I conducted the following SEO case study for Rebuild Group. After completing the study I created two written versions. One was a more straightforward version which was published on the 4A’s website. The other version, however, took a different direction. At the time I happened to be buried deep in the pages of certain trilogy which may have had some influence on the proceeding article.
Imagine you are the king or queen of a kingdom in a far off fantasy-themed world (think Narnia or Lord of the Rings). Tensions between your kingdom, let’s call it Linkbuildia, and its bordering countries have been rising and you’ve decided to establish a mandatory military draft. However, there is a distinction among the drafted population, in that some are ready and willing to follow you into battle, while others are not so eager. While the size of your army is directly related to the size of your population, it’s true strength will more likely be determined by the loyalty and resolve of your troops. Right?
That’s what we determined to find out with this case study (figuratively at least).
Welcome to Linkbuildia
If you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, then well, you’re probably right to do so.
Let’s break down this metaphor.
Your kingdom is your company’s or client’s website.
Your troops are the websites that link back to your’s.
The loyal troops who are willing to fight for you are the followed links.
The less willing troops are the nofollow links.
The Traditional View of Followed Vs. Nofollow Links
Following your declaration of the mandatory draft, your military advisors rush to caution you against what they view as a poor decision. It has been a long-held belief among the people of Linkbuildia that true military might lies not in the size of the army, but in the loyalty of its troops…
Ever since Google gave webmasters the ability to apply a nofollow tag to links on their site, it has been largely understood that a nofollow link would be of less SEO value to a site than a followed link. Google sees followed links as being a vote of confidence from the webmaster of the site towards the site they are linking to, much like a soldier who is dedicated to their country’s cause. Nofollow links on the other hand are not necessarily endorsed by the webmaster, so Google is less likely to see this type of link as an indicator of an authoritative site. So while it doesn’t hurt your website to have backlinks that are nofollow, they don’t necessarily help either, like soldiers who are part of your army, but not very gung-ho about it. The initial purpose of implementing nofollow links was to deter people from engaging in spammy practices in order to obtain more backlinks to their site, especially when it came to posting in the comment sections of blogs.
Based on this understanding of nofollow links, it would seem like the best approach to link building would be to focus mainly on acquiring followed links rather than nofollow links. However, it has been over ten years since Google first began recognizing nofollow tags, and more recently there has been some discussion as to whether or not these two types of links still differ greatly in the amount of value they can offer. So we set out to determine just how valuable nofollow links are compared to followed links. Or, as a Linkbuildian would say, will the great Google in the sky look upon your army with favor, or will the lack of devotion from your troops cause your downfall?
Your military advisors are urging you to overturn your decision, but, being the wise ruler that you are, you choose not to act so rashly. Instead, you call a council of all the sages in your land to analyze the Crystal Ball of Daytah to see what it has to say…
In order to get an idea of how these two types of links stack up, we set aside two 90 day periods where we exclusively built backlinks to either followed links or nofollow links. We made sure that each of the links were of a similar domain authority and that a similar number of both followed and nofollow links were obtained.
During the first 90 days we exclusively went after followed links. We acquired a total of six links with an average domain authority of 71. We then took a measure of how well our site had performed in this timeframe, which can be seen in the metrics below.
In the next 90 days that followed, we switched gears and pursued only nofollow links. We gained a total of five links with average domain authority of 66. We then compiled the same benchmark data as before to serve as a comparison.
Comparing both of these sets of data to the performance of the site from the 90 days prior to the start of the case study, it was clear that both of the 90 day periods during the case study showed a near all-around improvement. The click through rate did decrease, however this was no surprise as it is normal to see such a drop when impressions increase as much as they did. The low number of impressions prior to the case study was due to the site being newly launched.
As the council comes to an end, the sages sit back and shake the residual energies from their minds. Their eyes cease glowing and it is at once clear to each of them what the Crystal Ball of Daytah has said. Soldiers both willing and and unwilling are of value, so long as they are all of trusted families. For those who at first seem hesitant will in truth prove to be just as loyal if they are from a line of warriors…
When comparing the two link building periods, the period of building nofollow links showed a clear improvement in every way measured.
- Clicks increased 45%
- Impressions increased 8%
- The click through rate increased despite the increase in impressions
Despite this marked difference, we wouldn’t go so far as to say that nofollow links are now superior. At no point did the purpose of nofollow links suggest that they would be of more value than regular followed links, and there has since been no reasoning or evidence to indicate that this has changed. The degree to which our metrics improved was likely a consequence of some onsite optimizations that were aso made during this time. The improvement could have also been influenced by the followed links that had been gained during the previous period.
We can, however, infer that nofollow links should not be ignored outright, and that they are still a valuable part of a healthy link profile. Google may grow suspicious of SEO strategies that are targeting only followed links, which is why having a healthy mix of nofollow links is still a good idea as long as they are from authoritative sites.
The following day you make an announcement to the people Linkbuildia covering the details of the council and the decision it has led you to. No longer will you enlist everyone in the army, but rather just those who are already willed by fate and their warrior lineage. The people are glad and there is much rejoicing. All around the land the tides begin to change…
Recently, more SEOs have been suggesting that nofollow links are not to be entirely looked down upon any longer. In an article from Electric Dialogue published this past February, several SEO experts are asked the question of whether or not nofollow links are valuable. Here is what Jon Cooper of Point Blank SEO had to say:
“They’re still valuable because a lot of dumb webmasters started abusing the nofollow attribute, meaning Google has started to ignore it more & more over the years and has started to treat it more like a regular link. I also know a few spammers who really don’t care if the links they’re getting are nofollow, because they’re still linking great with them.”
The moral of the story is that both followed and nofollow links can be of value to the site, but this still does not mean that you should go after every single link regardless. You still need to be smart about only acquiring links from authoritative sites that you trust. However, you should not become overly concerned about whether or not these links are followed.