The nofollow rel attribute has been used by Google for nearly 15 years, pretty much in the same capacity throughout. Applying “nofollow” to a link has historically been an instruction to Google that whilst the link can be followed by the user, it shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement. Therefore, it shouldn’t contribute any ranking factors to the destination site of the link. This was implemented to prevent comment spam but was also used at a later date to avoid being penalised for link schemes by way of sponsored posts.
As of 10th September 2019, Google now provides 2 further attributes that can be used by Webmasters:
This attribute can be used to indicate that links are associated with paid placements, whether they be articles or ads. Google has been vocal for a long time now that gaining links that may influence ranking through paid methods is against their webmaster guidelines.
The ‘ugc’ in this attribute stands for ‘user generated content’. Google recommends that these be applied to areas such as comments and forums. It seems to align more closely with the original intended purpose of “nofollow” as a way of preventing comment spam.
Google to use attributes as a hint from March 2020
In addition to this, and perhaps the most interesting talking point is that as of March 2020, Google will be using these attributes as ‘hints’ rather than absolute instructions. More on this later a bit further down.
Why the Change?
15 years is a long time in the tech space. To put it into perspective, 15 years ago Google was still using meta keywords, keyword stuffing and link spam was prevalent and smart phones were non-existent.
The “nofollow” attribute has been a useful addition that has lasted well over a decade, but it is somewhat binary in its application. Either a hyperlink provides link juice from one website to another, or it doesn’t. This approach leaves webmasters with less flexibility and is highly likely to be a driving force for many websites having a blanket no follow policy on outbound links.
In addition to the binary nature of no follow, the expansion of the rel attribute should also provide Google with an increased level of data on links. In Google’s announcement they say ‘We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our system’. Good ol’ Google always looking to improve and update the algorithm.
How do you implement Google’s new rel attributes?
You don’t need to, you won’t be penalised for maintaining your current no follow policies. However, if Google rolling this out it would make sense to jump on board.
Use the attributes in the same way as you would no follow, you can also use multiple attributes on a single link, although this does feel a little bit like overkill. In short, it’s sponsored for anything that has been paid for, ugc for comments and forums, and no follow for anything else that you don’t want to pass link juice for.
What impact will the new rel attributes have on SEO?
This could be taken as a sign that Google are invested in developing how they index links and count them towards ranking in the SERPs, especially considering that as of March they will be using them as hints. If we were to speculate, 2020 will see this impacting sites on quite a large scale:
Whilst Google do say that they are likely to treat the rel attributes in the same vein as no follow, even with them becoming hints, it does point towards an effort to recognise value on certain sites. If an authoritative site applies no follow throughout, we can see Google still passing link juice to non boiler plate and comment links, i.e if they are part of the editorial body, they will start to pass value. In this way, those that have engaged in more traditional PR may start to see more benefit in an SEO sense as we move into 2020. You could even see websites with a large amount of high authority backlinks (but are no followed) receiving a boost in their own authority as Google starts to recognise these trends.
Finally, it will place more pressure on websites to provide their users with clarity between sponsored and editorial content. The laws surrounding ads are not necessarily new, but they have become more visible in recent years through the rise of social media influencers. Mainstream news publications are reporting on it and Google is now on board. They’ve always been vocal about paid links, so view these attributes as a way for them to further clarify between paid, ugc and non-paid.