Earning Great Links Isn’t Easy
It is well known that when it comes to SEO, backlinks are important. But earning great links isn’t easy, and new Google attributes and updates mean that the landscape is always changing.
In the world of digital PR, we’re constantly having to evolve the way we create and seed out stories in order to earn coverage and backlinks for our clients. And one change we’ve noticed in recent years is that many publishers are choosing to include the no follow link attribute as standard, with do follow links becoming much rarer.
As you’d expect, this can lead to questions from clients.
- Why are we seeing fewer do follow links now?
- Should we be concerned about this?
- Is there anything we can do to get no follow links changed?
- What is the value of a no follow link?
With this in mind, we’ve conducted some into the ‘lay of the land’ in 2022 when it comes to link inclusion. We began by revisiting the history of Google’s no follow attribute before exploring how it has evolved and what impact recent changes are having on link inclusion and attribution use right now. We then went on to analyse hundreds of recent PR-driven stories to see how many featured links and how many of these were ‘do follow’.
In this blog, we discuss:
- Why links matters
- Do follow versus no follow links
- The history of the no follow link attribute
- The latest guidance from Google on the value of no follow links
- Our new research into link inclusion in 2022, and the attributes being used – so you can know what to expect
Why links matter
If we’re looking at SEO as falling into three pillars – technical, content and authority – then really, backlinks fall into that third pillar. They help illustrate how powerful and trustworthy a website is.
We want the best websites (those with the most traffic, the highest domain authority, the most engaged audience, the best quality content) to link to us because they ultimately have the most digital influence. Links from great websites represent a ‘vote of confidence’, they’re vouching for our content, our knowledge, and our expertise, and in turn, Google rewards us for this.
Websites with lots of links from other good quality, trusted, relevant sites often see some of their pages rank higher for key phrases, and of course higher rankings usually means more organic traffic and more conversions.
Sounds simple right? If your website is technically sound and the content is good, to get certain pages ranking higher, you just need to get more links? Well, yes… but as with all things SEO, it’s not as straightforward as it seems.
Links each carry different value. You can strive to earn these from sites that look to be the best possible fit for your brand, products/services and audience. You can also try to encourage the website publisher to use your supplied anchor text and your naturally keyword rich content. But there is one thing that is much harder to control and that’s if they make any backlinks ‘no follow’ rather than ‘do follow’.
Do follow versus no follow
When inspecting the html code of any backlink, there isn’t any reference to ‘do follow’ in there and that’s because they’re the default. For many years, they were the only types of links you could get. Do follow links tell Google ‘this site is approved and trusted’ and they’re the most valuable type of link from an SEO perspective because they help inform rankings.
However, in 2005, Google introduced the ‘no follow’ link attribute which was designed to tackle comment ‘spam’. This is essentially when people try to raise their own search engine rankings by commenting in blog posts with links to their website. Essentially, Google decided that to avoid people benefiting from links like this, they would enable webmasters to mark any outbound hyperlinks as being ‘no follow’ and these wouldn’t get any credit when it came to rankings – although, they wouldn’t be a negative vote either.
They encouraged the ‘web software community’ to quickly adopt this new attribute and they offered guidance on when to use it, making it clear that it was largely about areas where users could add links by themselves.
This is how the html code of a no follow link looks:
While this new attribute made a lot of sense at the time, it became apparent that it wasn’t being used in the way it was initially intended. Many website software platforms made it possible to automatically add the new no follow attribute to all external links, not just those being included in comments, and this became the norm.
In a recent workshop with a digital journalist, we were told that for editorial sites it is often easier to automate this ‘no follow’ inclusion rather than manually changing the attribute for each new link on every new article. In addition, because Google said that no follow links wouldn’t influence rankings anymore, sites that were linking out felt they were no longer at risk of unintentionally giving others an authority ‘boost’, potentially at the expense of their own visibility. Overall, it felt that links had become more commonplace, but these were largely no follow and, as such, Google was losing a large part of its ‘link graph’ which they need.
Alongside this, some new websites found they weren’t able to compete with older websites in terms of backlinks. Even if they could get their link profile (in terms of the volume of relevant, quality linking domains) to the same place, they couldn’t match the no follow versus do follow split. To get the same number of do follow links was proving to be highly challenging.
The no follow attribute gets a refresh
Fortunately, in 2019, Google announced a long-awaited update to its no follow attribute. It revealed that from 1st March 2020, no follow links would now become ‘hints’ and used for ranking purposes.
