Last September 10, Google announced that the link attribute “nofollow” is evolving and introduced two new link attributes: the rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc”. This announcement shook the SEO industry.
This is the biggest update to nofollow since it was first introduced by Google in 2005. It was used to combat website comment spam and then was used to discredit paid links. It changed the landscape of link building and made dofollow links the holy grail of SEO.
The impact of this can’t be scaled yet but this would definitely have a tremendous impact on link building. Links have been one of the top ranking factors ever since search started. Other ranking factors have evolved throughout the years such us mobile-friendliness and content relevancy and it is just now that links have finally evolved.
In this post, I will discuss everything there is to this announcement and give my thoughts on how this could possibly affect SEO.
Nofollow will now be used as a “Hint”
Ever since the nofollow attribute was introduced, nofollow links would not pass any authority and Google will not count these links as a factor for ranking websites. But as of this announcement by Google, nofollow links along with the two new link attributes will now be used as “hints”.
According to Google, they will use these link attributes to know which links to consider or exclude from search and to better understand and analyze the links in their system.
As of now, making these new link attributes as hints to be incorporated in the ranking system is already in effect and by March 1, 2020, Google will also use nofollow links for crawling and indexing purposes.
Sponsored links or paid links have been against Google’s guidelines for a long time. Google requires that all sponsored links should have a nofollow attribute or you will have a risk of receiving a penalty.
UGC stands for User Generated Content and Google recommends using this link attribute to any link that is user-generated. This is most applicable to forum posts, blog comments, and guest posts.
Why Did Google Make This Change?
Google did not say exactly why they made this change but I personally think that this is a move to improve spam combat. As mentioned, the whole web used nofollow links to flag sponsored or user-generated links so it was hard to identify what category these links fall under and this update makes it easier for Google to identify them.
In Cyrus Shepard’s article on Moz, he mentioned that Google wants to take back the link graph. When the nofollow was introduced, a huge portion of the web applied nofollow to all the links in their entire website and made the link graph less useful for Google.
Now, Google realizes that nofollow links can provide them with valuable information for improving their algorithms.
Here’s the statement from the Google Webmaster Blog:
“Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe the content they point at. Looking at all links we can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be give the weight of a first-party endorsement.”
What is the Impact of Nofollow, UGC, and Sponsored Links to SEO?
Google said that this should not have any significant impact on ranking and links will be treated just like how they were treated before. But of course, the SEO industry is always curious. Here’s Danny Sullivan’s tweet on this:
I think a lot of people misunderstood this announcement. Nofollow will only be used as a “hint” and not directly a ranking factor. Would websites with a lot of nofollow links receive a ranking boost? It might be unlikely. But moving forward, I think this will have a significant effect once Google starts using nofollow links for crawling and indexing.
As for sponsored and UGC links, I think they might have a bigger effect on rankings and penalties. A website who has many sponsored backlinks might have a higher chance of getting penalized. For UGC, Google allows user-generated links as long as it goes through the approval of the webmaster.
In fact, I already applied the UGC link attribute to the SEO-Hacker Tribe once I heard the news. Since all content in the tribe is from users, I made all outbound links from the tribe rel=”ugc”. There has been no significant changes yet.
Should you Change Now?
If you are using nofollow links for user-generated content or sponsored links on your website, Google says that you don’t have to change those and you can keep them as nofollow links. However, Google recommends that webmasters follow this new scheme moving forward.
Would One Work with the Other?
Yes. According to Google, you can use a link attribute along with another. So for example, you allow guest posts on your blog, you can add rel=”nofollow ugc” to links in a contributed article.
In a Twitter thread, WordPress Marketing and Communications Lead Joost de Valk who is also the founder of Yoast said he will make sure that the new link attributes will be integrated to WordPress on their next release. He also has his opinions about this change by Google in his blog.
On Twitter, Danny Sullivan, John Mueller, and Gary Illyes were very active in answering questions from SEOs. If you want to see a summary of the discussion on Twitter, I recommend reading Barry Schwartz’s article on Search Engine Roundtable.
At Moz, Cyrus Shepard posted a good infographic to summarize all of the changes to nofollow, sponsored, and UGC.
Making nofollow a “hint” and adding two new link attributes is big news but there is no significant impact yet. In my opinion, since Google just started last September 10, it might take time until we see any effects. Because of this, there is no clear benefit yet on why SEOs should start updating their links.
I would still recommend applying all of these changes. If this could help Google refine their search algorithm, I would be more than happy to help them out. What’s your take on this announcement? Have you started changing link attributes on your website? Let me know if you’ve noticed any positive or negative impact on the comment section.