Matt Cutts Confirms: Linking Out is a Ranking Factor (Nofollow is Dead)


Finally Matt Cutts of Google has confirmed that one of the most used SEO 2.0 tactics, linking out, is an important ranking factor.

Why listen to Matt Cutts this time?

Matt Cutts of Google is seldom relevant to the practice of SEO 2.0. In contrast SEO 1.0 practitioners follow his every move like some CIA spies.

I ignore “the head of Web Spam” most of the time unless some person I trust links out to him and makes me read his blog.

[Update: Mr. Cutts has left Google by now to work for the Pentagon on cyberwarfare.]

I read the “nofollow is dead” posting which is of course called “PageRank sculpting” to hide the fact that Google admits its failure with the nofollow attribute.

Mr. Cutts attempts to ridicule the SEO industry by blaming it not to have noticed that nofollow has been abandoned a year ago.

Nobody even realized that it hurts your site since then to “PageRank sculpt” your internal links with the “nofollow attribute”.


PageRank sculpting with nofollow hurts your site

Like in dictatorships (I lived in one for 10 years) you have to read between the lines when Google or Matt Cutts say something on their blogs.

They always try not give away too much and to stay ambiguous enough not to get sued. That’s also the reason why Matt Cutts makes the most important announcements on his private cat blog.

Now Mr. Cutts announced that using nofollow on your internal links actually hurts your site

after more than a week of wild speculation in the SEO sphere. The PageRank normal links carry just disappears when a link gets nofollowed.

Until now webmasters assumed that it stays with the site, even that the remaining pages get more of it. The authority doesn’t get divided between the remaining pages though, it’s gone altogether.


Google’s nofollow failed to end spam

Also now it’s semi-official that nofollow is dead. Even though it seems Cutts just focuses on webmasters who got taken by surprise.

It’s indeed an admission that Google’s own initiative – when they introduced nofollow a few years ago to combat spam – failed.

Spam still persists but nofollow actually made lots of sites partly or wholly inaccessible for Google’s spiders.

This way the nofollow initiative really hurt the backbone of the Web, the link, rendering large parts of the Google algorithm useless.

Google had to adapt a year ago after the quality of results deteriorated too much. The widely implemented nofollow attribute actually undercut the Google ranking itself.


What did Cutts actually say?

Now where’s the SEO 2.0 linking out part of it? Let’s dissect the passage where Cutts actually mentions it:

Q: Okay, but doesn’t this encourage me to link out less? Should I turn off comments on my blog?
A: I wouldn’t recommend closing comments in an attempt to “hoard” your PageRank. In the same way that Google trusts sites less when they link to spammy sites or bad neighborhoods, parts of our system encourage links to good sites.

Anticipating the obvious SEO reaction of people trying to keep their PageRank from “leaking” through the even “nofollowed” comments by removing the comment section altogether he tries to outline how much Google relies on outgoing links.

The crucial part is “parts of our system encourage links to good sites” of course.

You can’t trust Cutts to give away everything he knows here so let’s read between the lines: only “Parts of our system” “encourage” linking out.

This is basically redundant. You don’t need to emphasize that only parts do. Google has more than 200 ranking signals.

We know that the Google algo is not wholly based on linking out so it must be just parts. Why does he say it then?


The private blog facade

You could argue that he’s just busy to formulate it perfectly but I don’t believe that. As I understand it, Matt Cutts is the public face of Google.

His “private” blog is not private at all, it’s part of his assignment to deal with the public.

Also I don’t believe that no lawyers proof read such important posts. It took Cutts several days to reply to the rumors about PageRank sculpting being dropped.

This way he had enough time for the team of Google lawyers to analyze every syllable and only allow a bullet-proof version to be published.

Call me a “conspiracy theorist” like Cutts already did referring also to other privacy advocates.

Then I call you naive: How do you think a humongous corporation like Google will deal with a public where million dollar lawsuits can arise from every simple quote?


It’s as official as it can get

Also stating “parts of our system” means that it’s an official Google announcement, otherwise he could say parts of “Google’s system”. By “ours” he surely doesn’t mean himself and his cats.

Cutts attempts to downplay the role of linking out while in reality acknowledging that it’s a major ranking factor.

Why is it a major ranking factor? He compares it to linking out to bad neighborhoods.What does this mean?

We know for a while already that linking out to spammy or even adult sites can hurt your ranking in Google considerably.

The best demonstration of this “unnatural links penalty” is when Google notices that your blog has been hacked and you link to spammy sites because of this.

You can lose your ranking in the Google results almost completely. Website owners are scared of such “manual action”.


Google’s algo relies on links

Now you might argue that by talking about bad neighborhoods previously Google already told us about the importance of the correct linking out.

Now the difference is that he told us to link out to good resources and that it will improve our ranking.

Again, why is linking out to good resources a major ranking factor? Well, go figure:

The Web and Google’s algo is still based on links, the more links the better.

In recent years people increasingly attempted to keep PageRank on their sites thus not linking out anywhere unless they get something out of it.

Due to this stinginess and selfishness Google can’t determine the quality of sites based on the incoming links anymore.


Linking out is good for you

The more you link out to good resources the more you help Google to identify them. So Google identifies you as a new tenant of the good neighborhood.

After a while the old neighbors start linking out to you and by then you got accepted as an authority site.

You don’t link out, you’re an outcast. Google treats you accordingly.

Thus linking out actually improves your ranking instead of hurting you by “PageRank leaking” as many SEO 1.0 conservatives fear.

Using nofollow on your comments is now worse than ever, it now hurts both your site and the websites of your commenters.

Spread link love now! Comment on my blog, add links to your opinion on that topic! Stop using nofollow for the time being!

Last updated: March 27th, 2018: added some white space. Clarified some sentences and explained the example in simple language.

Updated: December 23rd, 2016: Added line breaks for mobile readability. Fixed some typos. Improved wording. Added note of Cutts leaving Google and “unnatural links penalty” as it is now commonly called by Google.


* (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons image by Nikolay Bachiyski