1

Is the meta tag <meta name="robots" content="nofollow" />

The same as rel="nofollow" in a link (apart from the fact the the meta tag would be page wide rather than on a per link basis)

Or does the meta tag version refer to wether robots should crawl the links on the page, rather than if they pass 'link juice' ?

3

The same as rel="nofollow" in a link (apart from the fact the the meta tag would be page wide rather than on a per link basis)

Yes, same as rel="nofollow", except the nofollow in the meta tag applies to all the links on the page.

Or does the meta tag version refer to wether robots should crawl the links on the page, rather than if they pass 'link juice'?

Well, that is what the rel="nofollow" attribute on the link does as well. It tells the bots not to follow that link. ie. Don't crawl it. A by-product of that is that it also won't pass "link juice".

From Google Search Console Help "Use rel="nofollow" for specific links":

Originally, the nofollow attribute appeared in the page-level meta tag, and instructed search engines not to follow (i.e., crawl) any outgoing links on the page.

Before nofollow was used on individual links, preventing robots from following individual links on a page required a great deal of effort (for example, redirecting the link to a URL blocked in robots.txt). That's why the nofollow attribute value of the rel attribute was created. This gives webmasters more granular control: instead of telling search engines and bots not to follow any links on the page, it lets you easily instruct robots not to crawl a specific link.

0

They mean the same if you follow HTML5’s definitions:

  • HTML5’s definition of the link type nofollow is:

    The nofollow keyword indicates that the link is not endorsed by the original author or publisher of the page, or that the link to the referenced document was included primarily because of a commercial relationship between people affiliated with the two pages.

  • HTML5 refers to MetaExtensions for the registration of metadata names, which says about the nofollow value for the robots name:

    […] "nofollow" works as the link rel value with the same name.

    (This was added by Aleksandersen on 2007‎-06-30.)

(Note that Google Search doesn’t seem to follow HTML5’s definition, but Google Search also makes no difference between nofollow as metadata name and as link type.)

However, in HTML 4.01, the definition for the nofollow value in a meta-robots element is different (bold emphasis mine):

The META element allows HTML authors to tell visiting robots whether a document may be indexed, or used to harvest more links. […]

In the following example a robot should neither index this document, nor analyze it for links.

This seems to be in line with the definition on robotstxt.org, where it says about meta-robots:

Don't confuse this NOFOLLOW with the rel="nofollow" link attribute.

And in the linked FAQ entry it says:

From that description it sounds like it only affects the ranking, and the Google robot may still follow the links and index them. If so, it is different from the robots meta tag NOFOLLOW semantics.

(FWIW, the mentioned description doesn’t seem to make this difference anymore.)

And the Microformats wiki says about rel="nofollow" under open issues:

Name. nofollow is a bad name.

  • overloading. does not mean the same as robots exclusion standards (robots.txt, meta robots) nofollow.

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