Are No Follow Links a factor in ranking?

Does rel=nofollow affect a website's ranking? The most natural answer would seem to be "no, since Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text to these links".

But the ultimate answer about the weight of no follow links on ranking may not be solved so simply, essentially for 4 reasons:

  1. The influence recognized by social signals, namely nofollow, on the ranking of a website;
  2. The recognized influence of co-occurrences, or mentions, or citations, on a website's ranking;
  3. The case histories that would seem to support the suspicion of an influence of rel=nofollow on the positioning of a page;
  4. Google's ambiguous claims about no follow;
  5. The importance of the presence of links with rel=nofollow in the set of inbound backlinks to a website post Penguin.

Let's try to understand these points.

Google and the rel=nofollow

When asked, "how does Google handle no follow links" Matt Cutts  answers:

In general, we don't follow them. This means that Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text across these links.

Google seems to put the final word on the matter, although with "in general" seems not to exclude a priori the fact to transfer Page Rank or relevance of the anchor text to the linked site, if not in the case of Bug.

Does the fact that Google doesn't transfer Page Rank or anchor text value from no follow links necessarily imply that no follow links don't have their own function in organic site ranking? It would seem not.

Does No Follow pass value and contribute to ranking?

The experiments (a bit dated) of SocialSEo e David LeonHardt and the discussion on Sphinn would seem to support suspicions of a no-follow influence on ranking.

I report the conclusion of the SocialSEO experiment:

Approximately 5 1/2 to 6 weeks after the nofollow links experiment started we found that, even though our domain names were not keyword relevant and our website content was <10% relevant to the keyword phrases used for our nofollow link building, we still ranked for those keywords after only acquiring nofollow links. (bold mine) The assumption by many is that nofollow links will not pass much, if any, link juice or anchor text value. But the nofollow link can still pass relevance (my bold)... and slightly more in my opinion. Google may not "count" the link as a weighted backlink but this doesn't mean they ignore the anchor text being used or the authoratative status of the website being linked from.

In essence, according to Social SEO:

  1. links with no follow pass relevance;
  2. The fact that Google does not count the no follow link as a "weight" link does not mean that it ignores the anchor text used and the authoritative status of the site;

Specifically, on Sphinn the discussion is explored in this way:

In some cases where there aren't a whole lot of other ranking signals to use, no-follow links are definitely worth more than Google says.

They may even use them to determine if they can trust the anchor text from true links if it is replicated in nofollow links. So, I am not sure that nofollow links alone can rank a site (I can feel an experiment coming on) as this would mean that google is lying to us all but I think they are certainly part of the bigger picture when it comes to trust of a site and relevance of ranking keywords.

2 reasons to use no follow links in link building

Here are two key reasons why you shouldn't overlook links with rel no follow in a link building strategy:

1. With the advent of Penguin, Google's antennae are very sensitive to unnatural link profiles. Since it is implausible that a site receives the 100% of follow linksIt is clear that no-follow links give that touch of naturalness, spontaneity and variety to the backlink profile so as not to incur Google's suspicions;

2. Google is trying to determine how popular and credible a site is considered to be in its niche market: social signals and co-occurrences would seem to have this function.

At this point a no follow link from a page that is very relevant to the topic of the site being placed could still be counted as evidence of the site's popularity and reputation in its own sphere.

Co occurrences (mentions), social signals and no follows

In fact, without looking too hard, Social Signals and co citations are authoritative testimonials and credited as ranking factors that would seem to break a lance in favor of the influence of no follow as a ranking criterion.

  • If Google attributes value to co-occurrences or mentions, where the brand is mentioned but not linked, why shouldn't it recognize a no follow link in some way?
  • If, on the other hand, social signals are increasingly credited as a ranking factor and social signals are no-follow links (albeit not from comments but from social media), why shouldn't other no-follow links be as well?

The role of no follow links in organic positioning

At this point, the issue no longer seems to be "Do no follow links pass or fail Page Rank": Google's goal at the moment seems to be to determine the "TRUST" and popularity of the website in its scope (i.e. in the SERP contest for which it wants to rank). And to determine that, it tries to figure out if the site:

  • is mentioned and how much is mentioned in its scope: that is, whether there are links, follows and no follows, and co-occurrences from sites recognized as relevant and authoritative in the scope;
  • is mentioned in its scope in a natural way: that is, using the Brand, rather than the keyword.

From this point of view the no follow links:

  • give a hint of naturalness, spontaneity and variety to the overall profile of inbound links to a website;
  •  allow them to play a similar role to social signals, i.e. determining how much a site is discussed in its scope.
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