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Will Google’s nofollow change affect my website?

Google’s September announcement was a big shock to the SEO world, changing how publishers and webmasters should mark nofollow links. These changes, while beneficial to how Google will understand the intricate structure of the web and the network of links between sites, have caused great confusion and raised a number of questions. The CEEK SEO team has looked through these changes and should be able to answer a few of the many questions still looming.

Marking the 14th year since they introduced the follow and nofollow designation  links, Google, announced on September 9th,that there would be significant changes to how their algorithm treats the “nofollow” link attribute. The major points covered were:

  1. There are now three ways a link can be attributed: “nofollow”, “ugc” or user generated content and “sponsored”; each of these carry a specific meaning. The 4th attribute ‘default signals’ is where no value is attributed.
  2. These attributes are now a “hint” for ranking purposes. This implies that they likely won’t actually impact rankings but Google might also choose to ignore this entirely and use these links for ranking; this is still to be determined.
  3. Google had said they will continue to ignore nofollow links for crawling and indexing purposes. This all changed on the 1st of March 2020 when they announced that they will begin treating them also as “hints” meaning they might actually crawl these links.
  4. You can now use a combination of the link attributes; for example [rel=”nofollow ugc sponsored”] would be valid.
  5. Links which you have paid for must either use the nofollow or sponsored attribute (either on their own or in combination). This implies that using just “ugc” on a paid link might lead to a penalty.
  6. Publishers don’t have to do anything with existing links as Google has not offered any incentives for changing or punishment for not changing.
  7. Publishers and SEOs who have been using a nofollow tag to control web crawling may have to reconsider their strategy.
Google update

Image from moz.com

Why did Google change nofollow?

Google wants control over the link graph.

Google introduced the nofollow link in 2005 to give publishers a way to address spam comments and links from bad neighborhoods from user generated content. Links from spam or low quality sites affected the trust and authority of your site and the nofollow attribute gave SEOs the power to protect themselves.

Google also required the nofollow designation to be used for sponsored and paid links. If a website was caught accepting anything of value in exchange for a link, without the nofollow attribute, Google in many cases would penalise your website.

It was in general agreement that the system worked but this did lead to large publications such as Forbes or Wikipedia applying nofollow sitewide for fear of being penalised. This general rule from these large authoritative sites made huge portions of the link graph far less useful for Google. This brought up the discussion that Google could better understand the web if curated links from trusted Wikipedia contributors for example were allowed.

By treating nofollow attributes as “hints”, Google has enabled themselves to better account for these signals in their algorithm going forward.

SEOs hope that this is a positive step for the ever growing demographic of content creators who are proving useful and informative content could also lead to more potential ranking influence. Thus far, it seems that a majority of sites will not be affected by this change.

What is the ranking impact of nofollow links?

Prior to this update, SEOs generally believed that the nofollow attributes worked this way:

  • Not used for crawling and indexing (Google didn’t follow them)
  • Not to be used for site ranking ( this was confirmed by Google via Twitter).  It is important to note that many SEOs did not believe this was the case

There is a lot of debate and speculation around the second point, and Google has not been clear on the issue. Experimental data and anecdotal evidence from many well known SEOs suggest Google has long considered nofollow links as a potential ranking signal.

With this new change Google has stated that the new link attributes including ugc and sponsored will be treated as follows:

  • Still not used for crawling and indexing (This will change on the 1st of March 2020 as mentioned above)
  • Can be used for site ranking purposes; all nofollow directives are now officially a “hint” — meaning Google may choose to ignore it and use it for ranking purposes. This could be confirmation that Google has been doing this for quite some time as speculated by many SEOs.

From March 1, 2020, these link attributes will change again and all be treated as “hints”, meaning:

  • In some cases, they may be used for crawling and indexing
  • In some cases, they may be used for ranking

There is a lot of emphasis on the word “some.” Google is very explicit that in most cases they will continue to ignore nofollow links as usual.

Do you need to make changes?

For the majority of sites the answer is simply no, for now. Google is not requiring you to make any changes and with the limited data which we have there is not a business case to be made for making these changes.

Below we have listed some exceptions and cases of where businesses may want to implement the new attributes:

  1. Websites that want to help Google better understand the sites in their linking web. For example it would be of great benefit to all if Wikipedia would adopt these changes.
  2. Sites and SEOs who are using the nofollow for web crawl control. Sites with large faceted navigation, nofollow has long been an effective tool in preventing Google from wasting its crawl budget. It is far too early to tell if using the nofollow this way will need to change but there is a case to start getting ahead of the curve when major changes happen before it negatively affects your ranking and traffic.

If a site is properly using nofollow today, you really do not need to make any changes,though you are free to do so. If you are to believe Google, there will be no ranking boosts to doing so but as we know with Google’s constant algorithm updates we are never 100% sure on these things.

Google’s use of these new link attributes especially with the new data they will collect between now and the 1st of March update may evolve. It will be interesting to see in the future through more detailed external studies and analysis if there is going to be a ranking benefit from using the new attributes in a certain way.

Which link attribute should you use?

If you do decide to change your nofollow links to be more specific, Google’s guidelines are very clear:

  1. rel=”sponsored” – Is used for paid or sponsored links. This would, assumingly, include affiliate links. Note that Google has not explicitly confirmed this.
  2. rel=”ugc” – Is used for Links for all user-generated content. Google has already stated that if user generated content is created by a ‘trusted contributor’, this may not be necessary and the guidelines for who is a trusted contributor has also not been defined.
  3. rel=”nofollow” Is used as a blanket attribute for all nofollow links. As with the other nofollow directives, these links generally won’t be used for ranking, crawling, or indexing purposes.

It is also important to remember that attributes can be used in combination with one another. Meaning that a declaration such as rel=”nofollow sponsored” is 100% valid.

Can you be penalised for not marking paid links?

This is where it gets tricky, yes Google has stated that you can get penalised for not marking paid links but with some exceptions.

Google has advised to mark paid/sponsored links with either “sponsored” or “nofollow” only, but notUGC.

This is where the confusion comes in. If your User Generated Content from contributors include paid or affiliate links in their content what happens then? This has not had a clear answer from Google.

Due to this, we will probably continue to see publishers markup UGC content with a “nofollow” as a default or in some situations go with “nofollow ugc”

Can you still use the nofollow attributes to control crawling and indexing?

Nofollow has always been a very, very poor way to prevent Google from indexing your content, and this has not changed.

If you want to prevent Google from indexing your content they have outlined a number of ways to go about this, most will be some form of “noindex”

Crawling is a slightly different story, with many SEOs using nofollow on larger sites to preserve crawl budget, or to prevent Google from crawling unnecessary pages.

Based on Google’s most recent statements, it seems you can still use nofollow in this way until March 1st. 


Should you implement the new nofollow attributes?

While Google has made it clear, these are no obvious compelling reasons to make the changes. Nevertheless, but this will have to be a decision that every SEO makes for themselves and their clients.

Given that as of now there is confusion and a clear lack of benefits, most publishers and SEOs will wait until there is better information and some secondary studies done on this.

As with all changes it would not hurt to make the change if you have the time and budget to go through all the links on your website. It is generally a good idea to stay ahead of the curve with these changes as you could be left behind if further changes come in and also affect this.

For our SEO team at CEEK our biggest question is will anyone actually use the “sponsored” link attribute; opening themselves up to the risk of exposing that they are using or receiving paid links. This can of worms might be a risk worth taking for most smaller websites especially.

If you have any further questions about these changes and how it could affect your business please contact CEEK’s SEO specialists who will be able to shed some light on your current situation.

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