In 2005, Google along with the other search engines that at the time still mattered launched a new attribute to describe a link termed the “nofollow”. The nofollow attribute was a way for Google to disincentivize a spam issue specifically to acquire links that was spiraling out of control. With the nofollow attribute, websites could in theory negate the SEO value of any outbound link simply by declaring them to be nofollowed.
Wikipedia adopted this attribute for every outbound link on their site, and many websites in the world defaulted all links in their comments to be nofollowed. With the SEO benefit of any artificially placed link no longer a factor, the motivation to spam sites with links was rapidly diminished.
Another aspect to nofollowed links is that websites were able to distinguish between paid advertising placements to other sites versus links that were intended to add value to readers. Having a nofollow to fall back on allowed the link web to continue to grow naturally without website owners needing to be stingy about what and who they linked to. Webmasters took this even further by using nofollow judiciously within sites to try to sculpt the value of the internal link graph.
The genesis of link buying
An unintended consequence of the nofollow attribute is that it actually productized a link that could be bought for SEO-only purposes. For the more nefarious bloggers, they would be happy to link to anything but for a nofollow link there would be a price that had to paid. Those that deliberately built links to improve the SEO value of their site were meticulous about only seeking links that did not include this nofollow attribute.
Now, fifteen years after this attribute was released into the search world, there are still so many people in the SEO industry that are fixated on only acquiring links that do not have a nofollow attribute. This is surprising to me and almost laughable if you really think about it. (As an aside, many of the people that are link builders today more than likely were not in the SEO industry when the nofollow was created and therefore don’t even have the background on why the nofollow ever existed.)
The age of the blog
Fifteen years ago is a very long time in the world of technology. At the time, Google most definitely did not have the same AI prowess that they do today to determine which links are spam. In addition, 2005 was the heyday of the blog. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and every other way we currently express ourselves did not exist; therefore, if you had an opinion that you wanted to share with the world you wrote a blogpost.
Since there was no ability to simply “like”, “retweet” or “reshare” a blogpost the way readers engaged with the blog was by commenting. It was these comments that created a vacuum for link building that spammers were happy to fill.
Today things are very different in so many different ways that it seems impossible to think that this idea of webmasters telling Google which links should be factored into the algorithm isn’t simply obsolete. The current model of unnatural programmatic link building is actually through the use of private blog networks which seeks the same outcome of rankings growth as the spam commenting of a decade and a half ago, but that is where any similarity ends. Spam commenting was an unintelligent brute force approach to dropping links anywhere that a software could exploit and only worked because Google could not yet recognize which comments were pure spam.
Private Blog Networks
A private blog network can be so intelligently structured that in many cases it could be hard to even prove that it exists, and yet Google still manages to take them down. Google can do this because their algorithms can recognize patterns that might be undetectable to humans.
To underscore this point, how could a search engine that can make intelligent decisions about which links are valid still need a human element to advise them on which links should not be valid? Whenever I have tested this, I have not seen marked difference between the effects of a nofollow vs followed links, but I am sure that there are those that will have run tests and found the opposite conclusion.
Google is smart enough to not need the nofollow
My contention that nofollow and follow links being considered to be the exact same thing according to Google is not based on any data rather it is purely based on logic. As an additional point beyond just SEO, Google is the global leader in autonomous vehicles. (Waymo is a division of Alphabet the parent brand for all Google companies.) To date we have never heard of a Waymo car causing any loss of life or serious property damage that merited national headlines. This would mean, that Google’s hundreds of self-driving cars are pretty good at making intelligent decisions on their own without human input.
While driving a car is vastly different than indexing the web, I struggle to think that it’s even possible that there is one division of Google that can make such complicated decisions like driving a car safely while another divisions needs humans to tell them when a link is not to be trusted.
I strongly believe that Google’s algorithms can make all the decisions on their own about what links matter and bothering to differentiate whether a link is followed or not is simply a waste of time. In this respect, a nofollowed link from Wikipedia should be just as good as if it were followed because Google knows how hard it is to get a link in Wikipedia, and the fact that it is nofollowed can be disregarded.
Nofollow is likely a complete waste of time
If you have an opportunity to get a link, go for it and don’t care even for one second whether that link has a nofollow attribute or not attached to it. If there are still websites that care to nofollow outbound links that might be an even better place to get a link because you know others that think it matters are not also chasing this site for links. Leaving nofollow aside the best metric indicating the value of a link is the relevancy of the link because Google’s intelligent algorithm will know if that link does not belong.