Google’s Nofollow Attribute Update

Google announced a big change to their search algorithm

SEO insiders were all paying close attention in September when Google announced their latest major algo change, specifically around the way nofollow links are counted. Simply put, the search giant will start treating the nofollow attribute as a “hint” rather than a directive. Let’s unpack this in a bit more detail, and discuss what it might mean for search.

What is the “nofollow” Attribute?

First, a basic background for those who might be unfamiliar with the nofollow attribute.

There are certain cases where a site owner might want to provide Google with information on the relationship between a link and the page it links to. The rel=“nofollow” attribute is a piece of code that a site owner can assign to the rel attribute of the <a> element in an HTML, to instruct Google (and other search engines) that the hyperlink should not influence the ranking of the link’s target page in the search engine’s index.

In other words, if a nofollow attribute is added it signals that the link should not be “followed” to its destination by Google.

What is Google’s nofollow Update?

In the past, nofollow links have been treated as a directive, which means that Google would “obey” the nofollow, plain and simple. Following the update, however, Google will start treating nofollow as a hint rather than a directive. This means that the search engine will make a decision whether or not to use the link for ranking purposes, despite the addition of a nofollow attribute.

Google on wall

Two New Link Attributes

In addition to changing the way nofollow attributes are treated, Google has also introduced two new link attributes to work alongside the nofollow attribute, namely,

  1. rel=“sponsored”: This attribute identifies the links on a website that have been created as part of advertising, sponsorships or similar agreements.
  2. rel=“ugc”: This attribute identifies links that appear within user-generated content (UGC), for example, user comments and forum posts.

These two new attributes will also be treated as hints, rather than directives, about which links on a site should be excluded as ranking signals. Until now, sponsored content and UGC have been ignored in this context.

What is Google’s reasoning behind the new hint model? The search giant’s statement reads:

“Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search… 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 do the changes mean for search, link building, site owners and SEO professionals?

The Implications for Google’s Algorithm

Industry insiders like Neil Patel have been speculating about the motivations behind Google’s changes, as well as the ways they might impact the world of search.

Patel says that if webmasters start labelling their links more specifically according to their purpose, it makes it easier for search engines like Google to “learn” about the ways SEOs are using different types of links. This will be useful for Google’s algorithm, helping the search engine to identify these link types – and the contexts they are being used in – with greater speed and accuracy. Google is already able to identify types of UGC such as wikis and forum posts, but this change could make the process easier and more reliable.

As an example cited by Patel, if a large number of people use rel=”ugc” for links that are being generated through guest posts, the Google algorithm could “learn” that these links are not being created by the webmaster and should therefore be discounted. Google could also choose to count UGC links for link-building purposes, but assign it only a fraction of the weight a naturally earned link would get.

Ultimately, a more accurate algorithm allows for a better user experience. Google would rather rank a site that offers excellent UX, top-notch content and great products or services over a site that has “perfect” SEO practices.

Key Takeaways for SEOs

The importance of link attributes: Link attributes still matter. It’s important for webmasters to flag ads and sponsored links using rel=“sponsored”, to avoid the possibility of link scheme penalties.

Should existing attributes be updated? Search Engine Journal reports that there is no need to change or update any existing nofollow links on your site. Google will continue to honour the attributes that were put in place before the update.

When to make the switch? Google does recommend switching to the “sponsored” attribute instead of “nofollow” whenever it’s appropriate.

Using multiple attributes: It’s allowable to apply more than one attribute to a single link. For example, a sponsored link that appears within a piece of user-generated content could be attributed as follows: rel=“ugc sponsored”.

Be accurate with rel=“sponsored”: If you mistakenly mark a link as sponsored if it’s not actually part of an advertisement or sponsorship, then the impact that link has will be lessened. Be sure to assign the sponsored attributes correctly, to avoid this and make sure all your links earn you as much reach as possible.

When will the changes become effective? The changes came into effect in September, which means webmasters can start using sponsored and ugc attributes as of now. However, Google states that nofollow will work the same way up until March 2020, at which time the search engine will start treating this attribute as a hint as well.

Going forward, key SEO advice from Patel and SEJ includes these tips:

  • Don’t rely solely on the nofollow attribute.
  • There is still a strong correlation between links and search engine rankings.
  • Build as many good quality links as possible, including user-generated links.
  • Provided your UGC links come from relevant sites, the referral traffic can result in leads and sales (conversions).
  • Include UGC links only where it makes sense to do so, i.e. when it will be beneficial for the user.

“Most webmasters probably won’t use sponsored or UGC attributes anytime soon,” says Patel. “It will probably take another year before they really catch on”. For now, it’s advisable to keep focusing on the links you do want to be followed, but keep the implications of this latest update in mind.

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