Google’s nofollow attribute just got a big update: Here’s what it means for you

We examine Google’s recent update to nofollow links, and how this could affect your SEO strategy.

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Google just announced a big update to nofollow links, their impact on its search algorithm, and how publishers should mark up links going forward. The announcement also brings with it two brand new link attributes, rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc”. Here’s what it all means and how the changes might impact you.

Nofollow, no party

In January 2015 Google introduced the rel=”nofollow” attribute as a way of combatting link and comment spam. This meant that any hyperlink with the rel=”nofollow” rule applied to it would pass no SEO value and consequently, this would deter spammers from abusing public websites such as blogs and forums. 

Google also made it a requirement that the nofollow attribute was applied to sponsored and paid-for links, as detailed on its Link schemes page

Ultimately the nofollow rule was rolled out to stop manipulative link building behaviour, and it has been largely successful in achieving that goal. But it’s not perfect. 

For example, for fear of being penalised or targeted by SEO spammers, many publishers now apply a blanket nofollow rule across all of their external links, meaning hugely influential sites such as Wikipedia pass no SEO signals, despite being (for the most part) a universally trusted source of information. 

Cyrus Shepard made a great point on this topic when covering the story for Moz: Should curated links from trusted Wikipedia contributors really not count? Perhaps Google could better understand the web if they changed how they consider nofollow links.

The answer to this question is of course, yes, and that’s why, starting next year, Google will change the way it treats nofollow links as a ranking signal in its search algorithm.

Nofollow links to be used as “hints”

From March 1, 2020, Google will use nofollow links as “hints” about what to consider or exclude within search. This means Google may choose to ignore the nofollow directive and use the signals as part of its search algorithm.

Some would argue this has always been the case anyway. Despite Google expeditially saying that nofollow links are not used as a ranking signal, proportions of the SEO community disagree, and there have been numerous discussions and articles to highlight this. However, it’s fair to say hard evidence has always been lacking in this department and most of the claims are based more on speculation than fact.

Two new link attributes

In recognition of the fact that the web has evolved significantly since 2005, Google is introducing two new link attributes; rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc”, to sit alongside rel=”nofollow”. 

Google’s intention is that these new attributes will be used by webmasters to provide additional, more descriptive ways to identify to Google the nature of particular links.

 These, along with nofollow, are summarised below:

  • rel=”sponsored”: Use the sponsored attribute to identify links on your site 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.
  • rel=”nofollow”: Use this attribute for cases where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.

These changes naturally bring with them a number of questions for SEOs and site owners, such as:

Will nofollow links help improve my rankings going forward?

Probably not. At least, not to any significant degree. That said though, the word “hint” does suggest that nofollow links from some domains might hold more value than they do currently – but to what extent, only time will tell. 

If nofollow links are hints, won’t that encourage more spam?

Probably not. Google believes the new link attributes of “ugc” and “sponsored” will continue to be a further deterrent to spammers. In reality, they probably won’t, but the fact is spammers gonna spam regardless of a link’s rel value. 

Will anyone actually use the new link attributes?

Let’s be real here; most publishers probably aren’t going to bother updating their existing links because ultimately, there’s no real reason to. Google explicitly states that “If you use nofollow now as a way to block sponsored links, or to signify that you don’t vouch for a page you link to, that will continue to be supported. There’s absolutely no need to change any nofollow links that you already have.”

What’s the deal with paid links?

Paid-for or sponsored links still need to be labelled as such. Nothing has changed in this respect. However, all paid links are not created equal, and the new attributes only serve to confuse matters further – it’s possible that a link could be both sponsored (rel=”sponsored”) and user-generated (rel=”ugc”), for example, so which do you use? 

Google has made it clear that you can use more than one rel value on a single link, but this begs the question; why bother when a nofollow will do? For now at least, it’s probably wise to stick with rel=”nofollow” for all sponsored links. 

So what should I do with this knowledge?

From an SEO’s perspective, nothing has changed. Links are still an important ranking factor and earning editorial links by producing interesting stories and shareable content should still be a top priority. If it transpires that nofollow links offer more value in the future, it should do nothing to detract from this approach. 

For publishers, the new link attributes simply offer alternatives to the generic, catch-all nofollow rule. Providing you’re already using the nofollow attribute in line with Google’s recommendations, there’s no immediate need to do anything except wait for more information to surface. That said, if you have any doubts about whether the links you’re publishing violate Google’s link scheme guidelines, now’s the time to review them and make any necessary changes. 

For more information check out the Google Webmaster Central blog

What do you think the impact of this will be? Please share your thoughts below. 

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