Understanding Google’s New Guidelines on Nofollow Links (+9 Takeaways)

Dmitry Dragilev
Dmitry Dragilev  |  October 2, 2019

Google recently announced a change to the way they implement the nofollow attribute for links.

As with any modification that Google announces, websites relying on search traffic need to evaluate the potential impact the change may have on their business.

9 takeaways surrounding Google’s new nofollow link guidelines

This post examines the change that Google is making to link attributes and how this may affect businesses with a high dependency on organic search traffic. We’ve broken it down into nine simple things to take into consideration.

1. Google introduced this change to fix the link graph, which many believe is broken

A side-effect of introducing the nofollow attribute in 2005 was that many large sites applied this attribute across all their content.

They did this to avoid the risk of penalty. Lacking resources to properly police UGC and any linking out to external sites, many organizations considered it the wisest move. Unfortunately for Google, they lost visibility into a large portions of the web. The significance of those links has been lost and the search engine is trying hard to recapture that.

2. Sites aren’t obligated to do anything

Either way, there is no reward or punishment. Sites can continue using the nofollow attribute, as they have in the past, with no fear of consequences.

Implementing the change is a Good Samaritan effort as there is no immediate benefit to your site. The only way you can possibly profit is if those linking to your site change their implementation of the nofollow attribute. Until that happens, rest easy knowing you are helping to make the web a better place.

3. Changes to the nofollow attribute go into effect March 1, 2020

At that point, Google will start treating nofollow attributes as “hints,” meaning they may be crawled. In the meantime, the search engine will continue to ignore them as usual, neither crawling nor indexing them.

It’s important to remember that this change does not mean that nofollow links are not valuable anymore.

Here's how Gaetano DiNardi, Director of Demand Generation at Nextiva describes it:

“This doesn't mean nofollow links aren't valuable anymore. SEOs used to think that earning nofollow links was a waste of time, but that's because they were looking at it purely from a link building lens. When you step outside the SEO bubble and recognize there are ancillary benefits, you can see the value. Even sponsored or UGC links, in the right places aligned to the right audience, can generate high quality referral traffic for your brand.”

4. Link with the nofollow attribute could potentially impact ranking position in the SERP

As it stands right now, Google ignores links with the nofollow attribute. As a result, PageRank is not passed to those pages and those links do not influence rankings.

However, when the new rules come into effect, that could change substantially. At that point Google, will start to treat the link attributes as “hints” and could decide to crawl them, a decision most likely to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Imagine all those links from sites like Forbes and Wikipedia, which assign the nofollow attribute to all external links. A lot of sites could benefit from the existing nofollow links on these highly authoritative sites.

SEO content analysis tools currently only recognize the two current attributes, nofollow and the default, which is no value attached. It will be interesting to see how these platforms incorporate the other link attributes and calculate the value of links in light of this coming change. 

5. There are two new additional attributes for links

These are rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc”. As it implies, the sponsored attribute is for links created for advertisements, sponsorship, or any other compensation. UGS stands for User Generated Content and is used for links in content such as comments and forum posts.

6. Under the new implementation, link attributes can be combined

So “nofollow sponsored ugc” is a valid link attribute. This means you could append the new attributes (sponsored and UGC) to existing nofollow tags.

7. You’ll still need to flag sponsored links

This isn’t changing with the new implementation of the nofollow attribute. The only difference is now you have two options; use either rel=“sponsored” rel=“nofollow” or a combination of both when attributing these links. For this purpose, Google will treat these attributes equally, although they obviously prefer you to use the “sponsored” attribution.

8. The nofollow attribute will continue to be a poor method of controlling the crawling and indexing of content

It wasn’t a good method to begin with. Now it will be even worse since Google will no longer treat the attribute as a directive, but instead consider it a suggestion.

Instead, use these options:

  • Noindex in robots meta tags
  • 404 and 410 HTTP status codes
  • Password protection
  • Disallow in robots.txt
  • Search Console Remove URL tool

Effective September 1, 2019 Google no longer supports the noindex indexing directive in the robots.txt file, so this is no longer an option.

9. Use caution when marking up user-generated content (UGC)

If someone leaves a comment or a post that includes a paid link, you potentially could be penalized if it’s not assigned an attribute of “nofollow” or “sponsored.”

Should you decide to use the UGC attribute, the safest approach is to include the nofollow attribute as well. That way you avoid exposure to any risk of penalty. But if you’re going to use the nofollow attribute anyway, why bother with tagging it as UGC? It wouldn’t be for your benefit, it would be for Google’s.

Conclusion

When it comes right down to it, Google has a pretty big ask of the web community. They want to understand the web better, specifically they’re looking to improve their ability to discern unnatural linking patterns. And they want your help to do it.

For those engaged in white hat SEO instead of black hat SEO, using optimization efforts that are above-board, this should be welcome news. Anything that can level the playing field, reducing the effect of link farms, is a step in the right direction.

This refinement to the nofollow attribute also confirms the ongoing importance of links as a ranking factor. If links weren’t a major factor, Google would have little interest in improving their ability to detect link spam.

Yet it seems the opposite is true. The search engine is engaging in a serious effort to refine its ability to discern the nature of certain links. And it’s asking for your help. 

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Dmitry Dragilev
Author

Dmitry Dragilev

Dmitry Dragilev is the founder of JustReachOut.io, a DIY PR software platform which to date has helped 5000+ businesses and brands get featured in press all on their own without the help of PR firms. The last project he worked on was a company named Polar which he scaled from 0 to 40M pageviews in a few years and which was acquired by Google shortly after. Dmitry has spent over a decade in the world of marketing and was previously a software engineer. He has published over 1,500 articles over the last 10 years, and writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, TheNextWeb, ReadWrite, Business Insider, Inc, Wired, Moz, Ahrefs, SmallBizTrends, Business.com and many others.