Google is evolving once again and this time, the focus is on understanding the nature of links. It was recently announced that the interpretation of no follow links will be changing and two new link attributes will be added. The changes, while beneficial to Google, have caused some confusion around how publishers should mark nofollow links going forward. In this blog, we’ll cover what the new attributes are and consider how they could affect you.
What is the nofollow attribute?
The ‘nofollow’ tag for links was first released by Google in 2005. Historically, the rel=“nofollow” link attribute has been used to tell Google that you cannot vouch for the linked to site and as a result, Google did not pass PageRank or other trust signals through links marked as ‘no follow’.
In October 2019, Google announced the ‘no follow’ tag would soon become a hint rather than a directive – meaning Google may still use links marked as no follow for ranking purposes. Additionally, Google also introduced two new link attributes for webmasters.
Google has stated that these attributes will also be treated as hints when interpreting links as part of ranking signals. Google’s made the choice to not completely ignore them, stating:
“Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter 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 given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”
What are the two new link attributes?
The two new link attributes are:
- rel=“sponsored”: This identifies links on a website that were created as part of sponsorship or advertising agreement.
- rel=“ugc”: This attribute identifies links that appear within user generated content (UGC) such as comments and forum posts.
When do the changes to nofollow come into effect?
From 1 March 2020, nofollow and the new sponsored and UGC attributes will all be treated as hints.
What do you need to know?
Whether you’re a site owner or work within SEO, it’s important to know that making these updates are voluntary. Google offers no incentive for changing links or punishment for not changing them. Danny Sullivan provided more clarity on Twitter around the topic:
If you choose to change your nofollow links to be more specific, Google’s guidelines provide very clear information for you. To summarise:
- rel=“sponsored” can be used for paid or sponsored links which could potentially include affiliate links, although Google hasn’t explicitly stated this.
- rel=“ugc” encompasses links within all UGC. But Google has stated if UGC is created by a trusted contributor, this may not be necessary.
- rel=“nofollow” will be treat as “hints” by Google from March 1, meaning the search engine may choose to crawl them.
The new attributes can also be used in combination. For example, a link could be marked both “nofollow” AND “sponsored”.
What effect could this update have on you?
We’ve considered Google’s move to a hint methodology and what effect it could have on publishers. Is Google moving to a hint methodology because publishers are blanket applying nofollow attributes as they are unable to vouch for the websites they’re linking to? If so, quality links which incorporate the normal linking signals of a followed link may be lost. Using the new hint methodology, the linked site could still get some of the link rewards, even if it is marked as “no follow”.
What do you think about the impact of this update? Will you use the new link attributes or make changes to your existing “no follow” links? We’re interested to hear your thoughts.