In early September, Google made a fairly substantial change to the way that the rel=nofollow” link attribute will be handled, introducing some new attributes to help Google to understand the nature of those links. Understandably, changes like this have implications for SEOs so we wanted to take a look at the changes and talk through what this means for SEOs.

What is the rel=nofollow” link attribute?

In early 2005, Google announced a new link attribute called rel=nofollow”. The attribute was originally set up to help stop comment spam in blogs. This has evolved over time and Google recommends using the nofollow attribute in order to let them know about your relationship with a linked page.

Up until a few weeks ago, that was a blanket instruction. You either allowed Google to follow the links from your site to other sites, or you didn’t. There was no way of knowing what type of link you were choosing to follow or not follow – it would be up to you to decide whether or not you wanted to pass on link equity to a linked page or not.

There are many instances where you are happy to provide a link to your users, as it may be helpful to them, but you don’t necessarily want Google to follow that link and attribute some value to that link. Examples of these types of link include:

  • Paid links
  • Product links
  • Paid review links
  • Affiliate links
  • Links to untrustworthy sites
  • Noindexed links
  • Guest post links
  • Admin pages
  • Social media buttons

Misuse of rel=nofollow”

Following its launch in 2005, Google made further revisions to the use of the nofollow attribute in 2009. Google announced that it was changing the way that nofollow would be treated for internal links. This is because webmasters had learnt that placing nofollow tags on internal links could help to boost the PageRank of other linked pages (known as PageRank sculpting). This was an effective method of improving your PageRank during that 2005 to 2009 period but has been a defunct SEO tactic since that change back in 2009.

What’s changed with the nofollow attribute?

As we mentioned at the start of this article, in early September 2019, Google introduced two new link attributes to help them to gain a better understanding of the relationship between your site and the sites you are linking to.

The two new link attributes that join rel=nofollow’ are:

  • rel=“sponsored”: Identifies links on a site that were created as part of advertising, sponsorships or similar agreements.
  • rel=“ugc”: Identifies links that appear within user generated content, such as comments and forum posts.

Google explained the reasons behind the new link attributes and what this means for webmasters moving forward:

“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.”

When nofollow was first introduced, Google would not count any link marked with the nofollow attribute as a signal within the search algorithm. With these new additions, that’s now changed. All three of the link attributes are now treated as a ‘hint’ – along with other signals – as a way to better understand the nature of the links, allowing them to be appropriately analysed and valued.

What do these changes mean for SEOs?

For many SEOs, the answer may well be nothing. Google has said that there is no need to change any existing nofollows (phew!) – the nofollow tags you have in place to block sponsored links will still be supported. Having said that, Google has said that they do recommend changing to the ‘sponsored’ attribute where relevant.

Here’s a brief look at some of the most common FAQs (as seen in more detail on the Official Google Webmasters Blog):

Can I use more than one rel value on each link?

The simple answer is yes. For example, rel=ugc sponsored” is a perfectly valid attribute hinting that the link comes from user generated content that is sponsored. Check the blog above for more detail.

Do I need to change my link attributes on sponsored links?

No – the nofollow method is a perfectly acceptable way of flagging sponsored links and as a way of avoiding potential manual actions for link scheme penalties. Google does recommend switching over to rel=sponsored” if or when it is convenient.

Do I still need to flag ad or sponsored links?

Absolutely yes. This is perhaps the most important one to follow. Any sponsored link or ad needs to be flagged with “sponsored” or “nofollow” or you run the risk of a Manual Action penalty.

What happens if I use the wrong attribute?

In most cases, there is no ‘wrong’ attribute with the exception of sponsored links. If for example, you flag a UGC or non-ad link with “sponsored”, the impact will be similar to applying the nofollow attribute – Google will see the hint and may not count the link as credit for another page but no harm, no foul. With sponsored links however, you must use either the “sponsored” or “nofollow” attribute as above.

When do these new attributes come into play?

They’re already here! On the day Google made the announcement, it was possible to make the changes to your link attributes so if you want to make changes to your site, then you can start to make those changes now. As Google have already said, there is not a huge rush to go changing “nofollow” links to “sponsored” links – doing so when convenient is all good.

Our recommendation would be to review all the current followed and nofollowed links on your site and assess whether or not either of the two new link attributes are relevant. If they are, map out your changes and then put a plan in place to make those changes as and when you get the chance.

What is the potential SEO impact?

The key takeaway we took from the announcement was the switch to the word ‘hint’. Treating link attributes as a hint suggests that Google may start to attribute some value to links that carry any of those three attribute tags which could mean potential impacts on your SEO.

Sites that currently have a high percentage of external links that point to their site that have the nofollow attribute could potentially see an uptick in performance if Google starts to treat those links as a hint rather than an absolute instruction.

For example, all links from Wikipedia are nofollowed. It has long been felt that Google already potentially treats links from authoritative sites like Wikipedia in a different way to other sites and does, in fact, count those nofollowed links. We may start to see Google assessing the value of nofollow links from other sites with high domain authority scores and sites that are highly trustworthy, even if the link is nofollowed.

Google has already said that nofollow links will be treated in the exact same way they have been until March 2020 when they will then be treated as a ‘hint’. We would recommend revisiting your link outreach programme and establishing whether there are relevant sites within your sector that would benefit your own site if you were to acquire a link from them. You may have previously dismissed them as a viable option due to a blanket nofollow programme, however, the change to the way those links are treated may now provide new opportunities.

It may also be pertinent to review all of the current nofollow links that point to your site to establish whether there are potential ranking gains that could come your way when those rules around nofollow change in March 2020.

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