Nofollow Links Now a Google Ranking Factor? The Way Forward For SEOs

Written by Dileep Thekkethil

Updated on Sep 15, 2020
Category: Technical SEO

On March 1, 2020, Google started using “rel=nofollow” as a hint for crawling and indexing purposes. The announcement about the same was made back in September 2019 during the announcement of new rel attributes – UGC and Sponsored.

Nofollow links were widely used by website owners to place links within the content without endorsing them. The earlier Google directive to nofollow links specified that it will not pass the link juice. However, starting March 2020, even nofollow links give Google Search Algorithms clues about the quality of a webpage.

It’s not sure how the new update will affect websites and their organic rankings. Till now, Google has kept tight-lipped on whether it started using nofollow links to rank websites.

 

 

no follow link

No-follow Links and New Link Types Introduced by Google

It’s been 14 years since the “nofollow” link became part of the SEO industry and nothing really changed till yesterday. On Tuesday, Google announced that it has different plans for the rel attribute “nofollow” (rel=”nofollow”) and introduced two new attributions for webmasters. 

What is a nofollow link?

Nofollow links AKA rel=”nofollow”, is a link attribute used by websites to instruct search engines, especially Google, not to pass the link juice from one website to the other.

According to the announcement, the nofollow links will act more or less as a hint for the Google Algorithms to understand websites.

Google has categorically stated that nofollow links are not a direct ranking signal. However, there is a high chance that Google may use it to verify the context of the content and the links.  

Webmasters found exponential growth in websites using the “nofollow” attribute than the ones that use “dofollow”. Some websites attribute all the outbound links as “nofollow,” which makes it very hard to pass the ranking signals.

Discussions are ripe in SEO forums about the future of the nofollow links, and it seems like Google has been listening to them. 

It was back in 2005 that Google introduced the rel=”nofollow” attribute. This was the result of SEOs indulging in spammy practices to build backlinks. 

Fast forward to 2019, Google’s algorithms are advanced and capable of understanding spammy tactics. 

This has resulted in Google deciding to add two more rel attributes in addition to changing gears for the existing “dofollow” and “nofollow”.

no follow link

New “Rel” Attributes Introduced by Google

Google is now making an effort to understand the different types of links used by websites.

To make a clear distinction between the links, Google introduced two new attributes rel=” sponsored” and rel=”ugc”. The new attributes give more signals to Google regarding the type of link.

1. rel=”sponsored”

The rel=”sponsored” attribute helps Google to identify links placed on a site with a monetary benefit.

For example, the rel=”sponsored” can be used for a link that is placed as part of an advertisement, sponsored post, or various other paid circumstances. 

2. rel=”ugc”

The rel=”ugc” attribute is ideal for websites that generate a lot of user-generated content. For example, forums and sites such as Wikipedia. This attribute is used within the links placed in user-generated content.

3. rel=”nofollow”

Webmasters are advised to use the rel=”nofollow” attribute for links they don’t want to endorse or pass the page rank. The existing definition of rel=”nofollow” hasn’t changed much, but the implications of it have “evolved.” 

Moving forward, Google will use all the three rel attributes as signals to understand the context of the linked website.

This means the search engine giant won’t ignore the links completely other than rel=”dofollow”, which has been the case till yesterday. 

Here is what the official Google announcement says about the new update on rel attributes

“Links contain valuable information that can help us improve searches, such as how the words within links describe the content they point at. Looking at all the links that we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”

What Was the Big Announcement From Google for 2020

Google has always been tight-lipped about it’s ranking factors, and it’s not always that the search engine giant makes critical announcements like the one made yesterday.

Towards the end of the announcement about the two new rel attributes, Google hinted that starting March 1, 2020, it will begin to consider nofollow links for crawling and indexing purposes. 

SEO experts believe that the new shift in how Google recognizes the no follow link is a hint that it may become part of the ranking signals in the near future.

This sentiment is corroborated with the fact that more and more websites prefer the no follow link to dofollow. 

This is what Google says, “All the link attributes, sponsored, ugc and no follow, now work today as hints for us to incorporate for ranking purposes. For crawling and indexing purposes, no follow will become a hint as of March 1, 2020.”

Key Takeaways for SEOs and Site Owners from the new announcement

1. Google considers link attributes seriously

Google is on a never-ending onslaught against websites that indulge in link schemes and other paid link building practices.

The new attributes are tailor-made to help websites avert manual penalties. Google wants all paid links on a site to have either the attribute “sponsored” or “nofollow” as these two will pass ranking signals only based on the content context of the link. 

2. No need to change the existing attributes

It’s obvious that most of the outbound links on your website have the no follow link attribute.

You don’t need to change this as Google has not made any major changes to how it reads the no follow tag. Moving forward, Google recommends using the two new attributes based on the context of the link. 

