Nofollow Links Now a Google Ranking Factor? The Way Forward For SEOs
By: Dileep Thekkethil
August 30, 2022
Table of Contents
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 hints 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 not pass ranking signals or link juice.
2. No need to change the existing attributes
It’s obvious that some of the outbound links on your website may have the no follow link attribute.
You don’t need to change this to UGC or sponsored as Google has not made any major changes to how it reads the no follow tag. Moving forward, Google recommends using these two new attributes based on the context of the link.
3. Will “nofollow” attribute be a ranking factor?
This seems like a never ending discussion which will continue till Google explicitly say that it’s not. However, here are some of the recent twitter interactions of Google’s official to add more context to this discussion.
Danny Sullivan in a tweet to Praveen Sharma says, “In the past, as the post explains (post related to the announcement of no-follow being a hint), we just wouldn’t use the links at all. The change meant we’d consider them if there was some usefulness to be found, though the hint means aren’t likely to give them as much, if any, weight.”
In the past, as the post explains, we just wouldn't use the links at all. The change meant we'd consider them if there was some usefulness to be found, though the hint means aren't likely to give them as much, if any, weight.
— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) June 1, 2022
In order to further extract information, I tried giving a context on how Google might be using nofollow links. However, John Muller opined that I may be overthinking.
You’re overthinking it. Make natural websites, link to things that make sense. No need to overcomplicate it.
— 🐝 johnmu.xml (personal) 🐝 (@JohnMu) June 2, 2022
FAQ About nofollow 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, sponsorship, 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 improvement 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=”https://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 for paid links and when you link to resources that you aren’t sure about the authenticity.
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. We are unsure about what exactly Google is trying to say when uses the word hint. But we are pretty sure that nofollow now has a better role compared to the past.
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.
Well, the thing I think we can do easily is make links comments be "nofollow ugc". I'm also arguing for an interface in the block editor that allows you to set a link to "sponsored" without you having to dive into HTML, but not sure if that one will make it.
— Joost de Valk (@jdevalk) September 12, 2019
It already adds nofollow to links in comments by default. We're just changing that to be "nofollow ugc".
— Joost de Valk (@jdevalk) September 12, 2019
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
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.