As of September 10, 2019, Google has changed the way that they handle “nofollow” link attributes, and they have also added two new, and related, link attributes.
The “nofollow” link attribute, which is added to the HTML link code, is generally used for outgoing links on your site (those links pointing to other websites, rather than internal links to other pages of your own site), which might be “untrusted”. In other words, you are telling Google not to follow the link, and not to give the linked-to site “credit” for the link coming from your site.
In general, this has been implemented by many trustworthy sites on blog comments and forum posts, since they may not have total control over what a user might post, and by SEO professionals in order to avoid any algorithmic penalties due to linking out to untrustworthy sites. Some webmasters have also historically used the “nofollow” link attribute to signal to Google not to follow a link and index the page that results. However, this has never been a good practice, as there are better ways of telling Google not to crawl and/or index pages, such as the “noindex” tag, and the “disallow” directive in the robots.txt file on your server. This change will make that use of “nofollow” invalid.
Google has now implemented two new link attributes, in addition to the “nofollow” attribute. Combined with “nofollow”, these are the 3 link attributes now:
- rel=”nofollow” – for general use in linking out to untrusted links
- rel=”ugc” – for links from “User Generated Content” such as blog comments and forum posts
- rel=”sponsored” – for paid links, such as ads
Here are some important things to know about the new rules and link attributes, in terms of how they might affect you and your site:
1) Google is officially saying that “nofollow” links (including existing links and those using the new “ugc” and “sponsored” attributes) will now be treated as “hints”, and Google may choose to ignore it and use “nofollow” links for search rankings (presumably for both good and bad links). Christoph Cemper of LinkResearchTools thinks Google has been doing this “unofficially” for some time, even though Google officially says they weren’t. Regardless of the past, Google is now clear that they can, and will, ignore the “nofollow” request and may count incoming links even if they are using the “nofollow” attribute.
This means that you MIGHT see some shake-up in your search rankings. Bad quality links, even if they were “nofollow”, might now negatively affect your ranks. On the other hand, high-quality, relevant links, such as those from wikipedia and newspapers or other media, might now help your search rankings, even if they are “nofollow” links.
Using NoFollow for Crawling and Indexing
2) As of now, Google is still ignoring “nofollow” links for “crawling and indexing”, meaning that while the “nofollow” request may not be effective in terms of helping or hurting your rankings, they will still (briefly) honor the request not to crawl or index the page being linked to. However, after March 1, 2020, they will also take this as a “hint” and might choose to crawl and index the links anyway.
This means that if you are using “nofollow” links on your site to attempt to prevent Google from crawling or indexing certain pages or sections of your site, you have about 5 months to clean that up and use other methods of preventing Google from indexing those pages.
Combining Link Attributes
3) You can combine the attributes, such as using [rel=”nofollow ugc”] and [rel=”nofollow sponsored]. This may be a good idea, since other search engines, such as Bing, recognize the “nofollow” attribute, but not the “ugc” and “sponsored” attributes (at least not yet). By using both, you are displaying the standard “nofollow” to Bing and other search engines, and the “ugc” or “sporsored” attribute to Google.
4) It’s a good reminder that you should really only be using “nofollow” on external (outbound) links anyway, and not trying to use them on internal links. Some webmasters in the past have attempted to use “nofollow” tags for “link sculpting”, but Google changed the way that worked in 2009, and made it so that the portion of PageRank sent to “nofollow” links is just lost, not added to the remaining links on the page. Use “nofollow” attributes to mark outgoing links as untrusted, not to attempt to make certain pages of your site more “important” than others to Google.
5) Disavowing “nofollow” link is recommended (if bad), since Google COULD penalize you for bad backlinks, even if they are marked as “nofollow”. So, when creating lists of low-quality backlinks to disavow, don’t ignore nofollow links and assume that they won’t count.
Time will tell if this change to the way that Google handles “nofollow” links will shake up the search results significantly or not, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on, and if you are doing regular reviews of your backlinks and submitting them to the Google Disavow Tool, definitely start including nofollow links, if you aren’t already. And if you have a lot of blog comments, or sponsored links, you should consider using the new “ugc” and “sponsored” link attributes on those outgoing links.
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