On September 10, 2019, Google announced that it had added new ways to identify the nature of links. While we once had just two options for identifying links (the nofollow attribute and the do-nothing route that resulted in “followed” links) we now have two new options: “sponsored” and “ugc” links.
As with most updates, this deserves some unpacking. To do that, we’re going to start by taking it way back.
What are links and how do search engines use them?
While most conversations about links start by jumping right into the functional details, it’s wise to take a step back and make sure we have an accurate understanding of links and their purpose.
Links help search engines crawl the web
The only way for Google to get and display the pages you see when you perform a search is to first crawl the web. As Google’s crawlers visit websites, they use the links they find on those sites to discover other pages. In other words, Google finds pages by following links on other pages, much like you do when you’re browsing content on the web.
Links help search engines understand the content and importance of the page they link to
Not only do links help crawlers find pages, but links also provide Google with valuable information about each web page. Google looks at things such as the anchor text of the link, the content surrounding the link, and the location of the link to help determine the content and importance of the destination URL.
Links also have an important role to play as a signal in Google’s search algorithms. For example, Google’s first algorithm PageRank counts the number and quality of links to a page to determine how important it is — the more links a page had from other popular pages, the better it would perform in search.
Even though today Google uses hundreds of other signals, PageRank is still a relevant part of the ranking process.
Links help people navigate the web
And let’s not forget the ultimate end user — real human searchers! Your visitors use links to navigate your website, so make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for.
You can use links to help your visitors by:
- Using descriptive anchor text so they know what content they can expect to find upon clicking
- Linking to all your important pages and not “orphaning” any pages
- Only linking to other pages when it would be helpful and appropriate
What is a nofollow link?
A rel=”nofollow” link tells Google two things:
- Don’t associate my site with this linked page
- Don’t crawl the linked page from my site
Google first introduced the nofollow link attribute in 2005 to help prevent comment spam. Nofollow links would not pass PageRank, so people attempting to raise their own websites’ search engine rankings by submitting linked blog comments would no longer be able to because their links were marked “nofollow” (they wouldn’t help anyway).
Google’s September 10th update changed this slightly.
As of September 10, 2019, nofollow links are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within search.
What is a sponsored link?
Rel=”sponsored” is a new type of link designation Google released in the September 10th update. Sponsored links are the same thing as paid links. You can learn more about Google’s stance on paid links in their webmaster guidelines on link schemes, but essentially, Google doesn’t want you buying or selling the type of links that could help your search engine rankings. Those should be earned.
When should I use rel=”sponsored”?
- For links that are advertisements
- For links that are placed as a form of sponsorship
- Any other situation where someone has paid (exchanging money, goods, or services) for the link on your site
Rel=”sponsored” adds more granularity to how you classify your links. Instead of just saying “Hey Google, don’t follow or associate this link with my site” (as a nofollow would do), the sponsored designation says “Hey Google, don’t use this for ranking because it’s been paid for.”
If you’ve previously classified your paid links with nofollow, you don’t have to switch these to sponsored (although doing so would be more precise). You just need to make sure you have one of the two to avoid a link scheme action.
What is a UGC link?
Rel=”ugc” is the second new type of link designation Google released in the September 10th update. UGC is an acronym for “user generated content.”
When should I use rel=”ugc”?
- For links in blog or article comments
- For links contained in forum posts
- For any other types of links that your users are allowed to create on your site
If you want to reward certain contributors, such as users who have submitted many high-quality comments or posts to your site, you could remove the rel=”ugc” (or rel=”nofollow”) designation from their links. Decisions like that are entirely up to the site owner. For more information on managing comment spam, visit Ways to Prevent Comment Spam (article + video) by Google.
Do I have to change all my links?
Thankfully, no. Google’s September 10th update does not mean that you have to modify all the links on your website. This update means you now have the option of adding more detail about your links so that Google can better understand your site and its relationship to the pages you link to.
According to Google, “Using the new attributes allows us to better process links for analysis of the web. That can include your own content, if people who link to you make use of these attributes.”
Which links pass SEO value?
As the owner or operator of a website, if you link to another page out of your own volition, because you genuinely find the content of that page valuable and relevant, then don’t add any of these attributes to the link. Doing nothing to your links means that they’ll be “followed” (aka “dofollow”) by default. This type of link passes SEO value.
Keep in mind though, Google’s systems “have a lot of practice ignoring” manipulative links, according to John Mueller. So even a followed link can be ignored if Google determines that it’s spammy, manipulative, or otherwise should not be followed.
What does it mean that a link attribute is a “hint”?
There are two ways Google will be using these link attributes as a hint:
- For ranking
- For crawling and indexing
Link attributes as a ranking hint
Google has already begun to use nofollow, UGC, and sponsored link attributes as hints for ranking. What does that mean exactly?
According to Google, “In most cases, the move to a hint model won’t change the nature of how we treat [link spam]. We’ll generally treat them as we did with nofollow before and not consider them for ranking purposes.”
This lines up with what Google has said in the past, that their systems are good at ignoring manipulative links on their own, even without these attributes. It seems Google doesn’t need much help determining which links should and shouldn’t count toward ranking, but these new attributes will help Google understand how to count links (or not) even better.
Link attributes as a crawling and indexing hint
For years, many SEOs have used the nofollow link attribute for internal link optimization. SEOs that did not want certain links crawled and indexed would sometimes add “nofollow” to the URLs.
And it seemed to work! Below is an example of what happens when a site adds nofollow tags to every link pointing to this pagetype — it reduced crawl volume on those pages by over 50% in about 60 days.
Why use “nofollow” to block crawling and indexing when there are more direct ways to do that, namely, robots.txt directives and noindex tags? Some SEOs don’t have access to change things like robots.txt files, canonical tags, or the page’s header in the HTTP request, so they may have been opting for nofollow because that’s typically something they can add on their own. Robots.txt is also not a guarantee that Google won’t crawl something (i.e. if it’s linked to from somewhere else), and canonical tags are a suggestion, so some SEOs saw nofollow as another preventative measure to keep Google from crawling certain pages they want kept out of the index.
According to Google’s Danny Sullivan though, links with these attributes will become a hint for crawling and indexing purposes as of March 1, 2020.
Anyone currently using nofollow to block a page from being crawled or indexed should switch to robots.txt, meta tags, or password protection before March 1, 2020.
Why is Google changing nofollow’s role in preventing crawling? According to Google’s Danny Sullivan, it will help Google to be able to see links that previously they couldn’t process.
By shifting to a hint model, Google says it will no longer lose important information (like how anchor text describes the content the links point at) that it was losing when completely ignoring links in the previous nofollow model, which will help them improve search.
What does Google’s nofollow update mean for enterprise websites?
Enterprise websites, which we define as sites with hundreds of thousands or millions of URLs, have to consider everything as a potential deterrent to Google finding all their important content. Because Google misses approximately 51% of the content on these sites, we know that large sites have to take crawl and render budget seriously.
As we mentioned above, some SEOs don’t have easy access (or any access) to Google’s preferred methods for blocking URLs, so instead, they’ve been using nofollow on internal links to prevent Google from crawling them. SEOs in these situations will have to begin having serious talks with their development and infrastructure teams, since nofollow won’t be a crawl budget optimization solution come March 2020. In our experience, the SEOs who have the most success getting technical changes like this implemented are those that work on website product teams. You can learn more about this in our post Where Does SEO Live? Tips for Structuring a Successful Enterprise SEO Team.
For more information on how you can optimize your enterprise site’s crawl budget, we recommend our article on Google Crawl Budget Optimization or, if you want a more visual and customized explanation, you can request a demo.