How Google Changes To Link Attributes Will Affect SEO – And Why You Should Care

How Google Changes To Link Attributes Will Affect SEO – And Why You Should Care

Last September,Google made a big announcement, 

14 years after introducing the nofollow link attribute, they are changing how they treat this instruction as well as adding a few new attributes – cue more stress – and more research by pretty much anyone that runs a website!

To save you some time (you can thank me later!) in this post, I’ll explain what’s changed, the impact it’ll have on your site and what you’ll need to do. I’ll even give you some examples (No need to thank me twice!)

Since the announcement, some of the changes have already gone live. However, the date to circle in your diary is March 1st 2020. THIS is when Googlebot will start following ALL the new guidelines.

So what's changing?

In a nutshell, quite a bit!

  • Three Link attributes – “nofollow”, “ugc”, “sponsored”
  • Google now treats nofollow as a hint for crawling, indexing and rankings
  • Paid links should be labelled as “sponsored”
  • Paid links need to use “sponsored” or “nofollow”
  • Using “UGC” only could lead to a penalty
  • Combinations or labels are fine i.e. “nofollow”, “ugc” is fine
  • There’s currently no incentive for changing and no punishment for not changing but, as always, this ‘could’ change
  • “Nofollow” will no longer be a viable strategy for controlling crawling

Why the change?

The nofollow attribute was released in 2005 as a way of controlling spam in comment boxes – we’ve all seen it done – and the shady links from these comments. Back then, linking to low quality/spam sites could hurt your site and this was an attempt to give webmasters some control over outbound links.

Over the years, Google has made it clear if you are accepting any payment (whether actual money or goods/services) in exchange for a link, then you should be adding the nofollow attribute to the link.

They penalised sites that were not following these guidelines. And, while a number of sites still do not follow these guidelines, some sites went the complete opposite.

Sites like Wikipedia made all outbound links nofollow – which caused issues with their link graph. Forbes is another example that made all outbound links nofollow, as it was hard for them to police UGC.

Google needed a better solution to enable to it crawl more of the web.  It’s probably been ignoring the nofollow for external links from a crawling point of view for a while, especially on trusted sites, but by making it clear that the attribute is now a ‘hint’ it should clear things up a little for webmasters.

Do webmasters need to make a change?

The short answer is no. Well, not yet. At the time of writing this is only a request from Google, so if you don’t want to change you don’t need to.

But, if you want to help Google understand where you are linking to and give some of your external links more weight, it might be worth updating.

However, if you are using nofollow to control crawling then you WILL need to change. More on this later.

Which link attribute should you use?

changes to link attributes

To help you out,(and let’s face it, who doesn’t love to see a table breaking up the content?) here are the guidelines for what link attributes to use.

There are three new types, so when and where should you use them? Let’s take a look at some examples.

rel=”UGC” – this should be used wherever users generate content, Google has stated that if the content is generated by trusted contributors then this isn’t necessary. 

A good example would be a comment on a blog. Marking these up as UGC clearly tells Google that your visitors generated these. (ie ‘It’s nothing to do with us!’)

rel=”sponsored” – this should be used for any links on your site where is receiving payment for the links. As I covered previously, this could include cash or products.

What about affiliates though? Google hasn’t stated but I would class affiliate links under the sponsored category – as there is the potential for money to exchange hands.

A good example would be if. you run a very successful blog, and someone is providing you with a guest post to boost their brand in the niche. The writer is offering you some $$ in exchange for helping to build their brand.

All the links within the article should be labelled as UGC – especially the ones to their site.

rel=”nofollow” – this directive isn’t going away but is now a more catch-all. I can still see this being the most popular option as most sites won’t change – especially if it’s not a directive but a request.

However, the big change will be in crawl budget management – and here’s why you may need to make changes. 

Can I be penalised for not marking paid links?

Someone asked this on twitter to John Muller and I don’t know where to start. I wouldn’t want to get on Google’s bad side…

But it’s worth keeping in mind that even before the change on the 1st of March, you should be marking all paid links as nofollow. This has been Google’s best practice since 2005 when they launched the nofollow attribute. So, in theory, nothing should change. But if you do accept paid links it might be worth adding the “sponsored” tag as well.

What other impacts could there be?

In theory, and in my personal opinion, there could be a huge impact. Suddenly a lot of content that website owners haven’t wanted to be crawled from their site before could suddenly be crawled.

It could be a real mix up in the SERPs, and for people like me, it could be interesting to watch tracking tools like the SEMRush Sensor around that time to see what happens.

If you have used this strategy in the past it might be worth in the next few days. Otherwise, you may want to be looking at other methods of making sure that content doesn’t end up in the index.


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