For us, this was a particularly important announcement as it offered reassurance that no follow links hold SEO value, outside of direct traffic, too.
They also introduced new variations of the attribute, encouraging websites to define different types of content and link sources. This is in much the same way that the original ‘no follow’ attribute had been created to help define content spam. The new attributes are:
- rel=”sponsored”: Should be used to identify links that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.
- rel=”ugc”: UGC stands for User Generated Content, and the ugc attribute value is recommended for links within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.
Finally, they clarified that the pre-existing ‘no follow’ option would remain but use of this was now to avoid implying endorsement only.
Essentially, while it is understood that do follow links remain the most powerful and influential thanks to driving direct traffic, helping with rankings and acting as an endorsement or vote of confidence, no follow links now tick two of these three boxes, whereas previously they only ticked one (traffic only).
Our research into link inclusion and attribute-use in 2022
With the new attributes in place for nearly two years now, we wanted to see if and how these were impacting link inclusion specifically among high DA editorial websites like national, regional and lifestyle news publishers.
We looked at around 700 different PR-driven news story examples (not including syndicated copies) that were published in 2022 on over 310 websites with a largely UK focus.
For each example we considered:
- What the website’s main focus area was i.e., entertainment, local news
- What area of the website the story was featured on i.e., money, property, business
- Whether it included a link or not
- What attribute was used for the link
Our research discovered that over half of the stories didn’t include any link at all, showing that getting any link, let alone a ‘do follow’ follow is still a challenge.
Regional media and lifestyle media were the most likely to link overall. Some nationals had encouraging linking records too, with the Express and The Sun holding the best track-record of link inclusion among PR-driven stories, while the Daily Mail was the tabloid that seems to be the least likely to backlink. As maybe expected, links on broadsheet media sites like The Telegraph and The Times were few and far between.
Within the nationals, the website sections where we found the fewest links was ‘homes & property’. There were lots of coverage examples in this section, but very few links.
It was a similar situation with trade media who seem to be receptive to PR submissions but appear to rarely link out. While there was no evidence of this in the link attributes used (none were marked as sponsored), the trade media stories that did include links looked to be paid-for placements, as the copy style and layout was often a little different.
When exploring the use of link attributes further we found that around two-thirds were ‘no follow’. With Google revealing these are now being used as ‘hints’, it is less concerning that more often than not, any earned editorial link is going to be ‘no follow’ now. However, we felt it was interesting that many publishers still seem to be applying the no follow attribute to every backlink included in their articles, as a blanket rule.
Within the list of UK nationals, the Metro was the best for including do follow links followed by the Mirror. At this time, some writers at the Metro have informed us that to get coverage with a do follow link they expect an exclusive story submission, meaning that while we might get a great result here, it’s likely to be just the one placement.
Across regional media we found that most links were ‘no follow’. For the most part we believe this is due to the way regional media is often being created now. After all, many titles are run centrally by publishing groups like Reach PLC, Newsquest and JPI Media who employ journalists to produce content for multiple locations. As such, there is a strong likelihood that a story placed with one contact could be syndicated out across lots of sites.
We found that the best way to get a ‘do follow’ link from a regional site was with a story that was very specific and unique to that place. As such, these are pitched to reporters who only cover that location. That means, with regionals, you either get:
- Multiple results via syndication with a single contact, but links are nearly always ‘no follow’
- A single result from a contact, but it’s more likely to include a do follow link
In contrast, lifestyle sites – specifically music and entertainment media – were the best for including do follow links in PR-submitted stories.
Overall, the research revealed that in 2022, just 15 percent of PR results earned on online news websites are likely to include a do follow link. We hope this will put some minds at ease while also managing expectations about what ‘good’ looks like.
In summary, whether you’re looking to earn fresh backlinks to your website through digitally focused PR tactics, or through targeted outreach activity, you should be aware that it’s unlikely you’ll earn do follow links every time, and that’s OK.
While we would of course love to see publishers softening their linking policies and no longer applying the no follow attribute as a blanket policy, at least we’ve heard from the horse’s mouth (well Google’s) that these do now act as a ‘hint’ and help inform rankings.
Furthermore, non-linking coverage is also being found by search engines now too and is helping businesses earn more digital authority, trust, credibility, and influence. We’ve got more information about this in our blog on the value of non-linking brand citations. If you’re interested in finding out more about our digital PR services, please get in touch with us.