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Understanding Google’s Updated Guidelines on Nofollow, Along With Sponsored, and UGC Link Attributes

Links are the essence of indexing the web. However, they’re significantly nuanced for deciphering the intent — while understanding the why and the how.

Welcome to Nofollow, Sponsored, and UGC link attributes! All 3 link attributes will play a major role in SEO; but, before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let’s understand what happened with nofollow.

How Did Nofollow Come Into Fruition?

Historically speaking, due to links also being ranking factors, they were abused to a great extent to game Google’s system. So consequently, Google had to introduce new patterns, and evolve how it treated certain types of links. Say when someone was getting paid to link to a specific website. Or when someone posted 100 links to their own website in a comment, or inserted the same 5 links in 10 different press releases that are distributed throughout the internet. As a result, what started happening was that these spammers began to rank in Google, while real quality websites got demoted.

Long story short, to battle the spam, and the cheats, roughly around 2005, Google introduced a nofollow link attribute. The nofollow attribute would not pass any page rank, nor would it get crawled. That means that if you have a nofollow link from a website, you will not get that link equity passed to you (which means it won’t help you as a ranking factor), and neither would Google crawl that link to come to your website. In fact, it is said that Google would even drop that nofollow link from their graph.

How Was Google Enforcing Nofollow?

It’s one thing to come up with this tactic, but one thing to enforce it, right? So how did Google make sure that websites were following this?

Google played it very smartly where the onus to implement nofollow links fell on the websites giving the link, rather than on websites getting the link. For instance, let’s say I know the Editor at XYZ. And let’s say XYZ came out with an article about coronavirus. Now let’s assume that in that article, they gave me 10 links to my article about breadcrumbs. What you’d realize is that not only those 10 links are non-relevant, they also seem very unnatural. Unnatural in the sense of why would a single article about coronavirus, link 10 times to the same page, unless the intention wasn’t to try to game the system.

This type of unnatural linking is not recommended anyway, regardless of links being nofollow or not, but primarily, it would be XYZ’s responsibility (in this fictitious example) to prevent such link practices.

What Would Happen if Websites Didn’t Implement Nofollow?

Plain and simple, those websites would get penalized, and would suffer significant losses in Google Rankings. Say, for instance, PRWeb didn’t implement nofollow links in their press releases, they’d get a penalty.

How Did Websites Cope With Nofollow?

Google’s announcement about nofollow shook up the entire internet. A lot of the websites got scared, and in fact, a lot of the big players in the industry were actually penalized too. So what did websites started doing? They started implementing nofollow for external links site-wide. Basically, they started building logics where any external link to another website would automatically be nofollow-ed.

Some of the popular types of websites that did this were:

  1. News websites
  2. Blog and forum websites (for comment spam)
  3. Press Release websites
  4. Social Media websites
  5. Typically, a lot of the websites where user generated content was possible.

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So What Happened in 15 Years, and What Was the Need to Introduce two New Link Attributes?

Almost 15 years after, because of the nofollow attribute, it seemed that Google started getting less and less context about the internet in general. Since Google would ignore nofollow links, it would not crawl new links for their web indexation. And because of that, it got drastically limited in how much of the ever expanding internet it could index. In summary, it backfired!

To recover from that, Google did the following:

  1. Introduced rel= “sponsor”: To basically mark any sponsored links.
  2. Introduced rel= “ugc”: To mark any user generated links, such as those in forums posts, comments, etc.
  3. Both the 2 new link attributes, and the nofollow, would now be treated as hints. This was huge. Up until now, they were ignored (well nofollow). But now, they’ll be hints. What does it mean by hints? Put simply, Google may now choose to crawl and index such links, and may use them as ranking factors.

It should be noted that website owners are required to mark any sponsored links as sponsored or nofollow. These attributes can be used in combination as well. Moz, does an amazing job of making a nice table to help understand the differences between all 3, as well as its syntax.

Moz's explanation of nofollow sponsored ugc
Original Source: Moz

What Do Publishers and Website Owners Need to Do?

Remember, the onus falls on you. If not executed correctly, you could get a link penalty. Below are the guidelines that would need to be followed:

  1. There is no need to go back and change any of your existing nofollow links. Google said it would be ideal if they’re converted into sponsored (if they are in fact sponsored), but again, no need to go back and change everything that has been done in the past.
  2. Google is strict about having the users mark any paid, sponsored, and ad links. They could also be used together. For example, if a ugc link happens to be a sponsored link.
  3. Folks who relied on nofollow for disallowing crawling & indexing (which was never recommended in the first place anyway), should quickly use more appropriate measures to achieve this goal. They can choose to leverage robots.txt, and/or, use meta robots.

So What Is the Impact of All This on SEO?

The introduction of sponsored and ugc attributes at this point seems more of a technicality, but the biggest change that may come is in the form of conversions of nofollow as hints (as of March 1st, 2020). A lot of the websites could benefit from this, but a lot of the websites could also may see a bit of the downside if the usage of nofollow seemed a bit unnatural.

In summary the advise is as follows:

  1. Continue to tag your paid/sponsored links with either nofollow or sponsored. Not doing so may have you end up with a penalty.
  2. If ugc links are somehow paid or affiliate links, it would be hard to decipher those. As a general rule, websites may start implementing ugc links as ugc nofollow.
  3. Overall, the feeling is that if nofollows in the past were implemented without the intent of gaming the system, there really could be some positive trends.

Expert Resources

  1. Search Engine Journal
  2. SEMRush’s Explanation