Google announces changes to "nofollow" links

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By: Jason Dilworth on 11th September 2019, 5 minute read

Yesterday, September 10th, Google announced upcoming changes to the way they deal with 'nofollow' links, and the SEO community did what they always do when Google announce anything. They went nuts. Because there clearly isn't enough noise about the subject, I thought I'd throw my opinion out there as well. The short version for people who want to tweet this to support their argument either way: I think it's a good move, long term.

What are 'nofollow' links?

The 'nofollow' attribute to links (signified by a link looking something like <a href='https://www.example.com' rel='nofollow'>link text</a>) was introduced 15 years ago by Google to help websites to fight 'comment spam', which was a common method for people to build link to their own sites in the comment sections of popular sites. Websites would mark links in comments as 'nofollow' automatically, and as such Google wouldn't treat those links as important. More importantly, they wouldn't give penalties to websites that were doing nothing wrong.

That was a great reason for 'nofollow' links to exist but, as with everything we're given, their use has evolved. Go check any link in the body text of almost any mainstream media website. They'll be nofollowed, because the websites are using a blanket approach to all external links instead of applying the attribute only when it's necessary. This hurts websites that have done something truly newsworthy because they don't get the full benefit of an earned link from a reputable domain.

What's changed?

Google has announced the addition of two new attributes to go with 'nofollow', namely 'sponsored' and 'ugc' (standing for User Generated Content). Long story short, these are intended to be used as follows:

  • 'sponsored' for any link that has been paid for, whether that's an ad or otherwise
  • 'ugc' for any link that has been placed by a user, i.e. in things like comments that 'nofollow' was originally intended for
  • 'nofollow' for any other type of link which the website doesn't want Google to follow or give weight to

(note: these attributes can be mixed, so rel='sponsored ugc' is valid for comments which contain a link which has been paid for)

More granularity here is, in my opinion, a great thing. It means that, in theory, there's no reason for sites to have a blanket policy to 'nofollow' all external links, when they can get more granular about which type to use on most sections of a site. Crucially it should mean that organically earned links in body text should be able to go back to being followed links. That would be A Good Thing™.

Why has the industry lost it's mind then?

Lots of the SEO community are unhappy with this announcement as there's "nothing in it for us", and "no reason to convince clients to put aside development time for implementation". Both of these are completely valid, but miss the point in my opinion. Google aren't suggesting that we all change all of our links right now, and my recommendation to any reader and client is not to rush to implement this change – you likely won't see any benefit from doing so. BUT, when you're next making a template change to links, consider using the new hints where appropriate. Not because it'll affect your ranking, but because it's the right thing to do. If you're linking out naturally to another website because it's the right resource to link to, leave it as a followed link. If it's paid, use 'sponsored'. If it's user generated, use 'ugc'. Not because there's anything in it for you, but because tagging things correctly is our responsibility as conscientious developers, marketers, editors and owners.

The other reason the industry isn't happy is because Google are changing the way they view 'nofollow' links as a whole. Currently they don't follow or crawl a 'nofollow' link, and don't attribute any so-called 'link juice' to the destination URL either. The announcement says that they will now use that attribute as a 'hint' instead, meaning that they will decide whether to crawl and attribute juice to a linked URL. This should only be a worry to people who are putting the 'nofollow' attribute on links that probably don't need it.

Recommendation

As I mentioned, I'll be advising any clients who ask to just bear this change in mind when they're going through their next development cycles. I won't be advising anyone to find development time specifically for this change, but I believe it's a good one for the long term health of linking throughout the web. If you want to share any opinions or ask any questions you can find all my contact details below.

PrimeStox

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Jason Dilworth

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Jason Dilworth

Jason rolls together knowledge of programming, automation and data analysis to provide a high level of technical marketing expertise to The Marketing Eye and its clients.

Technical Director / The Marketing Eye

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