On September 10, 2019, Google announced a significant update to the ‘rel=nofollow’ link attribute to better understand the nature of links on web pages. Through the update, the 14-year old nofollow tag got two new siblings: the ‘sponsored’ tag and the ‘ugc’ (user-generated content) tag.
In practice, the function of the new attributes is the same as that of nofollow: let Google know that the website admin doesn’t want Google to pass the PageRank to the destination URL.
From a publisher’s perspective, this major update compels us to be more careful about the outbound links and the rel tags we use. And it reinforces the importance of quality content and natural backlinks. Let’s see how these tags will change our linking habits.
What are nofollow, sponsored, and UGC attributes and when to use them
To understand what this update means to publishers, we need to understand what nofollow, sponsored, and ugc tags are and when to use them.
1. What is a nofollow link?
A nofollow link lets search engines know that the associated link should not pass PageRank and influence the ranking of the destination URL. Google introduced the rel=nofollow attribute back in 2005.
Previously, the nofollow attribute was used as a signal—if it were present in a hyperlink, Google would not crawl and index the destination URL. It wouldn’t affect the destination URL’s rankings either (or at least that’s what Google claimed).
The idea behind the nofollow attribute was to help search engines determine whether the link is an endorsement for quality content or not. When the nofollow attribute was absent in a link, Google considered it as an endorsement.
At the same time, it didn’t tell search engines what kind of a link it is, whether it is a natural, paid, or sponsored link, or if it is within user-generated content. It was either ‘we endorse this page’ or ‘we do not endorse this page.’
This loophole allowed websites—even average quality websites—to build backlinks and improve their search engine rankings by rewarding publishers for placing links on their websites. Naturally, the website that pays more gets more backlinks and hence finds it easier to rank on Google, even if the content is not that great.
Since the 2020 update, Google has taken the nofollow attribute as a hint rather than a signal, which means that Google may or may not pass the authority to the destination URL.
Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Google hasn’t revealed the conditions under which the authority is passed.
● When to use a nofollow link?
According to Google, publishers should use a nofollow link when other values (sponsored and ugc) don’t apply, and you don’t want to associate the linked page to your site.
The rule for the nofollow tag has not changed, except that it should be used only when the other values—ugc and sponsored—don’t apply.
2. What is a sponsored link?
A sponsored link tells Google that the publisher has been rewarded for placing the link on their website. One of the major advantages of introducing the new rel sponsored tag is that Google can now decipher advertising links from other links.
If you’ve been generating backlinks by rewarding publishers, it will not improve your rankings in the future. Paid links that don’t have the sponsored tag may get flagged as an indicator of unnatural backlinks in the future.
However, there’s nothing to worry about if you tag your paid links correctly.
● When to use rel=sponsored attribute?
According to Google, buying or selling links that pass PageRank can negatively impact the website’s ranking. Publishers should mark all the advertisements and paid links with the rel=sponsored attribute.
Google adds that the nofollow attribute is still acceptable for paid links, but the sponsored attribute is preferred.
3. What is a UGC link?
How do you let Google know that the link was added by a user and not a contributor? How do you stop your users from passing your PageRank to low-authority websites? That’s exactly what a ugc link does.
If you’ve used forums and comments for link building or seen people using your website’s comments section for backlink building, you’ll understand what it means to web admins.
Now, with the rel=ugc attribute, publishers can mark external links in user-generated content as is and stop the unauthorized passing of PageRank.
● When to use ugc attribute?
As per Google’s guidelines, publishers can use the rel=ugc attribute for links that appear in user-generated content. This includes comments and forum posts from users.
However, if the content is created by a trusted contributor, the ugc attribute is not necessary.
What web admins need to know
1. You can use more than one attribute in a link
As of now, only Google recognizes the new ugc and sponsored attributes. This raises a question: what should you do if you want other search engines not to pass the authority?
Well, Google says publishers can use more than one attribute in a link. For example, you can use ‘rel=ugc sponsored’ to mark a sponsored link within user-generated content.
If you have considerable traffic from other search engines, you can use the nofollow attribute along with other relevant attributes. Most of the search engines recognize the nofollow attribute.
If most of your traffic is from Google, you don’t have to use the nofollow attribute in addition to other attributes. Hopefully, other search engines will start recognizing ugc and sponsored links soon!
2. You don’t have to change the existing attributes
Yes, you read that right. Just imagine how time-consuming it would have been if you had to update all the existing links! But no, you don’t have to do that yet. This update does not affect the existing nofollow links.
However, Google recommends switching to the ‘sponsored’ attribute for paid links when it’s convenient for you. The existing nofollow links will not hurt your rankings, but updating them and using the right tags might be beneficial in the long run.
3. You should use the right attributes from now on
The current Google Webmaster Guidelines recommends flagging links with the right rel values. The old nofollow attribute still works, but the new guideline is to use the correct tag for each outbound link.
Failing to follow the guidelines can invite a penalty!