Source Attribution: Follow Links, No-Follow Links, or Footnotes?

30 January, 2023

Your content needs reputable sources. Although some topics will require more sources than others, most will require at least some citations. But what is the best way to provide citations? Should you use follow links, no-follow links, or footnotes? Each method has its pros and cons.

Sources Can Make or Break Your Content

The 2023 Eldeman Trust Barometer found that only 50% of people trust the media, 51% trust the government, and 62% trust businesses. In the U.S., trust levels are even lower: only 55% of people trust businesses and only 42% trust the government.

You can’t just assume people will trust what you say – you need to earn trust and develop your authority. Backing up your claims with verifiable sources is a good way to do this.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to make the point that people aren’t living as long as they used to. If you just write that people are dying younger without backing up this claim, readers might be skeptical. They might think you’re being alarmist or may even assume you’re lying. However, if you point out that the CDC says the U.S. life expectancy at birth decreased by 2.7 years between 2019 to 2021, and make it easy for people to verify this information themselves, readers may be more inclined to trust you. In other words, sources increase your authority.

Follow Links vs. No-Follow Links

It’s common to cite sources using hyperlinks. You probably see links every day when browsing the internet, but what you might not know is there are different kinds.

Follow links (also called dofollow links) just include the URL as the link. No-follow links (or nofollow links) also include an attribute or tag. This tag gives search engines additional information about the nature of the link and your relationship to it.

According to Google, the following link attributes are available:

  • rel="nofollow" – This is the original no-follow attribute. It provide a link without expressing endorsement or passing along ranking credit.
  • rel="sponsored" – This attribute identifies links that are part of a sponsorship, advertisement, or compensation agreement.
  • rel="ugc" – This attribute identifies user-generated content

According to Backlinko, the people reading your content won’t know what type of link you’re using – the distinction is solely for SEO purposes. For example, you might be linking to a site you want to comment on but do not want Google to associate your site with. In this case, you should use a no-follow link. This can be important in the links you provide, but it’s even more important when sites link back to you. Your site earns more authority when other high authority websites use dofollow backlinks.

If you want to use no-follow links, you can simply add the rel=“nofollow” tag with the URL. You can also use a plug-in. WordPress has more information as well as a list of plug-ins.


Another way to cite sources is to use footnotes. You may include a number in superscript after the information you’re citing. At the end of the article, you’ll provide a list of the sources. You can even hyperlink the superscript number to the sources at the bottom.

This is a more academic style. Since hyperlinks don’t work in print materials, footnotes are also useful when you’ll be using your content in both digital and print forms. Footnotes can also work well in handouts and graphics where you have limited space.

Another advantage of footnotes is that links might break in the future due to a website being removed or a URL changing. Footnotes make it easy for you to provide additional information that can help readers identify the source even if the link is broken.

How Outbound Links Affect Your SEO

Yoast says outbound links positively affect your Google E.A.T. score because they help readers find helpful information. Yoast (an SEO plug-in used with many WordPress websites) recommends using dofollow links unless there is a good reason a nofollow link is more appropriate.

According to Semrush, the use of outbound links is an indicator of topic depth. You should use them to provide value to your users while demonstrating expertise. Semrush refers to a ranking factor known as Cheirank, which measures the importance of a page based on the quality of its outbound links. It advises that link usage should be natural and you should only link to reputable sources. Semrush also debunks the myth that outbound links can lead to page rank loss.

What Should You Use?

Most of the time, regular dofollow links will be all you need for your sources, although it may make sense to use a no-follow attribution in some situations. You can also decide to switch to footnotes if you prefer them. You may decide to use links for blogs but footnotes for downloadable content that users might print out. The most important thing is that you’re consistent and that you support any facts you share with high-quality sources.

Now you know what type of source attribution you need, it’s time to choose the right type of content. Use the Content Road Map to figure out what you need.

seo writing tipsLooking for more SEO writing tips? Read this article on how to leverage semantic SEO.