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Google’s change to the “nofollow” link attribute and what it means

This past week Google announced that after 15 years, they plan to make a change to the way they handle the nofollow attribute on links.

If you’re a blogger and you’re participating in affiliate programs or doing sponsored posts, you know that the nofollow attribute allows you to safely link to external sites without losing good standing with Google.

Google’s news that it is to start treating the nofollow attribute as a “hint” for ranking rather than a directive to ignore a link, and the introduction of rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc” has raised reactions and questions from SEO specialists about what exactly the next steps ight be and the impact of the change to a nearly 15-year-old link attribute.

The problem, as Google sees it

The problem is, according to Google, that when websites assign “nofollow” to all external links, it creates a disadvantage for websites that are legitimately deserving of an endorsement.

For example, a lot of incredibly valuable content is generated by users on forums and wiki-style websites. This expertise and value is something Google wants to know about.

Now what they’ll do rather than not allowing any link credit at all, is they’ll look at the “nofollow” attribute as a “hint” for what to do with that link. It’ll depend on the context and various other factors, mostly known only to Google.

As Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan stated in a tweet Tuesday, the announcement expands the options for site owners and SEOs to specify the nature of a link beyond the singular attribute. The additional sponsored and ugc attributes are aimed at giving Google more granular signals about the nature of link content and, more importantly, the context of the link and its relationship to your website.

As a point of clarification, Google’s Gary Illyes tweeted that nofollow in meta robots will also be treated as a “hint,” but there are no ugc or sponsored robot meta tags. He also stated that he’ll be updating the official documentation to explicitly reflect this.

What next?

This change should not have you overhauling your nofollow strategy. If you publish sponsored content or host forums or comments on your site, consider implementing the new attributes when you are able to make a code change. If you can’t or just don’t want to, there’s no harm in that either.

New & Improved Link Attributes

rel=”sponsored”: Rather than rel=”nofollow”, now you can assign rel=”sponsored” for affiliate links and sponsored content. This will be the strongest signal to Google — they absolutely will not count the backlink credit.
rel=”ugc”: This stands for “user generated content” and can be used for things like comments and forum posts.
rel=”nofollow”: Use when you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply endorsement and pass along the ranking credit. Google may or may not give a backlink credit here.