3. Even the “nofollow” attribute will be a ranking factor by 2020

If you see a lot of no-follow links from genuine, high-quality websites, do not fret.

Google has said that by March 2020, even the no-follow links will be considered as ranking factors along with the two new attributes introduced today. We have to keep a watch on how important a factor this might be in helping websites rank. 

Here are the answers to a few questions you may have regarding the recent announcement concerning the rel attributes. 

FAQ About No-follow Links and the New Rel Attributes

When to use rel= “sponsored” attribute and what are the implications?

Google has introduced the “sponsored” attribute to get more information regarding the type of link placed on the site. The “sponsored” attribute has to be used with caution as it’s meant for advertisements, sponsorships, or other compensation agreements. 

Using the “sponsored” attribute for genuine links will not pass link juice. Also, trying to fake a sponsored/paid link as “ugc” can invite a Google penalty! Ideally, all paid links must be either attributed as “sponsored” or “nofollow.”

When to use rel= “ugc” attribute?

A majority of the content on the internet is user generated. With the number of forums and comments increasing, the use of the “ugc” attribute instead of “nofollow” will definitely make significant changes. 

Websites like Wikipedia, which thrive on user-generated content and links, can now replace the rel= “nofollow” attribute to rel= “ugc”. The sites that received linkbacks from Wikipedia or similar websites may see an increase in rankings in the coming days.  

What is a no follow tag?

Nofollow links are the links with the tag “rel=nofollow”  applied to them. A no follow tag indicates search engines to ignore that particular link and as a result, they do not pass PageRank or impact search engine rankings.

How do I create a “nofollow” link in WordPress?

You can create a link “nofollow” in WordPress through following these steps:

  • If you are using WordPress, you can click on the link icon in the status bar of the editor to link text within your content.
  • Now switch to HTML mode by switching to the “Text” tab from the “Visual” tab at the top of the WordPress editor
  • Next, add the tag rel=”nofollow” within a link in the HTML format. It should look something like this: <a href=”http://randomlink.com” rel=”nofollow”>Random Link</a>
  • You have a nofollow link ready!

When do you use “nofollow” on links?

You should always use “nofollow” links on anything that has user-generated content and could likely be spam. You should also give nofollow links to any sponsored content, advertisements, press releases, and other paid links.

Should I change all my “nofollow” links to either “ugc” or “sponsored”?

No. You don’t have to make any changes to the existing “nofollow” attributes within your site. Google will continue to ignore the “nofollow” links until March 1, 2020.

However, starting in March 2020, Google will use the “nofollow”, “ugc” and “sponsored” attributes while crawling and indexing sites. It’s recommended to start using the new attributes to get the benefit in the days to come. 

Is the new no follow attribute an opportunity for spammers?

With Google about to consider no-follow links as a hint for ranking, some business owners are concerned whether it will work in favor of spammers.

Google says that no matter whether they use ugc, sponsored, or no follow link attributes, most links will be ignored as Google will use the no-follow attribute to understand link schemes better. This means that spam tactics will get even riskier.

Are no follow links now a major ranking factor?

The official announcement from Google says “nofollow” has evolved and is now acting as a hint for ranking purposes.

According to the search engine giant, all the rel attributes, including “nofollow” will be used by its algorithms to find contextual links.

Contextual links are an important factor for ranking websites. Since Google has officially said that by March 1, 2020, there will be a major shift in the way Google treats the rel attributes, we may have to wait and see how it will impact the SERP positions of websites.

Does WordPress support rel= “sponsored” and rel= “ugc” attributes?

Since the two attributes are fairly new, the users may not find them immediately in WordPress. However, Joost de Valk, founder of Yoast SEO Plugin, has confirmed that the next update of the CMS will support the new attributes. In addition to that, he also said the new version will make link comments rel=”nofollow ugc”.

In addition to this, Joost also said that he is pushing for an interface in the block editor that allows users to set a link to “sponsored” or “ugc” without having to dive into HTML. According to him, the next release of WordPress should support the new attributes as it’s not a major change.

https://twitter.com/jdevalk/status/1172091212490321921

 

Here is an excerpt from the conversation I had with Mr. Senthil Kumar, Vice President of Stan Ventures, about the future of no-follow links and the implications of the two new link types introduced by Google.

Listen to the Podcast: No-follow links future update and implications

Audio Player

 

Full Transcript

Dileep: What is your take on Google introducing the two new rel attributes and Google considering rel attributes as a hint for ranking purposes in the future?

Senthil: Well, this sounds similar to what happened in 2005, when Google introduced the concept of no-follow, and there was a wide confusion in the SEO industry. I feel this is something quite similar, and this is something Google has been doing for a while now. Although Google said that the no-follow links would not be crawled, there are instances where despite giving a no-follow link, the target URLs get indexed. This has been happening for a while, and there’s a reason behind it. 

