitors to that post have no idea who WebpageFX is and what we do. That doesn’t mean the content was bad, but it just wasn’t relevant to the kind of audience we want to attract (that is, potential clients).
Optimize your landing pages. What do you want someone to do after they visit your link? What’s the next step for this visitor? Keep them around a little longer. Use a related posts plugin to provide some additional reading, or try a service like snip.ly to suggest relevant content or links.
Don’t complain. If someone gives you a link and it’s nofollow, please don’t storm into their inbox with guns blazing. Maybe they just don’t know you well enough to follow your links yet. If you’re cool about it, the second link they give you may be a followed one. And even if it isn’t, you’re still getting exposure out of it, right?
A nofollow link isn’t the end of the world
As SEO professionals, I know we’re all aiming for followed links that pass a lot of “juice” to the websites of our clients. If we all had our way, earning links would be easy, every link would be followed, and Google would never, ever penalize websites for having too many links, or too many links of a certain type. We would all have millions of dollars, and would spend our days on the beach drinking fancy cocktails. Unfortunately… that’s just not the way things are.
Honestly, a nofollow link isn’t the end of the world, either for you or for a client. These links are valuable, and important for anyone trying to build their brand online. As I’ve shown, they hold significant power, and more than you might expect.
Instead of focusing on whether or not a link is followed, we should do our best to get those links in front of the right people at the right time, crafting content beyond the link that motivates conversions. As it is for everything in SEO, obtaining links is all about balance: the balance between followed and not followed, “juicy” links and dry ones.
In my case, that nofollow link I talked about at the beginning of this post went live, the blogger was happy with her product, and the review she wrote was fantastic. It led to a fairly high amount of clicks through to our site… and what do you know, even a few purchases. Seeing was believing for me, and now I’m an advocate of earning links in general – not just the followed ones.