What Are Google’s New Nofollow Attributes?

Graphic concept of linkingThis blog covers recent changes to Google’s “nofollow” link attribute and why it is important to follow these new guidelines for SEO.

Google’s two new “nofollow” related attributes are:

  • rel=”sponsored” to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements.
  • rel=”ugc” (user generated content) designed to be used for user generated content such as comments and forum posts

Up till now Google had only 2 types of links: “follow” and “nofollow”. Google introduced the “nofollow” link attribute in 2005. It’s primary purpose was to identify any “unnatural” links (such as links that are generated in comments or forum posts, and/or paid links).

Historically, Google’s approach to nofollow links was (and I quote):

In general, we don’t follow them. This means that Google does not transfer PageRank or anchor text across these links.

Even so, most experienced SEO practitioners suspected that even nofollow links were somehow included in Google’s calculations. Note the words “in general” at the start of their sentence. Google isn’t going to tell us what they really do with nofollow links because SEO spammers would have a field day trying to use such knowledge to their temporary advantage.

Google treats these new nofollow links as “hints”

Why does Google need hints? Mostly because of all the link spam it must sift through each and every day. There are still a lot of boneheads in the SEO world.  Some still think that by adding hundreds of spam links in forums and blog comments their website will rank more highly. No doubt we are about to see a significant difference in how Google treats “ugc” (user generated content) links.

How does a monolithic search engine like Google identify if information has a value? Mostly by the number of “naturally occurring” links (the best kind) given freely by well-respected websites.  A “paid link” (marked as nofollow by white hat SEO’s) isn’t freely given, so it should be identified as “paid” by using the new “sponsored” attribute. However, a comment or forum post may be a true vote of confidence by the poster. How many times have you gone to Reddit or Trip Advisor to get community consensus advice? These websites rate user generated content with “thumbs up” or “helpful” votes.  These votes can correlate into a certain level of confidence in user generated content.  Why shouldn’t Google consider links in highly respected comments or forum posts as “natural” links that have some value?

I often read great quality blog posts by leading SEO authorities.  In some cases the author may have forgotten or missed some relevant issue related to the subject of his post. The best bloggers appreciate comments or suggestions that help clarify their topic or add value for their readers.

It’s obvious that Google has recognized that some comments and forum posts should have a higher value and should not be lumped into the catch-all “nofollow” bucket. In short, Google wants the web community to help them better categorize quality links. In theory this should help Google to serve up better results.

Is this important for your website SEO?

YES! It is possible that some user generated content, or “ugc”, links will pass some Pagerank and anchor text info to the destination page. These may end up being classed as “natural” links. On the other hand, links that are granted for compensation (paid links or ads) should be marked as “sponsored” or you risk a penalty by Google.

What is the proper format for these links?

Example of traditional “nofollow” link format:

Example of nofollow link format

Example of the new “sponsored” link format:

Example of new sponsored link format

Example of the new “ugc” link format:

Example of the new UGC link format

When do these new attributes go into effect?

These new attributes are working now.  They “officially” go into effect on March 1, 2020. You can be sure that the SEO community will be carefully watching (and doing some focused litmus tests) to see how these nofollow link attribute changes will affect a websites ranking.  In the meantime it would be wise to begin implementing these changes on your own websites.

Do I have to go back and change all my existing nofollow links?

The short answer is no. However (in this author’s opinion) it would be wise to consider updating existing nofollow links under your control just to be safe.  Hopefully there will be updated modules and plugins available for the major CMS platforms (Drupal, WordPress, Joomla etc) to make compliance a bit easier (especially as related to comment sections of websites where the “ugc” attribute needs to be applied).

Should I still use the plain old “nofollow” attribute on some links?

Yes.  A good example would be links from your personal blog posts to your company website.  Let’s say for example you have 10 employees and all of them have personal blogs that link back to your main company website.  The links are not paid for so they don’t fall under the “sponsored” attribute.  They are not generated from forum posts or comments so they do not fall under the “ugc” attribute either.  The correct attribute would be “nofollow” to avoid the appearance of creating a link farm.

Where can I find more information about sponsored and ugc links?

Recommended reading:

Google’s blog post

Article in SE Journal

Here’s a good article by Barry Schwartz

I hope the above is helpful and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me.