In July this year, Google rolled out an update where they started considering the noindex tag on the robot. txt files that would sort out their crawling capabilities. Now they are bifurcating even more by introducing the rel=”ugc” and rel=”sponsored” attributes, which is a clear sign that Google is facing challenges in how people are adding the no-follow links. This step will give them an additional benefit to crawl and index those pages.

I think by 2020, blog commenting is going to make a big comeback because of the rel= “ugc” attribute is something we should be giving attention to. Google is going to miss out on a lot of valuable content if they are not going to take notice of the blog comments, and maybe that’s a reason why they are introducing the rel=ugc attribute by March 2020.

Dileep: There are high domain authority websites like Wikipedia that are reluctant to use do follow links for external citations. With Google now introducing “ugc” attribute, such websites may start using it instead of no follow. Do you think this can benefit websites?

Senthil: Yes, definitely, I think the whole point of introducing two new attributes is to help people get good traction out of that. 

Dileep: Now, I think it’s time to discuss out agencies that still sell links including PBNs. Since Google has categorically stated that paid links must be used along with either “sponsored” or “nofollow”, does changing a no-follow link to sponsored for paid links make any difference?

Senthil: I think it will have the same effect as the no-follow links. PBNs are already risky business, and it’s like telling Google directly that they are selling links. So Google will definitely take action towards anything that will affect its business model. I don’t think PBNs will stay forever, and as I said earlier, people would be shifting more of their focus to blog commenting in the future. 

Dileep: What do you think is the major reason why Google has introduced the two new attributes? Do you think that websites took undue advantage of no follow links and made it difficult for Google to assess the quality of websites?

Senthil: Yeah, definitely. Google wants to pay more attention to backlinks. If you take the example of Forbes and consider that they have an excellent article on SEO and they link out to our website and there is an ad near that as well, Google will pay more attention to those links in spite of you attributing them as no follow. Hopefully, from a brand perspective, Google will provide at least a 50% value of what a dofollow link would’ve got to these links. If you ask me, it’s a very good step for publishers and content creators as they won’t be penalized for the contributions they are making on those websites. 

Dileep: There are many websites that have not started using these new rel attributes. Do you think they should wait till March 2020 for the release? 

Senthil: I think webmasters should start implementing them now, at least in blog comments. In the future algorithm updates, Google might release a few updates around these as well, and websites that have already implemented this will definitely get more priority than others. A less risky approach for publishers will be to add rel=ugc and rel=nofollow attributes together, and it will also tell Google that you are already following their guidelines. 

Dileep: There might arise a scenario in the future wherein a website gets “ugc” links from a totally irrelevant forum. Since ‘ugc” has better tanking signals than “sponsored”, do you think getting “ugc” links from websites that publish contextually irrelevant content can help SEO?

Senthil: It definitely won’t. The moment you add no follow, it’s up to Google to consider that link valuable or not, and the bot will detect that the context of the content and link are irrelevant. In this case, Google will just move on to the next link instead of wasting time. 

Dileep: In the future, some websites might confuse Google by marking paid links as “ugc”. Do you think Google will penalize the website?

Senthil: When it comes to “ugc”, the bot will know that it’s a blog comment section. Since these links will have a nofollow tag, Google will probably discount them. 

Dileep: What do you think WordPress users must do right now? As of now, they don’t have the option to use these new no follow attributes.

Senthil: We had a conversation with the Yoast founder, and we came to know that they are working on releasing these new attributes very soon. I’d advise people to update their Yoast plugin at the earliest. I think SEOs should keep a close watch on the latest updates coming in and coordinate with their developers to get them rolled out after taking a backup of their sites.  

About Dileep Thekkethil

Dileep Thekkethil, a Journalism Postgraduate, was formerly with a US-based online magazine, is the SEO Expert at Stan Ventures. A He is a frequent blogger who keeps a tab on the latest updates in SEO and technology arena. Reach me @ Mail | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook or View all posts by Dileep

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Interesting development. One reason for this change might be the paid guest posting business that has become quite rampant recently.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Hi Kailey,

      Yes. It’s possible.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Hi Dileep,
    The podcast gave me a clear picture of the rel no follow attribute. Now I’m thinking about the “sponsored” rel attribute because If we start including this attribute in our post, then Google can easily track the number of paid links. I think it’s just a plan from Google to find out the most paid link publishers. What do you guys think?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Great to hear that Lisa. Yes. Google has some bigger plans definitely. Let’s wait and watch. We will keep you updated.

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Well, I think the rel nofollow still don’t stop anyone from using paid guest post, and where i get confused is how will getting a link back to any site be termed with and also seo link building survive from this update?

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Yes. Paid guest post is something that will be there until Google let-go of its PageRank algorithm. But it has to evolve and frankly I don’t know how. But manual outreach and leaving aside the thought of scaling could just be the beginning of the transformation.

      Reply

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