Making sense of Google’s nofollow, sponsored & UGC link attributes

Earlier this week, Google announced a significant, but ambiguously defined, change that has shaken up the SEO world. Nofollow links, which have been an integral part of any SEO strategy since they were first introduced by Google in 2005, are changing.

There are two new link attributes that will be used as “hints” by Google: rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc”. These attributes will hint to Google which links are paid / sponsored content and which are user generated content. This change has triggered serious confusion in the digital marketing community, with many marketers citing the ambiguity around the new rules as a cause for concern. 

Why has Google introduced this change? 

Nofollow was originally introduced in 2005 as a way to fight comment spam. It was also useful for identifying advertising and sponsored links. While beneficial, publishers became increasingly worried about being penalised for improper linking, so they started classifying all links as nofollow. This was problematic for Google, because it meant that, in a lot of cases, it was impossible to infer data through links.

In Google’s own words “the web has evolved since nofollow was introduced in 2005 and it’s time for nofollow to evolve as well.” Should these new link attributes be successfully implemented, Google will have a better idea of the relationships between websites and, ultimately, a better understanding of how to rank individual sites.  

How will this affect existing pages?

Google has said that there’s no immediate need to change any existing nofollow links. As it stands, links with rel=“nofollow” are ignored by Google when crawling a website, but as of September 10th, rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc” are being seen as hints. Come March 2020, Google will also treat nofollow as a hint, giving SEOs time to adjust their link attributes. While Google has said that there is no need to change any existing rel=“nofollow”, they do recommend switching over to the new attributes “when it is convenient”, implying that it would be beneficial to do so. 

How seriously does this need to be taken? 

Well, we don’t completely know. The ambiguity behind the term “hint” is what is most worrying to a lot of SEOs. Marketers are still trying to work this out. One of the biggest unanswered questions is: how much will these “hints” actually inform and affect Google’s algorithm? In regards to this question, Google has said “we’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyse and use links within our systems.” While this answer doesn’t provide complete transparency, it does mean that we should definitely be paying attention to this update. 

For the time being, we’re treating using these new link attributes as advisory, rather than compulsory.  We’re expecting Google to provide more clarity on this in the months leading up to its full implementation in March 2020. 

If you want to learn more about these new link attributes and ensure your site is adhering to all the latest Google updates, then give us a call on 01603 252555 or fill in a contact form.